Sunday, March 22, 2009

Battle of Castlelyons


By the spring of 1643, the Crown forces in Ireland were in a desperate condition. Only twelve months earlier, the Irish insurgents had seemed to be on the brink of defeat, losing the important battles at Kilrush and Liscarrol. As during the Nine Years War four decades before, the English had put into action a scorched earth policy to cripple the insurgents: starvation and famine were recognised throughout Europe as a brutally effective stratagem of bringing rebels to heel.

The circumstances this time, however, differed markedly from those in the 1590s. By September 1642 England had descended into Civil War. The leaders of the Crown forces in Ireland realised, too late, that their tactic of scorched-earth was ultimately self-destructive. British supply ships that had previously succoured the soldiers of the Crown armies were needed back home, and the supply of munitions and victuals from Britain fell to a trickle. Agriculture in many regions of Ireland had been devastated, so there was little relief from that quarter. Essentially, the Crown army in Ireland now found themselves in the same boat as the Irish Insurgents.

The shortage of food invariably led to outbreaks of disease. Hundreds of the English soldiers garrisoning the strategically important town of Athlone died of dysentery and starvation, and subsequently withdrew to Athboy. The town was then occupied by Irish Confederate troops. The difficulties of the Crown forces afforded the insurgency enough breathing space to co-ordinate their political and military effort. Regular provincial armies were organized, as was a system of taxation and supply.

Murrough O'Brien, the Baron of Inchiquin and leader of the Munster Protestant forces described his condition as desperate in a letter to Parliament in May 1643. In truth, his forces seem to have been in a better shape than those of the other regions of Ireland, having by then taken control of most of the towns of the province of Munster. Killamock, a central Munster town located almost exactly halfway between the chief Munster Cities of Limerick and Cork, was Inchiquin's next target. The capture of this town would allow the Protestant army to expand their quarters and increase their food supply.

The Supreme Council of the Irish Confederacy in Kilkenny were alarmed by this development. The General of the Irish Munster army was Garret Barry, a highly experienced veteran of the Wars in Europe, but a man whose reputation was under a cloud since being beaten by Inchiquin's forces at Liscarrol the year before. As a result, the Supreme Council offered the Lord of Castlehaven the commission to command the Munster forces. Having received the commission, Castlehaven mustered eighty horsemen, as well as his own forty strong lifeguard of horse. This 120 strong force marched to Cashel to rendezvous with General Barry and Lieutenant-General Purcell. At Cashel he met another 120 horse of the Munster army, as well as seven hundred foot. The troop of Munster horse seem to have consisted mostly of mounted teenagers, for Castlehaven refers to them as 'boys'. The entire force that was assembled was now around 1,000 strong, including the squadron of light horse.

Inchiquin was preparing to besiege the town of Killamock when he recieved word of the Confederate approach. Having no stomach to risk his undersupplied force in battle, Inchiquin led most of the force he commanded westwards into Kerry, where the rugged terrain and unpredictable weather offered good protection to even a half-spent army. Before retreating he instructed Charles Vavasour, with a 1,600 strong force including some of the best horse and foot of the army, to take a strongplace known as Castle Cloghlea, a stronghold of the Condon family. Vavasour successfully pressured the castle to surrender, after which the stronghold was plundered by the troops. Thirty-eight men, women and infants found sheltering inside were stripped of their clothing, and then put to death. The soldiers of Inchiquin's army were brutal at the best of times, but in the desperate circumstances they were in, even less mercy than usual could be expected. In this one instance, however, Inchiquin's men would quickly pay a high price for their ruthless conduct.

The Generals

Sir Charles Vavasour came to prominence at the battle of Liscarrol, where he had fought alongside alongside Inchiquin and Lewis Boyle, the Viscount Kinalmeaky and the son of Richard Boyle, Earl of Cork. Vavasour succeeded Kinalmeaky as governor of Bandon after the death of the young Boyle in the battle. Shortly afterwards, Vavasour helped to drive off an Irish army at the Battle of Bandonbridge. He had thus proven himself an effective commander on a number of occasions: Inchiquin could have had little doubt as to his reliability when he instructed him to take charge of over a thousand of the best soldiers available to the Cork army.

