Ireton, Henry (1611–51), soldier and lord deputy of Ireland, was the eldest son in the resolutely puritan gentry family of German and Jane Ireton of Attenborough, near Nottingham. Baptised on 3 November 1611, he was educated at Trinity College, Oxford, graduating in 1629, and proceeded to the Middle Temple before returning to his country estate. Though he was never called to the bar, he acquired a command of constitutional law and forensic debate that shaped his contribution to the parliamentary cause in the English civil war, which he joined at the earliest opportunity, leading a troop of horse to fight in the first engagement against the king at Edgehill in November 1642. He remained active throughout the conflict and formed a close association with Oliver Cromwell (qv), whose daughter Bridget he married in June 1646 as the war came to an end. By that stage he had risen to commissary general of the horse and been elected a recruiter member of parliament for Appleby. Thereafter, he played a central role in the complex negotiations of the following two and a half years, attempting to broker a settlement acceptable to the king, the parliamentary factions and the radical soldiery that would also achieve the purpose he shared with Cromwell, that of securing wide religious toleration. When negotiation proved futile, it was Ireton, in Cromwell's absence, who was responsible for the army intervention that brought about the purge of parliament and the trial and execution of the king.
With preparations underway in early 1649 for the reconquest of Ireland, Ireton, along with Cromwell and other leading members of the parliamentarian regime, sanctioned communications with the Cistercian priest Patrick Crelly (qv), the envoy of leading catholic figures in Ireland who rejected the alliance between the catholic confederacy of Ireland and the royalists against the English Republic. The parliamentarians mendaciously hinted that they would respect the religious and property rights of catholics in Ireland if they assisted them, but their true purpose was to undermine the uneasy coalition of catholics and protestants that held most of the island for the king. On 15 June 1649 Ireton was appointed to act as Cromwell's second in command for the expedition to Ireland, setting sail from Milford Haven on 15 August. He commanded a fleet of seventy ships that cruised off the coast of Munster for several days before unexpectedly changing course for Dublin, arriving on 23 August. This had been a diversionary tactic, designed to confuse the Irish royalists about where the parliamentarian forces would land. He then served in Cromwell's successful campaigns in Leinster and Munster in late 1649 and early 1650. On 4 January 1650 parliament appointed him president of Munster. After his arrival in Ireland, Ireton remained in close contact with Crelly's patron Randall MacDonnell (qv), marquis of Antrim, who provided intelligence and facilitated the surrender of a number of royalist garrisons before formally defecting to parliament in spring 1650.
When Cromwell left Ireland on 27 May 1650 he chose Ireton to succeed him as commander of the English forces in Ireland. On 2 July the English parliament confirmed his appointment as lord deputy of Ireland. Two parliamentary commissioners, Edmund Ludlow (qv) and John Jones (d. 1660), had already been appointed to take charge of the civil administration, so that Ireton's new dignity made little difference to his role and he was free to concentrate on the completion of the conquest of Ireland. Despite the decisive impact of Cromwell's campaign, most of Munster, parts of Ulster, and all of Connacht remained to be subdued.
Ireton took Carlow in July before besieging Waterford, which surrendered on 6 August. Had he moved quickly on Limerick, the most important stronghold remaining in the hands of the Irish, he would probably have captured it relatively easily. Instead, he decided to march northwards through Leinster to carry out punitive measures against guerrilla forces operating in Wicklow and Carlow. His destination was Athlone, whose commander, Lord Dillon (qv), had indicated that he was prepared to surrender the town to Ireton. However, this was a ruse to draw the English away from the then vulnerable Limerick. When Ireton reached Athlone on 16 September, Dillon burned the eastern half of the town and retreated behind the Shannon.
Frustrated, Ireton headed south, finally reaching Limerick on 6 October. By this time the city was fully prepared for a siege and winter was approaching. Limerick boasted some of the strongest fortifications in Ireland and was garrisoned by 2,000 battle-hardened Ulster catholics, commanded by Hugh O'Neill (qv). O'Neill was well versed in the arts of siege warfare (of which the English had little experience) from his time in the Spanish army. Hitherto, Ireton had previously refused to consult with his subordinates but, perhaps conscious of his earlier strategic errors, he sought their advice for the first time. They advised a withdrawal from Limerick, which was effected on 19 October.
During the winter of 1650–51 Ireton built up his resources for the coming campaign. Although only Connacht now remained out of English hands, the presence of large bands of guerrillas or ‘tories’ in the other three provinces made it unsafe for any English to venture outside the towns without an armed escort. The need to deal with the tories as well as the remaining catholic field armies placed a massive drain on the government's resources, forcing Ireton to make constant appeals to London for men, munitions, and supplies. Despite the certainty of defeat, catholic resistance persisted and, if anything, became more resolute. The insurgents' desperation combined with the invaders' exasperation to make conflict – which, following the submission of the protestant royalists, now unambiguously pitted Irish catholics against English protestants – more bitter, bloody and indiscriminate.
