Thomas Preston, Viscount Tara

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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Preston, Thomas, Viscount Tara, son of the 4th Viscount Gormanstown, was born, probably in Ireland, towards the close of the 16th century. He was educated in the Low Countries, where he entered the service of Spain. In 1634, during the viceroyalty of Strafford, he visited Ireland, and raised a regiment of 2,400 men in Leinster for the Spanish service. This force assisted at the defence of Louvain against the Dutch in June 1635. Preston gives a full account of the siege in a letter to Strafford, dated 6th July. A month later he sent agents to Ireland to raise new levies for the King of Spain. Indeed, it is supposed that he and Owen Roe O'Neill had the Deputy's warrant for recruiting as many men as they pleased in Ireland. Preston and his Irish troops were actively engaged in the war in the Netherlands for six years after the siege of Louvain.

In the summer of 1641 he lost nearly 800 of his men in the defence of Genep; and although obliged to capitulate on 27th July, marched out with all the honours of war, and retired to Venlo. "As for the besieged," says a contemporary writer, "and Preston in particular, they earned for themselves the most consummate glory, and this was willingly accorded to them by the plaudits of their veriest enemies." Events in Ireland next called him home. Supplied by Cardinal Richelieu with three frigates and a considerable store of arms and ammunition for the Irish Confederates, he sailed from Dunkirk, and anchored in Wexford harbour about the middle of September 1642. He was accompanied by his son, a great number of engineers, and 500 officers, including Colonels Sinnott, Cullen, Plunket, and Bourke, who had distinguished themselves in the Dutch war.

General Preston was appointed by the Supreme Council to the command of the Leinster forces, and was a prime actor in the affairs of Ireland for the next few years, siding on the whole with the Anglo-Irish rather than the Old Irish party. He was consequently often in opposition to Owen Roe O'Neill. Clarendon sketches broadly the differences of policy that divided Preston and O'Neill: "They of the more moderate party, and whose main end was to obtain liberty for the exercise of their religion, without any thought of declining their subjugation to the King, or of invading his prerogative, put themselves under the command of General Preston; the other, of the fiercer and more savage party, and who never meant to return to their obedience of the Crown of England, and looked upon all the estates which had ever been in the possession of any of their ancestors, though forfeited by their treason and rebellion, as justly due to them, and ravished from them by the tyranny of the Crown, marched under the conduct of Owen Roe O'Neile; both generals of the Irish nation; the one descended of English extraction through many descents; the other purely Irish, and of the family of Tyrone; both bred in the wars of Flanders, and both eminent commanders there, and of perpetual jealousy of each other; the one of the more frank and open nature; the other darker, less polite, and the wiser man; but both of them then at the head of more numerous armies apart, than all the king's power could bring into the field against either of them."

Most of Preston's operations were unfortunate. He was defeated by the Marquis of Ormond at New Ross on the 18th March 1644, and obliged to retreat across the Barrow, with a loss of 500 men, his baggage, and ammunition. He assumed a neutral attitude in some of the negotiations between Ormond and Rinuccini; but in August 1646 he co-operated with O'Neill to intercept Ormond in his march on Kilkenny, and compel his subsequent disastrous retreat to Dublin. The same autumn Preston and O'Neill marched against Dublin, wasting much time on the way, so that their combined forces, numbering some 16,000 foot and 1,600 horse, did not take up a position at Lucan until the 11th November. Ormond had been able to effect little for the defence of Dublin, beyond burning crops and destroying mills in the neighbourhood, and had the Irish generals acted in concert, nothing could have saved it from falling into their hands. They lost nearly a week in dissensions.

Carte goes so far as to say that Preston hated O'Neill, and O'Neill despised Preston. On the 16th news reached them of the reception of a Parliamentary force into Dublin, whereupon they precipitately abandoned the siege, and sought winter quarters. Soon afterwards Preston appeared not unwilling to side with Ormond; but Rinuccini brought him back to act nominally with O'Neill. On 8th August 1647 he was defeated by Jones, the Parliamentary General, at Dungan Hill, near Trim, where he occupied a strong position with 7,000 foot and 1,000 horse. Jones, with an army said to have numbered but 2,000 men, marched from Dublin to dislodge him. Preston rashly abandoned his entrenchments, in the hope of overwhelming the enemy while forming for the attack; but his forces were met with undaunted bravery, quickly thrown into confusion, and completely routed. Rinuccini admits a loss of 3,000 soldiers and 106 officers: "All our banners were taken; all the baggage seized. The spoil, in which were several barrels of powder, cannot be put down at less than 50,000 crowns. Preston's baggage also fell into the hands of the enemy... 1,500 heretics were left upon the field."

Father Meehan says Preston's losses were reckoned at 5,470 killed; while the Parliamentarians — Rinuccini's "heretics" — had only twenty killed and very few wounded. In his retreat, Preston burned Naas, Harristown, and Moyglare, while Jones retired to Dublin with his prisoners — "Nor would he allow the standards taken from the Confederates to be brought in triumph to the city, for that would be attributing to man the work which was due to the Lord alone." Preston subsequently sided with the Marquis of Ormond and the Anglo-Irish party, and wrote, after his excommunication by Rinuccini: "I hold your censures to be invalid; and as for O'Neill, I have pursued him to Maryborough, fully resolved that either he or I shall fall in mortal combat." However, 2,000 of his troops went over to his adversary, and left him almost without an army.

In the summer of 1650 Preston gallantly defended Waterford against Ireton's army, and according to the terms of the surrender on 6th August, was allowed to march out and proceed under safe conduct to Athlone, with standards flying, trumpets sounding, pistols and carbines loaded. He was created Viscount Tara by patent dated at Ennis 2nd July 1650. Excluded by Cromwell from pardon for life and estate, he retired to the Continent, where he died before 14th August 1662, possibly at Bruges. Rinuccini says he was "very subject to fits of anger, in which he was so rash and out-spoken that he had often to retract with apologies what he had said; so hasty in his warlike enterprises that he was sometimes called inconsiderate." His grandson, the 3rd Viscount, died without issue in 1674. [John Preston, descended from his younger brother, was, for his vote in favour of the Union, created Baron Tara in 1800.


52. Burke, Sir Bernard: Dormant, Abeyant, Forfeited, and Extinct Peerages. London, 1866.

85b. Confederation of Kilkenny: Rev. C. P. Meehan. Dublin, 1846.

93. Cromwellian Settlement of Ireland: John P. Prendergast. London, 1870.

186b. Irish Church History: Richard Mant, Bishop of Down and Connor. 2 vols. London, 1840.

271. Ormond, Duke of, Life 1610-'88: Thomas A. Carte, M.A. 6 vols. Oxford, 1851.

295. Rinuccini, Monsignor, G. B., Archbishop of Fermo, Embassy in Ireland, in 1645-'9: Translated by Annie Hutton. Dublin, 1873.

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