My coverage of the wars of the mid-16th century has come to an end, but I still want to bookend things with a post similar to this one, before I move on to anything else.
Before I get into anything though, I’d like to briefly talk names. What we have here is a conflict that generally lasted between October 1641 and April 1653. The fighting changed drastically throughout this time period, in terms of factions and combatants. Generally speaking, the period is split between two conflicts: The Irish Confederate Wars from 1641 to 1649, and then the Cromwellian Conquest, with the end of the Confederation and the arrival of Cromwell – essentially around the Battle of Rathmines – as the divider. For the conflict as a whole, the “Eleven Years War” is often used.
I think that, while there were many changes throughout the fighting, it was still a period of continuous warfare with similarities in opposing sides. But you cannot dub the entire conflict the “Irish Confederate Wars” or the “Cromwellian Conquest”. Therefore, if I can be so bold, I have decided to go with my own, slightly tweaked, moniker: The “Eleven Year Wars”. Two conflicts, over the course of eleven years (and a few months, but let’s not quibble) that were still deeply connected.
So let’s forge ahead. Out of necessity, I’ll have to limit myself here for every heading, lest this whole post become far too long, so just a few entries per heading. First, some talk on factions.
Those forces, headed by James Butler, the Earl of Ormond, who fought on behalf of Charles I and later his son. They benefited from the political experience and diplomatic acumen of their leader, which was able to neuter the Confederate threat for much of the war and later subsume it, as well as their favourable military position for much of the war. But they had a paucity of competent subordinates to Ormond, and an inability to make good on the late alliance with the rebel Irish in the face of determined military resistance.
Those forces, with varying political beliefs, who backed the Parliament in the Civil Wars and fought under (for a time) Inchiquin, Michael Jones, Cromwell and Ireton. Positives include the professionalism and ability of their armed forces, especially in the latter half of the wars, and the dedication in maintaining a small but powerful holding in Ireland before that point. Negatives would include a mostly counter-productive COIN campaign in the final years of the war, along with a tendency for some of its commanders – like Inchiquin – to be less than wholehearted in their support.
Those forces, the hardcore Catholics, who backed the Papal Nuncio Rinuccini in the Confederation, particularly the Ulster Army of Owen Roe O’Neill. Their strength came from their religious and political determination, and the fighting quality of O’Neill and his men, which landed a death blow on the Covenanters at Benburb. But weaknesses told, as this faction was small and wasted its period of ascendency in the Confederation, fading away in the aftermath of 1646.
Those forces, the moderates, who favoured compromise and alliance with James Butler’s Royalists in the Confederation, particularly the Leinster Army of Thomas Preston. They worked their way into a position of control over the Confederation twice over, and had some useful military commanders. But they lacked true battlefield success, and lost most of their authority in the amalgamation with the Royalists.
Those forces, under Robert Monro, who occupied large parts of Ulster from Scotland in the early part of the war. Spirited fighters, they had much presence and power in those early years, but faltered when the tests came, disintegrating slowly as differences in their political make-up came to the fore.
Only the most important, and in alphabetical order:
-Roger Boyle, the Lord Broghill
His role in securing the coast of Cork without much bloodshed is an underappreciated moment in the Cromwellian campaigns, as it allowed extra weeks of military manoeuvre by Cromwell and a decent position for the following years campaigns. While sidelined to a degree afterwards during the Wars, Broghill still played his part in strangling the Royalists, and would then play Kingmaker in 1660.
-Ulick Burke, the Earl of Clanricarde
Hesitant at the start of the war and then varying shades of mediocre in the later stages, Burke is notable mostly for overseeing the final defeat of the Royalist cause in Ireland. With a melancholy disposition and a tendency for the conservative, he was a poor choice to succeed Ormond.
– James Butler, the Earl of Ormond
Wielded his considerable political and negotiation skills well in the first years of the war, ensuring the survival of the Royalist faction without resort to much military activity. But he was weak whenever faced with the Parliamentarian foe, whether it was his surrender of Dublin in 1647 or his stuttered and stumbling leadership after Cromwell’s arrival.
One of the big winners of the wars, helping to decide the fighting in Ulster and laying claim to the destruction of the famed Ulster Army. Coote matched his ruthlessness with genuine military ability, and his rise throughout the period, from unimportant subordinate to ennobled Earl of Montrath, is evidence of that.
