Ireton's Summer Campaign, 1650
At the end of May 1650, Oliver Cromwell returned to England in order to deal with the growing threat from the Royalists and Covenanters in Scotland. He was succeeded as the Commonwealth's lord-deputy and commander-in-chief of military forces in Ireland by his son-in-law Henry Ireton. For the first three months after Cromwell's departure, Ireton and his officers were occupied with reducing the remaining Irish strongholds in Leinster and Munster.
Tecroghan Castle was a major Irish garrison in Leinster, situated seven miles west of Trim near the main road from Dublin to Athlone. The garrison of about 1,500 men was commanded by Sir Robert Talbot and inspired by the presence in the castle of Lady Fitzgerald. Colonels Reynolds and Hewson besieged Tecroghan at the end of May 1650 but raids by Irish tories threatened Dublin and forced Hewson to withdraw his regiment from the siege to hunt down the raiders. Meanwhile, the Earl of Castlehaven and the Marquis of Clanricarde mustered about 4,000 Confederates at Tyrrelspass in Westmeath and prepared to march to the relief of Tecroghan.
Led by the Earl of Castlehaven, the Irish relief column advanced from Tyrrelspass on 19 June. As well as his weapons, each soldier carried bundles of food and gunpowder to resupply the garrison. In order to avoid meeting English cavalry patrols in open terrain, the Irish moved towards Tecroghan through bogs. When they were within four miles of the castle, the Irish advance was blocked by an English force of 2,600 men. The Irish quickly deployed to face the English. Colonel Richard Burke led the attack on the English right wing and succeeding in breaking through the line. On the opposite flank, however, Sir Thomas Dillon's men were routed by the English attack. Lord Castlehaven tried in vain to rally the Irish centre, which collapsed under the weight of the English onslaught. Although Castlehaven and most of his men fled, a few hundred under Colonel Burke succeeded in fighting their way through to Tecroghan, destroying part of the English siege works and capturing a cannon in the process.
The reinforcements and the supplies they brought rejuvinated the defence of Tecroghan, but animosity had broken out between Clanricarde and Castlehaven. The Irish leaders decided that further attempts to relieve the garrison were futile. They marched away in opposite directions on 23 June. Two days later, Sir Robert Talbot surrendered Tecroghan on lenient terms to Colonel Reynolds. The fall of Tecroghan, in combination with the defeat of the Irish Ulster army at the battle of Scarriffhollis, opened the northern approaches to Athlone and the province of Connacht to the English.
By the summer of 1650, the town of Waterford and the nearby fortress of Duncannon were the only major Irish strongholds left in southern Munster. The Marquis of Ormond continued to command an army based around Limerick in the north of the province, and Lord Inchiquin commanded a small force around Kerry in western Munster. However, Ormond's authority was compromised and he was not trusted by the Irish Catholics, while Inchiquin had been hated since his campaigns against the Confederates in 1647. Consequently, there was no cooperation from the Catholics when Ormond and Inchiquin attempted to rally forces to march to the relief of Waterford.
In late July 1650, Henry Ireton began the final campaign against Waterford and Duncannon. Lord Broghill was stationed to prevent any attempt to relieve Waterford from the west and a large body of cavalry was posted at Carrick-on-Suir as a mobile reserve against any Irish incursion into central Munster. With Waterford isolated by land and an English naval squadron blockading the harbour, Ireton moved additional infantry regiments and heavy artillery to finish the siege.
Although Thomas Preston, the governor of Waterford, refused Ireton's summons to surrender, the garrison had little ammunition or gunpowder to continue the defence. Food was running low, plague was ravaging the town and Preston had fewer than 700 able-bodied soldiers to man the extensive walls. While Ireton's forces were setting up their artillery batteries, news arrived of the surrender of the Irish garrison at Carlow to Sir Hardress Waller, which released additional English infantry for the expected assault on Waterford once the walls had been breached. In view of the generous terms granted to the defenders of Carlow, the mayor and aldermen of Waterford persuaded Preston to give up the hopeless struggle. He surrendered to Ireton on 6 August. The garrison was allowed to march away to Athlone, leaving behind all artillery, ammunition and ships in the harbour. The citizens of the town were allowed to depart or stay as they wished, with a guarantee that their property would not be plundered. The nearby fort of Duncannon surrendered to Ireton on 12 August.
The demoralising string of defeats suffered by the Irish during the summer of 1650 destroyed the last vestiges of loyalty among the Irish Catholics towards the King's lord-lieutenant the Marquis of Ormond. At a synod held at Jamestown in County Leitrim during early August, the Catholic clergy rejected Ormond's authority and urged him to leave the country. Deserted by both Protestants and Catholics, Ormond began making preparations to leave Ireland.
During the twelve months from August 1649 when Cromwell first landed in Ireland to the surrender of Waterford in August 1650, the Parliamentarian army had captured almost all Irish strongholds in the provinces of Ulster, Leinster and Munster. By mid-August, General Ireton was ready to move against the remote province of Connacht west of the River Shannon.
