Sack of Cashel

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Sack of Cashel
Part of the Irish Confederate Wars
The Rock of Cashel, the citadel in which the defenders of Cashel attempted to hold off the assault
Date September 1647
Location Cashel, County Tipperary
Result English Parliamentarians take the town and massacre its garrison
Irish Confederate Catholics Munster army garrison English Parliamentarians
Commanders and leaders
Lieutenant-Colonel Butler Murrough O'Brien, 1st Earl of Inchiquin
c.600 soldiers
Casualties and losses
c.600 soldiers & hundreds of civilians killed low

The Sack of Cashel (also known as the Massacre of Cashel[1]) was a notorious atrocity which occurred in the Irish County of Tipperary in the year 1647, during the Irish Confederate Wars, part of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. The town of Cashel was held by the Irish Catholic Confederate's Munster army and was besieged and taken by an English Protestant Parliamentarian army under Murrough O'Brien the Baron of Inchiquin. The attack and subsequent sack of Cashel was one of the more brutal incidents of the wars of the 1640s in Ireland.

The Munster mutiny

The Sack of Cashel occurred against the background of a complex conflict in the south of Ireland. In 1642, most the province of Munster had fallen to Irish Catholic rebels with the exception of Cork city and a few towns along the south coast, which remained in the hands of Protestant, largely English settlers. Since then, the province had been fought over by the Catholics, organised in the Catholic Confederation, and the Protestants, led by the Earl of Inchiquin.

The political and military situation was further fragmented by the English Civil War, in which the Catholics gave their support to King Charles I, and the Protestants, since 1643, to the English Parliament. What was more, the Confederate Catholics were themselves split over the terms on which they should sign a peace deal with the King. A deep rift developed within their ranks in 1647 between those who were prepared to accept a mere toleration of Catholicism in return for an alliance with the English Royalists and those who in effect wanted Ireland to be Catholic kingdom, albeit under sovereignty of the Stuart monarchy. This infighting was to fatally hamper the war effort of the Confederates in Munster and make possible the Protestant sack of Cashel.

On 12 June 1647 Donough MacCarthy, the Viscount of Muskerry entered the camp of the Irish Confederate Munster army. The Viscount Muskerry was probably the most powerful Confederate leader in Munster and was known to be sympathetic to the powerful Irish Royalist Ormonde. At that time, the Munster army was commanded by the Earl of Glamorgan, an English Catholic nobleman who had been granted command of the army by the Confederate Supreme council for reasons of political expediency, being aligned neither to the Royalist nor clerical faction.

Glamorgan was not popular, partly because he was English but also because he lacked money to regularly pay the soldiers. Muskerry was unsatisfied with the direction the Irish Confederate Supreme Council was headed under the influence of Rinuccinni and realised that he was in a position to influence the army of Munster and thereby strengthen his hand.[2]

He won the army over within an hour. A ceremony was afterwards arranged in which Glamorgan handed over command to Muskerry but this was merely to save face. Muskerry desired to turn his full attention to the politics of the Irish Confederations supreme council, and so immediately after the ceremony, Muskerry resigned in favour of Theobald Taaffe, a nobleman who had joined the Irish Confederates but who was known to be sympathetic to Royalism. Unfortunately for the Confederates, Lord Taaffe would subsequently prove to be one of the most incompetent leaders to command an Irish army during the 1640s.

Even worse, while the Munster Army was paralysed by the intrigues of its commanders, Inchiquin's Protestant forces had embarked on a highly destructive campaign in Confederate held territory.

Inchiquin's offensive

In the summer of 1647 the Baron of Inchiquin, the Irish Protestant commander of the Protestant army of Cork, commenced a campaign against the Irish Catholic strongholds in Munster. The counties of Limerick and Clare were raided and he soon turned his attention to the bountiful eastern counties of Munster. In early September, his forces quickly took the Castle of Cahir in Tipperary. This strong castle was well positioned to become a base for the Cork Protestant army, and it was used to raid and devastate the surrounding countryside. The Munster army under Lord Taaffe did not make any serious effort to oppose Inchiquin, probably the result of the political scheming of Muskerry and other powerful Irish lords who hoped to keep the Munster army intact for their own ends. As such, Inchiquin was allowed to make a major push towards the town and ecclesiastical centre of Cashel.

The attack

Inchiquin had already launched two minor raids against Cashel, and he now had the opportunity to launch a major assault. The Parliamentarian forces first stormed nearby Roche Castle, putting fifty warders to the sword. This attack terrified the local inhabitants of the region, some of whom fled to hiding places, while hundreds of others fled promptly to the Rock of Cashel, a stronger place than the town itself. Lord Taaffe had placed six companies in the fortified churchyard that sat upon the rock, and considered the place defensible, though he himself did not stay to put it to the test, leaving command to the Governor Lieutenant-Colonel Butler.

