Duncannon siege

An astonishing engagement during the Confederate wars in Ireland, saw an unlikely achievement by Irish rebels, when they sunk the flagship of Cromwellian forces at Duncannon.  The loss of the Great Lewis must have been a significant boost to the confederate forces at the time, ultimately leading to the capture of the fort. The discovery of a wreck site in recent years is a major archeological find. This months guest blog by my cousin James Doherty looks at the back story leading up to the event. 

In the 16th and 17th century Waterford was a thriving port with a flourishing international trade. However, visiting foreign ships presented a potential security risk to the English administration. From trading, the Spanish and French knew ports like Waterford well and there was a danger that Ireland would be used as a stepping stone by an invading army whose final goal was England. In response to this perceived threat steps were taken to counter any invasion risk.

Periodically the defences of Ireland were bolstered, locally in the 16th century a stone blockhouse was erected outside Reginald’s Tower in the city which mounted eight large brass canon (these were later stolen by a English pirate but that’s another story). A canon battery was erected at Passage East and Duncannon became the focus of the harbour defences. 

By December 1587 the fortification of Duncannon was nearly complete with two sconces (a type of angular earthwork) in place that could mount four culverin canon with a further four canon erected higher up in the fort[1]. As the 16th century drew to a close the threat to the English empire lay from Spain and in 1588 its armada set sail. 

A combination of naval defeat and inclement weather ensured that only a third of the 130 ships of the Spanish Armada would ever return to home. The threat from Spain didn’t diminish however and her troops would land at Kinsale in support of Irish rebels in 1601. With Spanish troops fighting in Kinsale there was a risk of additional landings so defensive works on the coast took on a more frantic pace. A new fortification was completed at “The Fort of the Rock” situated across the river from Waterford on high ground with additional earthworks being added at Waterford City, Duncannon and Passage East [2]

1603 would see the defeat of the Irish rebels and the threat from Spain would recede, Duncannon would never be tested by the Spanish but a constitutional crisis in England and rebellion in Ireland would soon bring war to Duncannon. 
Duncannon Siege from Hore Vol 4.  with thanks to Wexford Co Library
Less than forty years after the last major war in Ireland rebellion broke out in 1641 with Irish forces attacking Duncannon fort on St Stephens’s day[3]. Lawrence Esmonde commander of the fort was a fascinating character; his post was a reward for his service during the Nine Years War (which had ended in 1603) and was in his eighties when he would see action once more. As is often the case in civil wars this conflict would divide families whilst Esmonde senior held Duncannon his son Thomas was a noted commander with the Irish rebels[4].

The besieging Irish lacked the equipment or engineering expertise to break the defences of Duncannon and had to be content with bottling up the defenders in the fort. The English troops made occasional forays out of the fort and the fighting took on a bitter aspect with arbitrary hanging of prisoners occurring on both sides[5]. The rebellion in Wexford as in other parts of Ireland took on a sectarian nature as protestant homes were raided for supplies[6] with many fleeing towards the perceived safety of the fort. As the opposing forces settled in to what was effectively a siege, events in England would soon add an extra dimension to the Irish conflict.

The origins of the English Civil War are complex, England in the 1640’s was in turmoil, a rift had formed between monarchy and parliament, and in addition to this power struggle Scotland and Ireland were in open rebellion. King Charles Ist dissolved his uncooperative parliament after they refused to help the king raise armies to fight the rebels. These divisions would eventually lead to civil war which started in 1642, English troops abroad would have to decide which side they supported. In Duncannon the garrison commander declared for the king although many troops’ sympathies lay with parliament. 

1642 would see sporadic fighting around the vicinity of Duncannon; one notable incident saw 100 English troops leave the fort by boat and attack nearby Redmond Hall. The leader of this sortie is listed as a Captain Thomas Aston who owned lands in Crooke just across the river from Redmond Hall. The hall was seen as sympathetic to the rebel forces and when the troops approached the hall the residents refused them entry. Musket fire and a small canon were used on the hall but disaster struck when a numerically far superior Irish force fell on the attackers from nearby woods with the English force being wiped out[7]
A depiction of Redmond Hall around this time via Hore, thanks to Wexford Co Library
As King Charles couldn’t muster enough men for a campaign against the Parliamentary army in England and fight Irish rebels he choose the lesser of two evils and signed a peace treaty with the Irish in 1643. This led to a cessation of hostilities in Ireland against royal troops and an uneasy truce was in place around Duncannon. 