In August 1650, the major crossings of the Shannon at Limerick in northern Munster and Athlone on the Leinster-Connacht border were held by the Irish. Limerick, the last Irish stronghold in Munster, was one of the strongest fortresses in the country. Hugh Dubh O'Neill, who had outwitted Cromwell at Clonmel, had been appointed governor of Limerick but his garrison was not yet prepared to withstand a long siege. Ireton, however, did not move swiftly to attack Limerick with his main army but decided to follow a more elaborate plan.
On 16 August 1650, Ireton sent a column under Sir Hardress Waller to cover the eastern approaches to Limerick while he set off with his main force on a circuitous march to Athlone via Counties Carlow and Wicklow. Ireton planned to rendezvous before Athlone with Sir Charles Coote, who was advancing south after his victories in Ulster. Ireton and Coote had been misled into believing that Lord Dillon, the Irish commander at Athlone, was planning to surrender the town and its bridge over the Shannon to the English in exchange for money and a guarantee of personal safety. Having captured Athlone, Ireton planned to march down the western bank of the Shannon so that Limerick could be invested from both sides of the river. However, Dillon had no intention of surrendering Athlone; the deception was intended to draw Ireton away from Limerick to give O'Neill time to prepare its defences.
Ireton also planned to hunt down Irish "tories" on his march through County Wicklow. Tories — from the Irish word tóraidhe (modern tóraí ) meaning "pursued man" — were disbanded Confederate soldiers who raided English-held areas and operated as guerillas against the invaders. While his main force marched for Naas, Ireton led a column of eight hundred men into the Wicklow mountains, siezing livestock and killing any armed Irishmen that could be found, while smaller detachments raided deep into the Wicklow glens and bogs. Ireton spent several weeks campaigning against the Wicklow tories and did not arrive to meet Sir Charles Coote at Athlone until 16 September.
Lord Dillon had destroyed the part of Athlone on the eastern side of the Shannon and withdrawn his troops to the western side where Athlone Castle overlooked the bridge across the river. Lacking heavy artillery to attack the fortifications, Ireton spent two weeks before Athlone waiting in vain for Dillon to surrender the bridge and castle. Finally, he decided to leave Coote and his troops at Athlone while he marched down the eastern side of the Shannon to join Sir Hardress Waller at Limerick. On the march south, Ireton's forces captured a number of Irish outposts in King's County (now County Offaly) and Tipperary and posted garrisons near fording sites over the Shannon as a precaution against Irish raids from Connacht.
Ireton arrived at Limerick on 6 October. His summons to Hugh O'Neill to surrender under generous terms was refused. Ireton had lost his best opportunity for a quick resolution to the siege and O'Neill's garrison was fully supplied and prepared for a long struggle. Faced with worsening weather conditions, Ireton decided to send his army into winter quarters and to make preparations for a determined assault on Limerick during the next campaigning season. To the surprise of the Irish, the English army withdrew from Limerick on 19 October, leaving only a few scattered garrisons on the eastern side of the Shannon to guard against possible Irish incursions into Munster or Leinster.
The English threat to Connacht during the summer of 1650 galvanised the Marquis of Clanricarde, who had been the leading Irish commander in the province since 1641 and was widely regarded as the likely successor to the Marquis of Ormond as Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland. While Clanricarde's military achievements had not been great, he had kept Connacht relatively free of the terrible depredations suffered by the other three Irish provinces during the long Confederate War. As the English armies approached the borders of Connacht, Clanricarde mustered 3,000 men to support Lord Dillon's garrison at Athlone. When Ireton marched south from Athlone at the end of September, Clanricarde launched a counter-attack across the River Shannon, with the intention of cutting English communications between Athlone and Limerick and denying them supplies from King's County.
In early October, Clanricarde's forces crossed the Shannon at fords around Shannonbridge south of Athlone. Several outposts were surprised and captured as the Irish advanced into English-held territory in western Leinster. Colonel Axtell, the English commander in the region, fell back to Birr and then to Roscrea while Clanricarde gathered reinforcements to bring the strength of his army up to around 4,000 infantry and 500 cavalry. However, English reinforcements quickly marched up from Wexford and Kilkenny to join Axtell at Roscrea on 21 October. When Axtell advanced towards Birr to challenge the Irish army, Clanricarde decided to withdraw and to take up a strong defensive position at Meelick Island on the River Shannon.
Soldiers were posted to overlook the ford that the English would have to cross in order to attack the Irish entrenchments on Meelick Island but, despite being heavily outnumbered, Axtell launched a surprise attack on 25 October as darkness began to fall. In fierce hand-to-hand fighting, the Irish were driven from the forward post guarding the ford and Axtell's men advanced onto the island. The speed and ferocity of the English attack overwhelmed the Irish and the whole army was routed. Up to 1,000 Irishmen were killed in the fighting or drowned as they tried to escape across the Shannon in the gathering darkness. Although Clanricarde escaped, his personal wagons and tents were captured along with the weapons, horses and the entire baggage train of the Irish army. All the garrsions taken by the Irish on the eastern side of the Shannon were quickly recaptured. Despite his notable victory, however, Axtell was later court-martialled by Ireton for killing prisoners taken at Meelick after promise of quarter.
S.R. Gardiner, History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate vol. ii, (London 1903)
James Scott Wheeler, Cromwell in Ireland, (New York 1999)