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  • The walls of Clonmel
    The walls of Clonmel
  • The Siege of Clonmel
    The Siege of Clonmel

“There was never seen so hot a storm of so long continuance, and so gallantly defended, neither in England nor Ireland.”

English eyewitness of the Siege of Clonmel.

“Ní raibh a leithéid de chlampar riamh a sheas chomh fada, agus a cosnaíodh chomh cróga, i Sasana ná in Éirinn.” 

Finné Sasanach ar Léigear Chluain Meala.

“There are two in Munster who would destroy us and our goods, namely the Earl of Ormond and the Earl of Desmond…….whom in the end the Lord will destroy.”

“Tá beirt i gCúige Mumhan a scriosfadh muid féin agus ár n-earraí, is iad sin Iarla Urumhan agus Iarla Dheasumhan....agus faoi dheireadh, scriosfaidh An Tiarna iad uile.”

“On 8 April 1298, Otho de Grandison, Lord of the Manor of Clonmel, was given a ‘murage’ grant allowing him to raise money through local taxes to build a town wall.”

Ar an 8 Aibreán 1298, tugadh deontas ‘murage’ do Otho de Grandison, Tiarna Mhainéir Chluain Meala, rud a thug deis dó airgead a bhailiú trí chánacha áitiúla chun balla a thógáil sa bhaile.

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The Siege of ClonmelThe Siege of Clonmel

In 1642, a bitter Civil War erupted in England between the King, Charles I, and Parliament. The chief military commander on Parliament’s side was Oliver Cromwell. Having defeated the King’s armies in England, Cromwell took the fight to Ireland, landing here in August 1649. In January 1650 Cromwell reached Tipperary – in his own
words, “A land worth fighting for.”

“There was never seen so hot a storm of so long continuance, and
so gallantly defended, neither in England nor Ireland.”
English eyewitness of the Siege of Clonmel.

“Ní raibh a leithéid de chlampar riamh a sheas chomh fada, agus a
cosnaíodh chomh cróga, i Sasana ná in Éirinn.”
Finné Sasanach ar Léigear Chluain Meala.

Want more?
Follow the story of the Confederate Wars and more in the walled city of Derry, King
John’s Castle Limerick or experience the Great Siege of Athlone at Athlone Castle
Visitor Centre.

O’Neill had roughly 1,500 men at his disposal inside the walls of the town, a decent number made of Tipperary natives and soldiers fleeing from Cromwell’s previous assaults. One of these men was Colonel Edmund Fennel, a Cork native. He had agreed a sum of money plus a full pardon for taking up arms against Cromwell if he opened the north gate at midnight and let roughly 500 of the parliamentarian soldiers gain access to the town. O’Neill was as untrusting as he was clever and when he did the nightly inspection of the guard at the north gate he had a suspicion treachery was afoot. He replaces Fennel's men with his own and when midnight came it was O’Neill’s men that greeted Cromwell’s troops. Cromwell lost 100's of men.

The larger guns requested by Cromwell had finally arrived and were positioned near the North gate of the town, the only viable entry Cromwell could attempt. Cromwell’s guns had more firing power than the walls or indeed the earthen ramparts could handle and on May 16th he breached the walls of Clonmel.

From that point on, Cromwell’s plan was of simple design and one which he saw success in other towns in Ireland. The following morning he planned for his infantry to enter the town through the 80ft breach in the town wall, push back O’Neill’s men and open the gate to allow access to Cromwell and his men. He would then take the town and complete his campaign in victory. Cromwell was aware that Clonmel was not as easily taken as other towns in Ireland, but he certainly was not prepared for what was to come.

Cromwell’s plan went ahead and the following morning men from his infantry scaled the rubble of the wall and entered Clonmel – and a slaughter! O’Neill, having experience with siege warfare from his time with the Spanish in Flanders used his skills to prepare for the onslaught which was to come. He had the defenses at the north gate strengthened by constructing a V shaped inner fortification made from earth and timber. This new construction was lined with Musketeers and two canons were placed either side. Cromwell’s men were trapped! With the rushing of their fellow soldiers coming up from behind and no way to advance forward, they were cut down by musket fire and chain shot from point blank range. Cromwell lost some 1,000 men while those who survived retreated back to their General. For the first time throughout his Irish campaign Cromwell was staring at potential defeat.

Not willing to let this happen, Cromwell tried to rally his men into making a second attempt at an attack. His infantry refused, instead suggesting he send in his Cavalry as they had better Armour and were better paid! He agreed and sent his men forward for a second attack. The cavalry, dismounted their horses and led by Colonels Culme and Sankey they entered through the breach in the wall and walked straight into the same situation as the infantry. The fighting lasted for some time and by the end of the day Cromwell’s men had enough and stumbled back over the rubble and bodies of their comrades to join their General once again. The victory that day went to O’Neill.