The Confederate General James Tuchet, Lord of Castlehaven, was born in England of an old Aristocratic family. He ended up in Ireland after the execution of his Father in 1631: at the time James Tuchet was a child, and was thus unable to prevent his extended family from taking control of the estates of his father in England. The only substantial lands remaining were located in Ireland, where he was to soon move.

At the outbreak of the Irish Rebellion of 1641 Castlehaven was detained in Dublin by order of the Lord-Justices Parsons and Borlase. Castlehaven, fearing the worst, escaped with the help of a sympathiser, and fled to Kilkenny where he sided with the emerging Confederacy of Ireland. Castlehaven's English background and aristocratic lineage ensured he was highly valued by the Confederate leadership, who were always keen to emphasize their loyalty to the English Crown. Castlehaven would prove to be one of the more effective military leaders of the Confederates.

The Battle

On the 4th of June, only a day after the capture of the Condon castle, Vavasour became aware of the disturbing news that the Confederate Commander, Castlehaven, and hundreds of horsemen, were lurking in the nearby hills. Realising he risked being surrounded, Vavasour dispatched his artillery towards Fermoy, and shortly afterwards led the soldiers towards the Funcheon Ford, hoping that the many hedges in the area, as well as the castle itself, would block any pursuit on the part of the enemy.

Castlehaven, however, knew the ground well. Later in his memoirs he describes how in his youth he was a great Hunter in those parts of Deer, Wolves and Foxes, so that there was not a passage in Bog or Mountain , or Ford in the River that I did not know. Castlehaven and the Irish horse caught up with the forlorn hope of the Cork Protestant army as it was fording the river Funcheon. By this time, the leading companies of Vavasour's force had climbed the hill that overlooks the river, and were heading towards a narrow defile which led to the town of Fermoy. Vavasour ordered the men to prepare to defend this pass, but the Irish horsemen were already harassing the soldiers at the rear. Castlehaven's account mentions a sudden shower of rain falling on the battlefield at about this moment: This could have only added to the chaos of battle. Vavasour's cavalry launched a charge in an attempt to drive of their Irish assailants, but their efforts were in vain. The Cork horse were beaten back, and the men at the rear of the Cork army were consumed by a panic, fleeing down the hill towards the main body of the army, which threw them into confusion.

Discipline quickly collapsed, and the pursuit became a rout. Hundreds of men from the Cork army were cut down between the Manning-water and Fermoy, although most of the horse of the same army escaped. All the cannon and baggage were captured, and Vavasour himself was made a prisoner. A Protestant account of the battle records that 300 soldiers were slain; by contrast Castlehaven in his memoirs records twice that figure. Castlehaven's figure is quite plausible, given that the cannon- which was ahead of the main army- and Vavasour himself were captured in the fighting.

Against the odds, an Irish Confederate force had won a major victory. It would prove to be the only significant defeat inflicted on the Cork Protestant army by an Irish Confederate force. Two entire baronies in East Cork were won by the Confederates as a result of the victory. The result was surprising, given that the Irish were vastly outnumbered in the fight: General Barry with his 700 foot were still over a mile away at the time the battle was won, leaving the 240 horse to win the field against as many horsemen and many more foot soldiers in the army led by Vavasour. It was the first field victory by an Irish Confederate force in the 1640s (the Irish victory at Julianstown in late 1641 was essentially a rebel victory, taking place several months before the foundation of the Catholic Confederacy). How was it that, in contrast to the defeats suffered by so many Irish armies in the decade, this small force of Confederate horse was able to pull off such a win?.

