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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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Ulster Rebels Take Dundalk During the Irish Rebellion of 1641

Ulster rebels take Dundalk on October 31, 1641 during the Irish Rebellion of 1641. The rebellion is an uprising by Irish Catholics in the Kingdom of Ireland, who want an end to anti-Catholic discrimination, greater Irish self-governance, and to partially or fully reverse the plantations of Ireland. They also want to prevent a possible invasion or takeover by anti-Catholic English Parliamentarians and Scottish Covenanters, who are defying the king, Charles I.

The rebellion begins on October 23, 1641 as an attempted coup d’état by Catholic gentry and military officers, who try to seize control of the English administration in Ireland. However, it develops into a widespread rebellion and ethnic conflict with English and Scottish Protestant settlers, leading to Scottish military intervention. The rebels eventually found the Irish Catholic Confederacy.

The plan to seize Dublin Castle is foiled, but the rebels swiftly capture numerous towns (including Dundalk), forts and fortified houses in the northern province of Ulster. Within days they hold most of the province. Rebel leader Felim O’Neill of Kinard issues a forged proclamation, the Proclamation of Dungannon, claiming he has the king’s blessing to secure Ireland against the king’s opponents. The uprising spreads southward and soon most of Ireland is in rebellion. In November, rebels besiege Drogheda and defeat an English relief force at Julianstown. The following month, many Anglo-Irish Catholic lords join the rebellion. In these first months, especially in Ulster, some Catholic rebels drive out or kill thousands of Protestant settlers (most notably the Portadown massacre), and settlers respond in kind. Reports of rebel massacres outrage Protestants in Britain, and leave a lasting impact on the Ulster Protestant community.

King Charles and the English parliament both seek to quell the rebellion, but parliament does not trust the king with command of any army raised to do so. This is one of the issues that lead to the English Civil War. Charles orders forces to be raised in Ireland, and the English parliament drafts a bill to give itself the power to raise armed forces. Eventually, in April 1642, following negotiations between the English and Scottish parliaments, the Scots send a Covenanter army to Ireland. It swiftly captures most of eastern Ulster, while a Protestant settler army holds northwestern Ulster. Government forces meanwhile recapture much of the Pale, and hold the region around Cork. Most of the rest of Ireland is under rebel control.

In May 1642, Ireland’s Catholic bishops meet at Kilkenny, declare the rebellion to be a just war and take steps to control it. With representatives of the Catholic nobility in attendance, they agree to set up an alternative government known as the Irish Catholic Confederacy and draw up the Confederate Oath of Association. The rebels, now known as Confederates, hold most of Ireland against the Protestant Royalists, Scottish Covenanters and English Parliamentarians. The rebellion is thus the first stage of the Irish Confederate Wars and part of the wider Wars of the Three Kingdoms, which lasts for the next ten years.

(Pictured: Depiction of the massacre of Ulster Protestants during the 1641 rebellion, the LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)


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The Siege of Drogheda Ends

The Siege of Drogheda ends on September 11, 1649 during the outset of the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland. The siege began on September 3, 1649.

The Royalist rebellion that breaks out in Ireland against the new English republic in 1649 is met by a prompt English response. On August 15 Oliver Cromwell and 15,000 troops land in Dublin. His merciless policy toward the Irish Royalists becomes brutally clear within a month.

The defeat of the Irish Royalists in the Battle of Rathmines in early August is fortuitous for Cromwell, for without it, the English would have held only the small port of Derry (known as Londonderry from 1662) in the north, making his invasion almost impossible to effect. Cromwell quickly finds that the Irish Royalists have retreated into fortified towns. He therefore prepares for a series of sieges.

The first such siege occurs at Drogheda, 28 miles north of Dublin. Cromwell arrives at Drogheda on September 3. His siege guns, brought up by sea, arrive two days later. He finds the town surrounded by high but relatively thin walls and its governor, Sir Arthur Ashton, is confident of his defenses and refuses an order to surrender. On September 10 Cromwell begins an artillery bombardment of the walls. These are breached the following day, but the gap created is too small to allow troops to enter the city. Twice they are repelled until Cromwell himself leads an assault and overwhelms the defenders on September 11.