Determined, skilled, brutal: Cromwell blew the Royalist faction to pieces during his brief time in Ireland with a succession of rapid sieges and infamous slaughters, not least the one he came of worse in at Clonmel. With his leadership and the power of the New Model Army, the Parliamentarians put the Royalists on the road to an all but inevitable defeat, creating a bitter legacy in Ireland that would long outlast him.
A faithful and useful subordinate, Hewson’s forces were the lynchpin in many Parliamentarian plans in the closing stages of the war, and his COIN operation were at the forefront of the Parliamentarian response to the Tory threat in south Leinster.
Always struggling to fill the boots of his father-in-law, Ireton can be criticised for his lack of verve and imagination when drawing up plans, falling miserably to cross the Shannon at the first time of asking after getting easily distracted by other matters. But taking Limerick, while it took a great deal of time, was a notable success, that Ireton did not live long to celebrate.
Vital to the Parliamentarians for no other reason than his leadership critically weakening the Royalists via the victory at Dungan’s Hill, before securing the Parliamentarians position with his victory at Rathmines. His premature death on campaign has resulted, perhaps, in his under appreciation as a player for the Roundhead cause.
One of the key leaders of Montrose’s remarkable journey across Scotland, utilising some of the most hardened Irish fighters available to do so. McColla is, perhaps, more notable for his reputation than his tangible successes, but that reputation was worth a lot in some battles.
The hapless Bishop of Clogher was a compromise choice to lead the Ulster Army after the death of Owen Roe, and it really showed.
Helped to wipe out the last of the really dangerous Covenanter faction in Ulster during his time Ireland, later deflecting the threat of Owen Roe O’Neill for a crucial time, an act he was little rewarded for. But his daring and ingenuity in Ireland should have been a sign of things to come.
A tough commander who was able to secure a large part of Ulster with relative ease, but then failed to really make good on any of it in the larger war. The defeat at Benburb was a terrible blow, and his fall from grace was inevitable in the aftermath.
-Murrogh O’Brien, the Earl of Inchiquin
“The burner” certainly made his impact in Munster, whether he was fighting for Charles or the Parliament. He successfully held the south coast of Cork in the face of repeated attacks from numerous sources, and his own offensive campaigns are legendary for their brutality – and effectiveness. However, he seemed to lose much of his martial prowess following his final change of sides, and was an ineffective and diminished figure under the Royalist flag during the post-Rathmines phase.
-Hugh Dubh O’Neill
Came into the war in a larger way late, but one of the only Royalists who could claim to have given Cromwell as good as he got. His defence of both Clonmel and Limerick were decent efforts, but came at times when the lack of support was a fatal disadvantage.
-Owen Roe O’Neill
The great giant of the Confederation, in truth Owen Roe’s achievements are out of proportion to his popular image. Benburb was an amazing success, but came on the heel of years of defeat and inactivity. Afterwards, he was unable to make much of the victory, caught up in the intrigues and strife of the Confederate faction. His absence from the main stage in the last period of his life was a regrettable loss for the Royalist/Confederates.
Could claim to have started the war, and been one of its last victims. Phelim was decent at organisation, working under others and conjuring resistance, but in actual command his record is far more spotty. He faded from view after the arrival of Owen Roe, his valiant enough defence of Charlemont notwithstanding.
Could never really prove the truth of his reputation, except in small moments. Skilled with carrying out and combating sieges, his high point was the taking of Duncannon in 1645, a masterful job. But it cannot eclipse the terrible low of Dungan’s Hill, or his feuding with Owen Roe which so damaged the Confederate ability to fight.
Going far outside of his mandate, Rincuccini, with the backing of Owen Roe, essentially ruled much of Ireland for a short time in 1646, thanks to his role in making Benburb a possibility..Uncompromising and fanatically devoted to his own cause, his political manoeuvrings and sectarian motivations played their part in weakening the Confederation to a bad degree, before he was obliged to leave the country.
Created the Laggan Army, which prevented all of Ulster from falling into either Confederate or Covenanter hands in the early part of the war, before his role became much more reduced. He had the chance to have a much larger role, but save the 1649 Siege of Londonderry, he had little impact on the rest of the war.
A political choice to lead the Munster Army during a crucial period, Taafe proved completely unable to live up to the responsibilities of the task set before him. Badly shown up repeatedly by Inchiquin, his defeat at Knocknanuss was as bad as or worse than that of Dungan’s Hill.
