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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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The Battle of Scarrifholis

The Battle of Scarrifholis takes place on June 21, 1650, near Letterkenny, County Donegal, during the Irish Confederate Wars. A force loyal to the Commonwealth of England commanded by Charles Coote defeats the Catholic Ulster Army, commanded by Heber MacMahon, Roman Catholic Bishop of Clogher.

Although slightly smaller than their opponents, Coote’s troops consist largely of veterans from the New Model Army and have three times the number of cavalry. After an hour of fighting, the Ulster army collapses and flees, losing most of its men, officers, weapons, and supplies. The battle secures the north of Ireland for the Commonwealth and clears the way to complete the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland.

The Irish Confederate Wars, sparked by the Irish Rebellion of 1641, are initially fought between the predominantly Catholic Confederation, and a largely Protestant Irish Royal Army, led by James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormond. Both claim to be loyal to Charles I, while there is a three sided war in Ulster. The latter involves Royalists, Gaelic Catholic leader Eoghan Ruadh Ó Néill, and Presbyterian militia, known as the Laggan Army, supported by Scots Covenanters under Robert Munro.

In September 1643, Ormond agrees a truce, or ‘Cessation’, with the Confederation, freeing his troops for use in England against Parliament in the First English Civil War. Some Irish Protestants object, and switch sides, including Sir Charles Coote, who becomes Parliamentarian commander in Connacht. Charles surrenders in 1646, while a Covenanter/Royalist uprising is quickly suppressed in the 1648 Second English Civil War. On January 17, 1649, the Confederation allies with Ormond’s Royalists. Following the execution of Charles on January 30, they are joined by the Laggan Army, and remaining Scots troops in Ulster.

There are various reasons for this. The Covenanter government, who provide support for Scottish settlers in Ulster, consider Oliver Cromwell and other leaders of the new Commonwealth of England dangerous political and religious radicals. As Scots, they object to the execution of their king by the English. As Presbyterians, they view monarchy as divinely ordained, making regicide also sacrilegious, and they transfer their allegiance to his son, Charles II of England.

However, this is offset by a split within the Confederation, between Catholic landowners who want to preserve the position prevailing in 1641, and those like Ó Néill, whose estates had been confiscated in 1607. As a result, he agrees a truce with Coote, and refuses to join the Alliance, depriving them of their most effective fighting force in the north. Despite this, by late July, Ormond’s combined Royalist/Confederate army control most of Ireland.

Ormond’s defeat at the Battle of Rathmines on August 2 allows Cromwell and an army of 12,000 to land in Dublin unopposed. After capturing Drogheda on September 11, his main force heads south towards Wexford. Colonel Robert Venables is sent north with three regiments, or around 2,500 men, to take control of Ulster. Munro’s garrisons surrender with minimal resistance, and by the end of September, Venables has occupied Dundalk, Carlingford, Newry, and Belfast. These are accompanied by the mass expulsion of Scots settlers, as punishment for their defection. When Coote captures Coleraine on September 15, he massacres the largely Scottish garrison.

Ó Néill’s death in November 1649 and Coote’s defeat of a combined Royalist/Covenanter force at Lisnagarvey in December leaves the Catholic Ulster army as the only remaining opposition to the Commonwealth in the north. At a meeting at Belturbet on March 18, 1650, Heber MacMahon, Catholic Bishop of Clogher, is appointed in his place. Although a leading figure in the Confederation, MacMahon has no military experience and opposes the alliance with Ormond’s Royalists. His election is essentially a compromise between supporters of Henry, Ó Néill’s son, and his cousin, Felim Ó Néill.

By May 20, MacMahon and his deputy Richard O’Farrell have assembled an army near Loughgall, with 5,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry. They lack both arms and artillery but after Ormond promises to send these from Connacht, they march north, intending to divide Coote’s troops at Derry from those commanded by Venables at Carrickfergus in the east. To do this, MacMahon establishes a line of garrisons with its northern end at Ballycastle, then moves south, intending to cross the River Foyle just below Lifford and maintain contact with Ormond through Ballyshannon.

