The Battle of Arklow took place at Glascarrig on the coast road through Arklow in County Wicklow during November 1649. It was fought between the armies of Confederate Ireland (allied with the Royalists), and the English Parliamentarians during the Irish Confederate Wars.
By late October 1649, the Irish had suffered a number of major defeats at the hands of the army of the English Parliament – a defeat at the Battle of Rathmines, and the loss of the important towns of Drogheda and Wexford. Ormonde was keen to regain the initiative. In October, he received word (via Castlehaven, via his sister’s footman) that a column of English soldiers was preparing to march from Dublin to Wexford to reinforce Cromwell’s troops in the south. This presented the Irish leadership with a chance to engage the Parliamentarians without risking too many soldiers.
Murrough O’Brien, the Baron of Inchiquin, and Theobald Taaffe (who had fought on opposite sides at the Battle of Knocknanuss only two years before) were given command of a force of 2,500. This operation was of particular importance to the credibility of Inchiquin: he was distrusted by the majority Catholic population of Ireland due to a number of atrocities he had committed in the previous years of fighting, and in the autumn of 1649 many of the Protestant soldiers in Munster formerly loyal to him had mutinied and joined with the forces of Parliament. He now had a chance to regain some standing; it was more or less Inchiquin’s last throw of the dice.
The English soldiers under Major Nelson left Dublin in the last days of October. As he proceeded through the Wicklow Mountains his soldiers were harassed by tories though these attacks did not substantially hinder the force. In the meantime, Inchiquin prepared an ambush a little to the south of the town of Arklow, where the hills come close to the sea. A log barricade was placed across the road to Wexford and 1,000 infantry men were deployed behind it or otherwise concealed by the roadside. Nelson, however, heard a rumour that an ambush was planned and so moved his force using a more roundabout route, hoping to avoid Inchiquin’s army.
Inchiquin realised what was happening, and swiftly moved his cavalry to intercept the New Model soldiers. Most of his infantry however could not keep up, and thus did not take part in the fighting.
As Inchiquin’s largely mounted force came into view, the English hurriedly deployed on a beach, their backs to the sea. As the Irish were ordering themselves in preparation for an attack, the 350 English horse charged, hoping to catch the enemy by surprise, but were successfully repulsed on two occasions. After the second failed charge, Inchiquin launched a full cavalry assault on the horsemen. Demoralised and outnumbered, the English horse fled back towards the infantry, with the Irish in pursuit. The highly disciplined English infantry opened up their ranks to allow their own horse to pass through, after which the gaps in the ranks were closed once more. Inchiquin’s charging cavalry now unexpectedly found that the retreating horse had disappeared, to be replaced by a mass of pike-heads and levelled musket barrels. Close range musket fire tore into the Irish cavalry, throwing them into disorder and leaving the beach bloodstained. The English cavalry then counter-attacked, forcing the Irish to retreat. Nelson then resumed his march into Wexford unmolested.
The Battle of Arklow was a relatively small battle, and thus the failure of the Irish forces to cripple Nelson’s New Model force was a demoralising setback but little more. For Inchiquin, however, the consequences were more serious. The battle had presented an opportunity for him to regain the trust of his countrymen, both Catholic and Protestant. His failure to defeat the numerically smaller English force left Inchiquin disgraced. After the battle, Inchiquin returned to Munster, where there were still a number of companies loyal to him, but these were routed by Broghill in March the next year. Shortly afterwards Inchiquin fled to the continent.
- Scott-Wheeler 1999, p. 261.
- Esson 1971, states that the Irish forces were driven off by light cannon fire, but this is not mentioned in Cromwell’s report to William Lenthall, the Speaker of the English Parliament or Ludlow’s near contemporary history (Cromwell 1902, pp. 93,94 and Ludlow 1849, p. 239).
- Scott-Wheeler 1999, p. 145.
- Cromwell, Oliver (1902) , “Letter CXV: For the Honourable William Lenthall, Esquire, Speaker of the Parliament of England these Ross, 14 November 1649. …”, in Carlyle, Thomas, Oliver Cromwell’s letters and speeches with elucidations, 2 (centenary ed.), London : Chapman and Hall, pp. 93, 94, Part 5
- Esson, D.M.R (1971), The Curse of Cromwell: a history of the Ironside conquest of Ireland, London: Leo Cooper Ltd.
- Ludlow, Edmund (1849), “The battle of Glascarrig”, in Firth, C.H., The memoirs of Edmund Ludlow, lieutenant-general of the horse in the army of the commonwealth of England, 1625–1672, 1, Oxford: at the Claredon Press, p. 239
- Scot-Wheeler, James (1999), Cromwell in Ireland, Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, ISBN 0-7171-2884-9