Oliver Cromwell's Irish campaign is remembered for its
brilliance ... but especially for its bloody-handed ruthlessness.
The Irish rebellion Oliver Cromwell
suppressed in 1649 was the later stage of an uprising that had been
going on since 1641. On October 23, 1641, 40 years after the great
rebellion of Hugh O'Neill, earl of Tyrone, the Irish rose in revolt,
first in Ulster, then later in the rest of Ireland. About 3,000 English
and Scottish settlers were killed in the initial uprising. The numbers
were inflated by Parliament to hundreds of thousands as a propaganda
ploy to prevent King Charles I from making peace and using the Irish
against Parliament during the Civil War.
The English forces initially were commanded by James
Butler, Duke of Ormonde and lord lieutenant of Ireland. In 1645,
however, with Parliament in control of England, the Duke of Ormonde took
control of the rebellion and led the Confederacy, an alliance of all
Royalists in Ireland. Others, such as Murrough O'Brien, Baron of
Inchiquin, an Irish Protestant stationed in Munster opposed the
Confederacy and laid waste to Munster, earning him the name Murrough of
the Burnings and the hatred of his Irish countrymen. Owen Roe O'Neill,
nephew of Tyrone and a "Wild Geese" veteran of the Spanish
army, kept his Ulster forces separate from the Duke of Ormonde's,
representing a purely Irish Catholic element.
The years 1647 to 1649 were pivotal for the rebellion.
First, in 1647 the baron of Inchiquin switched sides for no apparent
reason and joined the Duke of Ormonde. Second, Colonel Michael Jones
landed with 2,000 troops, expelled the Duke of Ormonde from Dublin and
defeated him at Rathmines in August 1649. That broke the Duke of
Ormonde's power. All that was left to do was capture the strongholds
still in Confederate or Irish hands. Oliver Cromwell set out for Ireland
to do just that.
Cromwell faced a bitterly divided Ireland. Native Irish
(Catholic), the "Old English" (the descendants of the original
Catholic English colonists), New English (Protestant) and Scottish
(Protestant), the more recent settlers, all distrusted one another
almost as much as they did Cromwell, sometimes more so.
Cromwell's greatest obstacles were not Irish or
Confederate troops but the nature of Ireland itself, where conditions
were terrible and the climate is even wetter than in England. Plague and
influenza proved more devastating to Cromwell's men than Irish arms.
Cromwell set sail for Ireland on August 13, 1649. He
arrived in Dublin on the 15th and was greeted by the roar of cannons
from the walls and a great, enthusiastic crowd. Cromwell was received so
favorably because Dublin was the second city of the English empire and
Colonel Jones had expelled all Catholics from the city.
The Duke of Ormonde left Sir Arthur Aston, an English
Catholic, at Drogheda with 2,200 infantry and 20 cavalry to delay
Cromwell from marauding farther north. Aston was well aware of
Cromwell's superior numbers--8,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry--but he
was confident that Drogheda's superior position would enable him to
survive the Cromwellian onslaught even if he could not hope to take the
Lord Lieutenant in the field--or, as he put it, "He who could take
Drogheda could take Hell." He also expected war's partners, disease
and famine, to weaken the (Protestant) Parliamentary army.
The geography of Drogheda was crucial to the siege. The
town was totally contained within a formidable wall one and a half miles
long, 20 feet high, and 6 feet wide at the base, narrowing to 2 feet on
top. The main town lay north of the River Boyne. To the south, still
within the impressive fortifications, was an additional urban area
situated on a hill that had to be tackled first by any army coming from
the south. In the extreme southeast corner, virtually embedded in the
city wall, stood St. Mary's Church. From its lofty steeple the defenders
not only had a fine view of the city but were in a good position to fire
upon their Protestant attackers.
Flanking the church on the town side was a steep ravine
called the Dale, then the heavily guarded Duleek Gate, the entrance to
this southern outpost, and behind that an imposing artificial mound
called the Mill Mount.
On September 10, Cromwell issued his first official
summons to Sir Arthur Aston:
"Having brought the army belonging to the
Parliament of England before this place, to reduce it to obedience, to
the end the effusion of blood may be prevented, I thought it fit to
summon you to deliver the same into my hands to their use. If this be
refused you will have no cause to blame me."
Cromwell's Forces commence their bombardment of
Aston refused to surrender, and Cromwell's cannons
opened fire. The walls of the city began to crumble. Aston quickly
realized that he was in danger. The (Protestant) Parliamentary fleet
blockaded the harbor. The Duke of Ormonde could send no more
reinforcements, his arms and provisions were running short. Worst of
all, like all of Ireland, Drogheda was not united. Some of those inside
the walls preferred the English Parliamentary force.