At this point, Coote has only 1,400 men and seems vulnerable. The Irish cross the river on June 2, beating off an attack by the Commonwealth cavalry and occupy Lifford, where they spend the next two weeks and Coote withdraws to Derry. However, the supplies promised by Ormond fail to arrive, leaving MacMahon short of provisions, while on June 18 Coote is joined by an additional 1,000 infantry under Colonel Roger Fenwick sent from Belfast. At the same time, detaching men for the new garrisons leave MacMahon with around 4,000 infantry and 400 cavalry.

MacMahon now relocates to the Doonglebe/Tullygay Hill overlooking the pass at Scariffhollis, a strong defensive position two miles west of Letterkenny on the River Swilly. When Myles MacSweeney takes his regiment off to recapture his ancestral home at Doe Castle, it leaves the two armies roughly equal in number. However, Coote’s men are well equipped veterans and he has three times the number of cavalry. When he appears at Scariffhollis on June 21, MacMahon’s subordinates advise him not to risk battle. They argue Coote will soon be forced to retreat due to lack of provisions, allowing the Irish to withdraw into Connaught in good order.

For reasons that are still debated, MacMahon ignores this advice and on the morning of June 21, 1650 orders his troops down from their mountain camp to give battle. Coote later reports that although the ground is still “excessive bad,” it allows him to use his cavalry, although the initial fighting is conducted by the opposing infantry.

The Irish army is drawn up in a large mass formation with 200–300 musketeers in front, which may have been due to their shortage of ammunition. The battle begins when Colonel Fenwick leads a detachment of 150 men against the advance guard. After an exchange of fire, during which Fenwick is mortally wounded, it turns into a hand-to-hand struggle. As Coote feeds in reinforcements, the Irish musketeers fall back on their main force, which has no room to manoeuvre and is now subjected to devastating volleys at close range. After an hour of bitter conflict, the Irish are out of ammunition and at this point the Parliamentarian cavalry charges their flank. Thrown into disarray, the Irish break and run.

In most battles, flight is the point at which the defeated suffer the heaviest casualties, exacerbated by the lack of Irish cavalry and the brutal nature of the war. Most of the infantry dies on the battlefield or in the pursuit that follows, including Henry Ó Néill and many officers, some of whom are killed after surrendering. Estimates of the Irish dead range from 2,000 – 3,000, while Coote loses around 100 killed or wounded.

MacMahon escapes with 200 horse but is captured a week later and executed. Phelim Ó Néill and O’Farrell make it to Charlemont, which is besieged by Coote and surrenders on August 14. With the exception of a few scattered garrisons, this ends fighting in the north. Limerick is taken by Hardress Waller in October 1651 and the war ends when Galway surrenders to Coote in May 1652.

(Pictured: A view of the mouth of River Swilly at Lough Swilly, Letterkenny, County Donegal)


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The Battle of Julianstown

The Battle of Julianstown is fought on November 29, 1641 at Julianstown, County Meath during the Irish Rebellion of 1641 where an English Royalist relief force is soundly defeated by Irish rebels.

After the Irish Rebellion starts, the rebels first attempt to move into Ulster and capture Belfast. When they meet stiff Protestant resistance in Ulster, the rebels turn their focus southward with the goal of taking Dublin. En route to attack Dublin, the rebels come upon the town of Drogheda and begin the siege of the garrison. Approximately one week after the rebels have encircled Drogheda, the English authorities in Dublin put together a relief force and send them to reinforce the Royalist strongpoint. En route to Drogheda, the English force is ambushed and routed by the rebels in Julianstown.

The English relief force is hastily put together and largely untrained. Many of the soldiers in the relief force are emaciated and sick refugees from the northern counties who are pressed into service. The detachment is commanded by Sir Patrick Wemyss and is composed of 600 foot and 50 horse. The rebel forces are led by Philip O’Reilly and Miles O’Reilly, both Irish leaders from County Cavan. Their force of 3,000 men including 300 horse has experienced commanders and appears to have been assigned to the south of Drogheda to complete the encirclement of the garrison.

