Cromwell in Kilkenny

Kilkenny fights back

As the invaders prepared to lay siege to Kilkenny, Walter Butler was building up the garrison’s defences. He deployed correspondingly greater numbers of fighters to a part of the wall at which he figured Cromwell would be likely to attempt a breach. Behind the wall that stood between the invaders and occupation of the city, the garrison erected fences of stakes and ramparts (Flat-topped defensive mounds) to fortify their positions.

Defending musketeers and swordsmen lay in wait for an attack that might come at any time.

While the attention of both sides was chiefly focused on the section of wall overlooked by St. Patrick’s Church, Cromwell’s troops attempted to gain entry into Kilkenny at its perceived weakest point: Irishtown. But the defenders here repulsed the attack.

Cromwell repeated his call to Walter Butler to surrender, and was again rebuffed by a defiant city governor.

The following day, Sunday, passed without incident as 17th century armies refrained from waging war on the Lord’s Day. But tension was high, and a palpable fear gripped the city’s population as the countdown to Armageddon began.

Zero Hour

The morning of Monday March 25th was dark, cold, and clammy. Inside the City Wall, a grim silence prevailed as weary troops and terrified civilians waited for the inevitable onslaught. Anxious whispers, heart-felt prayers, and the sound of birdsong accompanied the first faint rays of sunlight that struggled to break through a veil of thick black cloud.

The silence was shattered at 5.30 a.m. Cannons roared. Artillery fire rained down from the tower of St. Patrick’s Church on the stables that lay near the Castle gate. Ball after ball crashed against the City wall. The firing seemed to go on forever. It continued non-stop until noon on Tuesday, when a breach had appeared in a section of the wall.

Eyeing this gaping hole in the defensive barrier, Cromwell ordered his men to storm the breach and enter the city. Lt. Colonel Daniel Axtel led the attack, which came under fierce cannon and musket-fire from defenders who had moved quickly to fill the breach with fences of razor-sharp stakes and mounds of earth.

A second storming party under Colonel Hewson was also beaten back. Wounded and dying men lay heaped on both sides of the breach in the wall. Body parts were scattered everywhere.

Decapitated corpses, arms, legs, and torsos seemed to quiver and move…taking on a new life of their own amidst the gurgling streams of hot blood that washed over them. The ear-splitting cries of injured men unnerved both attackers and defenders.

Cromwell lost a total of 70 troops, two colonels, and a number of lower ranking officers in the two attacks. The garrison lost 30 men.

When a furious Cromwell ordered a third attack on this heavily defended breach; his troops refused to obey. Such disloyalty to the Lord Protector from his men was rare enough, and an indication that his initial confidence in a quick victory had been dented by the garrison’s fighting spirit.

He then decided on a diversionary tactic. Giving the impression that his forces were preparing for a third storming of the breach, he dispatched a large force to Dean’s Gate at Irishtown, which, it’s important to remember, was totally separate from the Hightown or Englishtown.

Unfortunately for Kilkenny, it was also less adequately defended. Apart from being the weakest point in the city’s defences, Irishtown had immense strategic value to the invaders because it encompassed St Canice’s Cathedral. This rose to a considerable height and thus offered a panoramic view of Englishtown.

Col. Ewers led one thousand Cromwellian troops to attack Irishtown and seize the cathedral. The attackers approached Dean’s Gate by a route that took them down by New Street, Flood Street and Blackmill Street. They rapidly overcame the poorly armed, plague-ridden and badly undernourished defenders.

Within a matter of hours, they had completely occupied Irishtown. Rampaging troops smashed their way into the cathedral.

Having subdued Irishtown, Cromwell re-directed his efforts to capturing Hightown, with its formidable defences. He attempted to break through a section of the city wall that ran alongside the River Bregagh at St. Francis Abbey.

On Wednesday, March 27th, his troops managed to create a breach in the wall where it adjoined the Abbey. For a while, this breakthrough seemed to herald imminent disaster for the garrison.

But the city governor was alerted and the defenders quickly counter-attacked. The Cromwellians at this location were cut down by Irish and Royalist horsemen. Thirty or more skeletons were unearthed at the spot in the late 20th century.

Despite this morale boost for the garrison, the city governor realised that his forces would soon be completely outflanked and overwhelmed by sheer weight of numbers. Letters had passed back and forth between the opposing sides since the invaders had arrived at the city gates.

Defiant at first, Butler now began to soften his position. Lord Castlehaven had specified to him days earlier that if the city were not relieved by 7 p.m. on March 27th, he should surrender on the best terms possible if the alternative was an all-out massacre of the population.

He organised a parley to explore the possibility of an honourable surrender to Cromwell. The group he appointed to meet the enemy beyond the south wall of the city comprised prominent citizens and pillars of the Kilkenny establishment: Captain David Turnball, Edward Rothe, the well known merchant, James Cowley, Recorder of Kilkenny, and Major John Comerford.

Later that evening, even as surrender was being negotiated, eight companies of foot soldiers under Colonel Gifford crossed the Nore and set about storming St. John’s Gate at the corner of Maudlin Street.

But these troops met with a hail of gunfire and fierce resistance from defending swordsmen when they tried to cross John’s Bridge to enter the City by this point. Around fifty Cromwellians died in the skirmish.

Though the besiegers had been put under severe pressure, both sides knew that capitulation was only a matter of time. The bloodletting soon stopped as terms of surrender were agreed upon and signed.

Next morning, March 28th, Cromwell’s forces took control of Kilkenny and its proud castle. The garrison was allowed to leave the city, but fines totalling £2,000 were imposed on the civic population of Kilkenny in the weeks that followed, an amount equivalent to about ninety million Euro in today’s monetary terms. These fines were to reimburse Cromwell for the cost of his bloody siege.

The triumphant leader appointed Lt. Colonel Axtel as Governor of Kilkenny. He had shown true heroism in the course of the siege. This impressed Cromwell, who also favoured Axtel because he had been the officer in charge of the guard at the execution of King Charles I following the Crown’s defeat in the English Civil War.

-John Fitzgerald

Continued next week

Battle rages in Kilkenny
Previous Reflections on Hurling
Next Three Miles of Road