Knowing that there could be "no quarter" (no
mercy) if he refused to surrender, Aston decided to fight on, writing to
the Duke of Ormonde that his soldiers, at least, "were unanimous in
their resolution to perish rather than to deliver up the place."
The (Catholic) defenders fought bravely, at first
turning back the attackers, but eventually the Parliamentarians crashed
through the walls and seized St. Mary's Church. Aston and some defenders
fled to Mill Mount. Possessed by bloodlust, the Parliamentarians rushed
up the hill, and all defenders, including Aston, were killed by order of
Cromwell. The Parliamentarians swept through the streets with orders to
kill anyone in arms. Against orders, civilians also were killed in the
rush. Priests and friars were treated as combatants by Cromwell's
Puritans and executed. Even more horrible was the fate of the defenders
of St. Peter's Church in the northern part of the town; the church was
burned down around them. By nightfall, only small pockets of resistance
on the walls remained. When they managed to kill some (Protestant)
Parliamentarians, Cromwell ordered the captured (Catholic) officers to
be "knocked on the head" and every 10th soldier (Catholic)
executed. Nearly 4,000 (Catholic) Confederates died at Drogheda.
Drogheda's being divided by the river caused some
confusion and may have led to the massacre. When forces on one side of
the river surrendered, it is alleged that Cromwell, still meeting
resistance on the other side, ordered the annihilation of the entire
population. "I do not think that thirty of the whole number escaped
with their lives," Cromwell later wrote. The survivors were sold as
slaves to the sugar plantations at Barbados.
Cromwell Leading the Storming Party at Drogheda
by W.R.S. Stott
After the massacre, Cromwell sought to explain his
actions in a letter to William Lenthall, speaker of the English
"...I am persuaded that this is a righteous
judgement of God upon these barbarous wretches, who have imbued their
hands in so much innocent blood, and it will tend to prevent the
effusion of blood for the future, which are satisfactory grounds to such
actions, which otherwise cannot but work remourse and regret...."
Arthur Wellesley (an Irisman), the famous Duke of
Wellington, later said in Cromwell's defense: "The practice of
refusing quarter to a garrison which stands an assault is not a useless
effusion of blood."
The Duke of Ormonde tried to make excuses for not aiding
Drogheda. He said that many of his officers and troops were on the verge
of mutiny or were showing a lack of courage, so it was not wise to get
close to the enemy. Ormonde later wrote to King Charles II: "It is
not to be imagined the terror these successes and the power of the
rebels have struck into the people. They are so stupefied, that it is
with great difficulty I can persuade them to act anything like men
toward their own."
When Owen Roe O'Neill heard of the massacre, he swore an
oath that he would retake the town even if he had to storm Hell.
Cromwell set out for the south a fortnight after
Drogheda. Winter was fast approaching and no time could be lost if the
southern part of the island was to be subdued. He had to follow up
before the scattered Irish forces recovered from the initial panic and
joined in a stronger union.
Cromwell and his army encamped at the walls of Wexford
on October 1, 1649. It was most important to capture that town, for it
was through Wexford that the (Catholic) Confederates received their arms
and kept in touch with supporters in foreign countries. He hoped the
capture would be easy.
Ormonde also realized the importance of the place and
sent 1,000 infantry and 300 cavalry to reinforce the garrison. The
townspeople, however, did not trust the Duke of Ormonde. They remembered
that he had surrendered Dublin a few years earlier; they knew he had
recently made common cause with the (Protestant) Baron of Inchiquin;
they remembered how he had massacred his own people earlier in the
revolt. Their distrust was so strong that they initially refused entry
to Ormonde's forces and did so only after the Parliamentary fleet
Cromwell himself admitted that Wexford was
"pleasantly seated and strong." It had a rampart of earth 15
feet thick within the walls to improve its chances of withstanding a
siege. It was garrisoned by more than 2,000 men. In the fort and
elsewhere were nearly 100 cannons. In the harbor were three ships, one
with 34 guns and two with 20. Since it was the middle of October, winter
would soon be setting in, and sickness would soon take its toll on
troops camped in the open. The Duke of Ormonde was camped 20 miles away
at Ross, waiting for a favorable moment to strike.
