The Conquest of Connacht, 1651-2

General Henry Ireton spent the winter of 1650-1 regrouping his forces and preparing for a new offensive against the town of Limerick and the province of Connacht. The size of the English army in Ireland had grown to around 30,000 men, nearly half of whom were posted as garrison troops in towns and castles scattered throughout the kingdom. With most of the country ravaged by the effects of ten years of war, food and other supplies had to be shipped in from England. A steady stream of reinforcements also had to be found to counter losses through combat, desertion and disease, which was the greatest cause of mortality in Ireton's army. At this time, the Commonwealth government was maintaining an army of invasion in Scotland and was greatly increasing the strength of the navy. The tremendous cost of paying and supplying England's armed forces was met by increasing levels of taxation. Acts for the impressement of seamen and soldiers were passed by Parliament in February and April 1651.

The Marquis of Ormond left Ireland early in December 1650. He was replaced as lord-lieutenant and commander of the King's forces in Ireland by Ulick Burke, Marquis of Clanricade. Appeals for help against the English invasion were made to Catholic nations in Europe, but the increasing naval power of the Commonwealth dissuaded both France and Spain from antagonising England by openly supporting the Irish. During 1651, a Confederate faction negotiated with Charles, Duke of Lorraine, who offered to intervene as military leader in the war against England if he were granted Irish lands and the title Royal Protector of Ireland. However, Clanricarde opposed the scheme because it threatened the authority of the Stuarts and eventually negotiations with the Duke broke down.

Unable to match the resources of the English, Clanricarde spent the winter of 1650-1 consolidating his hold on Limerick and Connacht. The two critical crossing points over the River Shannon were at Athlone and Limerick. Lord Dillon guarded Athlone with a garrison of 500 men, while Hugh Dubh O'Neill was stationed at Limerick with 2,000 men. Between Athlone and Limerick, the Earl of Castlehaven commanded a mobile army of around 3,000 men ready to move swiftly to reinforce any area where the English might attack. Clanricarde commanded another reserve force in central Connacht. Major-General Thomas Preston garrisoned the town of Galway in the west of Connacht and Viscount Muskerry commanded a force of several thousand men in County Kerry in western Munster.

Meanwhile, in the English-held provinces of Ireland, bands of tories raided garrisons and pillaged farms and villages. Several punitive expeditions against the tories were mounted during the winter. Areas suspected of sheltering tories were devastated by English troops, adding greatly to the misery of the local inhabitants caught in the middle of the raids and counter-raids.

The Fall of Athlone and Portumna, June 1651

The English campaign against Connacht began in the spring of 1651 when sufficient grass had grown to feed cavalry horses and draught animals. In mid-May, General Ireton summoned his leading officers to Clonmel for a council of war. Limerick was regarded as the key objective in the campaign but the council concluded that a direct assault on the heavily-fortified town was unlikely to succeed. It was essential first to establish forces on both sides of the River Shannon in order to impose a full blockade on Limerick. A simultaneous three-pronged assault was planned on Irish defences along the line of the Shannon, which would force the Irish to divide their forces and would also obscure the English plan of attack.

The conquest of Connacht 1651-2
The conquest of Connacht, 1651-2

In early June, Sir Charles Coote led a column of 5,000 men in an invasion of Connacht from the north, marching through Counties Sligo and Roscommon on the western side of the Shannon towards Athlone. Mistaking Coote's intention, the Marquis of Clanricarde marched to defend Sligo and County Mayo, which enabled Coote to out-manoeuvre him and march unimpeded on Athlone. As Coote advanced towards Athlone from the west, Colonel Hewson approached the town from the eastern side of the Shannon.

Meanwhile, General Ireton marched from Cashel towards Limerick with his main force of 8,000 infantry and cavalry. Lord Broghill was stationed west of Mallow to protect the flank of Ireton's force from any threat from Viscount Muskerry's troops in County Kerry. Apparently undetected by the Irish, Ireton's pioneers built a military road to a potential crossing point over the Shannon near O'Briensbridge, about eight miles north of Limerick, and an advance guard of 500 men crossed the river in boats on 1 June. Lord Castlehaven led a force of 2,000 men in an attempt to drive the English back across the Shannon but, supported by artillery fire from the eastern bank, the advance guard held firm and routed the Irish. Ireton consolidated his position on the western side of the Shannon by marching rapidly against Castlehaven and dispersing his forces before they could regroup. Irish troops guarding nearby crossing points over the Shannon either surrendered or abandoned their posts.

On 18 June, as the Irish defences north of Limerick collapsed, Lord Dillon unexpectedly surrendered Athlone to Sir Charles Coote without a fight. Dillon was probably influenced in his decision to surrender by Coote's promise to mediate on his behalf for a pardon from the English government; the Irish regarded the surrender as a betrayal. The fall of Athlone opened a direct route from Dublin into Connacht for communications, supplies and English reinforcements.

