Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Sack of Cashel, September 1647

The Munster Mutiny

On the 12th of June in 1647, Donough MacCarthy, the Viscount of Muskerry entered the camp of the Irish Confederate Munster army. The Viscount Muskerry was probably the most powerful Confederate leader in Munster and was known to be sympathetic to the powerful Irish Royalist Ormonde. At that time, the Munster army was commanded by Glamorgan, an English Catholic nobleman who had been granted command of the army by the Confederate Supreme council for reasons of political expediency. Glamorgan was not popular, partly because he was English but also because he lacked money to regularly pay the soldiers. Muskerry was unsatisfied with the direction the Irish Confederate Supreme Council was headed under the influence of Rinuccinni and realised that he was in a position to influence the army of Munster and thereby strengthen his hand. He won the army over within an hour. A ceremony was afterwards arranged in which Glamorgan handed over command to Muskerry but this was merely to save face. Muskerry desired to turn his full attention to the politics of the Irish Confederations supreme council, and so immediately after the ceremony, Muskerry resigned in favour of Theobald Taaffe, a nobleman who had joined the Irish Confederates but who was known to be sympathetic to Royalism. Unfortunately for the Confederates, Lord Taaffe would subsequently prove to be one of the more incompetent leaders to command an Irish army during the 1640s.

Inchiquin's Offensive

In April 1647 Murrough O'Brien, the Protestant Baron of Inchiquin replaced Philip Sydney, Lord Lisle as the Parliamentarian Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland as Sydney's one year appointment had by then expired. Because of his Gaelic background O'Brien was not trusted by many Parliamentarians, not least by Lord Lisle, however the latter had achieved little in his time as Lord-Lieutenant and as a result Inchiquin did not need to deal with any serious opposition by the English Parliament.

O'Brien immediately embarked upon a vigorous summer offensive, rapidly capturing Dromana, Cappoquin and Dungarvan in County Waterford to the east. Raiding parties were dispatched northwards against the counties of Limerick and Clare, and Inchiquin next turned his attention to the bountiful County of Tipperary in central Munster. In early September, his forces quickly took the Castle of Cahir. This strong Tipperary castle was well positioned to become a base for the Cork Protestant army, and it was used to raid and devastate the surrounding countryside. The Munster army under Lord Taaffe did not make any serious effort to oppose Inchiquin, probably the result of the political scheming of Muskerry and other powerful Irish lords who hoped to keep the Munster army intact for their own ends. As such, Inchiquin was allowed to make a furthur push eastwards towards the town and ecclesiastical centre of Cashel.

The Attack

Inchiquin had already launched two minor raids against Cashel, and he now had the opportunity to launch a major assault. The Parliamentarian forces first stormed nearby Roche Castle, putting fifty warders to the sword. This attack terrified the local inhabitants of the region, some of whom fled to hiding places, while hundreds of others fled promptly to the rock of Cashel, a stronger place than the town itself. Lord Taaffe had placed six companies in the fortified churchyard that sat upon the rock, and considered the place defensible, though he did himself did not stay to put it to the test, leaving command to the Governor Lieutenant-Colonel Butler.

Arriving with his army at the Rock, Inchiquin called for surrender within an hour. The defenders of the churchyard offered to negotiate, but that was refused, and on the afternoon of the 15th of September the assault commenced. The Parliamentarians were first reminded of earlier atrocities against Protestants, and then began to deploy. The attack was led by around 150 dismounted horse officers (who wore more armour than the foot) with the remainder of the infantry following; troops of horse rode along the flanks of the advancing force to encourage the infantry. The Irish soldiers attempted to drive off the attackers with pikes while the civilians inside hurled rocks down from the walls: in turn the attackers hurled fire-brands into the compound, setting some of the buildings inside on fire. Although many were wounded, the Parliamentarians gradually fought their way over the walls, pushing the garrison into the church.

Initially, the Irish defenders managed to protect the Church, holding off the attackers trying to get through the doors, but the Parliamentarians then placed numerous ladders against the many windows in the church and swarmed the building. For another half an hour fighting raged inside the church, until the depleted defenders retreated up the bell tower. Only sixty soldiers of the garrison remained at this point, and they thus accepted a call to surrender. However, after they had descended the tower and thrown their swords away, all were killed.

The losses amongst the Parliamentarian soldiers were light. One contemporary states that as few as eight Parliamentarians were killed in the attack, apart from another hundred or so injured.