The exact number of casualties is not clear but estimations range from 1,500 to 2,500. In any case, that is the largest number of casualties that Cromwell’s New Model Army ever suffered during its existence. Captain Warr of the New Model Army later described the slaughter “Hugh DufiTs men within fell on those in the pound with shotts, pikes, scythes, stones and casting of great long pieces of timber with the engines amongst them and then two guns firing at them from the end of the pound, slaughtering them by the middle or knees with chained bullets, that in less than an hour’s time about a thousand men were killed in that pound, being a top one another”

Cromwell was not accustomed to defeat and he refused to give up. He ordered his men to remain near the breach and cut down any of O’Neill’s men who tried to repair or fortify the 80ft entry way. His soldiers, exhausted and disheartened refused his orders once again, a surprise for a commander who was used to enforcing his Iron will. A soldier from the new model army later wrote “neither the threats of the General nor the bloody swords of inferior officers was sufficient enough to keep them from turning tail to the assault”.

Within the town, things were different for O’Neill. He realised that aid from Ormond was unlikely to arrive at this point. He had lost many of his men, was out of ammunition, few weapons remained and very little food remained for his men or the towns people. He knew the only way to save the lives of his unarmed soldiers and the people of Clonmel was to retreat and evacuate. O’Neill formed a plan of escape. He approached the then Mayor of Clonmel – Mayor White and told him that he should seek talks with Cromwell and request generous terms for the safety of the town in return for its surrender. O’Neill requested that Mayor White not do this until both he and his men have left the town.

The night after the initial attack by Cromwell, knowing that the New Model Army were concentrated on the North gate of the town, under the cover of darkness O’Neill took his men and left via the South gate and crossed the River Suir to safety.

On the morning of the 18th Cromwell was trying hard to rally his troops for another attack on the town, when he received word that Mayor White was seeking terms for surrender. Desperate to bring his campaign to a close he offered generous terms – guaranteeing the lives and the property of the towns people. Once agreed Cromwell finally entered the town of Clonmel only to find it empty of O’Neill and his men.

Cromwell was furious to learn that O’Neill has escaped, even so he kept his word and the towns people were not harmed, but he sent his Cavalry after O’Neill and his men. A few stragglers were cut down by the Cromwellian forces but many, include O’Neill got way and were heading towards Waterford. Waterford, fearing the plague would not grant access to O’Neill or his men and in a bid to survive they split up and all made their way towards safety in Ulster.

Cromwell departed and made his way back to England to deal with the threat of the Scots and Charles II. Never before had Cromwell suffered such a loss of life as he had at Clonmel at the hands of High Dubh O’Neill. Speaking of O’Neill one of Cromwell’s Officers wrote “The stoutest enemy that ever was found by our army in Ireland, and it is in my opinion, and very many more, that there was never so hot a storm of so long a continuance, and so gallantly defended, neither in England nor in Ireland".

Painting- Original work of Cromwell Rallying his troops to attack Clonmel once again. Artist- Graham Turner

Oliver Cromwell is a name known throughout the island of Ireland. Over 400 years ago the Lord General marched his New Model Army across the Country leaving hundreds of men, woman and children either dead, injured or penniless with no home to return to. By March of 1650 the city of Kilkenny had fallen to Cromwell, but the Council of State in London wanted him to return to England immediately. There was an ongoing threat of a Royalist invasion from Scotland and they wanted Cromwell to deal with it before anything came to fruition.

Cromwell was not inclined to return as he wanted to secure both Leinster and Munster before he travelled back to England. His successful military leadership was progressing his political career. He set his sights on one of the remaining Royalist strongholds of Southern Munster- Clonmel. From April of 1650 Cromwell had based himself in the Duke of Ormond’s Manor house in Carrick on Suir, from here he directed military operations and tried to reduce the few remaining Royalist outposts which stood between him, Clonmel and the surrounding areas. The Duke of Ormond, James FitzThomas Butler was also the leading commander of the Royalist forces at that time.

It was also during this time that Cromwell had secured negotiations with Michael Boyle- Protestant Royalist and Protestant Dean of Cloyne at Cashel without Ormond knowing. Within those two days of negotiations between the two men, a treaty was signed which stated that Protestant Royalist forces in Ireland would NOT act against the interests of the English commonwealth, while Cromwell could guarantee the security of their lives and their property. This treaty was accepted by many Protestant Royalists, including those in Ulster. This reduced the armed Royalist threat in the area, and while Ormond was still the leading commander he had little influence over the Catholics who still bore arms.

It was from here that Cromwell rode to meet his men on the outskirts of Clonmel. Clonmel was a walled town, meaning it was protected on the western, northern and eastern sides by walls reaching over 20ft height. The southern side of the town was protected by the River Suir and some other minor defensive features. The walls themselves were reinforced with additional earthworks inside the town and a ditch ran along the span of the walls to reduce the possibility of digging underneath unseen.

As well as all that, Clonmel had another card to play. The town was defended by Hugh Dubh O’Neill who had arrived in December 1649 with 1,200 of his men from Ulster. He took command of the Garrison and prepared for the possible coming of Cromwell and his forces. Hugh wanted to defend Clonmel against Cromwell for as long as possible as he was under the impression that Ormond was rallying an army together from Ulster to challenge Cromwell. Throughout the months leading up to Cromwell’s arrival at Clonmel, Hugh lost a number of his men to plague, but these numbers were replenished with the armed men that had left Cashel and Kilkenny after surrender.

