Ireland’s Wars: The Tory Struggle

Galway had fallen, and with it much of the conventional resistance of the Royalist side in the wars of the era had come to an end as well. The Royalist faction still held territory as a conventional government, mostly in Connacht and Kerry, along with scattered garrisons in different areas, but the last of the major urban centres that they had held was now in the hands of the Parliamentarians, which also happened to be their last port of consequence. The New Model Army moved forward with the cleanup, advancing into the rest of County Galway, taking forts and castles in places like Inishbofin, hopeful that the conflict could now be brought to a decisive close.

But the war would continue. In fact, it was about to become worse than ever.

Bands of Tory soldiers, the irregular fighters of these wars, had been active for several years, and we have already seen how they had affected the way that the campaigns of the last few years had been carried out, perhaps most notably in the delay they caused in regards the launching of Henry Ireton’s first great offensive, a delay that may well have wound up extending the entire war by over a year. But it was at this point in the war, as Limerick was captured and Galway underwent its last rites as a Royalist stronghold, that they really came to the fore. Now, tens of thousands of them were operating in Ireland, and now they were most of what was left of the Royalist war effort, fighting a conflict they had little hope of winning outright, but with more than enough ability to put a serious dent in any Parliamentarian plans to bring military affairs in Ireland to a swift conclusion.

The pattern was the same as it had been in Ireland for centuries, the perpetrators of this low-intensity guerrilla war were now just no longer called wood-kernes. They would operate in the countryside of Ireland, making bases in areas difficult access, such as woods, bogs, hills, valleys or particularly hard to reach forts. They would engender good intelligence gathering relationships with the local population, as to the location, size and disposition of enemy forces. They would strike at speed and only when it suited them, through ambush, raid, hit and run. They would inflict what casualties they could and then retreat rapidly, aiming to never allow the enemy the chance to hit them back in the same way. They would vanish back into their fastnesses, where the enemy could not easily pursue, and disband if they were able.

Convoys, messengers, isolated garrisons and the tail ends of moving armies were all targeted, and targeted for years. Throughout the course of what is dubbed today as the Cromwellian Conquest, and reaching a fever pitch in 1651 and 1652, the Tories proved themselves to be a problem of the utmost seriousness, that the Parliamentarians struggled to do anything to combat.

Part of the reason for this was that the New Model Army, in Ireland, had conquered more than it could reasonably expect to occupy effectively. The mortality rate of Parliamentarian soldiers in Ireland was abysmally high, maybe as many as one in three within their first year in the country, and the replacements sent from England in the latter stages of the conflict were of inferior quality to the ones that had gone before, the last dregs of a nation that had already seen most of its fit fighting men in armed service at some time in the previous decade.  Having won their conventional victory in Ireland, this army, now a mixture of the original soldiers, erstwhile replacements and even Irish volunteers, were faced with the prospect of actually controlling the country they had just conquered, and doing so in the face of famine and plague, two foes that could be as deadly as any Tory fighter.

With hundreds of new castles, forts and other garrisons to man, the New Model Army was stretched thin, with the most isolated places in a very vulnerable position, reliant on sketchy supply runs to keep going and frequently falling victim to the rapid attacks of the Tories, who could overwhelm and destroy long before reinforcements could arrive. Such was the extent of the lawlessness in parts, be it as a result of politically motivated insurgent Tories or the more self-serving bandits that also sprang up, that a Parliamentarian report in 1652 was forced to admit that they were receiving no tax revenue from large swaths of Ireland, areas they had only nominal control over. This included almost entire counties in Ulster and South Leinster, where the majority of Tory operations were now ongoing.

So numerous were the Tory attacks that it would be pointlessly lengthy to go into detail about even just the larger ones, but it is apropos to talk about a few of the more impressive examples. In Wicklow, O’Byrne forces under their leader Hugh MacPhelim were active all throughout the later part of the war, evading capture and threatening the southern parts of Dublin, much as their ancestors did, despite repeated Parliamentarian sallies into the county, which grew ever more destructive. A brief battle with Tory riders in Carlow cost the Parliament the lives of 60 desperately needed cavalrymen. A major supply convoy headed to the relief of Venables in Ulster was intercepted and largely wiped out at the Moyry Pass area, the same location of a famous battle in the last war fought in Ireland. Tipperary Tories launched a sudden surprise raid into the Meath area, taking and burning Castlejordan before retreating. A river convoy of supplies sailing down the Barrow was caught and mostly captured, the crew and passengers nearly all killed. Privateers based on the continent or the Isle of Man raided the Irish Sea and the eastern coast. Towns like Kildare, Birr and Portumna were all taken and heavily damaged in their brief occupations by Tory fighters. Nowhere could Parliamentarian soldiers leave their garrisons and feel completely safe.

