Confederate Catholics at war, 1641–1649

Published in Book Reviews, Confederate War and Cromwell, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 1 (Spring 2003), Reviews, Volume 11

Padraig Lenihan
(Cork University Press,
ISBN 1859182445

The study of Confederate Ireland has experienced a renaissance of late, after years of relative neglect. However, scholars have concentrated for the most part on the social and political developments of the period, highlighting the importance of factionalism in undermining the confederate war effort. Padraig Lenihan’s Confederate Catholics at war attempts to redress this balance with a fascinating and detailed military account of these troubled times. The book is essentially divided into two parts, with a chronological narrative followed by a thematic evaluation of four key aspects of the conflict. While the focus throughout is unapologetically Irish, the author is careful to place events in a wider context, incorporating the crisis of the three Stuart kingdoms and contemporary developments in Continental warfare.
Lenihan is a masterly commentator on the logistics of war, the minutiae of how armies were raised, trained and maintained. He highlights the considerable military achievements, in adverse circumstances, of the confederate association. By adapting their tactics according to the resources at their disposal, the confederates managed to survive through the crucial year of 1642, despite a massive counter-attack from both Scotland and England. Flawed assumptions of ‘Celtic’ primitivism are comprehensively refuted with logical, often technically complex, arguments. With consummate ease the author dissects various battlefield tactics and explains in plain language the intricacies of early modern fortifications and siege warfare. Lenihan’s penetrating analysis of the tailings of the confederate war machine is equally blunt and uncompromising.
Finance (or more accurately the lack of it) emerges as the key difficulty for confederate strategists. The papal nuncio, Rinuccini, shrewdly observed that ‘money is the nerve of war’, and cash remained in short supply throughout the conflict. According to Lenihan, this acted as the most important strategic constraint on policy-makers in Kilkenny, affecting their ability to maintain armies in the field. On a more personal level, poor generalship contributed to a number of the military disasters, particularly in 1647 at Dungan’s Hill and Knocknanuss. Continental veterans such as Thomas Preston had led regiments in Spanish Flanders, concentrating on siege warfare, but proved less assured when commanding large field armies. Lenihan ruthlessly exposes their battlefield shortcomings, especially the consistent misuse of the limited cavalry forces at their disposal. The confederate lack of siege artillery (although partially remedied in 1643) also helped to create a static, localised pattern of war outside Ulster, which prevented a decisive military breakthrough for most of the 1640s.
Lenihan outlines the strategic dilemma facing the confederates. The two options open to them were to assist the royalist war effort in England in return for political and religious concessions (expeditionary), or to abandon Charles I altogether and conquer Ireland in the Catholic interest, making the island impregnable to invasion in the process (insular). The author argues convincingly that, contrary to previous accounts, these options were not necessarily mutually exclusive, and that confederate military activities after the September 1643 cessation with the royalists in fact represented a compromise between the two. The window of opportunity for agreement between the king and the confederates only lasted until June 1645, when the destruction of the last remaining royalist field army at Naseby rendered the expeditionary strategy unviable.
And yet the confederates never seemed to fully grasp this reality. Political considerations, however, are of primary importance in this regard. All shades of confederate opinion favoured a settlement with the king (independence was never an option) and this severely restricted their military options. Moreover, factionalism, while by no means ignored by Lenihan, affected confederate strategy to a far greater degree than he acknowledges in his account.
Despite its many impressive qualities, the book’s bi-modal structure is somewhat problematical; the narrative chapters do not always sit comfortably alongside the more detailed examinations of particular issues, and momentum falters. A singularly thematic approach would probably have better suited the subject-matter and imposed less restraint on the author’s considerable analytical flair. This caveat aside, Confederate Catholics at war makes an important contribution to the re-evaluation of events in Ireland during the 1640s. However, Lenihan’s meticulous and painstaking research is not well served by Cork University Press. Tighter editing would have been beneficial in places, while the maps in particular are poorly produced and confusing. A number of the appendices are similarly difficult to decipher. Given recent advances in print technology, and the importance of maps and appendices to a detailed military history, it is difficult to excuse such lapses.

Micheál Ó Siochrú


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