Cavalry Tactics in Ireland

Borlase, in his history of the period, describes the fighting style of the Irish horse during the battle as akin to that of the Moorish and Getulian horsemen mentioned by Sallust in Jugurtha's War. This may simply be a reference to the irregular style of fighting used by these African horsemen, but the reference may be hinting at something more particular. The North African horsemen of Jugurtha's day were lightly armed with javelins, bows and other ranged weapons; indeed they were still using such weapons at the time Borlase was writing and would do so for a long time after. The description of Jugurtha by Sallust is instructive: Jugurtha, as he grew up ... exercised himself in riding, throwing the javelin, and contending in the race with his equals in age...

The Irish light javelin, usually referred to as a dart, had been used in Ireland since ancient times, and as in North Africa, it remained popular for a long time. In the Nine Years War of the 1590s the use of firearms began to proliferate throughout Ireland, replacing older weapons, but even into the early 17th century there is ample evidence that the throwing javelin remained popular with the Gaelic population. Accounts of the 1641-42 rebellion often mention the weapon in the hands of the Irish, alongside more conventional weapons, in regions as diverse as Tipperary and Wicklow.

Despite the popularity of the javelin in Ireland, it would probably be fair to say that footmen armed with this weapon were at a serious disadvantage against archers or hand-gunners. Thrown weapons are outclassed by these with respect to overall range, and fighters with thrown weapons can not take advantage of cover as effectively as an archer or a soldier with a firearm. However, javelins were also used from horseback, and could in fact be extremely effective when used in this manner. This is of course in part due to the ability of a horseman to cover ground more rapidly than a foot soldier, thereby reducing the chance of a soldier being shot down before they got within javelin-range, but it is also because a javelin hurled from a moving horse benefits from the increased speed of the horse, thus achieving a velocity considerably higher than what would be achievable from the hands of a footsoldier. The term 'horseman' for a mounted soldier is in many respects accurate, reflecting the fact that the rider and horse become one fighting unit on the battlefield: The rider benefits from the increased power of the horse, making a rider capable of feats of strength beyond that was possible for a mere footman. At the same time, the horse and rider think independently from each other, which is why horsemen were much more likely to survive a battle than a foot soldier: speed is not as big an advantage as might be imagined, as some fit humans are actually capable of outrunning a horse with a rider over long distances (horses generally tire quickly). The more important difference is that a man on horseback is capable of defending himself while the horse can concentrate on escape. A footman fleeing from a battlefield can not effectively defend himself while running away; perhaps the best he could hope to do was to hold up a targe over his upper body as he flees, in the hope of shielding the areas of his person most vulnerable to attack. But a soldier on horseback can ward off an attacking enemy with a sword, or even take pot-shots at them with a pistol if they get too close. This is why, in battles such as that at Castlelyons, the horse of the defeated party usually managed to escape the carnage.

The Irish Confederate armies generally contained only a small number of horse compared to foot, and this put them at a major disadvantage. Ostensibly, the reason for the small number of horsemen was because footmen were cheaper to equip and maintain than horse, but as Lenihan has noted, it was a case of false economy, given that horsemen were much more likely to escape from a battlefield in the event of a defeat (furthermore, they were also more likely to retain their weapons and equipment, as fleeing footmen would just throw their cumbersome weapons away).

The victory at Castlelyons highlights the importance of horsemen in 17th century warfare in Ireland. The victory was purely a cavalry victory, due in part to Castlehaven's knowledge of the terrain and also- as will be argued further below- the weapons used by the Munster horsemen. Castlelyons would prove to be the only major Irish field victory of either the Leinster or Munster armies (the victorious army was composed of elements of both these Confederate armies), at least against a Protestant force.

At Castlelyons, the decisive moment for the Irish was the rout of the enemy horse. The Cork Protestant army under Vavasour had comparable numbers of horsemen as the Irish force under Castlehaven, and it would seem that differences in weapons between the horse-soldiers of both armies played a part in the outcome of this Cavalry engagement.

