(Part One )
On March 22, 1650, the city was confronted with one of the greatest threats ever to its security and well-being.
Kilkenny had faced, and overcome, many great challenges in the course of its turbulent history. But the countdown to its darkest hours began on a frosty day in 1650. On March 22 of that year, a powerful military force under the command of Oliver Cromwell appeared at the city gates.
Kilkenny was a target of great strategic value to his army in Ireland. And its famed reputation as the seat of the rebel Confederacy elevated its importance and status even higher in the estimation of Cromwell and his anti-royalist forces.
James Butler, the Earl of Ormond, was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and in command of all the forces battling Cromwell’s invading army. He allocated command of his men in Leinster to Lord Castlehaven. Castlehaven in turn had appointed James Walsh governor of Kilkenny Castle and Sir Walter Butler governor of the city.
In the weeks preceding his arrival at the city gates, a combination of plague sickness and low morale among Royalist troops had weakened the defending Kilkenny garrison. Lord Castlehaven had reinforced the garrison with 1000 foot soldiers and 200 horsemen, but half of these had died of plague by the eve of the siege, and less than half of these, around 300, were fighting fit.
Lord Dillon’s army, a force of 1,500 foot and 600 horse, could have greatly augmented the ranks of the defenders. But these men flatly refused to come to Kilkenny’s defence. They saw resistance to Cromwell as hopeless.
Background to the Siege
So how did Cromwell come to be at the gates of Kilkenny on that day in March 1650? To answer that we must go back a bit further, to August of the previous year, when he landed in Dublin with an army of more than 17,000 crack troops…men trained to the pitch of military perfection.
Having subdued Drogheda, whose garrison his forces eliminated with ease, he turned his attention in a southerly direction. Wexford fell to his rampaging forces on October 11th. New Ross followed on the 19th. Sweeping across South Kilkenny, he captured Carrick-on-Suir on November 23rd.
Waterford put up stiff resistance, holding out against seemingly impossible odds. Cromwell and his army hunkered down in winter quarters in Cork throughout December and January.
But on January 29th, his mighty spring offensive got underway. He cut across Tipperary like a hot knife through butter. Fethard capitulated without a shot being fired. Cashel proved another virtual walkover for the puritan leader, after which he felt confident that Kilkenny City would fall quickly into his hands. He was encouraged in this belief by an act of treachery by an officer of the city garrison called Tickle.
This gentleman, thinking it was better to be on the likely winning side in the ongoing military campaign, sent letters to Cromwell, offering vital information that could have eased the way to a bloodless victory for the invaders.
In one missive he wrote: "If your Excellency will draw before this town I will send a messenger unto you upon your first approach, and shall give an account of the weakest part of the town and the force within exactly".
Cromwell offered Tickle £4,000, a high command in his army, and the governorship of Kilkenny in return for the proposed betrayal.
Unfortunately for Cromwell, and even more so for Tickle, some of these treasonous letters were intercepted. Tickle was half-hanged and disembowelled for his betrayal. Apart from this hiccup- the discovery of the traitor in the City garrison- Cromwell was also wary of the fact that plague had been ravaging Kilkenny for weeks.
Whilst this malady had depleted the strength of the defending garrison- a plus for the attackers-it also posed an obvious and deadly risk to forces attempting to enter the city. Another factor in his decision to delay the big push on Kilkenny was a lack of firepower and other resources vital for a siege. Over-reliance on the co-operation of the traitor had caused him to scale down his forces.
Following this initial setback in his quest to capture Kilkenny, Cromwell diverted his forces to attack Callan, which resisted, but fell to the Cromwellians after three days of fierce fighting (see Kilkenny: People Places Faces for a detailed account of the battle for Callan ).
Captain Mark Geoghegan, who led the defence of Skerry’s Castle in West Street, Callan, died defending the town. The remaining members of the garrison and many civilians were then massacred. Geoghegan’s wife escaped after killing at least a dozen enemy troops during the siege.
By mid-March, Cromwell had stormed into Thomastown. The defenders were crushed like ripe tomatoes. His troops went berserk in Gowran, killing men, women, and children at random after seizing control of the village. Its castle was burned to the ground. Gowran became a staging ground for the next phase of the campaign in this County: The attack on Kilkenny City.
From Gowran, Cromwell led his forces to the city via Bennettsbridge. Along the way, he performed a major atrocity that struck even greater fear into the hearts of an already jittery and panic-stricken city population. Between Ballyhale and Castlemorris, on the northern edge of the Walshe Mountains, stood Castle Howel.
Since Howel Walshe built the castle in the 13th century, the Walshes had proudly occupied it. The Cromwellians became quickly aware of its strategic location. It was perched on mountainous land and its occupants had a wide panoramic view across the Central Plain of the county.
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: [email protected]