The (Catholic) Confederates faced a disadvantage that
negated the town's impressive fortifications, however: there was a
traitor in their midst, Captain James Stafford. Had Stafford's treason
not occurred, Wexford would no doubt have been a tougher nut to crack.
On October 11, Stafford gave Cromwell entrance to the town. The scenes
that followed mirrored those at Drogheda. Many Franciscans and other
priests were killed. Three hundred women were massacred while standing
at the cross in the public square. They had hoped that being near the
cross would soften the hearts of the Christian soldiers. Instead it
identified them as Catholics, and they were put to death. The churches
were then destroyed. The total number of dead at Wexford was about
After Wexford, the English Parliament sent Cromwell
reinforcements and an enormous sum of money to buy off his (Catholic)
English enemies in Ireland. Cromwell then marched on Ross. Two days
after the summons, the town surrendered without a fight, although the
Duke of Ormonde had sent 2,500 extra men into the town. The townspeople
no doubt were frightened by the events at Drogheda and Wexford. Unable
to prevent them from crossing the Barrow River, Cromwell granted terms:
the inhabitants were protected from looting and violence, and the
garrison was allowed to march away under arms. He turned down a request
for freedom of worship, however.
About 500 men from the Ross garrison, mostly the
(Protestant) Baron of Inchiquin's men, defected to Cromwell. The
reinforcements were welcome, because the expedition was beginning to
take its toll on him and his men. At Ross, Cromwell himself suffered
from a mild form of malaria. The defection of the troops was a blow to
the Duke of Ormonde. The ranks of the (Catholic) Confederacy were
discouraged and disaffected. Ormonde wrote to King Charles II that only
his presence could hearten his discouraged subjects.
In early November, the Irish cause suffered an even
worse blow. The Earl O'Neill died of a mysterious illness. Some say the
only Irish commander who could have taken on Cromwell head to head had
been poisoned. Before he died, O'Neill signed a treaty with the Duke of
Ormonde and sent some of his troops south, but after this severe setback
Ormonde had to rely on withdrawal and evasion tactics.
After Ross, Cromwell built a bridge across the Barrow,
advanced into Tipperary and captured the Duke of Ormonde's castle. He
then joined his son-in-law, General Henry Ireton, at Duncannon. After
some deliberation, most of the army was withdrawn from Ross and placed
at a less fortified post to form a blockade around Duncannon to prevent
supplies coming in from Waterford. That proved unnecessary, because
Waterford refused to part with any of its own scanty provisions.
The commander of the fort, Thomas Roche, informed the
Duke of Ormonde that there was no way he could hold the fort against
Cromwell and that he would have to obey the summons. Ormonde promptly
sent Colonel Edward Wogan, a defector from Ireton's ranks, along with
120 cavalry, to replace Roche. They arrived just in time to save the
fort. They sent a defiant answer to Cromwell, and he abandoned the siege
rather than pursue it in the winter.
Although Duncannon had a reprieve, the (Catholic)
Confederates lost a more important place; the garrison at Cork revolted
in favor of the Parliamentarians about the same time Cromwell was at
Ross. The seeds of the revolt were sown before Cromwell's coming as
Protestants sought to break the dominance of Catholics, especially the
Cromwell sent agents to widen the differences. One of
them was Roger Boyle, Lord Broghill, a former royalist who joined
Cromwell out of financial need. (A low man who betrayed is
King.) Another Cromwell agent was Colonel Richard Townsend, who
pretended to be angered at the execution of the king but who was trying
to corrupt the Munster forces. Their activities quickly bore fruit. The
Munster Protestants had nothing to hope for and everything to fear from
the (Catholic) Confederates. Cromwell remarked that "if there had
been a man like Boyle in every province, it would have been impossible
for the Irish to raise a rebellion."
The result was that Broghill raised 1,500 infantry and a
troop of cavalry from his family estates. Townsend led the (Protestant)
English troops and citizens of Cork in driving out the (Catholic) Irish
and declared the city for the English Parliament. The rising saved
Townsend from being executed for hatching a plot to capture the baron of
The revolt was a greater disaster for the Duke of
Ormonde than the mere loss of Cork. The Irish complained that Ormonde
showed favoritism to the English, and he was thus compelled to restore
Roche at Duncannon. The rest of Inchiquin's English troops deserted,
making the campaign a tribal war between Celts and English. Inchiquin
was even accused of being a traitor. The accusation was false, but the
damage was done, and he lost much of his already scant credibility.
