The Siege of Duncannon

Duffy's Hibernian Magazine
August 1861
Vol. III, No. 15

In the number immediately preceding this, we devoted a considerable space to the biography of Father Bonaventure Baron, who, we need hardly repeat, must ever rank among the most distinguished of our Irish writers, whether we regard the multiplicity of his published works or the profound erudition which they exhibit.

In fulfilment, therefore, of our promise, we now submit to our readers an English version of the learned father's diary of the siege and capture of the fort of Duncannon, a most memorable incident in the military history of Ireland during the seventeenth century.

Let us premise, however, that Father Baron was indebted to some friend who assisted at the operations for the diurnal narrative which he turned into Latin, and of which he published two editions, one dedicated to the supreme council of the Confederates, and another (that now before us) which, after being reprinted at Wurtzburgh in 1666, he dedicated to his friend, Sir Patrick O'Mulledy, then Spanish ambassador at the court of Charles the Second of England.

The value of this Diary will, doubtless, be heightened in the estimation of our readers, when we state, that the fall of Duncannon placed the Confederates in possession of one of the most important strongholds then in Ireland, commanding as it did the entrance to the ports of Waterford and Ross, and enabling them to carry on diplomatic and commercial relations with the shores of France, Spain, and Holland, whence they received from to time large supplies of money, arms, and ammunition.

Two very remarkable men—General Preston and Lord Esmonde—are brought prominently before us in this opusculum or minor work of Father Baron, and it may not be amiss to say a few words respecting those rival commanders.

Preston, had distinguished himself in the Low Countries, where his noble defence of Louvain ranked him among the most celebrated military leaders of his time; but as for Esmonde, who commanded the fort of Duncannon for the Parliament, it would be hard to find in the history of any country a man of more unscrupulous or treacherous character.

An apostate from the religion of his forefathers, a repudiator of the woman who was supposed to be his lawful wife, a remorseless suborner of perjurers, a rapacious plunderer of the Catholics of Wicklow; and, in fine, a traitor to the unfortunate Charles the First, he stands out in strong relief among the most flagitious villains of a period when rascality and impious cant may be said to have culminated.

Esmonde's death, as Father Baron informs us, occurred soon after the taking of Duncannon, nor should we omit to state that the success of the Irish was in great measure owing to the supplies of money and munitions sent to them by Pope Urban VIII., through Father Scarampo, then Papal minister to the Confederates.

For particulars of the life of this truly great man, the friend and patron of Oliver Plunket, we remit the reader to the admirable biography which the Rev. Dr. Moran has given us of the martyred Primate—a work in every respect worthy of highest commendation, and absolutely necessary for all those who desire to be intimately acquainted with one of the most dismal and, at the same time, most glorious episodes in our chequered history.

Having stated so much, by way of introduction, we now proceed to give Father Baron's narrative of the siege of Duncannon, by the Confederated Catholics, under General Preston, subjoining various incidents relating to the history of the fort itself at subsequent periods.

“Eleven miles south-east of the city of Waterford near where the sister rivers, the Suir, Nore, and Barrow, fall into the sea, stands the fort of Duncannon, on a site so elevated that it commands all ships approaching either Waterford or Ross.

Hence when the Spaniards threatened a descent on our shores in 1588, it was thought worth while to strengthen the fortifications of the place.

From the fort a narrow neck of land runs out into the sea, and on it there is a tall, slender tower or light-house,[1] said to have been erected by the merchants of Ross, in the days of their commercial prosperity.

The fort itself covers an area of about three acres, and on the face looking seawards it is defended by three batteries, while on that opposite the land it is protected by a deep dry ditch; behind this there was a massive and precipitous rampart hollowed out of the living rock, and on it were two watch towers.

There were also two sally-ports, and between them a draw-bridge, which could be raised or lowered as occasion might require. Behind the latter the English constructed another rampart, parallel to the first; and close to the citadel of the fort they raised a third (rampart), faced with earth, and amply furnished with all appliances for making a vigorous defence.

In fact, the fort was provided with every requirement, for the English had resolved to hold it to the last, when they discovered that we were bent on taking it; and, indeed, it was well worth taking, for its site, as we have said, was commanding, its structure solid, and whosoever was master of it, must also be master of the neighbouring seaports, and the entire circumjacent territory.