Throughout 1644 unhappy with any truce many of the king’s key army commanders switched sides and declared for parliament. Lawrence Esmonde was a king’s man and the circumstances around the Duncannon garrison going over to the side of parliament are unclear. One account from inside the fort mentions a parliament ship calling on the fort and the second in command a Lieutenant Larkin negotiating the garrison switching allegiance. It would appear that only a handful of the command staff stayed loyal to the king and Esmonde may have been left with no choice but to agree to the wishes of his men after his second in commands duplicity.[8]



With the garrison now declared for parliament hostilities would soon resume. The Irish wanted to guarantee access to the Suir estuary and an army was dispatched from Kilkenny to deal with the fort. The stage was set for one of the most dramatic events in the forts military history. In command of the Irish army was General Thomas Preston who had seen service in Europe and brought the knowledge and equipment needed to break the siege of Duncannon Fort. 

Oliver Cromwell was aware of the precarious situation of the Duncannon garrison and dispatched 4 ships to resupply the fort with additional troops and supplies. When Preston’s Irish army arrived at Duncannon on the 20th of January he was met with the sight of a small fleet anchored off the fort[9]

The MadelineMayflower and Elizabeth were under the command of a Captain Bell in his vessel the Great Lewis. The Irish outside the fort were using four canons and a mortar to bombard the fort and the ships in the estuary attempted to fire over the fort at the Irish positions. A sortie from the fort towards the Irish lines was ineffective and as the canon fire from the ships was simply passing over the Irish positions the situation in the fort seemed desperate [10]
The Great Lewis copyright Brian Cleare
The Irish realising the vulnerable position of the four ships in the estuary spent the night of the 22nd of January moving their artillery to the high ground behind Duncannon. As dawn broke on the 23rd the ships realised they were trapped. The Irish had a window of several hours until the tide turned and they unleashed a sustained fire on the enemy vessels. When the tide and wind allowed Captain Bell ordered anchor cables cut and made way from the estuary as the four ships limped out of range of the Irish artillery. 

Bell’s own flagship the Great Lewis was the most severely damaged and would sink with the loss of 200 men on the 26th of January with the other three ships escaping the Irish coast once repairs had been made. 

The sinking of the Great Lewis was the turning point in the siege and a huge moral boost for the Irish, however the beleaguered garrison would hold out until the 18th of March before surrendering. The soldiers were allowed to march out to join the parliamentary army at Youghal with the fort now in Irish hands. 

In 1649 the fort would fall under siege again with the Irish being on the inside this time as the Cromwellian army gained territory in Ireland. This attack was unsuccessful but the fort would eventually surrender to Cromwell’s forces after a lengthy blockade in 1650. The eventual capitulation of Duncannon fort would bring an end to nearly a decade of conflict on the Hook peninsula. 

Thanks to James for todays piece.  Next months guest blog will bring us to a more modern era at Dunmore from another regular, David Carroll. If you would like to contribute a piece to any of my guest blog Friday's (last Friday of each month) please get in touch to russianside@gmail.com.  All I ask is that the subject matter be linked in some way to the maritime heritage of the area, and 1200 words approx.  I will attempt to add photos and links to the piece and promote via my usual channels.


[1] Paul Kerrigan, Fortifications of Ireland
[2] Ibid
[3] 1641 Depositions , testimony of John Munroe Courtesy of Trinity College Dublin
[4] Jason Mchugh The Esmonde Family of Lymbrick and Ballytramont: An Old English Family
[5] 1641 Depositions , testimony of William Whaley Courtesy of Trinity College Dublin
[6] 1641 Depositions , testimony of John Sims Courtesy of Trinity College Dublin
[7] 1641 Depositions , testimony of Edward Aston Courtesy of Trinity College Dublin
[8] 1641 Depositions , testimony of Peter Hooper Courtesy of Trinity College Dublin
[9] Waterford Decies Journal issue 60 (article by Kevin Downes)
[10] Ibid

Thanks to Michael Dempsey of Wexford County Library for assistance with sourcing some of the photos for this piece.  And also to Brian Cleare for allowing me use the image of his painting of the Great Lewis

I publish a blog about Waterford Harbours maritime heritage each Friday.  
To subscribe to get it to your inbox email russianside@gmail.com 
For daily events/updates https://www.facebook.com/whtidesntales  https://twitter.com/tidesntales

Comments