In what would be the final months of the Irish resistance against the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland, the Irish brigades were at a breaking point. Since Oliver Cromwell landed in Dublin with an invading force in August 1649, the Irish forces (at first centralized, then fractured into autonomous brigades) relied on support from local populations. But by the end of 1651, the brigades were desperately short of supplies and faced the prospect of surrender.
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.)
In the end Charles threw his fortunes with Scotland at the expense of Ireland. At the head of a Scottish army, he was defeated at Worcester on September 3, 1651 and barely escaped with his life.
The news of Charles’s defeat was met with dismay back in Ireland. Another set-back followed a month later in October 1651 when the strategically important town of Limerick finally fell to the English. There was one last avenue of foreign aid Ireland could look to, but it wasn’t without some strings.
Charles IV, Duke of Lorraine, was a supporter of the Stuart cause. Fabulously wealthy, staunchly Catholic and with a seasoned army at his disposal, he was a natural ally, that is for the Irish Catholics. The Irish Protestants were extremely wary to solicit aid from Catholic quarters.
Negotiations with Lorraine started in April 1649, at which time the opening bid was for him to loan £20,000 to Ireland in exchange for taking Fort Duncannon as security. Over time, the proposed security changed to Galway and Limerick with eventually Sligo and Athlone added to the list.
Lorraine was ambitious and canny. As things deteriorated in Ireland, his demands changed to reflect his greater bargaining power. It wasn’t enough for him to loan the money in exchange for control of those ports. He decided in December 1650 that nothing short of being Protector Royal of Ireland would suffice.
Negotiations continued throughout the first half of 1651 until July of that year when an agreement was finally reached, which included Lorraine becoming protector of Ireland until such time that affairs were settled in Ireland when power would transfer back to King Charles. Not surprising, the king’s representative in Ireland (and de facto leader), the Marquess of Clanricarde, balked at the terms, which would transfer power from the king to a foreign prince. Clanricarde wrote immediately to nullify the treaty.
Ireland was back at square one with no forthcoming aid, only now in a more precarious position.
Following the fall of Limerick in October 1651, Donough MacCarty, Viscount Muskerry, leader of the Kerry brigades, stepped in to negotiate with Lorraine himself. He sent a trusted representative named Patrick Archer with instructions to negotiate for arms, ammunition, and funds to be sent to westerly ports of Kerry.
In addition, he asked “three or four frigates, well manned” to provide a blockade against any enemy vessels coming to or from Galway or Limerick. Along with the frigates, Muskerry asked for the means to fortify the River of Kilmaine and Island of Valentia, where they could grow crops, quarter troops, and provide relief for horses, which the Irish badly needed (the English forces had three times as many horses as did the Irish). And finally, the request included a plea for a thousand soldiers to help fight the English.
Muskerry left Archer with one final instruction to convey to Lorraine [spelling unchanged]:
“If there be noe hopes of considerable supplyes from the Ducke of Loraine, or that the Kinge be not in a growinge condition to beare vpp in England , all is lost heere , and it will be necessarye in tyme , to thincke how to gett conditions abroade , for there will be noe liuinge in this clymate , espetially for a gentleman of anny consideration or interest ;”Lord Muskerry, Dec 7, 1651
Archer left for Flanders on December 20, 1651 a week after Muskerry left Galway to return home to County Kerry. Archer arrived safely in Ostend, Belgium, before heading for Brussels, where the duke resided.
The Duke of Lorraine finally sent some supplies to Ireland, but it wasn’t enough. On January 28, 1652, only three ships, escorted by only one well-manned frigate, arrived. One ship arrived at the Aran Islands in the mouth of Galway Bay carrying shipments of wheat, rye and gunpowder. The other ships landed at Inisbofin Island, off the coast of Connemara, County Galway. According to a letter written to Charles Stuart on April 1, 1652, the shipment included £20,000, less £6000 as a negotiating commission, a thousand arms, thirty barrels of coarse gunpowder, and a thousand barrels of rye, a goodly proportion being spoiled by seawater, but no troops.
The aid had fallen short, and the Irish forces had run out of choices. Within two months, the first treaties of surrender were being signed with the English.
The desperate hope for relief forms a central part of my novel, Rebel’s Knot, as does the fallout when the relief didn’t materialize.
Siochrú, Micheál Ó. “The Duke of Lorraine and the International Struggle for Ireland, 1649-1653.” The Historical Journal, vol. 48, no. 4, Cambridge University Press, 2005, pp. 905–32, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4091642.