The carnage inside the city is appalling. Cromwell’s troops kill priests and monks on sight and set fire to a Catholic church sheltering some soldiers. Civilians as well as soldiers are massacred, and Ashton is bludgeoned to death with his own wooden leg. The few Royalist soldiers who survive are transported to Barbados. What happens at Drogheda is replicated at Wexford the following month and Clonmel the next May. By the time Cromwell has put down the rebellion and returned to England in that same month, he has become forever hated by Irish Catholics.

During the eight day siege the British lose 150 of their 12,000 men while 2,800 Irish are killed and 200 captured of the 3,100 at Drogheda.

(Pictured: St Laurence’s Gate – the last remaining of the ten original defensive gates at Drogheda)


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The Siege of Kilkenny Ends

map-of-kilkennyThe Siege of Kilkenny ends on March 28, 1650 with the city and residents surrendering to Oliver Cromwell.

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 ParliamentariansNew 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.


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The Siege of Drogheda

st-laurences-gate-drogheda

The Siege of Drogheda begins on September 3, 1649 and runs through September 11, at the outset of the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland.

The Royalist rebellion that breaks out in Ireland against the new English republic in 1649 is met by a prompt English response. On August 15 Oliver Cromwell and 15,000 troops land in Dublin. His merciless policy toward the Irish Royalists becomes brutally clear within a month.

The defeat of the Irish Royalists at Rathmines in early August is fortuitous for Cromwell, for without it, the English would have held only the small port of Derry (known as Londonderry from 1662) in the north, making his invasion almost impossible to effect. Cromwell quickly finds that the Irish Royalists have retreated into fortified towns. He therefore prepares for a series of sieges.

The first such siege occurs at Drogheda, 28 miles north of Dublin. Cromwell arrives at Drogheda on September 3. His siege guns, brought up by sea, arrive two days later. He finds the town surrounded by high but relatively thin walls and its governor, Sir Arthur Ashton, is confident of his defenses and refuses an order to surrender. On September 10 Cromwell begins an artillery bombardment of the walls. These are breached the following day, but the gap created is too small to allow troops to enter the city. Twice they are repelled until Cromwell himself leads an assault and overwhelms the defenders on September 11.

The carnage inside the city is appalling. Cromwell’s troops kill priests and monks on sight and set fire to a Catholic church sheltering some soldiers. Civilians as well as soldiers are massacred, and Ashton is bludgeoned to death with his own wooden leg. The few Royalist soldiers who survive are transported to Barbados. What happens at Drogheda is replicated at Wexford the following month and Clonmel the next May. By the time Cromwell has put down the rebellion and returned to England in that same month, he has become forever hated by Irish Catholics.

During the eight day siege the British lose 150 of their 12,000 men while 2,800 Irish are killed and 200 captured of the 3,100 at Drogheda.

(Pictured: St Laurence’s Gate – the last remaining of the ten original defensive gates at Drogheda)


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The Irish Free State Takes Drogheda

millmount-droghedaA large Irish Free State force takes Drogheda, County Louth, on July 4, 1922, during the Irish Civil War. They defeat Anti-Treaty fighters who are based at Millmount Fort, a large fortified complex situated on a great mound on the south bank of the River Boyne.

Millmount has been fortified in historical times since the early 12th century when invading Normans built a mote and bailey on what was probably originally a neolithic passage grave similar to Newgrange. In Irish cosmology, it is often assumed to be the burial place of Amergin Glúingel, whose name indicates that in ancient Irish mythology he was regarded as the originator of the arts of song, poetry and music.

Hugh de Lacy, one of the Normans who comes to Ireland after Strongbow, builds the original fort circa 1172, having been granted the Kingdom of Meath by Henry II of England. Later a stone castle is built on the site. This castle forms part of the defences of the town during the Siege of Drogheda during the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland in 1649. The fort’s English defenders attempt to surrender to Parliamentarian troops under Oliver Cromwell but are massacred when they give themselves up on September 11, 1649. The complex is later called Richmond Barracks. Some of the present buildings, in the courtyard, are built circa 1714. After the unrest and rebellions of the 1790s and the Acts of Union 1800 the complex is re-fortified and the Martello tower is built.