-James Touchet, the Earl of Castlehaven
With a greater publicity machine than martial skill, Castlehaven can claim to be at the heart of some notable Confederate successes, not least his campaigns in Cork, but also played his hand in some notable failures. Dubious allegiances and an unwillingness to acknowledge his own flaws put a dampener on any of the positives he might have enjoyed.
-Phase One: Uncoordinated Violence (October 1641 – early 1642)
From the first seizures of Phelim O’Neill’s plot to the start of 1641, this was a phase of sectarian massacre and the first few halting moves at something slightly more organised, like the attempt to take Drogheda. But the war remained a messy uncoordinated thing regardless. Also includes the “Battles” of Julianstown and Swords.
-Phase Two: Factionalisation (Early 1642 – October 1642)
In this period we see the factions of the time come into clearer focus, in terms of both identity and territory held: the Royalists, the Confederation of Kilkenny and the Scottish Covenanters. It is a period marked by repeated Confederate defeats even as they consolidated control over much of the country. Includes the Battles of Kilrush, Glenmaquin and Liscarroll and one of the first notable Confederate successes with the 1642 Siege of Limerick.
-Phase Three: Royalist/Confederate War (October 1642 – September 1643)
The really proper section of the war where fighting between Confederate and Royalist forces was hottest. Again marked by repeated Confederate failures, but also a general solidification of their position. Includes the Battles of New Ross, Clones, Portlester, Fermoy Ford and the Siege of Galway.
-Phase Four: Low Boil (September 1643 – October 1645)
A period of cessation between Confederate and Royalist, and growing power/solidification of Covenanters and Parliamentarian. Little large scale combat in most respects. Includes the failed Ulster Expedition, the Munster “Reduction” Campaign of Castlehaven, the Sieges of Youghal and Duncannon as well as the Irish involvement in Scottish campaigns.
-Phase Five: The Confederates Ascendant (October 1645 – Mid 1647)
After the arrival of Rinuccini, the Confederation, now dominated by the more hard-line Catholics, enjoys a slew of successes, most notably Benburb, until the failure to take Dublin in November of 1646 and the subsequent weakening of the “ Nuncioists” position. Also includes Rinuccini’s Coup, the First Ormonde Peace and the Sieges of Roscommon and Bunratty.
-Phase Six: Parliamentarian Rise (Mid 1647 to early 1648)
A period of Roundhead recovery and increasing dominance, marked most notably by the victories of Dungan’s Hill and Knocknanuss. Also includes the Sack of Cashel and Ormonde’s surrender of Dublin to Michael Jones.
-Phase Seven: Five Factions (Early 1648 – Early 1649)
Marks the appearance, at one time, of five separate armed factions in Ireland – Royalists, Parliamentarians, Covenanters, Confederate Nuncioists and Confederate Ormondists – and the jockeying for position and power between them. Includes the “Confederate Strife”, the downfall of the Covenanter faction and the Second Ormond Peace.
-Phase Eight: Royalist Dominance (Early 1649 – August 1649)
The newly reinvigorated Royalist faction advances in several areas, most notably around Dublin, before the decisive defeat at Rathmines. The Parliamentarians hang on. Also includes the 1649 Siege of Londonderry and the Royalist Summer Offensive.
-Phase Nine: Cromwell’s Campaigns (August 1649 – May 1650)
Cromwell and the New Model Army’s arrival devastates the Royalist position through a succession of quick and brutal sieges and assaults. Includes the Sieges of Drogheda, Wexford, New Ross, Duncannon, Carrick-on-Suir, Waterford, Kilkenny and Clonmel, as well as the Battle of Arklow, the conquest of Ulster, Cromwell’s Winter Offensive and the death of Owen Roe O’Neill.
-Phase Ten: The Long Defeat (May 1650 – May 1652)
The reduced Royalist faction faced a drawn out lessening of their power and territory at the hands of several Parliamentarian commanders, most notably Henry Ireton, until the final collapse of their ability to resist conventionally. Includes the Battles of Scarrifholis, Tecroghan, Meelick Island and Knocknaclashy, the Sieges of Waterford, Charlesmont, Athlone, Limerick and Galway, Ireton’s first and second offensive against the Shannon defensive line and the Bishops Coup.