As soon therefore as the supreme council of the Confederates had made every preparation for the siege, and appointed two of their own body, Galfrid Baron, and Nicholas Plunkett, to act as commissioners during the operations, they ordered General Thomas Preston to proceed with the forces destined for the expedition.

He therefore marched from Waterford after the feast of the Epiphany, at the head of twelve hundred infantry, most of which were draughted from the regiment of Richard Butler, Lord Mountgarret, and others from that of the Wexford regiment commanded by Colonel Sinnott.

A troop of horse numbering eighty, belonging to Robert Talbot's cavalry, accompanied this little army, which appearing before Duncannon on Monday, January 20th, lost no time in pitching tents within musket shot of the fort, where the cavity of the valley afforded shelter against the wind and severity of the winter.

Early in the morning the general ordered the soldiers to prepare for work, and he also sent a detachment to take possession of the wind-mill, (then in ruins,) which standing on an elevated site, commanded an extensive view of the low grounds.

Next morning (Jan. 21st,) the English opened fire on our men, and made a sortie with a view to reconnoitre our strength, but they were soon driven back over the narrow intervening space by our engineers, who armed only with their spades, repulsed them gallantly.

During the remainder of the forenoon the enemy kept up a brisk fire from their ramparts, till seeing that they were only wasting their powder, they deemed it wiser to desist.

Next morning, however, they renewed their fire immediately after sunrise, and then hoisted their vari-coloured ensigns—a very pompous display, indeed; but warned by their previous defeat, they did not venture to interrupt us any further.

Towards nightfall the general ordered our engineers to erect a battery near the mouth of the harbour, from which he could cannonade the enemy's ships; for the latter lay so near the land that they could easily pitch their balls and bombs amongst us.

Our engineers therefore, commenced throwing up works, to protect us against all such eventualities, while other detachment, of the same arm carried on the approaches most industriously, the darkness of the night aiding them beyond our expectations.

Next morning (Jan. 23), the enemy's ships fired on us, in order to demolish all the works we had thrown up during the preceding night, but their balls fell so wide of the mark that most of them passed over the camp. As soon as the English perceived this they got together sixty men, and made a sortie from the sally-ports on our lines, but were repulsed, and had to run for their lives.

During the whole of the following night our engineers toiled indefatigably in completing the ship-battery, and, indeed, considering the difficulties with which they had to contend, nothing could exceed the earnestness and alacrity with which they worked.

Next morning (Jan. 24), that battery directed its fire on the enemy's ships, and with such effect that Captain Bell (the commander of the squadron) was compelled to cut his cables, and make for the open sea, without raising his anchor; three other ships, also under his command, were obliged to adopt the same course, losing their anchors, and affording our men a most agreeable spectacle; for at that moment a light breeze springing up and the tide rising, prevented the vessels from getting off, and exposed them to our musketeers, whose steady and well-directed fire seriously damaged the yards, tackle, and hull of the commander's ship, so much so that the very beautiful ensign of the Parliament was literally shot away in a moment.

During this action two young sailors went aloft to hoist the Irish Harp, but they were compelled to retrace their steps, and were actually precipitated from the shrouds to the deck.

At length, Captain Bell, availing himself of a favourable wind, got off beyond our reach, and cast anchor in safe moorings. Meanwhile a detachment from the fort itself attacked our men in the trenches, but they were beaten off instantly.

Two days afterwards, Sunday (Jan. 26th), the enemy's flag-ship, so terribly crippled in the late action, unable to weather the rough sea, went down with all on board.

On the following day (Jan. 27th), our engineers had worked with such good will and emulation at the approaches that all access to the fort, on the land side, was blocked up; so much so that the besieged could not receive supplies of food or water.

On Tuesday (Jan 28th), three of the ships already mentioned, sailed with the early tide for Milford, to announce how roughly they had been handled by our people. This we learned from a Frenchman, who escaped in a boat from the flag-ship, and was picked up close to our battery. He told General Preston that our fire had done incredible damage to said ship, and that ten of its men had been killed, and many others wounded by the falling of the spars and the balls of our gunners and musketeers.

Next morning there was a continuous firing on both sides, the English thundering from the fort, and we from our works, where one of our guns was struck on the carriage by an iron stake over four feet long.

We were now in the beginning of February, a month of incessant rains, which proved a great obstacle to the progress of our field works.