On the morning of the battle, the rebels become aware of the approach of the Royalists and prepare an ambush. As the rebels spring their trap, the English commander does not immediately order his men to attack and fire upon the enemy. By mistake Wemyss orders his men to “countermarch” which causes them to move backwards as if they are retreating. The rebels take full advantage of the situation and immediately charge the Royalists. The rebel attack causes panic and confusion among the English and prevents them from coordinating an effective counter-attack. Many of the Royalists throw down their weapons and attempt to escape. The Royalist horse flee the field. In the end, the rebels kill almost all of the Royalist foot soldiers.

The victory has several short term benefits for the rebels. From the manner in which they rout the Royalists, the rebel forces gain respect as a military force. It boosts rebel morale and helps to spread the revolt throughout Ireland. For the commander of the Royal Irish Army, James Butler, Earl of Ormond, the battle shows the determination of the rebels and the degree of support for their cause. Ultimately, the Battle of Julianstown as a small part of the Irish Rebellion indirectly leads to the English Civil War and Confederate Ireland.


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The Battle of Knocknanauss

The Battle of Knocknanauss is fought on November 13, 1647, during the Irish Confederate Wars, part of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, between Confederate Ireland’s Munster army and an English Parliamentarian army under Murrough O’Brien, 1st Earl of Inchiquin. The battle results in a crushing defeat for the Irish Confederates.

In the summer of 1647, Murrough O’Brien (later created the Earl of Inchiquin), commander of the English Parliamentarian forces in Cork, ravages and burns the Confederate territory in Munster. This causes severe food shortages and earns O’Brien the Irish nickname, Murchadh na d’Tóiteán (Murrough the Burner). In addition, Inchiquinn takes the Rock of Cashel, which is garrisoned by Confederate troops and rich in emotive religious symbolism. In the sack of the castle, O’Brien’s troops massacre the garrison and all the clergy they find there.

The Confederates’ Munster army is incapable of stopping O’Brien because of political infighting between officers who support a deal with the English Royalists and those who reject such a deal. Eventually, in reaction to the sack of Cashel and famine conditions, the Confederate Supreme Council replaces Donough MacCarthy, 2nd Viscount Muskerry, as commander of the Munster army with Theobald Taaffe, 1st Earl of Carlingford, and order him to bring O’Brien to battle.

Taaffe is an English Catholic and not an experienced soldier. Although he has an excellent contingent of veteran troops under Alasdair Mac Colla, most of his men are similarly inexperienced. Furthermore, the Irish troops are demoralised by the internal factionalism in their ranks and most of them have little loyalty to Taafe. O’Brien, on the other hand, has been commanding his force since 1642 and is well experienced in battle. His troops are a mixture of well trained Parliamentarian soldiers from England and British settlers who have been driven from their homes in the Irish Rebellion of 1641. The two armies meet at Knocknanuss near Mallow, approximately 29 kilometers north of Cork.

The battle that follows is essentially an uncoordinated rout of the Irish forces. Taaffe positions his men on either side of a hill, so that they cannot see one another. The result is that one wing of the Confederate army has no idea of what the other wing is doing. Mac Colla’s men charge the Parliamentarians opposite them putting them to flight and killing a large number of them. Thinking the battle is over, they then take to looting the enemy’s baggage train.

However, on the other wing, O’Brien’s cavalry has charged the raw Irish horsemen, causing them to run away. Despite Taaffe’s desperate attempt to rally them, the Irish infantry follow suit, many of them being cut down by the pursuing roundheads. The pursuit continues for miles and not only results in heavy casualties among the Irish, but also in the loss of most of their equipment and supplies. Inchiquin loses several senior officers, including the Judge-Advocate, Sir Robert Travers. Mac Colla and his men surrender when they realise what has happened but are subsequently killed by their captors. Around 3,000 Confederates die at Knocknanauss, and up to 1,000 English Parliamentarians. The carnage does not stop after the fighting is finished. The next day a couple of hundred Irish soldiers are found sheltering in a nearby wood. These are promptly put to the sword.

When combined with the Battle of Dungans Hill in County Meath, the defeat leads to the collapse of the Confederate Catholic cause and forces them to make a deal with the English Royalists.