The Horseboys of Ireland

Castlehaven, as mentioned above, refers to the Munster horse as 'boys' during the battle: This comment is suggestive of the horseboys of medieval Ireland. The horseboy was a sort of groom or squire who accompanied a horseman; their role was to look after the horses but also took part in battles as a kind of light troop. The most common weapon of the Irish horse was the throwing javelin: as noted above, these weapons are known to have been used by the insurgents during 1641-2 in many parts of Ireland. The horseboys were still being employed in the Irish Wars of the late 16th century, not only by the Irish horsemen, but also by mounted English soldiers. Although they were meant to act as a sort of squire, they seem to have been mostly employed to forage for food: In this they could be ruthless, and the horseboys are condemned in one Elizabethan source for their cruel conduct towards the peasantry during the Desmond wars in Munster.

Given that the horseboys were employed by English as well as Irish horsemen, it is unlikely that they disappeared entirely from Ireland at the end of the Nine Years War. It is probably fair to suggest that the 120 Munster horse were, or had been, horseboys of the kind mentioned above. It also seems, from Borlase's comparison of them to the ancient North African horsemen, that many were armed with javelins in the old manner.

Thrown weapons, such as javelins, are one of the few ranged weapons not to be adversely affected by rainy conditions, and with the sudden rain shower that accompanied the clash of the horse of both armies, the javelin may have provided a decisive advantage to the Irish horse. The standard weapons of the Cork horsemen was that used by English horse of the period (Pistols, Carbines, as well as swords for hand-to-hand fighting, a set of equipment known then as Harquebusier). In a downpour of rain, the pistols and carbines would have become extremely unreliable, if not useless. A javelin from horseback, however, could be used as normal. The inability of the Cork horse to counter a hail of javelins from the Munster horse with shot from their own firearms would have been a shock, and may have led to the overall collapse in morale and subsequent and retreat of the horse.


Overall it seems probable, thus, that the victory at Castlelyons was due at least in part to the employment of Gaelic-type horse tactics. A number of factors favored the Irish in the battle: Castlehaven's knowledge of the terrain was important, and it should also be kept in mind that, as an Englishman, Castlehaven may have had a better understanding of the battlefield capabilities of Anglo-Protestant armies than other Confederate leaders. Morale was another important factor: although the soldiers of the Cork Protestant army seem to have been in a good condition compared to most of the British forces in Ireland, the outbreak of the English Civil War several months before could only have been a blow to the morale of the Cork army. But the old Gaelic-type tactics and weapons of the Munster horse may have been the decisive factor of the battle.

It is commonly argued that, with the exception of the Redshanks under MacColla, Gaelic types of warfare had fallen out of favor by the time of the wars in Ireland in the 1640s. The Irish victory at Castlelyons suggests that, at least in the early years of the war, Gaelic tactics of warfare may have been more common than has been suggested.

Oddly, although Castlelyons was the first victory of a Confederate army, it seems to have had little influence on the tactical thinking of the Confederate Military leadership. Despite the importance played by horsemen in this victory, most Confederate armies of the 1640s fielded a dangerously low number of horsemen.

Location of Battle

Lenihan, in his work on the Irish Confederate Wars, states the battle occurred near the castle of Cloghlea. This would seem to be at odds with the account of the battle by Castlehaven, who, in his memoirs, states that the battle took place on a large plain in front of Castlelyons. Possibly, Lenihan may have sited it in the environs of Cloghlea due to a misreading of C P Meehan's 19th century account of the war.

A second battle was fought near Castlelyons in 1646.


Tuchet, James(1682). The Memoires of James Lord Audley, Earl of Castlehaven

Meehan, C.P (1882). Confederation of Kilkenny.

Nicholls, K.W (2003). Gaelic and Gaelicized Ireland in the Middle Ages, Lilliput Press, Dublin

Lenihan, Padraig, (2001).Confederate Catholics at War, Cork University Press, Cork

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