The success of Oliver Cromwell’s Irish campaign during the autumn of 1649 caused further divisions in the Marquis of Ormond’s Royalist-Confederate coalition. With the defeat of British and Scottish forces in Ulster and the defection of most of Lord Inchiquin’s Protestant troops to the Parliamentarians, Ormond was obliged to rely increasingly upon Catholic support. Early in December 1649, the Catholic clergy of Ireland held a synod at the ancient monastery of Clacmanoise to discuss the military situation. In view of Cromwell’s uncompromising anti-Catholicism, Heber MacMahon, the Bishop of Clogher, called upon all Irish Catholics to unite with the Royalists in resisting the invaders under Ormond’s authority as the King’s lord-lieutenant.
During the two months that his army spent in winter quarters, Oliver Cromwell concentrated his efforts on securing reinforcements and supplies from England. As soon as his soldiers were rested and reinforced, he planned a major offensive in Munster and Leinster, with the ultimate objective of capturing the Royalist strongholds of Kilkenny and Clonmel. The unusually mild winter of 1649-50 and Cromwell’s foresight in procuring supplies of fodder for his cavalry horses and draft animals allowed the Parliamentarian army to renew operations at the end of January 1650 rather than having to wait for the spring.
Cromwell divided his main army into three columns. One column led by himself and another by Major-General Ireton and Colonel Reynolds were to advance north from southern Munster to capture all crossing-points over the rivers Suir and Blackwater; they were then to overrun Royalist garrisons in the counties of Limerick, Tipperary and Kilkenny, thus isolating the strongholds of Kilkenny and Clonmel. The third column, commanded by Lord Broghill, was to protect the western flank of the northward advance and to prevent Royalist forces in west Limerick from threatening Cork and Youghal. Meanwhile, Colonel Hewson was to lead a fourth column from Dublin south-west through Co Kildare to rendezvous with Cromwell and Ireton around Kilkenny and to trap in a pincer movement any Royalist army that might take the field.
The offensive began on 29 January 1650. While Lord Broghill attacked Royalist garrisons around Mallow, Cromwell advanced from Youghal. Crossing the River Blackwater at Mallow, he marched north-eastwards through County Tipperary towards Kilkenny. The speed and timing of the advance took the Royalists by surprise. Offered generous terms by Cromwell, Fethard, Cashel and other castles surrendered without resistance. Meanwhile, Colonel Reynolds led the advance guard of the second column across the River Suir at Carrick while Ireton followed with the artillery. Early in February, Reynolds captured Callan after a short siege, where he was joined by Cromwell. On 10 February, Ireton stormed and captured Ardfinnan Castle; on 24 February, Cahir Castle surrendered to Cromwell as soon as his artillery opened fire. Three days later, Kiltinan Castle was bombarded into submission.
In late February, while Cromwell, Broghill, Ireton and Reynolds reduced Royalist strongholds in counties Limerick, Tipperary and Kilkenny, Colonel Hewson marched south from Dublin. Royalist garrisons at Kilmaog, Maryborough and Athy were abandoned at Hewson’s approach. Recognising the danger of becoming surrounded by the Parliamentarian armies, the Marquis of Ormond and the Confederate commissioners fled from Kilkenny to Limerick, leaving the Earl of Castlehaven in command of Royalist forces in the region. With too few men at his disposal, Castlehaven was unable to mount an effective challenge to the Parliamentarians. Lord Inchiquin advanced with three cavalry regiments towards Mallow in March, but Lord Broghill intercepted and routed him. Inchiquin retreated into Connacht with the last of the Munster Protestants still loyal to the King.
On 19 March, Hewson captured Leighlinbridge, with its bridge over the River Barrow. He then advanced to Gowran, a castle only fifteen miles from Kilkenny where he joined forces with Cromwell and Ireton. Colonel Hammond, the governor of Gowran Castle, refused Cromwell’s generous terms for surrender, forcing him to deploy his artillery. When the walls were breached on 21 March, Hammond called for a treaty, which Cromwell refused. The soldiers of the garrison accepted Cromwell’s offer of quarter for their lives and handed their officers over to the Parliamentarians. Cromwell ordered the execution by firing squad of all but one of the officers; a priest captured in the castle was hanged.
The capture of Gowran completed the isolation of Kilkenny. The Earl of Castlehaven was powerless to prevent Cromwell and the Parliamentarian army from approaching Kilkenny on 22 March. Situated on a crossing of the River Nore, Kilkenny was the second city of Ireland and had been the capital of the Catholic Confederacy since 1642. The southern side of the city was dominated by Kilkenny Castle, which was the seat of the powerful Butler family and home of the Marquis of Ormond. Kilkenny was strongly fortified and divided into three self-contained districts: the High Town next to the castle was bounded by a strong wall with the River Nore to the east; Irish Town was adjacent to High Town on its north side and was also walled; to the east across the Nore was the walled suburb of St John’s, connected to High Town by St John’s Bridge. When Ormond and the Confederate commissioners fled to Limerick, Sir Walter Butler was left in command of the garrison.
For several months, Kilkenny had been afflicted by plague. Fewer than 400 soldiers were left alive out of a garrison of 1,200. Therefore, the citizens of Kilkenny defended Irish Town, under the direction of the mayor and aldermen, while Butler and his reduced garrison guarded the castle and High Town. Cromwell hoped to take Kilkenny without a siege. An Irish officer, Captain Tickell, had been bribed to betray the city. However, Cromwell arrived to find that the plot had been discovered and Tickell had been hanged.
Despite generous terms allowing the citizens to remain unmolested or to depart with their goods and the garrison and its priests to march away, Butler rejected Cromwell’s summons to surrender. The following morning, a Parliamentarian cavalry regiment stormed the gate of Irish Town but the citizens held firm and the attack was repulsed. At the same time, the Parliamentarians seized St Patrick’s Church outside the south-western walls of High Town, where an artillery battery was established. The bombardment of the southern wall of High Town began on the morning of 25 March. By noon, the wall had been breached. Cromwell ordered a two-pronged assault: while Colonel Hewson led the attack on the breach in the south wall of High Town, Colonel Ewer led a simultaneous attack on Dean’s Gate, on the west side of Irish Town, hoping to burn or batter it down.
When the attack began, the citizens fled from Dean’s Gate, allowing Ewer’s regiment to force its way in and to seize the cathedral of Saint Canice situated on high ground overlooking Irish Town. The attack on the southern breach, however, was repulsed. Butler had ordered his men to construct earthwork defences immediately behind the breach, which were palisaded and lined with musketeers awaiting the Parliamentarian attack. Under withering musket fire, Hewson’s men were driven back, suffering up to forty casualties, including Hewson himself who was wounded. After this setback, Cromwell renewed his offer of terms. Butler asked for time to consider which Cromwell granted, though he continued his preparations for taking the city by storm.
From the Parliamentarian foothold in Irish Town, Cromwell sent Colonel Giffard across the River Nore and into the eastern suburb of St John’s. Giffard’s men captured the suburb with minimal losses and prepared for an assault against High Town across St John’s Bridge. Butler transferred enough men to counter the threat but was dismayed to find that the Parliamentarians were building a second artillery battery on the eastern side of Kilkenny. By the morning of 27 March, a second breach had been opened near St John’s Bridge and another assault was being prepared. Realising that his situation was hopeless, Butler surrendered on terms that same day.
Image | Kilkenny Castle, Kilkenny | Sources: S.R. Gardiner, History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate vol. i, (London 1903) | Peter Gaunt, The Cromwellian Gazetteer, (Stroud 1987)| James Scott Wheeler, Cromwell in Ireland, (New York 1999)