Oliver Cromwell is a name known throughout the island of Ireland. Over 400 years ago the Lord General marched his New Model Army across the Country leaving hundreds of men, woman and children either dead, injured or penniless with no home to return to. By March of 1650 the city of Kilkenny had fallen to Cromwell, but the Council of State in London wanted him to return to England immediately. There was an ongoing threat of a Royalist invasion from Scotland and they wanted Cromwell to deal with it before anything came to fruition.
Cromwell was not inclined to return as he wanted to secure both Leinster and Munster before he travelled back to England. His successful military leadership was progressing his political career. He set his sights on one of the remaining Royalist strongholds of Southern Munster- Clonmel. From April of 1650 Cromwell had based himself in the Duke of Ormond’s Manor house in Carrick on Suir, from here he directed military operations and tried to reduce the few remaining Royalist outposts which stood between him, Clonmel and the surrounding areas. The Duke of Ormond, James FitzThomas Butler was also the leading commander of the Royalist forces at that time.
It was also during this time that Cromwell had secured negotiations with Michael Boyle- Protestant Royalist and Protestant Dean of Cloyne at Cashel without Ormond knowing. Within those two days of negotiations between the two men, a treaty was signed which stated that Protestant Royalist forces in Ireland would NOT act against the interests of the English commonwealth, while Cromwell could guarantee the security of their lives and their property. This treaty was accepted by many Protestant Royalists, including those in Ulster. This reduced the armed Royalist threat in the area, and while Ormond was still the leading commander he had little influence over the Catholics who still bore arms.
It was from here that Cromwell rode to meet his men on the outskirts of Clonmel. Clonmel was a walled town, meaning it was protected on the western, northern and eastern sides by walls reaching over 20ft height. The southern side of the town was protected by the River Suir and some other minor defensive features. The walls themselves were reinforced with additional earthworks inside the town and a ditch ran along the span of the walls to reduce the possibility of digging underneath unseen.
As well as all that, Clonmel had another card to play. The town was defended by Hugh Dubh O’Neill who had arrived in December 1649 with 1,200 of his men from Ulster. He took command of the Garrison and prepared for the possible coming of Cromwell and his forces. Hugh wanted to defend Clonmel against Cromwell for as long as possible as he was under the impression that Ormond was rallying an army together from Ulster to challenge Cromwell. Throughout the months leading up to Cromwell’s arrival at Clonmel, Hugh lost a number of his men to plague, but these numbers were replenished with the armed men that had left Cashel and Kilkenny after surrender.
On the 27th of April 1650, Cromwell stood outside the walls of Clonmel with 8,000 additional infantry soldiers, 600 cavalry and 12 field guns.
In 1650 Clonmel’s geographical location was very much in its favour. Extensive swampland lay on the eastern and western periphery, outside the walls. The southern section was protected by the River Suir, so realistically the only course for attack was the northern section of the town.
A partial blockade had been in effect around Clonmel since the early days of Cromwell’s arrival in Ireland. But as a whole, the town was not well provisioned and like Kilkenny it also suffered from the plague wHich left many dead or incapacitated. As the situation stood, Clonmel was very much far from their strongest even with the soldiers who had arrived from Kilkenny and Cashel.
Cromwell, now outside the walls of Clonmel had many a reason to feel confident of his situation. He had known victory throughout his campaign in Ireland. He had very little information about O’Neill so may not have viewed him as a particular threat. Even so, Cromwell was very anxious to complete his campaign and return to England as soon as possible to deal with the potential threat of attack from the Royalist Scots. He planned to take Clonmel by storm rather than relying on lengthy siege tactics if O’Neill did not surrender forthwith.
As mentioned, the walls of Clonmel were well reinforced and it took Cromwell approximately 7 days to get his fields guns in place and ready to fire. When the order to fire was given it was soon apparent that they were not nearly powerful enough to breach the walls to the extent needed so that Cromwell’s men could storm the town. Still not in favour of a lengthy siege, Cromwell opted for larger guns to be sent for which took a further 7 days. Hugh Dubh O’Neill saw this delay as an opportunity and instead of sitting idle he did what he could knowing that he was severely outnumbered. Under the cover of darkness, he launched various guerrilla attacks on Cromwell’s men. These attacks delayed the work that Cromwell’s forces were trying to do to breach the town, but O’Neill knew they couldn’t carry on like this long term. Yes, it delayed Cromwell’s attempts to breach the walls- but only in the short term! O’Neill’s men were low and ammunition and food. Plus he was still of the belief that Ormond would be rallying up his men to aid Clonmel as he promised. But Ormond, disgruntled by the fact that Cromwell had treated behind his back and was the cause of him losing his men did not come to the aid of Clonmel and O’Neill. Instead Ormond decided to reinforce Limerick as he had very few men to spare after the treaty.
But, there was still hope and O’Neill was not alone. A royalist named David Roche, along with Bishop Boetius MacEgan who knew O’Neill from previous battles gathered roughly 2,000 men and marched east from Kerry to the aid of O’Neill and Clonmel. On the way to Clonmel, Roche's army arrived at Macroom with the intention of travelling on to Cork and from there approaching Clonmel from the South. Unfortunately, Lord Broghill of Lismore and son of the Earl of Cork was active in that area. He had with him some 1,200 infantry and 800 cavalry. Roche had no choice but to fall back towards Macroom once again as Lord Broghill advanced on him. Rather than risk letting Roche and his men escape Broghill sent his cavalry after them who caught up and attacked. Roche had no time for form a defense and lost some 600 men in the onslaught. The remaining men scattered to the bogs where they knew the cavalry could not follow. As well as killing 600 of Roches men, Broghill also took a hostage – Bishop Boetius MacEgan. He used MacEgan as a bargaining chip to get a nearby royalist outpost to surrender. MacEgan told them to refuse the request and fight to the last man- he was then tortured and hanged by Broghill’s men. The outpost then soon surrendered anyway thanks so some generous terms. O’Neill was once again alone inside the walls of Clonmel.
Below is an artists impression of how Clonmel would have looked in 1650. Artist - JG O'Donoghue