The Conquest of Ulster, 1649

When Oliver Cromwell landed in Ireland in mid-August 1649, the only major town held by the Parliamentarians in Ulster was Londonderry, where Sir Charles Coote had made an unlikely alliance with Owen Roe O'Neill against Ormond's coalition of Royalists, Confederates, Ulster Scots and the Lagan Army. Cromwell's first objective was to secure the northern approaches to Dublin, which was achieved with the storming and capture of Drogheda on 11 September. When Cromwell turned south towards the seaports of Leinster and Munster, he sent a detachment of 5,000 men under the command of Colonel Robert Venables to seize the towns and ports of eastern Ulster and to join forces with Coote.

Ulster campaign map 1649
The conquest of Ulster, 1649

After Drogheda, the Marquis of Ormond withdrew most of his forces to Kilkenny. Colonel Venables met with no resistance when he occupied Dundalk in mid-September. On 21 September, Venables marched to Carlingford which surrendered when a Parliamentarian naval squadron began bombarding its defences. The following day, a Parliamentarian cavalry column occupied Newry. On 27 September, a party of Irish Royalists attacked Venables' camp at Dromore but was easily beaten off. This proved to be the only serious opposition encountered by Venables' expedition during September. The Ulster Scots had grown disillusioned with Ormond's alliance with the Irish Catholics and many preferred to surrender to the Protestant Parliamentarians. The Scottish garrison at Belfast surrendered to Venables without a fight on 30 September.

While Colonel Venables marched through eastern Ulster, Sir Charles Coote advanced from Londonderry to attack the Royalists at Coleraine. When Coote approached Coleraine on 15 September, Protestants in the town opened the gates to him. Coote's forces then proceeded to massacre the garrison. Coote advanced southwards through County Antrim and joined forces with Venables near Belfast towards the end of October 1649. Their combined armies set about reducing isolated Royalist garrisons in north-eastern Ulster before advancing on Carrickfergus.

In early December, Major-General George Monro joined forces with the Royalist Lord Clandeboye and marched to defend Carrickfergus from Coote and Venables. Learning of their approach, the Parliamentarians advanced to meet the Royalists near Lisburn (Lisnagarvey) on 6 December. After a brief skirmish between the advance guards of the two armies, the Royalists turned and fled. The Parliamentarians pursued the fleeing Royalists for ten miles. Up to 1,500 were killed and all their weapons, ammunition and baggage were captured. Lord Clandeboye surrendered with the remainder of his troops shortly after the rout at Lisburn while Monro escaped to Enniskillen.

The fight at Lisburn ended organised resistance to the Parliamentarians in northern Ulster. The Lagan Army disintegrated and Carrickfergus surrendered to Coote on 13 December, leaving all Ulster under Parliamentarian control except for the isolated strongholds of Charlemont and Enniskillen. The Ulster Irish army, commanded by Owen Roe O'Neill, remained inactive during the three-month subjugation of the province. O'Neill had remained aloof from Ormond's Royalist-Confederate coalition because Ormond would not commit himself to promising the restoration of Irish lands in Ulster as O'Neill demanded. However, news of the storming and massacre of Drogheda in September 1649 finally convinced O'Neill that an alliance with Ormond was his only hope of restoring the Catholic church and Irish rule to Ulster. Negotiations between Ormond and O'Neill were resumed and an agreement was reached on 20 October whereby Ormond promised concessions to the Catholics in Ulster and the restoration of lands lost during the Plantation in exchange for military help. The Ulster army marched to Finnea in Westmeath but O'Neill fell ill before he could join forces with Ormond against the New Model Army. He died at Cloughoughter Castle near Cavan on 6 November 1649.

A few units of the Ulster army reinforced Ormond's garrisons in southern Ireland: Lieutenant-General Farrell's men prevented Cromwell from capturing Waterford in November 1649 and Hugh Dubh O'Neill conducted an epic defence of Clonmel in May 1650. However, the bulk of the Ulster army remained inactive while a new leader was selected to replace Owen and did nothing to prevent the conquest of Ulster by Coote and Venables.


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

Kenyon & Ohlmeyer (eds), The Civil Wars, a military history of England, Scotland & Ireland 1638-60, (Oxford 1998)

J.S. Reid, History of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland vol. ii (London 1853)

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