On the 27th of April 1650, Cromwell stood outside the walls of Clonmel with 8,000 additional infantry soldiers, 600 cavalry and 12 field guns.

In 1650 Clonmel’s geographical location was very much in its favour. Extensive swampland lay on the eastern and western periphery, outside the walls. The southern section was protected by the River Suir, so realistically the only course for attack was the northern section of the town.

A partial blockade had been in effect around Clonmel since the early days of Cromwell’s arrival in Ireland. But as a whole, the town was not well provisioned and like Kilkenny it also suffered from the plague wHich left many dead or incapacitated. As the situation stood, Clonmel was very much far from their strongest even with the soldiers who had arrived from Kilkenny and Cashel.

Cromwell, now outside the walls of Clonmel had many a reason to feel confident of his situation. He had known victory throughout his campaign in Ireland. He had very little information about O’Neill so may not have viewed him as a particular threat. Even so, Cromwell was very anxious to complete his campaign and return to England as soon as possible to deal with the potential threat of attack from the Royalist Scots. He planned to take Clonmel by storm rather than relying on lengthy siege tactics if O’Neill did not surrender forthwith.

As mentioned, the walls of Clonmel were well reinforced and it took Cromwell approximately 7 days to get his fields guns in place and ready to fire. When the order to fire was given it was soon apparent that they were not nearly powerful enough to breach the walls to the extent needed so that Cromwell’s men could storm the town. Still not in favour of a lengthy siege, Cromwell opted for larger guns to be sent for which took a further 7 days. Hugh Dubh O’Neill saw this delay as an opportunity and instead of sitting idle he did what he could knowing that he was severely outnumbered. Under the cover of darkness, he launched various guerrilla attacks on Cromwell’s men. These attacks delayed the work that Cromwell’s forces were trying to do to breach the town, but O’Neill knew they couldn’t carry on like this long term. Yes, it delayed Cromwell’s attempts to breach the walls- but only in the short term! O’Neill’s men were low and ammunition and food. Plus he was still of the belief that Ormond would be rallying up his men to aid Clonmel as he promised. But Ormond, disgruntled by the fact that Cromwell had treated behind his back and was the cause of him losing his men did not come to the aid of Clonmel and O’Neill. Instead Ormond decided to reinforce Limerick as he had very few men to spare after the treaty.

But, there was still hope and O’Neill was not alone. A royalist named David Roche, along with Bishop Boetius MacEgan who knew O’Neill from previous battles gathered roughly 2,000 men and marched east from Kerry to the aid of O’Neill and Clonmel. On the way to Clonmel, Roche's army arrived at Macroom with the intention of travelling on to Cork and from there approaching Clonmel from the South. Unfortunately, Lord Broghill of Lismore and son of the Earl of Cork was active in that area. He had with him some 1,200 infantry and 800 cavalry. Roche had no choice but to fall back towards Macroom once again as Lord Broghill advanced on him. Rather than risk letting Roche and his men escape Broghill sent his cavalry after them who caught up and attacked. Roche had no time for form a defense and lost some 600 men in the onslaught. The remaining men scattered to the bogs where they knew the cavalry could not follow. As well as killing 600 of Roches men, Broghill also took a hostage – Bishop Boetius MacEgan. He used MacEgan as a bargaining chip to get a nearby royalist outpost to surrender. MacEgan told them to refuse the request and fight to the last man- he was then tortured and hanged by Broghill’s men. The outpost then soon surrendered anyway thanks so some generous terms. O’Neill was once again alone inside the walls of Clonmel.

Below is an artists impression of how Clonmel would have looked in 1650. Artist - JG O'Donoghue


Death has been, and may always be, shrouded in a veil of fear and curiosity. All civilizations throughout time have honoured the passing of an individual in numerous ways, death masks being one. Over the centuries these masks have taken many forms and had various uses. The were made with a spiritual use in mind originally, like those used by the ancient Egyptians. The most famous of these is the gold funerary mask which was found on the mummified remains of the young Pharaoh Tutankhamen. The use of this mask was so that the spirit of the individual could identify their body when they passed into the next world after death.

By the middle Ages, they became less of a spiritual commodity and simply a way of preserving the physical likeness of the dead. In a time before photography this would be as close to a true resemblance as you might get. The resemblance of the individual was created for more than just memory in some cases. Some were made if the individual was important or was a well known criminal, medical research, and to identify unknown individuals.
Some of the most famous death masks include Beethoven, Napoleon Bonaparte, Ned Kelly, Vladimir Lenin, Issac Newton, Maximilian Robespierre, Burke & Hare and Oliver Cromwell.

Oliver Cromwell died in 1658, where a wax impression of his face was taken; he was then buried in Westminster Abbey. When the Royalists returned to power he was exhumed, hung in chains and beheaded! His death mask was then used to make effigies - life size representations which were ceremonially burned or beheaded in protest. So it is safe to say his mask was not made in loving memory!

Tipperary Museum has a copy of Cromwell's Death mask on display. It allows you to look into the face of the man who, 350 years ago laid siege to many towns in Ireland, including Clonmel.

The original wax mask can be view on the British Museum website.