Siege of Clonmel

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Siege of Clonmel
Part of the Irish Confederate Wars
Clonmel's ruined Western Tower
One of the remaining towers, part of the western defensive wall at the time of the siege.
Date April–May 1650
Location Clonmel, County Tipperary
Result Pyrrhic English victory
Belligerents
Irish Confederate Catholic troops from Ulster English Parliamentarian New Model Army
Commanders and leaders
Hugh Dubh O'Neill Oliver Cromwell
Strength
c1,500 8,000
Casualties and losses
low c2,000–2,500[1]

The Siege of Clonmel took place in April – May 1650 during the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland when the town of Clonmel in County Tipperary was besieged by Oliver Cromwell's New Model Army. Cromwell's 8,000 men eventually took the town from its 2,000 Irish defenders, but not before they suffered losses of around 2,000 soldiers. Most were killed after being caught in a trap by Hugh Dubh ("Black Hugh") O'Neill on 17 May 1650.

Prelude[edit]

The garrison at Clonmel changed as the arrival of the Puritan army through Kilkenny became imminent. In November 1649, the town's Mayor John Bennet White wrote to the Duke of Ormond seeking military assistance. Colonel Oliver Stephenson and part of the old Confederate army, mostly from County Clare, took up quarters. The southern Confederates were not fully trusted by the townspeople, particularly after the fall of Carrick on Suir due to treachery. Ormond arrived in person at the end of the month and the Clare men were replaced by experienced soldiers from Ulster under Hugh Dubh ("Black Hugh") O'Neill, a veteran of siege warfare in the Thirty Years' War. Under his command were 1,500 soldiers from the Irish Ulster army, mostly from the modern counties of Tyrone and Cavan. These two regiments had served under Owen Roe O'Neill and were now led by his nephew. They were accompanied by two troops of cavalry under Colonel Edmond Fennell of Ballygriffin, Co. Cork. O'Neill sent reinforcements to some outlying fortifications at Ballydine, Kilcash and 'Castle Caonagh' (Mountain Castle). Even before the siege commenced, provisioning the new influx was causing difficulties, Ormond proving unable to adequately supply them. As other walled towns in the vicinity capitulated with little resistance, tension in the town rose as evidenced by correspondence between O'Neill and Ormond.

May it please your Excellencie.
This day I received your letter of the 25th of this instant [February]. Since my last letter to your Excie. I have not to intimate more than that Cahir was yielded without shot or blowe upon what conditions I knowe not, which I believe your Excie knows ere nowe, likewise Kilteenan was beseedged eare yesternight and yielded yesterdaye morninge about nyne of the clocke. All their armye is within a myle to the towne, and the rest are cominge to them, in great hast they have sent a number of horse and oxen for more cannons. Wee expect nothinge else but bee besieged every houre they having nowe noe other place to ayme at but this. Your Excie may knowe in what condicon wee are and the consequence of this place to the Kingdom which requires a speedy succour all which I humbly referre to your Lordshipps grave consideratacon I humbly take leave and remayne
Your Excies most humble servt,
Hugo O'Neill
Clonmell ultimo [28th] February[2]

to which Ormond responded in the following terms :

Sir – Your letter of the last of February intimating your expectation of suddainly besieged I received not till about nine of the clock this morning. In answeare whereunto I thinke fitt to assure you by these that rather then that towne should fall into the hands of the rebels I shall draw all the forces of the Kingdome into a body for its reliefe which I shall endeavour soe to effect as in ten dayes to be in a readiness to advance to towards you, relying on your uttermost endeavours to defend that place during that tyme though you should as you expect be closely besieged and soe deseiring to heare as frequently from you as possibly you may.
I remaine
Your very affectionate friend, Ormond.
Ennis 5 March about 12 in the forenoone.[3]

Cromwell was in a hurry to take the town as he had been summoned back to England by the English Parliament to deal with a Royalist uprising there. As a result he tried to take Clonmel immediately by assault, rather than opt for a lengthy siege.

The assault[edit]

Cromwell's artillery, positioned on a hill near present-day Melview, battered a breach in the town walls. It was intended that his infantry would storm this breach and then open the nearby North town gate[a] to allow access to Cromwell and the Parliamentarian cavalry.