The Sack

In the end all the soldiers (save a single major) and most of the civilians on the Rock were killed by the attackers. The Bishop and Mayor of Cashel along with a few others survived by taking shelter in a secret hiding place. Apart from these a few women were spared, after being stripped of their clothes, and a small number of wealthy civilians were taken prisoner, but these were the exceptions. Overall, close to 1,000 were killed, amongst them Lieutenant-Colonel Butler. Theobald Stapleton, a clergyman who in 1639 published the first religious work in the Irish Gaelic language, was another prominent victim of the atrocity. Afterwards, a witness of the slaughter would record that the bodies in the churchyard were in piles five or six deep.

The slaughter was followed by extensive plunder. There was much of value inside, for apart from pictures, chalices and vestments of the church, many of the slain civilians had also brought their valuables with them. The sword and mace of the mayor of Cashel, in addition to the coach of the Bishop were captured. The plunder was accompanied by acts of iconoclasm, with statues smashed and pictures defaced. The deserted town of Cashel was also torched.


The atrocity at Cashel caused a deep impact in Ireland, as it was the worst single atrocity committed in Ireland since the start of fighting in 1641. Previously, the most infamous massacre amongst the Catholic population was that at Timolin in 1643, when 200 civilians were killed by Ormonde's army, but many more than this were killed at Cashel, and this atrocity was compounded by the fact that the Rock of Cashel was one of the chief holy places of Ireland. The political ramifications in the Irish confederation were also profound, serving to exacerbate the split between the Catholic party headed by Rinuccini and those sympathetic to the Royalist lord Ormonde. The former were enraged by the attack, and desired retribution against Inchiquin and his army, but the Ormondist faction saw the Sack of Cashel and a subsequent raid by Inchiquin's men into Kilkenny as evidence of the futility of defending Ireland without Royalist support. Taaffe was subsequently put under intense pressure by the Confederate leadership to engage Inchiquin, but when he did so at the battle of Knocknanauss in November of the same year the Munster army was destroyed. The divisions amongst the Confederates would subsequently exacerbate, leading to the brief but bloody Irish Confederate Civil War in 1648.


Manning, Roger, Oxford (2006), An Apprenticeship in Arms: The Origins of the British Army 1585-1702
Meehan, C.P (1882), Confederation of Kilkenny
O'Brien, Ivar, Whitegate: Ballinakella (1991), Murrough the Burner
Stevenson, David, Edinburgh: Donald (1980). Alasdair MacColla and the Highland problem in the seventeenth century

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Siege of Charlemont, July-August 1650

Eastern Ulster

The Siege of Charlemont took place in July - August 1650 during the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland. The fortress of Charlemont in County Armagh, in the north of Ireland, was besieged by Charles Coote’s Parliamentarian army, which was largely composed of soldiers of the New Model Army. The force led by Coote eventually took the town from its Irish defenders, but not before they suffered heavy losses, with some 5-600 Parliamentarian Soldiers being killed during the assault on the formidable citadel. In terms of the number of soldiers killed in battle, The Siege of Charlemont was the second bloodiest engagement fought by the Parliamentarians in Ireland, only surpassed by the Siege of Clonmel.


Charlemont was the first stronghold to be captured in the Irish uprising of 1641, seized by a force led by Felim O'Neill within 24 hours of the outbreak of the rebellion. Built in 1602, the last year of the Nine Years War in Ireland, It was one of the most modern fortifications in Ireland and as such was one of the few strongholds in Northern Ireland to remain in Irish Confederate hands throughout the 1640s.

At the end of 1649, after the storm of Drogheda, a force of New Model Army soldiers under Robert Venables moved into Ulster and linked up with Charles Coote's small army. The combined force conquered eastern Ulster easily, routing the Scottish Royalist Ulster army at Lisnagarvey in December. The only serious opposition to the Parliamentarian army came from Felim O'Neills Ulstermen, who launched a night attack on the Parliamentarian camp, though to little effect.

At the end of 1649, the Irish Ulster army had been momentarily paralysed as a result of the death of Owen Roe O'Neill. In 1650 Heber MacMahon was chosen to lead the Ulster army, and by mid 1650 the force was once again active, pushing into Ulster and threatening the forces under Coote. MacMahon however was a bishop rather than a military man, and at the battle of Scarriffholis he led the Ulster army to its destruction.

