The Siege of Clonmel by Oliver Cromwell

Clonmel acquired much importance during the civil wars of the seventeenth century. It was one of the first places seized by Colonel Richard Butler of Kilcash, and the Lords of the Pale, when they resolved to take up arms and make common cause with the northern insurgents. Its citizens insisted strongly upon their allegiance to the royal cause, avowing that their only purpose was to defend themselves against a Parliament equally hostile to the sovereign and to themselves. They acted with singular magnanimity, for we read that their leaders granted a safe-conduct to such of the Protestant townsmen as were unwilling to join their ranks. It should also be mentioned to the credit of our town, that when cromwell’s commissioners afterwards made inquisition to the massacres of 1641, and following years, it was discovered that Clonmel had remained free from crime, and that not a single outrage had been perpetrated here. Life was found to have been held sacred within our walls. In the year 1650 Clonmel earned for itself a proud distinction, winning from Cromwell himself the highest tribute of admiration. The Parliamentarian general was sweeping with fiery haste through the southern counties of Ireland, and at last resolved to summon the garrison of Clonmel. The Earl of Ormond had already poured into the town some 1500 Ulstermen for its defence, entrusting the command to Hugh O’Neill, a kinsman of the great northern chieftain.  Fethard had been quietly surrendered ; Cashel garrisoned with a Parliamentary force ; Caher and Kilkenny were also safe in their hands ; and now, Cromwell with his ‘Ironsides.’ turns towards Clonmel, where the death agony of a terrible war is to be experienced.

For more than a month the lieutenant-general lay encamped before Clonmel, and siege operations were carried on with great difficulty and daily hazard. Day after day wore on, and still the enemy held out until about the 8th of May, when Cromwell resolved to push matters to the extremeties, for events in England were demanding his speedy return. A formidable battery was erected, and the guns opened fire upon the devoted walls : a breach was effected at about three o’clock in the afternoon of the 9th of May – it is supposed near the northern gate – and the besieging forces were thus enabled to dislodge the “flankers,” who had annoyed them with an unceasing cross-fire.

Cromwell lost many of his men in attempting to enter through the breach which his guns had made. The lot fell upon one Colonel Cullen, who was chosen to lead the advance with both infantry and cavalry. Where the wall had been battered down, was at the end of a great street-so the despatch of Mr. Secretary Cliffe runs – on either side of which were old houses, with wide bay windows, filled with armed men, who maintained a galling fire upon the assailants. Every effort was made to force a passage into the town, and beyond the counterscarp which O’Neill had thrown across; but a deadly storm rained thick upon the devoted band, and they were thrown into disorder. A precipitate flight ensued; and the ranks of the invaders were reduced to a skeleton. Cromwell had met with, indeed, “the stoutest enemy” he had ever encountered since his landing in Ireland. Those who survived that fatal hour had literally to be dragged up by hand over the debris of the broken ramparts. Cullen and several of his bravest companions were killed in the attack.(1)

Oliver next issued directions to have heavier guns brought up from the battery, and placed that night nearer the ramparts, ready for the morrow’s work. That night, Hugh O’Neill and his Ulstermen held a council of war with the civic authorities, which had been hastily summoned to consider the question of an immediate flight or further resistance. The latter was found imopssible, for the very plate of the richer in habitants had been melted down for the purpose of casting bullets ; and now these were all expended, and the powder supply totally exhausted. It was decided that the general and his brave army should make good their escape under the cover of night; this they were enabled to do through a clever stratagem.

At about twelve o’clock that night some of the officers stationed on the breach came to the camp, escorting two of the townspeople, with word from the mayor and the governor that they were ready to treat for surrender of the town, their lives and properties being guaranteed. Cromwell entered into treaty with them, and the articles of capitulation were actually drawn up. Nothing remained to be done, except their formal signature. It was not long before the silence was broken by a shrill alarum ; the troops rushed from their tents only to learn that O’Neill and his officers had escaped. Cromwell though outwitted, kept his word with the townspeople of Clonmel. This was all the more remarkable as he had lost 2500 people in that seige alone. He traced his great burly “Oliver” at the foot of the articles of surrender, and sent immediately a force of cavalry in pursuit of the fugitive army. The next morning, Cromwell marched into Clonmel: a new garrison was appointed, and Colonel Sankey was placed as Governor of the town.

From the bed of the river, near the old Manor Mills, several cannon-balls have been taken. Terrible reminders these, of that pitiless storm of iron hail which rained so furiously over Clonmel!

(1). It was in the course of this disastrous affair that Captain Langley, who was one of the first to volunteer for service with the storming party, had his left hand cut off by a blow of a scythe as he was attempting to mount the breach. Ever after he wore an iron hand, which curious and interesting memento is, we are informed, still preserved in a glass case at Coalbrook, the residence of that brave officer’s lineal descendant, Geo. Langley, Esq., D.L. Another relic is to be found at Coolmore, the residence of the late Captain Sankey, R.N.-namely, a pair of military gauntlets presented by Cromwell himself to an ancestor of his, who also was at the siege of Clonmel.

Taken from :
My Clonmel Scrapbook
Compiled & Edited James White
Second 1000 Published E. Downey & Co., Waterford 1907 No. ISBN