However, O'Neill put all able bodied townspeople to work building a coupure inside the breach lined with artillery, muskets and pikemen. The coupure was v-shaped, starting at the mouth of the breach and narrowing until it ended about 50 metres inside the town. At the end of the breach, O'Neill positioned two cannon, loaded with chain-shot. The area behind the breach became, in military terms, a "killing field". The Parliamentarian infantry which assaulted the breach was engaged by pikemen and repeatedly cut down by marksmen on the earthworks behind until the soldiers finally refused to make any further attacks on what was a death trap. Cromwell then appealed to his elite cavalry, the Ironsides to make a fresh assault on foot. This time the Irish allowed them to enter at first without resistance.

A British officer of Sir John Clotworthy's regiment described the entry of the Ironsides into the town, the bulk of them belonging to Ireton's regiment.

They entered without any opposition and but few were to be seen in the town till they so entered, that the lane was crammed full with horsemen armed with helmets, back breastswords, musquetoons, and pistols. On which those in front seeing themselves in a pound and could not make their way further cryed out 'Halt' 'Halt'! On which those entering behind at the breach thought by those words that all those of the garrison were running away cryed out 'Advance' 'Advance' as fast as those before cryed out 'Halt' 'Halt' and so advanced until they trust forward those before them till that pound or lane was full and could hold no more.

Then suddenly rushes a resolute party of pikes and musqueteers to the breach and scoured off and knocked back those entering. On which instance Hugh Duff's men within fell on those in the pound with shotts, pikes, scythes, stones and casting of great long pieces of timber with the engines amongst them and then two guns firing at them from the end of the pound, slaughtering them by the middle or knees with chained bullets that in less than an hours time about a thousand men were killed in that pound being a top one another.[4][b]

Cromwell was with a second assault force waiting for the town North (or Lough) gate to be opened by the party that had stormed the breach. When he saw that the initial assault had failed and that as night was approaching, even if the disheartened soldiers could be persuaded to enter the breach once more, he judged that it would be futile against the internal defences without artillery support so he decided to end the assault for the day.[5]

Town surrenders[edit]

Cromwell knew that O'Neill's garrison and supplies were severely depleted and planned the next morning to try a fresh assault with close artillery support to batter the coupure and its defenders. However, O'Neill's men were out of ammunition and slipped away under cover of darkness – making their way to Waterford.[6] Cromwell negotiated a surrender with the town's mayor, John White, believing that Clonmel was still heavily defended. The surrender terms stipulated that the lives and property of the townspeople would be respected. Cromwell, although angry at the deception, did not allow his soldiers to abuse the terms of the surrender when he found that the garrison was gone and the town defenceless. His admirers cite this as an example of his integrity while his critics contrast it with the massacre he ordered at Drogheda the previous year.

Aftermath[edit]

After five weeks of close investment and nearly three months since the first elements of the New Model Army appeared before the town the New Model Army's losses were between 2,000 and 2,500,[1] with hundreds more wounded, its largest ever loss in a single day.[citation needed]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ A plaque on the 'Piper Inn' locates the North (Breech) gate approx. at the junction of William St. and Catherine St.
  2. ^ The Irish write gives a similar account (Burke 1907, p. 77 citing Aphorismical Discovery p. 78):

    Cromwell determined to loose all at once or win the garland. Commandinge therefore both horse and foot pell mell that such a heape in such an occasion was seldome scene that by the very thronge severall of them perished, advancinge forwarde unawares (both opposition and assaulte being soe furious and hott) not observinge either ditche or counterscarfe fell headlonge into the said ditche from whence there was no redemption or possibilitie of recoverie but there were massacred and butchered. Their seconds and comrades seinge what hapned, retired, neither the threats of the Generall nor the bloudie sworde of inferiour officers was sufficient enough to keepe them from turning tayle to the assaulte and turned to the campe leavinge Major generall O'Neylle in the possession of a bloudie wall.

  1. ^ a b Burke 1907, p. 78.
  2. ^ Burke 1907, p. 71.
  3. ^ Burke 1983, p. 71.
  4. ^ Burke 1907, p. 77 citing Hogan 1873
  5. ^ Burke 1907, p. 77.
  6. ^ Burke 1907, pp. 77–78.

References[edit]

Further reading[edit]

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