The Irish Resistance against the Cromwellian Invasion

One of the final chapters of the War of the Three Kingdoms, also known as the English Civil War, was the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland that started in 1649. England’s Parliament had been at war with King Charles I for the past seven years which ended in his execution on January 29, 1649. But Royalist resistance did not die with the king, and the fledgling Commonwealth of England was rightly concerned about his son and heir, Charles Stuart, raising an army against them. Parliament’s attention then turned to stamping out Royalist support in Scotland and Ireland.

Cromwell’s route through Ireland


Parliament was particularly eager to defeat Ireland, not only because they were supporting the Crown. There was a great deal of anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiment in England. To better understand the reasons, we’ll have to go back eight years before the Cromwellian invasion to the Irish Rebellion of 1641 that broke out between the Irish Catholic Confederation and Colonial Protestant rule.

In 1641, the rebellion began in Ulster and spread to the rest of Ireland as a result of years of Catholic discrimination and the creation of plantations given to Protestant settlers. The plantation system went back years to the Tudor age and continued through the early Stuart age. As a result of this rebellion, Ireland would be in varying states of war between the Irish Confederation and Protestant Colonial forces, supported by English troops through the 1640’s.

This was a dark time with massacres and reprisals on both sides. One can’t underestimate how strongly the rebellion reverberated in the English consciousness, particularly with men like Oliver Cromwell. The ferocity of the English Parliamentarian response to Ireland can be understood against this backdrop. Cromwell was not only driven by the need to keep Ireland from supporting Charles II, but also by a desire to punish those involved in the rebellion, particularly the massacres of 1641.

Another layer that further complicated this history were the investors. In an effort to end the rebellion of 1641, Parliament, with full support of the king, enacted the Adventurers’ Act in 1642. To raise funds to outfit the troops needed to subdue the rebellion, land in Ireland was promised to English investors. When civil war broke out in England months later, Parliament leveraged the Adventurers’ Act to help finance their own war against the king. By 1649, the debt was coming due, and the English were eager to conquer Ireland.

The Invasion

Oliver Cromwell – Statue in front of Palace of Westminster (Parliament), London, UK

On August 15, 1649, Parliament’s commander-in-chief, Oliver Cromwell, landed in Dublin with a flotilla of approximately one hundred ships. Cromwell very quickly gained a ruthless reputation by how he dealt with Irish resistance, particularly at Drogheda, where the defenders were put to death after rejecting terms for surrender. The horror of this served him well, as many towns opted to accept his terms for surrender rather than face the possibility of massacre.

Initially, the Irish launched a centralized and coordinated defence, directed by the Royalist Marquess of Ormond. After a series of defeats, Ormond withdrew from Ireland and headed for the Continent, abandoning the splintered Irish forces.

One would expect that the Irish resistance would soon crumble, but if anything, it intensified their determination to repel the invaders. Rather than capitulating, the centralized war effort was replaced by localised fighting brigades employing guerrilla tactics. These brigades were called tories, from the Irish Tóraidhe, meaning or pursued men, and were aligned along traditional clan territories. In Munster, the brigades were led by Edmund O’Dwyer in Tipperary and Waterford, the Viscount Muskerry in Kerry and John Fitzpatrick in northern Tipperary.

The Irish brigades employed strike-and-run tactics to wear down the English and were quite successful at evading the enemy. They knew the landscape and used it to their advantage, such as evading their pursuers by slipping into bogs. The local populace also supported these troops with shelter and valuable information. The English took a hardline approach to any civilians caught collaborating with the brigades, and in the final months of the conflict, they passed decrees designed to cut off support to the Irish brigades. On January 13, 1652, they forced all tradespeople who were useful to them (e.g., blacksmiths and farriers) to report to the English garrisons. On February 13, 1652, they extended that to the populace in the contested areas to relocate to occupied territories by the end of February or be treated as the enemy. Markets were only to be held within a fortified town or garrison.

But the biggest threat to the brigades was simply a dwindling of supplies and provisions. Letters were sent to the exiled Charles Stuart for aid, but he was living under the largesse of his cousin, the French king, and France was not eager to make an enemy of the new Commonwealth. Irish leaders were communicating with the Duke of Lorraine, urging him for the twenty ships he promised, loaded with much-needed war supplies.

On January 28, 1652, only four ships arrived. One ship landed at the Aran Islands and three more arrived at Inisbofin. The total supplies included £20,000 (less £6000 for the cost of negotiation), a thousand muskets, thirty barrels of coarse powder, and a thousand barrels of rye, most of which had been spoiled by seawater.

It must have been very clear to the Irish leaders that they would not be in a position to continue their resistance beyond the spring.

The armed conflict came to an end in mid-1652, when the brigades negotiated treaties with the Parliamentary forces. Unfortunately, they Irish commanders negotiated their own treaties with the English, instead of banding together to get the best terms for everyone. The first one to surrender was John Fitzpatrick, whose forces had been destroyed and scattered months earlier, followed by Edmund O’Dwyer who came to terms in March 1652. Muskerry had been one of the last to come to an agreement, and he negotiated hard to keep control of his lands.

After the treaties were signed, the English encouraged the disbanded Irish troops to go to the Continent to fight for Spain. Mercenaries were a valuable commodity, not just for Spain, and provided they did not fight against England, their flight furthered English interests. With Irish troops leaving for the continent, that meant fewer troops could potentially rise up against the occupying forces. Irish commanders also benefited by raising mercenary forces as this represented a source of income from the foreign government. Thousands of trained Irish soldiers, referred to in history as the Wild Geese, flowed across the sea to the Continent, leaving Ireland and their people behind to deal with the occupying English.

With their flight, a new heartbreaking chapter of Irish history started with extensive land confiscations and thousands being transported to the West Indies as indentured servants. To read about the life of an indentured servant in Colonial Barbados, check out this article.

My third novel, Rebel’s Knot, explores the Irish resistance through an Irish soldier and a young woman who survived an English attack. Available through online retailers.


MURPHY(1883) p008 Map of Ireland, showing Cromwell’s Route via Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]: This file is from the Mechanical Curator collection, a set of over 1 million images scanned from out-of-copyright books and released to Flickr Commons by the British Library.View in BL GeoreferencerView image on FlickrView all images from bookView catalogue entry for book.O


  1. […] Edmund O’Dwyer was the Commander-in-Chief of the Irish forces of Tipperary and Waterford after Oliver Cromwell landed with an invading force in August 1649. To read more about the background of the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland, check out this article: The Irish Resistance Against the Cromwellian Invasion. […]


  2. […] In the beginning of the conflict, the Irish had pinned their hopes on receiving aid from the exiled king, Charles Stuart (future Charles II). Their hopes were not without cause. Following the execution of his father in 1649, Charles Stuart was negotiating for troops and support to defeat Parliament and reclaim his father’s throne. Ireland had pledged their support. One of the reasons Cromwell showed up with an invading force was to prevent the Irish from coming to Charles’s aid. (For more about the background of the invasion, check out this article about the Irish Resistance.) […]


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