The only senior Irish commander to escape Scarriffhollis was Sir Felim O'Neill. Along with a small number of survivors, he fled to Charlemont Fort, the last remaining Irish stronghold in Ulster.

Realising that the fort would be near impossible to capture without heavy artillery, Venables and Coote brought Siege Cannon and Mortars with their army when they commenced their attack in late July.

The Commanders

Charles Coote, who led the mostly English Ulster army, had a savage reputation- during the Parliamentarian offensive in Ulster in late 1649, he exhibited brutal behaviour, committing atrocities not only against Irish Catholics but also against any Scottish Protestants who resisted his advance. After his victory at Scarrifholis, he executed all the soldiers, regardless of rank, who had surrendered to the lower ranking Parliamentarian officers: Even Henry O'Neill, the son of Owen Roe, was put to death. This was considered to be a shocking atrocity, even by the standards of the time. As a Gaelic Irish Catholic, Phelim O'Neill had good enough reason to fear Coote, but O'Neill had also featured prominently in English Propaganda pamphlets during the 1640s as the author of a massacre of Protestants. He was thus hated by many Protestant soldiers in Ireland, and the army surrounding him would therefore be particularly vigilant.

O'Neill did however have a few small points to his advantage. Firstly, the fortress at Charlemont was one of the most modern and toughest fortresses in Ireland. Secondly, Coote's reputation was by now well known, and no Irish Catholic would be mad enough to willingly surrender to him. The defenders of Charlement were thus well aware that they would have little hope of survival if the Parliamentarians captured the fortress. The fighting would invariably prove to be fierce.

The Assault

By early August, the Parliamentarians had managed to batter a breach in the fortifications. Coote then ordered his troops to cut approach trenches up to the walls. On the 8th of August the English prepared to launch a major assault. As the soldiers approached the walls, Coote observed from a safe distance, casually smoking tobacco . Felim O'Neill rallied the entire garrison as well the civilian inhabitants to mount a vigorous defence at the breach- even the women had armed themselves as best they could. The defence was in many respects a repeat of the defence of Clomnel in 1650: Hundreds of English soldiers were killed or maimed, the desperate defenders employing close range gunfire, clubbed muskets and potts of boiling urine to devastating effect. The Parliamentarian Colonel Venables, unlike Coote, fought in the thick of it with his soldiers, and only narrowly escaped with his life. After two hours of savage fighting, the attackers retreated from the breach and back to their lines. After this huge effort the garrison was however exhausted, and had used up almost all of its gunpowder and ammunition. As a result, on August 14 O'Neill requested terms of surrender. Sir Phelim O'Neill demanded hostages from Coote before he would negotiate the surrender. The terms that O'Neill obtained were that he and his men would march out with bag and baggage after their wounds had healed, and proceed to a port where Coote would have ship waiting to carry them overseas. (ftnte Manning pg225) These were a remarkably generous set of terms from Coote: He probably had no other option, for by now few would be willing to surrender to Coote unless under extraordinary conditions were offered.


The fighting at Charlemont was one of the bloodiest conflicts to be fought in Ireland by the Parliamentarians. Although many more soldiers died at the siege of Limerick (1651-52), these deaths were mostly the result of disease. By contrast, almost all the 500 or more soldiers who died at Charlemont were killed in the attempted storm of the fort. Coote bore a great deal of responsibility for the massive casualties he suffered during the siege. Like other Irish Protestant commanders such as Roger Boyle in Cork, he had proven himself to be a ruthless commander on a number of occasions, executing any enemy who fell into his hands. As such, the Ulster Irish defenders were willing to fight to the death.

Felim O'Neills defence of Charlemont, as well as his overall defence of Ulster in 1649-50, was vigorous, a contrast to his often incompetent handling of the early years of the Irish uprising. Although the terms of surrender allowed O'Neill to leave, he tried to remain in Ulster, and was eventually executed.

The fall of the stronghold was another blow to the reputation of Ormond, the overall Royalist commander of the Irish forces. In September the Irish bishops excommunicated any Catholic serving Ormond, and he left Ireland in December.
From a Parliamentarian perspective, the fall of Charlemont completed the English conquest of Ulster and left Sir Charles Coote free to advance on Athlone, the passage to the province of Connacht.

Scot-Wheeler, James (1999). Cromwell in Ireland, Dublin: Gill & Macmillan.

Manning, Roger (2006), An Apprenticeship in Arms: The Origins of the British Army 1585-1702, Oxford