Having secured the crossing of the Shannon at O'Briensbridge, Ireton marched south with his main army along the west bank of the river towards Limerick. A force of 1,500 cavalry under the command of the newly-promoted Commissary-General Reynolds was detached from Ireton's army to reinforce Sir Charles Coote. As Reynolds marched to join him, Coote advanced on the Irish garrison at Portumna, the seat of the Marquis of Clanricarde. Although Lord Castlehaven's army had been routed by Ireton, Clanricarde's forces were still intact, having marched south from Sligo to Loughrea in pursuit of Coote. Lieutenant-General Richard Farrell, formerly of Owen Roe O'Neill's Ulster army, urged an immediate attack on Coote before he could join forces with Reynolds, but Clanricarde ordered a withdrawal to Galway. With no hope of relief, the garrison at Portumna surrendered to Coote and Reynolds in late June 1651. Coote then marched westwards towards Galway.

The Battle of Knocknaclashy, 12 July 1651

In early July 1651, as the English army closed in on Limerick, a relief force was mustered by Viscount Muskerry, who remained active in the mountainous regions of western Munster. Muskerry advanced from his stronghold at Ross Castle in County Kerry, gathering a force of 3,000 men by spreading a prophecy that the Irish would win a great victory over the English. Muskerry marched towards Mallow intending to join forces with bands of tories on the way to Limerick. However, in anticipation of such a move, Ireton had stationed Lord Broghill with a force of around 2,000 men to guard the flank of the main English army. Broghill intercepted the Irish at Knocknaclashy in County Cork on 12 July.

Although outnumbered by the Irish, Broghill deployed his forces on open ground that favoured the superior English cavalry and advanced towards Muskerry's troops. The Irish infantry met the English advance and after an exchange of musket fire at close range, the two sides closed in fierce hand-to-hand fighting. Although the cavalry and most of the musketeers fled at the first charge, a body of 1,200 Irish pikemen stood their ground and almost succeeded in overwhelming the English with an unexpected charge. However, the English succeeded in regaining the advantage when the cavalry manoeuvred to attack the corners of the advancing pike square by riding up, firing their pistols, then reloading to repeat the process. When there was a large enough gap in the formation, the English cavalry broke in with their swords and the Irish were quickly routed.

The English pursued the retreating Irish for three miles. Muskerry escaped to Castle Ross, but hundreds of Irish soldiers were killed in the pursuit, including many veteran officers. Broghill ordered the killing of all prisoners except those of sufficient status to be ransomed. The English lost only twenty-six men. Knocknaclashy was the last pitched battle of the Confederate War and ended any threat that the Irish would relieve the siege of Limerick.

The Siege of Limerick, 1651

After the fall of Athlone, the only major towns remaining in Irish hands were Sligo, Galway and Limerick. While Sir Charles Coote marched into Connacht towards Galway, General Ireton advanced with 8,000 men of the New Model Army towards Limerick. Having secured access to the western bank of the River Shannon, Ireton ordered his engineers to construct a bridge north of Limerick so that forces could be maintained on both sides of the river and artillery could easily cross. An English naval squadron blockaded the Shannon estuary and shipped in supplies to the besieging army.

Limerick itself was divided into two districts: English Town and Irish Town. To the north, the older district of English Town was situated on King's Island, formed by the junction of the Shannon and Abbey rivers. The stronghold of King John's Castle dominated English Town and guarded Thomond Bridge, which in 1651 was the only external bridge onto the island. To the south, Irish Town was defended by a circuit of medieval walls with earthwork reinforcements and a series of bastions mounted with cannon. The 2,000 men of the Limerick garrison were mostly verterans of the Confederate army of Ulster. They were commanded by Hugh Dubh O'Neill, who had defended Clonmel against Cromwell the previous year.

Towards the end of June, the English attempted to storm King's Island with an attack on Thomond Bridge. An outlying fort was captured, but the Irish destroyed two spans of the bridge to prevent the English gaining access to the town. This was followed on 23 June by an amphibious assault on the Island. Taking advantage of an early morning mist, 500 men commanded by Major Walker from Ireton's own regiment embarked in small boats. The first four boats became separated in the mist and landed on the Island ahead of the others. Walker and the ninety men of his advance guard launched an impulsive attack on the Irish fortifications. Although they succeeded in driving the Irish guards from the wall, Hugh O'Neill quickly brought up reinforcements for a determined counter-attack. Walker's men were forced back to the river where they collided with the troops in the fifth boat, who were just landing. In the confusion, the Irish sank the five boats and all the soldiers of the advance guard were killed or drowned as they attempted to escape. The rest of the assault force abandoned the attack.

