The Siege of Kilkenny takes place in what historian Patrick Little considers to be the most controversial period of the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland. The English Parliamentarians‘ New Model Army, commanded by Oliver Cromwell, takes the city of Kilkenny from the Irish Confederates but suffers more losses than they had in the Siege of Drogheda in September 1649.
After taking Cashel and setting his headquarters there, Cromwell marches to Kilkenny to issue a summons of surrender to the Irish Confederates holding the town. The envoy he sends there is captured and kept as a hostage. Upon this happening, Cromwell, absent siege weapons, has to return to Cashel to acquire them after being met with hostility. Cromwell is relying on an officer by the name of Tickle to betray the townspeople and relay the locations of the wall’s weakest points. Tickle’s treachery is uncovered by James Butler, 3rd Earl of Ormond and owner of Kilkenny Castle. Bulter intercepts the letters sent between Cromwell and Tickle which lead to Tickle’s execution.
Butler, learning of Cromwell’s intent, establishes 700 men and 100 horsemen to repel the puritan army. Facing this formidable force Cromwell decides to retreat to Cashel. In the space of time it takes Cromwell to acquire siege weapons and return to Kilkenny, a plague has struck. The plague is believed to have originated in Galway on a Spanish ship. Lord Castlehaven appoints James Walsh as Governor of the Castle and Sir Walter Butler as Governor of Kilkenny. In addition to this he provides 1,200 men to the Kilkenny cause. By the time Cromwell returns, the plague has decimated Kilkenny city. About 300 out of the original Garrison of 1,200 men remain to watch their posts.
On March 22, Cromwell arrives and stands a mile before Kilkenny with his men. Guns are set up on the adjacent hill and from the Black quarry, Cromwell issues a summons of surrender to Butler, Walsh and the Aldermen of Kilkenny. While the letters are traded back and fort, Cromwell sends a detachment to take Irishtown and they are defeated. A refusal letter is issued to Cromwell shortly thereafter. The artillery battery located on the adjacent hill begins to pound the south wall. A breach is made around noon and Cromwell gives orders to assault using the recently destroyed entry point, but after two attempts his men disobey as they have suffered heavy losses in the last battle. Soon after, Cromwell receives invitation from the mayor and townsmen of Irishtown asking him to stay in the town and in return he will allow his troops safe entry. Instead of replying, Cromwell sends a detachment of men led by Colonel Ewer to capture Irishtown, which is guarded by the townsmen. The townsmen flee their posts at the first sight of Colonel Ewer and his men. This results in the capturing of St. Canice’s Cathedral and parts of Irishtown. The Governor of Irishtown, Sir James Butler, surrenders not long after admitting that there is nothing he can do.
On March 27, the troops continue to attack Kilkenny to no success other than managing to breach the walls of the Franciscan abbey, causing more people to desert their posts. Governor Walsh arrives on horseback to drive Cromwell’s men from the wall. At the same time, small groups of Cromwell’s men attempt to cross St. Johns bridge to set fire to the front gates but they are killed by the garrison guards. It is at this point when reinforcements of 1,500 men from Henry Ireton arrive. Finally, Walsh calls for surrender under orders from Lord Castlehaven that were given previously. The orders are not to allow the townspeople to be exposed and massacred.
On March 28, 1650 the town of Kilkenny is handed over to Cromwell. The garrison and its leaders are marched out into the town where they are complimented by Cromwell for the gallantry in battle. Cromwell also admits that if it was not for the townspeople’s treachery, he would have passed Kilkenny and left it alone.