On Sunday (Feb. 1st), towards nightfall, the besieged made a sortie on our nearest approach, but they were repulsed, after losing five men killed, and we two.

The remainder of the week was spent in carrying on the works, notwithstanding the intensity of the cold, and the strong winds which marred our progress.

In the meanwhile General Preston had recourse to an admirable stratagem; for he ordered four of his men to proceed at nightfall to the gate of the fort with a large, heavy chest, pretending that they were deserters, and begging to be let in, our men firing blank cartridge after them. Being refused admittance, they laid down their burden, and then hastened back to our lines.

Next morning (Feb. 10th,) a considerable number of the enemy, seeing the chest, came out to seize it, and, indeed, they had reason to rue their rashness; for, after carrying the heavy load into the fort, they proceeded to break it open, and thus, in their hot haste, caused it to explode; for Laloe, the chief of our engineers, had filled it with powder and grenades. Many of the enemy were blown to atoms in an instant, and, as for the chest itself, it was reduced to a heap of charcoal and ashes.

Towards mid-day the enemy sallied out to attack our camp, but they were driven back with loss by our people, who watched all their motions incessantly.

Early on the following morning we opened a heavy fire on the works of the fort, which so shook the walls that our general thought it time to send a drummer to the governor, Lord Esmonde, demanding the surrender of the place. Esmonde, however, not only indignantly refused the proposal, but, contrary to all military usage, caused his men to fire on the drummer.

During the following three days a continuous fire was kept up on both sides, till, as it were to add to the enemy's consternation, a storm arose which swept the thatch off many of their huts. Astonished at this, they were hardly able to reply to our guns; and their case was rendered still more desperate by one of our bombs, which, falling on some inflammable matter, set fire to three or four of their houses, the thatch of which they were obliged to tear off and fling into the sea.

The enemy's guns, though loaded with light shot, prevented our engineers from completing the approaches, the more so as the stony nature of the soil retarded the zealous efforts of our men in the trenches. As for the besieged, they were in high spirits, deeming themselves safe in the fort, and calculating on supplies from England, although they must have known that our batteries were ready to open on their transports.

On Wednesday (Feb. 19) five ships hove in sight, and cast anchor at Creden Head. This, indeed, was a most welcome spectacle to the besieged, but the vessels durst not approach the fort lest they might be sunk by the fire of our guns.

Seeing this, Preston ordered some boats to be manned for the purpose of boarding the said ships; but the dense darkness of the night frustrated the gallant general's design.

The enemy, nevertheless, with the aid of torches and other lights, contrived to throw a quantity of provisions into the fort, that is to say, thirty or forty barrels of salted meat, a large supply of English and Dutch cheese, together with some tobacco, etc., etc.

This grieved the minds of our men over much; for if they had had a sufficient number of boats they never would have allowed the said supplies to be thrown into the place. Nevertheless, heaven was pleased to turn this circumstance to our advantage.

Two days afterwards the enemy made another attempt to beat our men out of the approaches, but they failed to do so, and we concluded that their courage was not increased by the recently received supplies.

On the 26th, however, they made another and more serious attack on us, but they met a resistance for which they were not prepared; for after a hand-to-hand fight they were repulsed, the loss on either side being equal. Towards sunset we made an attempt on their outer wall, and drove a strong body of their men right into their sally-ports. In this affair they lost a considerable number of men and a goodly quantity of arms.

On the 1st of March Preston despatched a second drummer with a letter to Esmonde, demanding the surrender of the fort for the king's use and service, as also for the safety of the kingdom.

The general in said letter informed Esmond that if he did not yield on the favourable terms which were offered to him, he (Preston) would be obliged to proceed to extremities.

To this Esmonde replied, that “he deemed it unworthy of him to treat with such a man—that he held the fort for the king's majesty, and the maintenance of the Protestant religion, and that the king had already proclaimed Preston and all his abettors to be rebels.” “My honour and my conscience,” continued Esmonde, “revolt at the idea of surrender, and I would fain learn what letters you can produce to show that you have been authorized to demand possession of the place, which I am resolved to hold to the last.”

On the following Tuesday a fierce tempest arose, which did serious damage to the ships, but towards evening it grew calm, and the vessels were enabled to take up safe moorings.