With the capture of Drogheda and Wexford, the major
strongholds on the east coast, and the possession of Cork, the first
stage of Cromwell's Irish campaign was over. His task was clear: reduce
the garrisons that still held out in Munster and bring that province
under the rule of the English Parliament. The rising in Cork made that
task simpler by widening the gap between the Irish (Catholics) and the
Old English (also Catholics). Cromwell spent as much time on diplomatic
maneuvering as he did on field operations.
As matters stood in mid-November 1649, the forces of the
English Parliament held the east coast from Belfast down to Wexford,
plus Cork in the west. Only a few towns in the north remained in Irish
hands. Cromwell was still ill, so he sent Jones and Ireton to the county
of Kilkenny to secure the garrisons there, cut the Duke of Ormonde off
from Waterford and draw him into an open engagement.
The plan was not successful. The (Catholic) Confederates
first retired to Thomastown, then to the fortified city of Kilkenny.
Ireton sent Colonel Daniel Abbott to take the town, but Abbott found
that the River Nore was flooded and the bridge at Thomastown was
destroyed. Ireton and Jones had to be content with sending Colonel John
Reynolds to take Carriek and returning to Ross with the main army.
Weather had joined disease and famine in the fight against Cromwell.
Carrick soon fell, and Cromwell, now recovered from his
illness, led his army across the River Suir to Waterford
The Duke of Ormonde lay with 10,000 men on the Kilkenny
side of the River Suir opposite Waterford and the (Protestant)
Parliamentarians. He sent the Baron of Inchiquin to try to recapture
Carrick, but he failed. Cromwell had 7,000 at the beginning of the
siege, but wet weather and plague reduced the number to 3,000. At that
point, Ormonde could have stopped him. Again, Ormonde's army did not
come into play, because of the same disunity that plagued the Irish at
Drogheda and Wexford. His army was seen by most Irish as an alien force,
just as offensive as Cromwell's. Cromwell sought to exploit this feeling
in his summons to Waterford on November 21, 1649. His warning was
similar to those given to Drogheda and Wexford, but the result was
different. Hunger and disease had taken such a toll on Cromwell's force
that eventually he was compelled to retreat.
Cromwell came out of winter quarters at the end of
January 1650 and began the conquest of southern Ireland. He offered
terms of surrender at the city of Fethard on February 2. Officers,
soldiers and priests would be allowed to march away, and the townspeople
would be protected from looting. The town of Cashel surrendered without
a fight, and Cromwell turned his army on Callan, a city defended by a
strong wall and three castles. He attacked with cannons, took two of the
castles, put their defenders to the sword and accepted the surrender of
Next Cromwell turned to Cahir, commanded by the Duke of
Ormonde's half-brother, Captain George Mathews. When Mathews refused the
first demand to surrender, the Parliamentarians tried to scale the
walls. A force of Catholic Ulstermen repulsed the attack, but Cromwell
brought up his cannons. Mathews realized he could not hold out and
surrendered under terms Cromwell agreed to--that the officers, soldiers
and clergymen be allowed to march out.
Cromwell pushed on, taking the towns of Kiltenan,
Dundrum, Ballynakill and Kildare. He and other Parliamentarians next
converged on Kilkenny, headquarters of the Confederacy. He summoned
Kilkenny on March 22, 1650:
"My coming hither is to endeavour, if God so please
to bless me, the reduction of the city of Kilkenny to their obedience to
the state of England, from which, by an unheard of massacre of the
innocent English, you have endeavored to rend yourselves."
Sir Walter Butler, governor of Kilkenny and a cousin of
the Duke of Ormonde, responded that he would maintain the town for the
King. The city was not in good shape, however. Hundreds of the garrison
died of plague, and reinforcements had deserted. Nearby Cantwell Castle
surrendered to Cromwell. Ormonde and the Supreme Council had long since
Nevertheless, Cromwell found it not so easy to take the
town. The city was divided by the River Nore into two parts, Kilkenny
proper and Irishtown. A plot to betray the city was discovered, and a
Captain Tickell was executed. Butler refused to surrender, and an attack
beginning on the 24th at Irishtown was first repulsed, but ultimately
succeeded. Butler again refused to surrender, and the Parliamentary
attack continued on the 25th. Hours of bombardment caused a breach in
the wall of the town proper. Two attacks by the (Protestant)
Parliamentarians were repulsed, and a third order to attack was not
obeyed, but Butler soon decided that he'd done all he could do and
Upon payment of 2,000 pounds sterling, the citizens of
Kilkenny were protected from looting, and the officers and soldiers were
allowed to march out disarmed for two miles. The clergymen also were
allowed to march out.