Many notable names spring out of this period, men like John Fitzpatrick in Tipperary, Muskerry and Murrogh O’Brien in Kerry, O’Byrne in Wicklow, Richard Grace in the midlands, Charles Kavanagh in Wexford and Philip MacHugh O’Reilly in Cavan. These were the hardcore remnant, men who had been fighting their fight for nearly a decade or more, and who were still able to rely on the allegiance of thousands of troops, though they would only rarely have called upon such numbers at any one time: the Tory advantage was always in mobility and freedom of movement. They could not stand up to the conventional forces sent after them, nor capture major towns, nor hold the territory they did succeed in capturing for very long. But they could ambush, scorch the earth, disrupt communications, raid, burn and generally cause as much mayhem as possible.

I will go into slightly greater detail on a group of Tories who managed some notable feats, that of the officers Walter Dungun and Patrick Scurlock. Dungan (or “Dongan” sometimes) was a Kildare native, and a member of the Royalist faction since the beginning of the war. Scurlock was a Dubliner, and a long time Confederate. Despite the difference inherent in their backgrounds – Dungan had spent most of the war fighting Confederates – they were able to form an effective partnership in the province of Leinster, commanding several thousand men at one point, with a substantial amount of them being cavalry. Both men had been cavalry commanders during the conventional struggle, and this advantage in speed was one they would use to devastating effect.

The two were active in a major way by the beginning of 1651, when Scurlock was able to bring 2’500 troops together to raid, pillage and burn around the outskirts of Dublin, sending the capital into a panic. While Scurlock busied himself with the particular task of stealing horses, a force from Dublin was sent out to deter him, and hopefully even capture/kill him. But Scurlock not only managed to beat them back in a brief skirmish, inflicting nearly 50 casualties in the process, but also captured several of their own number to use as hostages. With the arrival of Dungan in the area as well, with even more men, Parliamentarian authority in the environs around Dublin temporarily collapsed.

Desperate to ward off a feared attack on the capital itself, the administration in Dublin arrested some key individuals for exchange/ransom purposes, most notably Dungan’s wife. Perhaps the action worked, because Dungan and Scurlock did not launch any attack on Dublin, but this was more likely because they lacked the sufficient means – especially in artillery – to do so. With forces under Colonel Hewson approaching Dublin, the Tories eventually retreated, but not before alarming the capital’s population so much that every capable man was called upon to bear arms in its possible defence.

Dungan and Scurlock were far from done. They continued their raiding ways throughout Leinster, sometimes retreating back into Connacht for relief and succour, before heading straight back into the heart of affairs. Their cavalry movements made them extremely difficult to stop, and they were effective fighters when it came to a clash of arms. Tories like them influenced Ireton when he detached cavalry units from his larger army to serve specifically as counterinsurgents, but there was little even they could do. Parliamentarians leaders might pursue them, but when things got to a desperate point, their Tory band could simply ride into difficult terrain, like the valleys and hills of County Wicklow, and then disperse, scattering in all directions.

Dungan and Scurlock’s biggest success was still to come. With Limerick besieged in September of 1651, the two men decided to launch a more audacious plan, both for their own enrichment and, perhaps, to offer what help to Limerick that they could, in the form of a large distraction to the Parliamentarians. On the night of the 29th, using the cover of darkness to hide their movements and their numbers, they attacked the town of New Ross in Wexford. Cromwell had captured New Ross a little less than two years previously, and it had taken three days and a short artillery bombardment to secure its surrender. Dungan and Scurlock, using ladders to scale the walls and taking advantage of a small and unsuspecting garrison, took it in a single night, killing twenty soldiers and securing most of the town – save its most fortified points, which were left isolated rather than tackled – before most people knew what was happening.

As a centre for Parliamentarian control in the area, this was a terrible embarrassment, and a dangerous one too. Dungan and Scurlock could have massacred the remaining garrison and burned the town, but accepted a sum of £700 from the beleaguered inhabitants to avoid this possibility, a substantial bit of money for the day. With rumours of a relief force advancing towards the town, the Tories took their leave. They still could not hold ground for more than a few hours and melted away in the face of enemy troops, but their success in this operation was substantial.

Even after the fall of Limerick and the end of any real hopes of conventional resistance, Dungan and Scurlock continued to operate with relative impunity, in the Kildare, Wicklow and County Dublin regions, maintaining impressively large forces within a day’s march of the capital itself. That they were able to do so is indicative of the kind of ability the Tories had during this period, at their strongest even while the conventional movement was starting to fade away rapidly.

But with that conventional war coming to an end, and with the end of major combat operations in England and Scotland, the Parliamentarians were in a position to try and tackle the Tory problem to a greater extent. And they would do so, ushering in the bloodiest part of the conflict so far.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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7 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Tory Struggle

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