March 13, the enemy came out from the sally-ports, intent on beating down our gabions, but our men repulsed them valiantly, many of them smashing their lances on the enemy's cuirasses.

Next day Esmonde despatched a drummer with a letter to our general, stating “that he wondered much at his conduct, the more so, as he (Preston) professed loyalty to the king.” “Take heed,” ran the letter, “lest you incur the guilt of high treason; but if you can show any instrument annulling the patents by which I hold the fort, let me see it, and I will surrender the place without further delay.”

To this Preston retnrned answer, “that although the king's Irish Catholic subjects had agreed to a cessation of hostilities with Lord Ormond, his majesty's lieutenant, they had no notion of making terms with the parliamentary forces then in possession of Duncannon.”

He further reminded him (Esmonde) that, not satisfied with dismissing Major Capron and others who were loyal to the crown, he had also received supplies from the rebel parliament, and concluded by telling him that “by surrendering the place he might clear his name of the aspersion of disloyalty, and that if he would not do so, he (Preston) had ample means to compel him.”

Saturday and Sunday (March 15, 16) were spent by us in completing the trenches, which gave us command of the enemy's ramparts, and also in laying a mine right under the northern sally-port, which being fired on the following morning, caused a wide breach in the wall.

Seeing this, our men rushed out of the trench, and engaged in a hand-to-hand conflict with the enemy, who fought very valiantly, many falling on both sides.

Laloe, the chief of our engineers, however, plied the besieged so vigorously with balls and bombs, that their granaries and thatched huts were set on fire, and burnt down, notwithstanding the efforts which were made to save them.

This fight was maintained by besiegers and besieged for three hours, till our general, seeing his men overpowered by the shower of stone balls which the guns of the fort discharged at them, caused the retreat to be sounded, after we had lost ten gallant fellows in that fierce conflict.

Preston now pushed his brass and iron guns to the very brink of the ditch, and battered down the tower which lay nearest to the inner gate of the fort.

This occurred on the festival day of Ireland's patron saint; and no sooner was the tower demolished than Preston commanded a detachment of one hundred and forty choice men to dash into the ditch with scaling ladders and hurdles covered with hides.

Some of them were shot down as they hastened onwards, but there were not wanting stout fellows to take their places and mount into the tower which the enemy had deserted.

After maintaining themselves in that perilous position for upwards of an hour, they were obliged to make the best of their way out of it, driven back by a shower of balls and iron stakes, which cost us the loss of fourteen killed, and twenty-five dangerously wounded.

The very women and children in the fort took part in this bloody contest.

As for the enemy, they too lost a considerable number of their men, and among others a Captain Russell, the deputy governor of the fort, who succeeded Captain Lurken, killed five days before. As for Esmonde, he was then in very weak health and very deaf.

Next day Preston demanded a suspension of hostilities, in order that both parties might bury their dead; and the enemy consented to this on condition that our general would allow the corpses to be carried out of the fort. He, however, would not listen to such terms, as all the ground outside the place was now in his power, but on reconsideration of the matter, the enemy adopted his view, and the remainder of the day was passed in peace.

Meanwhile the enemy, seeing their garrison diminishing day by day, and knowing that they had no chance of getting further supplies of provision, began to lose heart; so much so that they soon afterwards demanded a parley, which being granted, Esmonde despatched a drummer with a letter to Preston, requiring him to name those whom he would give as hostages till the articles of surrender were perfected—he (Esmonde) proposing to give a like number. Our general instantly named Father Oliver Darcy,[2] prior of the Dominican Convent of Kilkenny, and Captain Dungan; and Esmonde sent as his securities his nephew Richard, and the deputy governor of another fort. On the next night both parties subscribed the following articles:—

That Esmonde should, on the 19th of March, surrender to General Preston the fort of Duncannon for the king's service. Secondly, That the garrison would be allowed to march out with baggage, and colours unfolded; thirdly, that each of the common soldiers would be allowed to retain the third part of a lance, and the officers all the insignia of their rank; fourthly, that all of them should be provided with a safe conduct to proceed to Dublin or Youghal. Finally, that Preston should hold Duncannon against all enemies of the king's majesty.

Of the garrison forty expressed a wish to be conducted to Youghal, one hundred and twenty to Dublin, and the remainder to Wexford, whence they were shipped to England.

