Siege of Clonmel by Oliver Cromwell

Duffy's Hibernian Magazine
August 1861
Vol. III, No. 14 | start of article

We now return to Clonmel, which, as we shall see, was destined to be the scene of a grand and thrilling incident, just fourteen years after Father Baron had looked his last on the bell tower of the old Franciscan monastery, which continued to flourish till Cromwell took possession of the town.

Let us premise, however, that a very short time after the formation of the great Catholic league, the supreme council of the Confederates held their parliament in Clonmel on more than one occasion, deeming it far safer and better suited for their deliberations than Kilkenny, particularly in 1642, when the latter place was likely to be seized by Lord Ormond, after the defeat of General Preston at Ballyvega, near Ross.

In the subsequent proceedings of the Confederates, Clonmel adhered to the policy of Rinuccini, who, setting great value on the devotion with which the inhabitants regarded his person, and seeing that it was strongly walled round, made it his head-quarters in 1647, and there wrote some of the most remarkable of the many despatches which he forwarded to the court of Rome touching the state of affairs in Ireland.

It was not, however, till 1650 that Clonmel earned for itself that proud distinction in the military history of this country that was accorded to it, however reluctantly, by Cromwell himself, after the memorable siege.

The general history of that event is accurate enough as to the result; but a manuscript account of it, by one who was thoroughly acquainted with the chief actors in that most singular episode, enables us to throw additional light on the whole affair, and we will therefore lay it before our readers.

When Hugh O'Neill, acting under the orders of Lord Ormond, took possession of Clonmel, and garrisoned it with fifteen hundred troops, nearly all of whom were Ulstermen, his first care was to strengthen the defences of the place, for he had resolved to hold it to the last extremity.

Having been duly proclaimed governor of the town, O'Neill despatched a detachment to Fethard, and another, consisting of eighty men, commanded by an Ulster officer, to the castle of Cahir, for the purpose of preserving both places against the Parliament forces.

At this period Cahir Castle was abundantly supplied with provisions and ammunition, and strengthened by two strong gates, a draw-bridge, a goodly bawn, and a strong-walled bass-court.

Mr. Mathews, a step-brother of Lord Ormond, who was governor of the place, overjoyed at such a timely reinforcement, gave a cordial welcome to the Ulstermen, and set about taking measures for a vigorous defence in case Cromwell's forces should assault it. He arranged, however, with the officer of the Ulstermen that the latter should hold the bawn whenever the enemy approached, stipulating, at the same time, that in case they were overpowered, he would admit them into the castle as soon as the outworks were no longer tenable.

Soon afterwards the van of Cromwell's army appeared before the castle, and set about scaling the outer wall, but were gallantly repulsed by the fourscore Ulstermen, who kept their ground till they saw the main force of the enemy planting their heavy ordnance against the castle.

Knowing that nothing but certain death awaited them if they remained any longer in the bawn, the Ulster officer proceeded to Mathews, asking him to make good his promise, and receive him and his party into the castle. He, however, peremptorily refused, and on returning to his men, the officer found a trumpeter from Cromwell, demanding a parley, which being granted, he capitulated for himself and fellows, who were suffered to march out with all honours of war and a pass to continue in the enemy's quarters for a month.

When they reached the camp Cromwell made much of them, and asked the Ulster officer to join him; but the latter replied (to Cromwell's admiration), that he would not, and then, followed by his men, hastened to join Major-General O'Neill, in Clonmel.

After the reduction of Kilkenny, Cromwell sat down before the former city, and immediately commenced siege operations.

O'Neill, however, nothing daunted, made frequent sallies, causing the enemy so much loss, that Cromwell grew tired of the business, though deeming it a disgrace to leave the town untaken, the more so as he knew that the army commanded for its relief by the Bishop of Ross had been defeated by Lord Broghill.

Among O'Neill's troops, however, there was a traitor, a pliant knave named Gerald Fennell, who was major of horse, and this false-hearted villain contrived to enter into a correspondence with Cromwell, who proposed to give him five hundred pounds sterling and a full pardon, provided that he would, on the night of the eighth or ninth of May, open one of the gates on the north side of the town to five hundred of the besiegers.

Fennell accepted the proposal, and on the night agreed upon drew off the detachment of Ulstermen who had charge of that particular gate, and replaced them with a party of his own.

Now it so happened on that night that Major-General O'Neill could take no rest, for he knew that a crisis was at hand, and he accordingly resolved to make a personal inspection of the various posts.

On reaching the gate from which the Ulstermen had been withdrawn, it occurred to him that there was some treason brewing, and he lost not a moment in summoning Fennell to his presence.

“Why, sir,” demanded the general, “have you moved the Ulstermen from the gate? Why have you not observed my orders?—come, disclose the whole truth, or you are likely to pay dearly for it.”

Fennell then promised to reveal the conspiracy on condition that the general would pardon him.

“Tell the truth freely,” replied O'Neill, “and you may count on my forgiveness.”

Fennell then confessed that he had agreed to open that particular gate to five hundred of the enemy, and no sooner was the general made aware of this than he ordered strong reinforcements to the various posts, and an addition of five hundred men to the gate in question.

All this was done noiselessly, and at the appointed hour the gate was opened, but no sooner had the last man entered than it was securely shut, and at a given signal the Ulster forces fell upon the Cromwellians and cut them to pieces.

Disconcerted by this unexpected issue, Cromwell ordered up the battering guns, breached the wall, and made it assaultable for horse and foot.

O'Neill, however, lost no time in causing a counterscarp and a ditch to be made right opposite the breach, and he also threw a strong body of musketeers into the houses lying near the wall, who opened a galling fire on the enemy as they advanced.

The assault now began in right earnest, the Cromwellians never thinking of the ditch and counterscarp which barred their progress, and so valiantly did the Irish behave on that awful night that they three several times beat back their assailants with terrible carnage.

Resolved, however, to win or lose all, Cromwell poured his masses pell-mell into the breach, the hind ranks pushing those that went before them into the ditch, where they were slaughtered without mercy for fully four hours.

So determined was this gallant resistance that Cromwell's reinforcements refused to enter the yawning breach, and he himself, unable to conceal his admiration of the Irish, declared that they were “invincible.”

Finding that any further attempt might compromise his army, he withdrew to his camp, leaving O'Neill in possession of a breached and bloody wall.

On that night the gallant general called a council of war, and finding that the soldiers had exhausted their ammunition and provision, he marched quietly out of the town by the old bridge, and crossing the mountains, proceeded towards Waterford; nor was it till next morning, when a deputation of the townsmen waited on him in his camp, that Cromwell knew of the retirement of the valiant governor, whom he commended “as a bold soldier.”

With how much truth has Whitelock written of this siege, “that Cromwell found in Clonmel the stoutest enemy his army had ever met in Ireland, and never was seen so hot a storm, of so long continuance, and so gallantly defended.”

On reaching Waterford, and being refused admittance by Diego Preston, then commanding that place, O'Neill hastened by forced marches to Limerick, which he defended valiantly against Ireton till again betrayed, on two several occasions by Fennell, he had to capitulate. The latter, however, got the death he deserved, for Ireton excepted him from pardon, and caused him to be executed, as a traitor to friend and foe.

“Infelix praxis Judae, non Martis alumni

Qui patriam tradens, vendidit ære ducem!”

In the enumeration of Father Baron's works, we have not mentioned any of those which are classed among his opuscula, or minor productions; and we have purposely adopted this course, in order that we may be able to give our readers, in a future number, one of the rarest of those little tracts which came from his pen, namely, the Siege and Storm of Duncannon.