Cromwell's Bloody Campaign

Oliver Cromwell landed in Dublin on August 13th 1649 as Lord Lieutenant and Commander in Chief of the Parliamentarian army. The Royalists had suffered defeat some weeks earlier and the previous Lord Lieutenant and his Royalist troops retreated to Drogheda. Cromwell marched northwards and besieged the town on September 10th-11th. The walls were breached and the Cromwellians inflicted dreadful slaughter on the townsfolk, some of whom had taken shelter in St. Peter’s Church, but this was burned down around them and they all perished. This was one of the most dastardly acts ever perpetrated on an Irish town in all of Ireland’s chequered history, yet Cromwell wrote shortly afterwards: - “This was a righteous judgement of God upon these barbarous wretches.” For Irishmen everywhere, the Cromwellian atrocities at Drogheda in 1649 have gone down in the annals of infamy.

Because of this massacre, several other towns immediately submitted to the Cromwellians but some in the south still held out. Cromwell attacked Wexford in October and a similar fate awaited the citizens of Wexford as befell the people of Drogheda. Waterford was next and, despite courageous resistance, it also fell. The death of Owen Roe O’Neill in Cavan in November was probably the greatest set-back suffered by the Irish forces at this stage, and by the end of the year the entire east and south-east was in Cromwell’s hands. Kilkenny and several other Munster towns fell shortly afterwards, but it was at Clonmel in May 1650 that Cromwell suffered one of the worst defeats and set-backs of his entire campaign.

Hugh Dubh O’Neill, nephew of Owen Roe, was in command of the Irish forces in Clonmel. He had previously served with distinction in Spain and had returned to Ireland with his uncle in 1642. Displaying great skills as a soldier and tactician, Hugh Dubh cunningly permitted the Cromwellians to enter Clonmel by one of the gates in the town walls, only to lead them into a long narrow laneway, stoutly defended by the Irish on the walls on both sides. Attacked from above and from both flanks, the invading force was slaughtered unmercifully. When those at the front realised that they were trapped they cried out “Halt, Halt”, but those at the rear, thinking the command came from the Irish shouted “Advance, Advance.” The more dense the crush became, the greater their rout.

Cromwell suffered much greater casualties in that one incident in Clonmel that he did during the rest of his entire Irish campaign. Hugh Dubh O’Neill, however, realising that the town would eventually fall to far superior forces, sought surrender terms and these were granted. On entering Clonmel the following day, however, Cromwell discovered that O’Neill and his men had escaped from the town during the night. Despite his anger, Cromwell was forced to acknowledge the soldierly qualities of his enemy and duly kept his word so that the lives of the towns people were spared.

Following his defeat - and humiliation - at Clonmel, Cromwell left the country and returned to England, leaving his son-in-law Ireton behind him to complete the conquest of Ireland. Following the death of Owen Roe O’Neill on 6th November 1649, leadership of Ulster army was entrusted to Bishop Heber McMahon, the bishop of Clogher. In 1650 McMahon took Dungiven, but the Irish forces were then routed at Scarrifhollis, near Letterkenny, in June of that same year. Very soon afterwards, Bishop McMahon was captured and hanged in Enniskillen, while Sir Phelim O’Neill was also captured and hanged. By August all resistance in Ulster had finally petered out when their last stronghold at Charlemont Fort surrendered. Sporadic guerrilla fighting continued for another six months but even this ended when Philip O’Reilly surrendered in April 1653. By then the Cromwelliam Settlement was well under way.

The Cromwellians had required more than two million acres of land to honour their debts and this was done by the confiscation of the remaining ‘un-planted’ lands in Ireland, which were now divided up into estates and given to Cromwell’s soldiers as payment for their services to the Parliament during the wars. Many of these, of course, had no intention of ever settling in Ireland and quickly sold their new estates to adventurers, who bought up the confiscated territories at very cheap rates.