For some weeks after Kilkenny, Cromwell did not take an
active role in operations; instead he directed them, first from Carrick,
then from Fethard. He realized that Ormonde was at the end of his
resources. On the east coast, only Waterford was not in English hands,
and on the west coast the plague-devastated city of Galway. Limerick
refused to admit any forces not dominated by the Catholic clergy.
Furthermore, the Catholic bishop of Derry was making arrangements with
foreign princes to transport several thousand fighting men out of
On the combat side, the baron of Inchiquin tried to
invade Limerick, but was routed by Broghill. Broghill then joined
Cromwell at Clonmel after beating back an invasion of County Cork by
By the end of March 1650, there was little to do except
to take Clonmel, Waterford and Limerick and reduce the scattered Irish
remnants, since the last major Confederate commander besides Ormonde,
Inchiquin, was negotiating with Cromwell.
Cromwell's next objective, Clonmel, was commanded by
General Hugh Duffy O'Neill, "Black Hugh," who, like his uncle,
Owen Roe O'Neill, had previously served with the "Wild Geese"
in the Spanish army. At his command were 12,000 troops, mostly
(Catholic) Ulstermen and all but 50 of whom were infantry. Ormonde
promised to send aid but did not. It was in Black Hugh that Cromwell met
his greatest adversary in Ireland.
Cromwell arrived at Clonmel on April 27, a month after
Kilkenny. There is no evidence that he summoned the city to surrender.
Supplies were running low when he arrived and, as in other places, there
was treason to aid Cromwell's effort. A Major Fennell accepted 500
pounds sterling from Cromwell and opened the gates to 500
Parliamentarians. But Black Hugh had some of his uncle's savvy. He
discovered the plot and arrested Fennell, who confessed on promise of a
pardon. The 500 English Parliamentarians were slaughtered by the
This was not the beginning Cromwell desired. On April
30, he brought up the guns and began the bombardment. On May 9, the
English Parliamentarians poured through a breach--and right into a trap.
O'Neill had made breastworks, with a masked battery, 80 yards from the
breach. The Irish fired chain shot from their cannons, and the troops
maintained a continuous fire from the breastworks. Stone and timber also
were hurled at the attackers. More Parliamentarians came in, only to be
killed. Finally, the Parliamentarians withdrew with a loss of 2,500 men.
Cromwell lost more at Clonmel than he had in all the other battles in
Ireland put together. Some speculate that Cromwell would have lost even
more men if the promised reinforcements had arrived.
In the end, the Parliamentarians took Clonmel not by
force of arms but the lack of supplies and the ineptitude of the Duke of
Ormonde. The fact that Hugh O'Neill and his men managed to sneak out of
town during the night before Clonmel fell also doesn't say much for
Less than a month later Cromwell returned to England,
which was facing a threat of invasion from Scotland, which had declared
for the exiled King Charles II (a Celt ... a Stuart). He left Ireton in
command. The war in Ireland continued on the Duke of Ormonde's forlorn
hope that Charles II would come in from Scotland, but, for the most
part, the Irish effort had degenerated into bands of guerrillas known as
Tories. Two months after Clonmel, Bishop Hebere Mac Mahon led an
Ulsterman army of Catholics against Sir Charles Coote, against the
advice of Henry O'Neill ... Owen Roe's son. The bishop was captured,
hanged, drawn and quartered on the order of Coote and Ireton. The bishop
had appealed to Owen Roe O'Neill to spare Coote at the siege of Derry
several years earlier. Ireton captured Waterford on June 21 and tried
but failed to take Limerick. Coote narrowly defeated the remnants of
Owen Roe O'Neill's army at Scariffhollis. At the end of 1650, Ormonde
left Ireland and was replaced by the Earl of Clanridarde, who was just
as despised as Ormonde and could not unite the factions. Ireton again
tried to take Limerick in June 1651, and after a siege of five months,
the city, under the command of Black Hugh O'Neill, yielded. Ireton died
of the plague in November, but Edmund Ludlow and Charles Fleetwood
completed the subjugation. Both of them later became Lord Lieutenants of
Ireland. Galway, the last city to resist, surrendered in May 1652. The
war that had begun in 1641 was over, and more than 616,000 people died
in the 12 years of the war.
Many today trace the current problems in Northern
Ireland back to Cromwell. The British troops in Northern Ireland are
referred to as "Cromwell's Boys," and there is hardly a ruined
building in Ireland whose destruction is not blamed on Cromwell.