After the failure of these attempts to storm the town, Ireton set about starving Limerick into submission. He built an extensive circumvallation, which included two large forts (Fort Cromwell and Fort Ireton) within musket range of the town walls to prevent supplies or reinforcements getting through. Negotiations between Ireton and O'Neill for the surrender of Limerick were abandoned at the end of June when O'Neill refused to accept terms that did not allow the open practice of Catholicism by the inhabitants. After the defeat of Viscount Muskerry at Knocknaclashy in early July, it became clear that the Limerick garrison could expect no relief from outside, yet O'Neill was determined to keep up the resistance for as long as possible. In order to stretch out the limited supply of food, O'Neill ordered the expulsion of about forty women, children and old men from Limerick. Ireton refused to allow them to pass through the English lines and sent them back into the town. When O'Neill ejected them once again, Ireton ordered the execution of four of the refugees but by a misunderstanding of orders, all forty were massacred.

Despite slow starvation and an outbreak of plague in the town, the siege of Limerick continued until October. A majority of townsmen were in favour of surrender, but O'Neill intended to hold out until the winter when the English were likely to withdraw into winter quarters. The Catholic clergy supported O'Neill and threatened to excommunicate anyone who surrendered. However, by late October, Ireton had established a battery of siege guns and was battering a weak section of wall in preparation for an assault. On 23 October, Colonel Fennell led a mutiny against O'Neill and siezed Limerick's south-eastern gate. The mutineers turned the cannon mounted on the walls inward against O'Neill's loyal troops and, supported by the town councillors, demanded that he negotiate terms with Ireton. Unable to resist any longer, Hugh Dubh O'Neill surrendered Limerick on 27 October. The townsmen were granted quarter for their lives and property, but were warned that they could be evicted in the future. The soldiers of the garrison were disarmed and allowed to march away to Galway. Several of the leading defenders of Limerick were executed for prolonging the siege, though O'Neill was reprieved because he was a subject of the King of Spain, having been born in Flanders. He was sent as a prisoner to be dealt with by the authorities in London, where he was imprisoned in the Tower until 1653.

The siege of Limerick had cost the lives of 2,000 English soldiers, and at least twice as many Irish soldiers and citizens. Most of the casualties were victims of disease. General Ireton himself fell ill and died at Limerick on 26 November. His body was returned for a state funeral in London on the same ship that carried Hugh Dubh O'Neill to imprisonment.

The Surrender of Galway, May 1652

Following the death of General Ireton, his second-in-command Edmund Ludlow took over as provisional commander of English forces in Ireland. After the rigours of the five-month siege of Limerick, most of the English army went into winter quarters until the spring of 1652. Irish morale had fallen extremely low after the surrender of Limerick and the arrival of news of Charles II's defeat at the battle of Worcester. Most of the remaining resistance came from bands of tories, who continued to raid settlements and isolated garrisons and to attack any native Irish who were seen to co-operate with the invaders. The Marquis of Clanricarde called a meeting of the Confederate Assembly at Jamestown, County Leitrim, in November 1651 but few delegates attended and nothing was achieved. In January 1652, Clanricarde's attempt to muster an army in Connacht also failed when soldiers from the other three provinces proved unwilling or unable to rally to him.

General Ludlow regarded the Irish as rebels and refused to negotiate with them. By March 1652, the situation had grown so desperate that tory units began to surrender unconditionally to the English. The last major town in Irish hands was Galway in western Connacht which had been loosely besieged by Sir Charles Coote since the fall of Athlone in the summer of 1651. Although the English navy had imposed a blockade in Galway Bay to the south of the town, Coote was unable to cover the northern and western landward approaches, which were protected by Lough Corrib and the River Corrib. A difficult siege was expected, but the governor of Galway, Major-General Thomas Preston, surrendered on 12 May 1652 when Coote offered lenient terms. However, Coote had exceeded his authority in allowing the citizens of Galway to retain their homes and property permanently. The Commonwealth commissioners in Dublin subsequently reneged on the terms, reserving the right to evict the citizens at a future date, as had been stipulated at Waterford and Limerick.

With the surrender of Galway, the subjugation of Ireland was virtually complete. Viscount Muskerry and the Marquis of Clanricarde surrendered in June 1652. A few isolated garrisons and tory units continued to resist into 1653. Upon surrendering, Irish commanders were allowed to recruit regiments of Irish soldiers and transport them overseas to fight for any state that was not at war with the Commonwealth of England. This policy removed up to 34,000 soldiers from Ireland and ended the worst of the tory threat to English rule.


S.R. Gardiner, History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate vol. ii, (London 1903)

James Scott Wheeler, Cromwell in Ireland, (New York 1999)