-Phase Eleven: The Tory War (May 1652 – April 1653)
Following the end of the conventional war, the bands of irregular “Tory” fighters continue to hold out and inflict damage on the Parliamentarian occupier before being overwhelmed. Includes the campaigns of Dungun and Scurlock and the final surrenders.
-Phase Twelve: Scattered Resistance (April 1653 – 1660)
Under the Protectorate, smaller elements continue to resist the rule of Parliament in Ireland, but without lasting success or serious aspirations of victory, until the downfall of the Roundhead cause. Includes the Restoration Coups.
The Crucial Moments
A seemingly minor combat in the middle of Kildare in a very early part of the conflict, but I think that Kilrush is more important than it might initially appear. The result set the tone for much of the years to come: a numerically inferior Royalist army not only beat a rebel Irish force that was blocking its line of retreat to Dublin, but beat them very badly. Butler proved his command capability, and the future Confederates had to deal with yet another defeat when it really mattered. A different result could have changed much, not least in the direct danger to Ormond or subsequent danger to an undefended, or lesser defended, Dublin. Events like Kilrush defined the limitations of the Confederation side, and played its part in that factions lack of momentum before the cessation came into effect.
Castlehaven was one of the few Confederate commanders to actually achieve some tangible results early in the war, even if those results were vastly exaggerated in their scope and effect. His reduction of Parliamentarian control in Cork and other parts of Munster was a spectacular success, that pushed Inchiquin back to a small strip of land on the southern coast. But the failure to take Youghal – or to even make the fullest effort to try and take it – set back much of what had been gained in the campaign, giving Inchiquin some breathing room and ensuring that the Confederate designs in the area would never reach completion. Imagine how the Confederates or Royalists might have got on if they had been able to pinch out this area of Parliamentarian control then and there. Years later, when Cromwell was able to take Youghal and other towns on the coast without much fighting, some former Confederates were probably cursing their bad luck.
Having given the Covenanters a blow they would never really recover from at Benburb, and having then gone on to take over the Confederation in a coup, the loose alliance of Owen Roe O’Neill, Giovanni Rinuccini and Thomas Preston had their best opportunity of the war to put the Royalists to the sword. The campaign to take Dublin had some serious strategic possibilities, not least the securing of Ireland’s biggest urban area and most of the east coast. Who knows where the Confederates could have gone from there, with Butler defeated and the hard-line Catholics of the Confederation riding a wave of victories. The failed campaign around Dublin illustrated vividly the repeating flaws of the Confederation, namely the never ending personal animosity among its higher ups.
The Royalist resurgence of 1649 seemed, at moments, to be an irresistible movement, that could seriously turn the tide of the larger war in the British Isles. The subsuming of the Confederation and the taking of Drogheda were examples of the kinds of things Ormond and his allies were able to achieve. But it all came to nought outside Dublin, when Ormond’s unprepared army was sent fleeing by the daring and decisiveness of Michael Jones, whose actions that day might well have saved the capital from imminent capture, and ensured the safe arrival of Oliver Cromwell’s immense forces. The Royalists would never recover, Rathmines serving as their own high water mark.
A very personal choice. On its own, the battle at Meelick does not seem to have had too much of an effect, but if one looks closer they might see the possibilities. If the Connacht forces that were annihilated there had been able to resist the attack that destroyed them, and make their way home, it would have been another few thousand troops for the defence of the Shannon line in the attacks to come, more men to garrison Limerick or Athlone, more men for Henry Ireton to have to try and deal with. The existence of those men could have made a difference, even if it was to make the war last another year. Time can change much: the continued survival of the Royalist faction could have led to decisive foreign intervention, or any number of possible reprieves. The Parliamentarian victory there was one of the larger blows the Royalists suffered in the last phases of the struggle.
Reading back over the Eleven Year Wars, I am again struck by the immensity and complexity of this struggle. One only has to look at its beginnings and ends to see the vastness of political and factional change that took place in Ireland during that time: In 1641, a group of Catholic noblemen seized some forts and castles to try and force Charles I to make good on promises of religious toleration and reform. In 1653, Tory bands allied to the doomed Royalist cause of Charles’ son were surrendering to the rampant armies of the English Parliament. In the meantime, there were changes of allegiance, new forces brought in and old ones defeated, political solutions, decried cessations, foreign interventions, battles, sieges, raids and a tide of bloodshed that has never since been matched. The death toll of this period is a truly stunning one, the scale of which is genuinely hard to comprehend when looking upon it from our comfortable seats over 300 years in the future. One in five people on the island of Ireland, more than likely, died in the course of this period of fighting.