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Death of Thomas Blood, Anglo-Irish Officer

thomas-bloodColonel Thomas Blood, Anglo-Irish officer and self-styled colonel best known for his attempt to steal the Crown Jewels of England and Scotland from the Tower of London in 1671, dies at his home in Bowling Alley, Westminster on August 24, 1680. He is also known for his attempt to kidnap and, later, to kill, his enemy, James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormond.

Sources suggest that Blood is born in County Clare in 1618, the son of a successful land-owning blacksmith of English descent. He is partly raised at Sarney, near Dunboyne, County Meath. He receives his education in Lancashire, England. At the age of 20, he marries Maria Holcroft, the daughter of John Holcroft, a gentleman from Golborne, Lancashire, and returns to Ireland.

At the outbreak of the First English Civil War in 1642, Blood returns to England and initially takes up arms with the Royalist forces loyal to Charles I. As the conflict progresses he switches sides and becomes a lieutenant in Oliver Cromwell‘s Roundheads. Following the Restoration of King Charles II to the Crowns of the Three Kingdoms in 1660, Blood flees with his family to Ireland.

As part of the expression of discontent, Blood conspires to storm Dublin Castle, usurp the government, and kidnap James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormonde and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, for ransom. On the eve of the attempt, the plot is foiled. Blood manages to escape to the United Dutch Provinces in the Low Country although a few of his collaborators are captured and executed.

In 1670, despite his status as a wanted man, Blood returns to England. On the night of December 6, 1670, he and his accomplices attack Ormonde while he travels St. James’s Street. Ormonde is dragged from his coach and taken on horseback along Piccadilly with the intention of hanging him at Tyburn. The gang pins a paper to Ormonde’s chest spelling out their reasons for his capture and murder. Ormonde succeeds in freeing himself and escapes. Due to the secrecy of the plot, Blood is not suspected of the crime.

Blood does not lie low for long, and within six months he makes his notorious attempt to steal the Crown Jewels. After weeks of deception, on May 9, 1671, he convinces Talbot Edwards, the newly appointed Master of the Jewel House, to show the jewels to him, his supposed nephew, and two of his friends while they wait for a dinner that Mrs. Edwards is providing. The jewel keeper’s apartment is in Martin Tower above a basement where the jewels are kept behind a metal grille. Reports suggest that Blood’s accomplices carried canes that concealed rapier blades, daggers, and pocket pistols. They enter the Jewel House, leaving one of the men to supposedly stand watch outside while the others joined Edwards and Blood. The door is closed and a cloak is thrown over Edwards, who is struck with a mallet, knocked to the floor, bound, gagged and stabbed to subdue him.

As Blood and his gang flee to their horses waiting at St. Catherine’s Gate, they fire on the warders who attempt to stop them, wounding one. As they run along the Tower wharf it is said they join the calls for alarm to confuse the guards until they are chased down by Captain Beckman, brother-in-law of the younger Edwards. Although Blood shoots at him, he misses and is captured before reaching the Iron Gate. The Jewels are recovered although several stones are missing and others are loose.

Following his capture, Blood refuses to answer to anyone but the King and is consequently taken to the palace in chains, where he is questioned by King Charles, Prince Rupert and others. To the disgust of Ormonde, Blood is not only pardoned but also given land in Ireland worth £500 a year. The reasons for the King’s pardon are unknown although speculation abounds.

In 1679 Blood falls into dispute with the Duke of Buckingham, his former patron, and Buckingham sues him for £10,000, for insulting remarks Blood had made about his character. In the proceedings that follow, Blood is convicted by the King’s Bench in 1680 and granted bail, although he never pays the damages.

Blood is released from prison in July 1680 but falls into a coma by August 22. He dies on August 24 at his home in Bowling Alley, Westminster. His body is buried in the churchyard of St. Margaret’s Church (now Christchurch Gardens) near St. James’s Park. It is believed that his body was exhumed by the authorities for confirmation as, such was his reputation for trickery, it is suspected he might have faked his death and funeral to avoid paying his debt to Buckingham.