Cromwell Attacks Kilkenny (Part Four)

What remains of the Black Freren Gate at Abbey Street, Kilkenny

What remains of the Black Freren Gate at Abbey Street, Kilkenny

The effects of the fighting on Kilkenny were devastating. Apart from the human cost, many important buildings bore the brunt of the siege and the cruel occupation that followed it. St Patrick’s Church, from which the opening barrages of cannon-fire had rained down on the city, was completely obliterated. Today not a trace of the building remains.

The homes of ordinary citizens in Kilkenny had been gutted in the fighting. The houses of wealthier families at the time were mainly stone-built with roofs of slate. But the houses of poor folk were thatched and built of wattles and clay. These had proven especially vulnerable to artillery fire during the siege.

Bishop David Rothe, who had so proudly and happily welcomed Cardinal Rinnucinni to Kilkenny a few years before, departed the city with the garrison on the morning of March 28th 1650.

The surrender terms allowed the city’s inhabitants to leave with their possessions, so he felt he had nothing to fear. But a party of Cromwellians raided the rearguard of the retiring garrison when it had reached a point about two miles outside the city.

Soldiers waylaid the bishop’s carriage. They robbed him of all his money, and then pulled him from the carriage, stripped him of his clothes and covered him with a vermin infested cloak.

Hearing of this incident, Cromwell permitted the traumatised bishop to return to the city, where he died a month later. He was buried in the tomb of his ancestors in St Mary’s Church.

St Canice’s Cathedral was badly damaged during the siege and its aftermath. The new city governor, Colonel Axtel, had quartered his regiment in the place of worship. The aisles had been converted into stabling for horses. Parts of the roof were torn down, five of its large bells were stolen, and its stained glass windows were shattered with gun butts and axes.

A marble holy water font and many sacred or ancient monuments were smashed to pieces. Horses drank from the remaining fonts. After knocking down the cathedral’s doors, troops herded pigs into both the building itself and the burial ground around it. The pigs, and stray hungry dogs, were encouraged to gnaw at the bones of the dead.

Shortly before he died, Bishop Rothe had the misfortune to witness some of the destruction, which may have hastened his demise. He saw Cromwellian troops hacking away at priceless works of medieval art and sculpture. And he saw them tossing shards of illuminated stained glass from the cathedral into a gaping pit.

Other clergy had to hide from the occupation forces. A legend, which may have some factual basis, claims that a number of ecclesiastics on the run sought refuge in a concealed chamber of the Black Abbey. The story went that among the select few people who knew of their hiding place was a woman called Thornton who spilled the beans- or to be more precise, the milk- on them.

She led the troops to the chamber by spilling milk along the road up to where the entrance to the chamber could be found. The Cromwellians then supposedly dragged them out and killed them on the spot. The lady who betrayed them received a grant of land as a reward, according to this tradition.

Another legend relates to the profanement of Kilkenny’s Market Cross by Cromwellian soldiers. This magnificent stone structure (see picture in chapter on Confederation ) stood close to the present location of the same name. Four columns supported it and devout folk could ascend it on its four sides by flights of stone steps. From its highest point rose a sculptured figure of the Crucifixion.

Shortly after the occupation forces entered the city, a band of troops gathered in the market place around this monument. Aiming their muskets, they opened fire on the Crucifixion symbol to aggravate locals and show them who was in charge. They then broke off pieces of the monument and scattered these on the street.

This part of the story is believable, and the incident would have been quite typical of Cromwell’s troops in the aftermath of a military triumph. But the legend goes on to describe what became of the "profaning scoundrels" who desecrated the Market Cross. Within a few days, each of the seven soldiers involved had died of "a strange malady"…Heaven’s revenge, locals believed.

Outside the city, Governor Axtel made his presence equally felt. He had no qualms about suppressing any hint of opposition to Cromwellian rule within his jurisdiction.

After hostilities had ceased, he instructed his troops to round up fifty inhabitants of Thomastown and execute them as a reprisal for an ambush mounted the previous day in the district by a mixed group of Royalist and native Irish fighters.

A makeshift gallows was erected. The men and women chosen were hanged one by one as families and friends were compelled to watch. The scene of unspeakable horror was preserved for a week to ensure that locals got the message.

On Axtel’s orders, Cromwellian troops shot and killed a group of forty men, women and children in a field near Kildonan Wood.

Axtel had a Fitzgarret of Brow beheaded because the man’s father had fought in the King's army against Cromwell. The sons of the Butlers of Ballykeeffe and Bonnettstown were hanged for the same "offence".

Francis Frisby, a former servant of the Earl of Ormonde, also drew the wrath of Axtel and his Roundhead goons. A protestant and Englishman, Frisby was tortured to death in Kilkenny Castle.

Captain Thomas Shortall was hanged by Axtel simply because he owned a fine estate two miles outside Kilkenny that the Cromwellians had their eyes on.

(An interesting local curio: Before attacking Kilkenny City, Cromwell is reputed to have encamped in Bennettsbridge on what has ever since been known as Cannon Hill, just yards from where the Nore Folk Museum now stands.

And in 1690, the same venue witnessed another large-scale military presence when King William of Orange, better known as King Billy of the Boyne, passed over Cannon Hill on his way south after routing his enemies. There is an excellent display of cannons and other military memorabilia showcased at the Nore Folk Museum, which is well worth a visit.

The museum also proudly flies the Confederate flag that once fluttered in the breeze over Kilkenny in the 1640s, when the City hosted a national parliament that effectively ruled Ireland. )

Old Kilkenny with John Fitzgerald

Every week in the Kilkenny Advertiser, local historian, John Fitzgerald will take you through an excerpt of his book - 'Kilkenny - A blast from the past' . On this page each week you will find anecdotes about old Kilkenny and pictures of the people and streets of the past. Many will be familiar to some and for others it will be a first snapshot of what our city looked like in the good old days. We hope you will enjoy this page which reminds us of how it used to be.

John Fitzgerald can be contacted on 056 7725543 or email: jfitzg3@eircom.net

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