Arriving with his army at the Rock, Inchiquin called for surrender within an hour. The defenders of the churchyard offered to negotiate, but that was refused, and on the afternoon of 15 September the assault commenced. The Parliamentarians were first reminded of earlier atrocities against Protestants, and then began to deploy. The attack was led by around 150 dismounted horse officers (who wore more armour than the foot) with the remainder of the infantry following; troops of horse rode along the flanks of the advancing force to encourage the infantry. The Irish soldiers attempted to drive off the attackers with pikes while the civilians inside hurled rocks down from the walls: in turn the attackers hurled firebrands into the compound, setting some of the buildings inside on fire. Although many were wounded, the Parliamentarians gradually fought their way over the walls, pushing the garrison into the church.

Initially, the Irish defenders managed to protect the Church, holding off the attackers trying to get through the doors, but the Parliamentarians then placed numerous ladders against the many windows in the church and swarmed the building. For another half an hour fighting raged inside the church, until the depleted defenders retreated up the bell tower. Only sixty soldiers of the garrison remained at this point, and they thus accepted a call to surrender. However, after they had descended the tower and thrown their swords away, all were killed.

The sack

In the end all the soldiers (save a single major) and most of the civilians on the Rock were killed by the attackers. The Bishop and Mayor of Cashel along with a few others survived by taking shelter in a secret hiding place. Apart from these a few women were spared, after being stripped of their clothes, and a small number of wealthy civilians were taken prisoner, but these were the exceptions. Overall, close to 1,000 were killed,[3] amongst them Lieutenant-Colonel Butler and catholic scholar Theobald Stapleton. The bodies in the churchyard were described by a witness as being five or six deep.

The slaughter was followed by extensive plunder. There was much of value inside, for apart from pictures, chalices and vestments of the church, many of the slain civilians had also brought their valuables with them. The sword and mace of the mayor of Cashel, as well as the coach of the bishop were captured. The plunder was accompanied by acts of iconoclasm, with statues smashed and pictures defaced. The deserted town of Cashel was also torched.


The atrocity at Cashel caused a deep impact in Ireland, as it was the worst single atrocity committed in Ireland since the start of fighting in 1641. Previously, the most infamous massacre amongst the Catholic population was that at Timolin in 1643, when 200 civilians were killed by Ormonde's English Royalist army, but many more than this were killed at Cashel, and the Rock of Cashel was one of the chief holy places of Ireland. The slaughter of the garrison at Cashel and the subsequent devastation of Catholic held Munster earned Inchiquin the Irish nickname, Murchadh na Dóiteáin or "Murrough of the Burnings".[4]

The political ramifications in the Irish confederation were also profound, serving to exacerbate the split between the Catholic party headed by Giovanni Battista Rinuccini and those sympathetic to the Royalist lord Ormonde. The former were enraged by the attack, and desired retribution against Inchiquin and his army, but the Ormondist faction saw the Sack of Cashel and a subsequent raid by Inchiquin's men into County Kilkenny as evidence of the futility of defending Ireland without Royalist support. In the short term, Lord Taffe came under intense pressure from the Confederate leadership to engage Inchiquin. When he did so in November, the politically divided and badly led Munster army was routed and destroyed at the Battle of Knocknanuss. This was the second Confederate army to be destroyed in less than six months, the Leinster Army having been annihilated at the battle of Dungans Hill in August.

In consequence, the Confederates had no option but to sign a truce with Inchiquin, an act which deeply alienated many Confederates and Catholic clergy, who had been appalled at Inchiquin's brutal tactics in Munster. These divisions would lead to the brief but bloody Irish Confederate Civil War in 1648. Inchiquin withdrew his support for the English Parliament in the same year and entered with the Confederates into a Royalist alliance.

Despite the massacre, Inchiquin converted to Roman Catholicism while in exile in France 1656.

See also


  1. ^ Cusack, Margaret Anne (1868). An Illustrated History of Ireland. p. 496. Retrieved 11 May 2011.
  2. ^ Meehan, Confederation of Kilkenny, pg 216
  3. ^ Meehan, Confederation of Kilkenny,pg 227
  4. ^ "A Compendium of Irish Biography". 2 January 2007.


  • Meehan, C. P. (1882). Confederation of Kilkenny.
  • Stevenson, David (1980). Alasdair MacColla and the Highland problem in the seventeenth century. Edinburgh.
  • Manning, Roger, Oxford (2006), An Apprenticeship in Arms: The Origins of the British Army 1585-1702
  • Inchiquin page

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