The fort suffers considerable damage during the Irish Civil War. It is occupied by Anti-Treaty forces and on July 4, 1922, it becomes the target of shelling by the army of the Irish Free State. The Free State Forces under Michael Collins have been given extensive support by the British Army at the express wish of Winston Churchill who insists that the Republican Forces be crushed. Using the same British Army 18-pounder artillery piece which had shelled the Republican H.Q. in the Four Courts in Dublin some days earlier the Free State Forces bombard Millmount fort for several hours before the Republican garrison retreats. The famous Martello tower is all but destroyed during the shelling.

Today, after being restored in 2000, the complex houses the Millmount Museum which houses a wide variety of artifacts of local and national importance. The complex is Drogheda’s most dominant feature, clearly visible from all parts of the town. The Martello tower is affectionately known as “The Cup and Saucer” by locals. The whole fort is a national monument and has been designated as Drogheda’s Cultural Quarter.


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The Sack of Wexford

sack-of-wexfordThe Sack of Wexford takes place on October 11, 1649, during the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland, when the New Model Army under Oliver Cromwell takes Wexford town in southeastern Ireland. The English Parliamentarian troops break into the town while the commander of the garrison, David Synnot, is trying to negotiate a surrender, massacring soldiers and civilians alike. Much of the town is burned and its harbour is destroyed. Along with the Siege of Drogheda, the sack of Wexford is still remembered in Ireland as an infamous atrocity.

Wexford is held by Irish Catholic forces throughout the Irish Confederate Wars. In the Irish Rebellion of 1641, over 1,500 local men muster in the town for the rebels. In 1642, Lord Mountgarret, the local Commander of the Confederate Catholic regime, orders Protestants to leave Wexford.

Wexford is also the base for a fleet of Confederate privateers, who raid English Parliamentary shipping and contribute 10% of their plunder to the Confederate government based in Kilkenny. In 1642, Parliamentary ships begin throwing captured Wexford sailors overboard with their hands tied. In reprisal, 150–170 English prisoners are kept in Wexford and threatened with death if such killing continued.

In 1648, the Confederates and Royalists in Ireland sign a treaty joining forces against the English Parliament. After Cromwell’s landing in Ireland in August 1649, therefore, Wexford is a key target for the Parliamentarians, being an important port for the Royalist alliance and a base for the privateers.

Cromwell arrives at Wexford on October 2, 1649 with about 6,000 men, eight heavy siege guns, and two mortars. The town’s garrison initially consists of 1,500 Confederate soldiers under David Synnot. However, the morale of the town is low and many of the civilians in Wexford want to surrender. Synnot, however, strings out surrender negotiations with Cromwell insisting on several conditions for surrender that Cromwell does not countenance, including the free practice of the Catholic religion, the evacuation of the garrison with their arms, and the free passage of the privateer fleet to a friendly port.

Negotiations are reopened when Cromwell’s guns blast two breaches in the walls of Wexford castle, opening the prospect of an assault on the town. However, while negotiations are still ongoing, the town is unexpectedly stormed and sacked on October 11, 1649.

Stafford, the English Royalist captain of Wexford Castle, surrenders the castle for reasons that have never been determined. The troops of the New Model Army, on their own initiative, immediately assault the walls of the town, causing the Confederate troops to flee in panic from their positions. The Parliamentarians pursue them into the streets of Wexford, killing many of the town’s defenders. Several hundred, including David Synnot, the town governor, are shot or drowned as they try to cross the River Slaney. Estimates of the death toll vary. Cromwell himself believes that over 2,000 of the town’s defenders have been killed compared with only 20 of his troops. Several Catholic priests, including seven Franciscans are killed by the Roundheads. Much of the town, including its harbour, is burned and looted. As many as 1,500 civilians are also killed in the sacking. This figure is difficult to corroborate but most historians accept that many civilians are killed in the chaos surrounding the fall of Wexford.

The destruction of Wexford is so severe that it can not be used either as a port or as winter quarters for the Parliamentarian forces. One Parliamentarian source therefore describes the sack as “incommodious to ourselves.” Cromwell reports that the remaining civilians have “run off” and asks for soldiers to be sent from England to repopulate the town and reopen its port.