The political aspect of the entire struggle is also captivating. It is hard to believe that there were 17th century Republicans fighting in Ireland during this war, and noteworthy also that the nationalist narrative of the struggle paints their faction – of which they were of a dubious percentage – as the bad guys. There was a genuine Irish government, with representatives and a loose but functioning administration, controlling the vast majority of the island for a time, an achievement that is cruelly under looked in Irish history in favour of subsequent republican insurrections that did not get anywhere near the same level of government. There was an attempt, repeated ones actually, to form a working coalition between Protestant and Catholic for the cause of greater Irish freedom, something that has rarely been done since on the same scale.
In terms of actual military matters, the Eleven Year Wars are the largest in Ireland up to that point, easily, in terms of number of troops employed, battles fought and sieges conducted. But they also mark the entry of Ireland into a newer age of warfare. Having dallied and hesitantly put one foot onto the Gunpowder Era during the Nine Years War, Ireland dove headfirst into it in the Eleven Year Wars, with all factions and armies fielding the continental standard of musketeers, pikemen and artillery, albeit with drastically varied levels of actual quality and material support. Modern siege techniques met modern fortifications in places like Duncannon, while in others the old walls and crumbling defences of places like Drogheda and Kilkenny were swept away. The naval elements of warfare proved crucial for the first time in centuries, in places like Youghal and Galway, while the old Irish reliable of wood-kerne tactics soon proved that they still had a place in the modern military world. Large scale conventional battles were fought with more regularity than in any other conflict, with the losses to match.
And then there is just the sheer wealth of personality to explore throughout this period, enough to leave any historian, casual or experienced, fully sated. The brave and the cowardly, the politically motivated and the mercenary, the ruthless and the merciful, the experienced and the amateur, the believers and the cynics, the capable and the incapable, the schemers and the naive, the self promoting and the self defeating: the Eleven Year Wars offer all of these in abundance, a cavalcade of figures, some of whom have become true giants of their age, others who perhaps should be better remembered. There is always something captivating in studying the men and women of such eras, and trying to understand why they did the things that they did, where their higher motivation came from and whether or not they considered themselves a success. Where they won, where they compromised, where they lost. Within the bounds of Irish military history, the Eleven Year Wars offers the largest amount of potential exploration in this field than ever came before it.
Lastly, I am simply struck by the effect of the Eleven Year Wars. English control over Ireland was solidified by the Nine Years War, this is true, but it was the Eleven Year Wars, specifically the Cromwellian Conquest, which really made firm the continuing dynamic between either side of the Irish Sea ever after. The Irish landowning and noble classes were swept away into the unprofitable soil of the west, disenfranchised and reduced in status to an extent far beyond even the treatment they were receiving pre-1641. They and the larger Catholic population, oppressed politically and increasingly denied what little freedom of conscience remained to them, were inevitably locked on further violent confrontation with the English administration. They would still back, in military terms, the position of the monarch as their leader, and would until the end of the 17th century at the very least. But the scale of loss in the Eleven Year Wars, combined with the repression of both Parliament and Charles II – not one to row back too hard on the land issue in Ireland, as we will see in time – certainly hardened the general antagonism between the majority in Ireland and the overlords in England. The attempt to seal the Anglicisation of Ireland in the aftermath of the Wars would not succeed.
The Protestant Ascendency would rule, the Catholic Church would be oppressed, but the resentment, commitment and memory of the Irish Catholic underclass would not be removed from the equation. They had gotten a taste of temporary self-government, one built around their culture and (largely) their religion. They had been on the receiving end of too many devastation campaigns, the latest leaving vast parts of the country an underpopulated wreck. They would rise and rebel again. And again and again and again and again. The United Irishmen, Fenians and IRA can trace some of their origins as far back as 1641, in a way that they just can’t to 1594. The rights of Irish nobles as the main issue of Anglo-Irish relations was largely superseded by the rights of Irish Catholics in the interim between those two wars (albeit with Catholic nobles at the head of the movement), and definitively so in the aftermath.
And in the creation of this inevitability, Cromwell and others played their indelible part. And it would only be a few decades before the issue would have to be resolved with arms once more.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.