Ireton bears some responsibility for this: whereas Cromwell had given the impression that a relatively lenient settlement would be imposed on catholic Ireland, the vengefulness of the new regime became more apparent under his successor. Following the capture of Waterford, he ordered the expulsion of all catholics from the town and the settlement of a colony of disbanded English soldiers in their place. This step represented on a small-scale Ireton's preferred means of reforming the rest of the country and reflected his desire (shared by most members of the armed forces under his command) to punish the catholic community collectively for the massacres of protestant settlers during the 1641 uprising. He appears to have been the driving force behind the early stages of the process that would culminate after his death in the systematic expropriation of the catholic landed class in Ireland. Usually portrayed as ideologically inflexible, he was not wholly unresponsive to military and political pressures and in 1651 advised his superiors in London that some limited guarantees be offered to catholics regarding their property and religious rights in order to bring about peace. This advice was ignored.
He regarded the so-called Old Protestant community (essentially the pre-1641 protestant settlers) in Ireland with suspicion due to its members' political and religious conservatism. In order to secure their submission, Cromwell had adopted an accommodating attitude towards them and (as with the catholics) it fell to Ireton to disillusion them. He presided over the abolition of the tithe, the effective dismantling of the Church of Ireland and the introduction of new judicial procedures, all of which served to undermine the authority of the landowning elites; he also promoted moves to confiscate the property of prominent protestant royalists. As president of Munster, he sanctioned within the province particularly sweeping legal innovations and a thorough purge of protestant clergy deemed insufficiently godly. Unsurprisingly, this led to fraught relations with the leading protestant figure in Munster (and arguably Ireland), Roger Boyle (qv), Lord Broghill. In spring 1651, Ireton temporarily appeased Broghill to secure his assistance for the forthcoming campaigns, but it was clear that the Old Protestants were to be largely excluded from power.
In early May 1651 Ireton met his chief commanders at Clonmel to plan the year's campaign, which commenced in June. The forces of Charles Coote (qv) swept down from Ulster, crossed the Shannon, and took Athlone, before proceeding towards Galway city. Further south, Ireton crossed the Shannon at O'Briensbridge, Co. Clare, scattering an army commanded by James Tuchet (qv), earl of Castlehaven. On 3 June 1651 his army of 8,000 arrived at Limerick, completely cutting it off from Clare.
After the failure of an ambitious amphibious assault that was bloodily repulsed by the Irish on 23 June, Ireton simply resolved to starve the city into submission. He constructed a pontoon bridge across the Shannon and marched the bulk of his army across, thereby concentrating his forces on the weaker southern walls. Meanwhile, inside Limerick the populace suffered from hunger and the plague. However, the garrison was ably marshalled by O'Neill, who led raids against the besiegers at every opportunity. Desperate to hold out until the winter forced another English withdrawal, O'Neill began evicting old men, women, and children from the city. This continued for a time, until the massacre of forty such evictees put a stop to it. Ireton had not sanctioned these killings and court-martialled the officer responsible for them. In the event he was determined to brave a winter siege, in anticipation of which he increased his forces to 11,000.
By mid September O'Neill was facing mounting internal pressure to surrender. Ireton was aware of these divisions and fomented them further by steadily hardening his terms for Limerick's surrender. In mid October Ireton trained his cannon on a particularly weak section of the walls. This was the final straw for many civilians and crucially for a Col. Fennell, who seized the gate at St John's St. and threatened to negotiate his own terms with Ireton. Recognising that his position was untenable, O'Neill surrendered on 27 October. The inhabitants were promised quarter and the right to their personal property, and the garrison was permitted to march out. However, twenty-four catholic leaders, including O'Neill, were specifically exempted from these terms, and seven of them were executed. Ireton strongly urged O'Neill's execution, but he was eventually dissuaded by his officers.
Since succeeding Cromwell, Ireton had worked long hours every day attending to his duties as head of both the army and the Irish government, a workload that had taken its toll on his health. After the fall of Limerick, he rode immediately into Connacht to attend to the siege of Galway. Exhausted, he caught a fever and died 26 November 1651. By the time of his death, he had acquired nearly 14,000 acres in Co. Tipperary and Co. Kilkenny. His body was taken back to London, where he received a state funeral on 6 February 1652 at Westminster abbey. In late January 1661, on the orders of the now royalist English parliament, his body was recovered, ceremonially hanged at Tyburn, and buried under the gallows. Henry and Bridget had one son and three daughters. After his death, his widow married Charles Fleetwood (qv).
The progress of the conquest slowed appreciably under his direction while his rather pedestrian generalship and severity has been contrasted unfavourably with the military dynamism and occasional magnanimity of his father in law. While these charges are not without substance, they do not allow for the altered circumstances under which Ireton operated. The adoption by the catholic forces of guerilla tactics and the unwillingness of the triumphant parliamentarians to compromise on their goal of overthrowing Irish society as it then stood ensured that the consolidation of the striking advances of 1649–50 would prove laborious and drawn-out. Similarly, the hardening of attitude towards the established interests in Ireland (be they protestant or catholic) associated with Ireton's lord deputyship was not due to the transfer of power from Cromwell to him but rather to the fact that he assumed office at a time when the government had established itself sufficiently to implement and thereby make manifest its radical intentions. His policies represented a broad consensus within the parliamentarian regime.