The ‘Cromwellian Settlement of 1652’ as it came to be called, was the worst political disaster ever to afflict Ireland and was second only in magnitude to the Great Famine of the 1840s. All Irish owned estates east of the Shannon, which had not hitherto been declared ‘confiscate’ were now ‘planted’. The Irish landowners were evicted en masse and were ordered to cross the Shannon by a certain date or face death. In addition, famine and plague now swept over the land prompting Richard Lawrence to write: - “ a man might travel twenty or thirty miles and not see a living creature, either man, beast or bird.” Wolves, which were then common, also increased in numbers and it was reported that they fed on the bodies of dead children which littered the ditches along the roadways.

Executions were a daily occurrence and it was also estimated that nearly 15,000, mainly children, were transported to the West Indies as slaves. Yet another result of this mass confiscation of lands was a huge increase in the number of rapparees, mostly young men who had been dispossessed but who refused to leave. Instead they took to the hills and woods, gathered groups of willing assistants and constantly preyed on the new settlers, repeatedly “robbing the rich to feed the poor,” who were even worse off than they were. The only people allowed to remain east of the Shannon were those who could prove that they had been faithful to the parliamentary cause. The mass exodus westwards was a sad sight and the order “To Hell or to Connacht” became the regular heart-rending cry throughout the other three provinces.

All this re-settlement of the population did not happen within the space of a few months or even a few years, and it was 1658 before the claims of the adventurers and supporters of the parliament were satisfied. During that same period some 3,500 Irish soldiers were also exiled to the continent, and these included the hero of Clonmel, Hugh Dubh O’Neill, who went to Spain and died there in 1660. A new landlord class had now been created in Ireland, a class of people who were to cause much trouble and hardship to the Irish nation for the next two hundred years or more.

The Lord Deputy during that period was Charles Fleetwood, who was also commander-in-chief of the army, and he pursued the policy of transplanting the population with the utmost vigour. He was succeeded in 1655 by Henry Cromwell who adopted a slightly milder policy. It was during that same period also that William Petty completed what was called the ‘Down Survey’ which was the first survey to be recorded on maps.

The Restoration took place in England in 1660 and the Catholics of Ireland firmly believed that they might have some of their confiscated lands returned to them for having supported the Royalists during the Civil War period, but they were sadly disappointed as Charles continued the policy of rewarding the army, and particularly the officers who had been instrumental in inviting him back to the throne. Ormond was returned as Lord Deputy and promises were made to both sides but this proved totally unworkable as well as being unsatisfactory to all concerned.

Despite all this and the many restrictions being enforced on Irish trade, the economy of the country actually improved during the reign of Charles and Catholics who had been excluded from all public life, surprisingly prospered. Unfortunately for them however, the infamous “Popish Plot” occurred in England at this time and much persecution of Catholics followed as a result. The worst incident of this infamous period was the execution of Oliver Plunkett, the archbishop of Armagh, who was betrayed by two of his own so-called priests and was executed at Tyburn in London in 1681. Hanged, drawn and quartered, Oliver Plunkett was later declared ‘Blessed’ by the Catholic Church, and later, still became the first Irishman to be canonised a saint since the canonisation of St. Lawrence O’Toole.

James II came to the English throne in 1685 and there was now a completely new situation as James was a Catholic. He immediately began to make efforts to restore the Catholic religion in Ireland and he did this by appointing Catholics to the important positions of authority, beginning with the position of Lord Deputy, where he appointed Richard Talbot, the earl of Tyrconnell. Several Catholics were also appointed as High Sheriffs of many counties and the seeds were quickly being sown for a new conflict in Ireland, with the Protestants becoming alarmed and preparing for a conflict that would very soon prove inevitable. With the dismissal of James from the English throne in 1688 the spark was lit for the commencement of that very conflict, although Tyrconnell remained on as Lord Deputy and still ruled Ireland in James name. But that too only added fuel to the fire that was now beginning to blaze.