The Confederate War: Campaigns of 1643-4

As the Irish war developed, both the Confederate and British forces suffered from acute shortages of money and supplies. During the winter of 1642 and spring of 1643, a war of attrition developed where both sides tried to bring economic ruin to the other by destroying crops, killing or stealing cattle and burning settlements.

Campaigns of 1643

Battle of Ross 1643: campaign mapOrmond's advance, March 1643

Initially, Thomas Preston's Leinster army was unable to finance regular troops and relied upon raising levies to react to British raids. On 2 March 1643, the Marquis of Ormond advanced from Dublin with 3,000 foot, 700 horse and six artillery pieces. He intended to capture New Ross in County Wexford in order to disrupt communications between the Confederate capital Kilkenny and the ports of Waterford and Wexford. Ormond's advance was delayed by the stubborn resistance of the defenders of Timolin Castle in County Kildare and he finally reached Ross on 11 March where his attempt to storm the town was driven back by the defenders. On the approach of Confederate reinforcements from Munster, Ormond abandoned the siege on 16 March. Preston had finally raised the Leinster militia and manoeuvred to block Ormond's withdrawal to Dublin, but at the battle of Ross (Balinvegga) on 18 March, Ormond routed the Leinster Confederates and fought his way back to safety.

In Ulster, where Owen Roe O'Neill's army was too small to contain the British forces, the relentless raids of Monro's Covenanters and the Lagan army forced many Irish to abandon settled agriculture and adopt a nomadic lifestyle based on the creaght, following the Ulster army with their herds of cattle. O'Neill and the creaghts withdrew from Ulster towards Connacht, but were ambushed and defeated by Sir Robert Stewart and the Lagan army at Clones in County Monaghan on 13 June 1643. After this setback, O'Neill joined forces with his kinsman Sir Phelim O'Neill who came up from Kilkenny with a consignment of weapons, ammunition and artillery supplied by the Spanish. However, O'Neill resolved not to fight the British in a pitched battle until his forces were properly trained and equipped. Consequently, he left Ulster and moved into County Meath to raid for supplies and threaten Dublin from the north-west. When British forces under Lord Moore tried to drive him back, O'Neill took up a defensive position at Portlester. The British retreated when Lord Moore's head was blown off by a cannon shot aimed, according to legend, by O'Neill himself.

By the summer of 1643, siege artillery bought with Spanish and papal subsidies enabled General Preston to begin an effective campaign against British garrisons in Leinster. The combination of Preston's operations in west Leinster and O'Neill's marauding creaghts in the north-west forced Ormond and the Lord Justices in Dublin onto the defensive. The Confederates of Connacht had belatedly mustered an army which was besieging Castle Coote in County Roscommon. In Munster, the Earl of Castlehaven defeated Lord Inchiquin's cavalry under Sir Charles Vavasour at Cloghlea, gaining control of large areas of east Cork for the Confederates.

At this stage of the war, the Confederates agreed to negotiate a cease-fire in the hope of gaining constitutional and religious concessions from the King.

Ulster, 1644

In September 1643, a one year cease-fire was agreed between the Confederates and the Royalists in Ireland, but the Cessation was not recognised by the Covenanters and fighting continued in Ulster. During the summer of 1644, contingents of Major-General Monro's Ulster Covenanters were recalled to Scotland to counter the threat from the Royalist Marquis of Montrose. The Confederates planned an offensive against Monro, hoping to use the combined Ulster and Leinster armies to drive the weakened Covenanters out of Ulster.

Split by political factionalism, the Confederate Supreme Council found it difficult to decide upon a commander. To the annoyance of the generals O'Neill and Preston, command of the expedition was given to the Earl of Castlehaven. Meanwhile, in June 1644, Monro led a pre-emptive attack by advancing into southern Ulster with over 6,000 men in an attempt to bring the Irish army to battle before it was fully prepared. The Scottish advance threw the Irish into disarray, but Monro was unable to force a decisive encounter. After burning the town of Kells in County Meath, a shortage of supplies forced him to withdraw.

Castlehaven finally joined forces with O'Neill at Portlester towards the end of July and their combined forces marched into Ulster. However, Castlehaven was reluctant to risk a battle and O'Neill's resentment at not being given command left him surly and uncooperative. When the Scots advanced again, the Confederates withdrew to the stronghold of Charlemont Fort and the two armies faced one another in a seven-week stand-off. The expedition against the Ulster Covenanters ended in mutual recrimination between Castlehaven and O'Neill when their supplies ran out. Castlehaven withdrew into County Cavan, claiming that he had successfully pinned down Monro's forces in Ulster and prevented any threat to the other three provinces.

The Confederate War reached stalemate. The King, Parliament and Covenanters were preoccupied with the civil war in England. In Ireland, raids and skirmishes continued, strongholds occasionally changed hands, but neither the Confederates nor the remaining Protestant forces were strong enough to deal a decisive blow.


Pádraig Lenihan, Confederate Catholics at War 1641-49, (Cork 2001)

C.P. Meehan, The Confederation of Kilkenny (Dublin 1846)

Jane Ohlmeyer, The Civil Wars in Ireland (in The Civil Wars, a military history of England, Scotland and Ireland 1638-60), Oxford 1998

C.V. Wedgwood, The King's War (London 1955)