In the interval Esmonde remained in the fort awaiting a carriage to take him to Dublin, and on its arrival he set out, but had not proceeded far on his journey when he died, and was buried near his manor of Limerick (county Wexford).

On the day agreed upon Preston took possession of the fort, where we found a great store of arms, twenty-two battering guns and some of brass, one of which was so heavy that the English could not move it to the embrasure, from which it might have galled us severely. Of powder there was not much, but there was abundance of corn, cheese, and tobacco. We found little or no wine, for as the besieged could not cook their meat in sea water, they used the wine for that purpose.

During the siege we lost one very brave officer, who distinguished himself on various occasions; one lieutenant-colonel, three captains and twenty-six common soldiers. We expended during the operations 176 iron balls, 19000 pounds of powder, and 162 stone balls.

The enemy's loss, as they themselves admitted, was very great.

This memorable siege commenced on the 2d of January, terminated gloriously for us on the 19th of March 1645, owing to the valour and skill of General Thomas Preston, who learned the art of war in Flanders—that far-famed academy of Mars—where he won renown as a brave and experienced commander.”

Immediately after its surrender, Preston was appointed Governor of Duncannon, and a very beautiful plan of the siege was engraved at Kilkenny, by Gasper Hubert, chief of the engineers, who came with the successful general from the Low Countries.

This rare diagram represents the fort as it was during the operations—with its three towers facing the land—the trenches of the besiegers, the quarters of Butler, Synnott, Warren, and other officers who acted under Preston, of whom it also gives a very finely-engraved medallion likeness.

Hubert dedicated this fine specimen of art to his chief with the following legend:—

Illustrissimo nobilissimoque Domino D. Thomae Preston, Lageniensis exercitus in Hibernia generali, arcis Duncannon expugnatori gubernatorigue.”

From the time of its capture by Preston till it was finally reduced by Ireton, that is to say, for a period of over five years, Duncannon was held by the Confederate government, and during this interval it was on more than one occasion the head-quarters of the nuncio Rinuccini, who expended a considerable sum in strengthening its fortifications.

He himself tells us that French, Bishop of Ferns, advised him to fix his residence in Duncannon, (in 1648,) when the Confederacy was split into two hostile factions; and in the same year we find him there, waiting the arrival of his Dean with despatches from Rome—anxiously watching every sail that appeared on the horizon, till at length he beheld, “from a window of the fort,” the long-expected ship entering the harbour of Waterford, after a very narrow escape from the Parliamentary cruisers.[3]

In the report which he presented to Innocent X., the nuncio makes a very affecting allusion to Duncannon, and tells his Holiness that during his sojourn in Ireland there was no place in the whole island more devoted to the Holy See. “So much so,” continues he, “that I never refused to furnish it with supplies of money and ammunition, fancying that religion never could be wholly lost in Ireland as long as we maintained that strong hold, standing on the mouth of the river Barrow, and commanding the principal approach to the Irish coast.”

Under the guns of this fort the San Pietro,—the frigate which conveyed him to Ireland, rode securely at anchor for three years, and when he was forced to retire from the scene of his luckless diplomacy, the garrison of Duncannon, grateful for former favours, sent the same ship round to Galway,[4] where the nuncio bade adieu to a land which was about to fall a victim to its own parricidal dissensions.

At length, in 1649, a more terrible enemy than Preston sat down to leaguer Duncannon—we mean Ireton, with whose stern, merciless features Cooper's pencil and Haubraken's engraving have familiarised us. Repulsed, or rather surprised by a clever piece of strategy, planned by Lord Castlehaven, and boldly carried out by Colonel Wogan, then commanding the fort, Ireton was obliged to raise the siege, after sustaining severe loss; but no sooner had Cromwell taken Waterford, than Wogan was obliged to surrender Duncannon to the parliamentary forces.

Nearly half a century after the occurrence of the events which we have been summarising, the unfortunate James the Second, retreating southwards from the Boyne, took refuge in Duncannon, while waiting for a vessel to carry him off; and a ledge of rock, north of the fort, commonly called “the King's Rock,” is still pointed out as the spot from which that imbecile monarch embarked for the shores of France.


[1] Hooke-tower

[2] Afterwards made Bishop of Dromore at the instance of Rinuccini.

[3] Nunziatura, p. 304.

[4] Ibid, p. 430.