Sometimes a name in history catches my eye. The figure stands out from the other historical players, and before I know it, I’m wading through everything I can to find out about them. This was what happened when I started researching the Cromwellian invasion of Ireland for my novel Rebel’s Knot and came across Edmund O’Dwyer.
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.
At first, Cromwell consolidated his forces around the port towns of Dublin, Drogheda and Wexford, but by the end of that year, the English had spread into Munster. Tipperary and Limerick were highly contested areas that the English needed to subdue in order to make inroads into Ireland.
In March 1650, Cromwell seized the tribal strongholds of the O’Dwyers: Ballagh and Dundrum. Although it would have been a significant loss, Edmund O’Dwyer continued the fight. He and his brigade did an admirable job of harassing the English and extending the resistance through strike and run tactics, using the mountains and woods as their stronghold.
The O’Dwyer Clan
The O’Dwyer lineage stretches back from before the Norman invasion, going back to the days of Brian Boru in the tenth century. The last chief of the O’Dwyers was Phillip O’Dwyer of Kilnamanagh (son of John of Dundrum) who held that distinction from 1629 until his death in 1648. Phillip’s predecessor was his cousin Derby (Dermot) O’Dwyer, whose own son Anthony appears to have died before his father. After Phillip passed away, the clan never settled on the next chief. Phillip’s brother, Donogh O’Dwyer, was one of Edmund O’Dwyer’s colonels and after the treaty with the English, he was arrested for his involvement in the Cashel massacres during the Irish Rebellion of 1641. Donogh was executed in Cashel on November 1652 along with others who were also implicated.
I couldn’t pinpoint where in the O’Dwyer family tree Edmund O’Dwyer can be found. He’s referenced by Sir Michael O’Dwyer, author of The O’Dwyers of Kilnamanagh, as being “a near kinsman”, presumably to the chief, Phillip. He is also described as being cousin to Anthony of Clonyhorpe, son of the former chief Derby (Dermot) O’Dywyer. High ranking kinsmen listed during Derby’s time was John of Dundrum (father of the next chief, Phillip) and Connor of Ballagh, but of Connor’s family, the only reference I could find about his descendants related to an individual who had a portion of the family lands returned to him after the Restoration (1660). There’s no mention how this descendant of Connor of Ballagh might have been related to Edmund O’Dwyer, if at all.
Edmund O’Dwyer, Commander-in-Chief of the Irish forces in Tipperary and Waterford
What do we actually know about Edmund O’Dwyer? Not a great deal unfortunately. We have only tantalizing references. Edmund O’Dwyer appears only in sporadically in the historical record. We know he was an experienced solider and listed amongst the troop of horse that James Butler, the Marquess of Ormond (later Duke of Ormond), raised in 1640 to support King Charles I in his war against the Scots. He also appears in a letter dated 1648 about being held a prisoner in Dublin Castle after the Battle of Duggan Hill. His continued imprisonment appeared to be a matter of concern.
In 1649, O’Dwyer was given the commission of Commander-in-Chief of the Irish forces in Tipperary and Waterford. By 1652, it was recorded that he had 5 regiments with approximately 2,700 foot and horse under his command: An infantry and cavalry regiment reporting directly to him; three more infantry regiments led by Colonel Donogh O’Dwyer, Colonel O’Meagher and Colonel White.
We can glean an idea of his character by the few references that come from his enemies. In 1650, when the English Commander-in-Chief of the forces in Tipperary, Colonel Jerome Sankey, gave off his chase of another Irish leader (Fitzpatrick) in order to capture O’Dwyer (he failed), one could infer that O’Dwyer was the greater prize of the two.
O’Dwyer’s character appeared to be highly considered by the enemy. In a letter, the same Colonel Sankey praised O’Dwyer for the “punctuall [sic] performance of his word” and “honest and friendly demeanour.” This was after the two men had agreed on a prisoner exchange in 1651.
We don’t know exactly where O’Dwyer and his brigade were quartered. In my novel Rebel’s Knot, I chose Glengarra Woods in the Galtee Mountains as their base, not only due to the varied landscape and opportunities for concealment, but in September 1651, prior to the fall of Limerick, one of the other Irish commanders, the Viscount Muskerry, was reported to have met with O’Dwyer near Glengarra Woods. It also made sense to place them there since the area was situated within in the Barony of Clanwilliam, where O’Dwyer’s estates were located.
After leading a fierce and prolonged resistance, forced by the lack of supplies, Edmund O’Dwyer agreed on terms of surrender with the English commander, Colonel Sankey at Cahir Castle on March 23, 1652. The treaty prescribed that O’Dwyer’s men, except the commissioned officers, deliver their arms and horses on April 10, 1652 at Cashel. In exchange, they would be given protection for their lives, the liberty to live where Sankey allowed them, compensation for their equipment, up to a month’s pay and the leave to go overseas to fight for any foreign country provided they didn’t fight against England.
After the ink was dried, Edmund O’Dwyer looked to his future but this did not unfortunately include Ireland. By October 14, 1652, O’Dwyer’s brigade, along with those of the other Irish commanders (Fitzpatrick, Muskerry, O’Brien and Fitzgerald), had already been transported to the Continent. A total of 7,000 soldiers had been removed from Ireland. This, naturally, would have suited the English, who would have been eager to reduce the risk of a future Irish rising, and there was no better way to prevent this than to encourage the transportation of seasoned soldiers. But this arrangement would have also suited O’Dwyer. With his lands confiscated and with them any source of income, providing mercenary troops to foreign leaders would have assured him of a living.
In October 1653, O’Dwyer was granted by English Commissioners the license to transport an additional 3,500 Irish soldiers to Flanders in the service of the Prince of Condé. A few weeks later, that license was amended to include the transportation of priests and Jesuits. It appears that O’Dwyer’s force did not set out until March 1654, along with additional Irish men who had been quartered on Spike Island.
O’Dwyer’s role as a mercenary leader was short-lived. In August 1654, he was killed in the field during the storming of Arras against the French.
Since we don’t know when he was born, we don’t know if he had a long life or how old he was when he died, but the little we do know of him was that he died as a leader of men on a battlefield, and he will always be remembered as a man of honour. He may not have had volumes written about him, but what did remain counted.
I shall leave you with this poem titled Furlong, written by another O’Dwyer.
“Hark the foe is calling. Fast the wood are falling; Scenes and sights appalling. Mark the wasted soil. War and confiscation. Curse the fallen nation. Gloom and desolation. Shade the lost land o’er.”John O’Dwyer
The O’Dwyers of Kilnamanagh: The History of an Irish Sept, by Sir Michael O’Dwyer (1933): Available online via HathiTrust Digital Library
Marl Bog, Dundrum Tipperary: MissWeekly, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons