Drogheda means the bridge of the ford. It lies upon the river Boyne, and, like Dublin, it is built on both banks of the river. But, in the days of Cromwell, there was only one bridge over it, and all round were strong walls.
It lies near a farming district, and is the most important export town in that part of Ireland. From there butter and eggs are sent to England. It has linen manufactures too, for which many Irish towns are famous.
Now the Royalists made a brave defence, but Cromwell had heavy guns with which he battered the walls, until he made a breach. Then his soldiers rushed at the breach, hoping to storm the town. But so fiercely did the Royalists fight that they were thrown back. Again they rushed to the attack. Again they were thrown back.
Then Cromwell, seeing how his men were baffled again and again, put himself at their head. New courage came to the Ironsides, and shouting with joy, they followed their gallant leader. And as the sun was sinking, the town at last was won. Back and back the brave defenders were borne to the Mill Mount, the highest and strongest place in the town. Even here the Ironsides followed, and almost to a man the Royalists were slaughtered where they stood.
In his wars in England Cromwell had been stern and fierce. Now he was pitiless. No mercy was shown. "No quarter" was the cry. Over the bridge fled the Royalists pursued by the conquerors. There was no safety anywhere. A church in which some took refuge was set on fire, and the poor wretches within it died in the flames. The blaze of the burning church lit up the darkness, for night had now fallen, and as the bloodshed went on the shrieks of the dying mingled with the roar of flames, and the crash of falling stones.
So awful was the slaughter, that of three thousand men scarcely thirty escaped. Not only soldiers, but all the friars and priests within the town were "knocked on the head." Thus the siege of Drogheda ended in a fearful and pitiless butchery.
Cromwell himself, even in those rough, stern times, felt the need of some excuse. He gave the order for "no quarter," he said, in the heat and anger of battle. And such bitterness would serve, he thought, as an example to the rebels and prevent bloodshed in future, "Which are the satisfactory grounds to such actions, which otherwise cannot but work remorse and regret."
The slaughter of Drogheda struck terror, for a time at least, into the hearts of the Royalists. Trim, a little agricultural town farther up the Boyne, gave in without striking a blow. Dundalk, which like Drogheda is a trading seaport, followed.
Then Cromwell, leaving garrisons to guard his conquests, marched southward by Wicklow and Limerick, to Wexford, castles and towns yielding to him everywhere as he marched.
This Limerick is not the seaport on the west, the chief town of the county of Limerick, but a little village in Wexford.
Cromwell wanted to take Wexford because the bay was a natural harbour, easily reached from Milford Haven, where troops could be landed. From the south of the bay a tongue of land, ending in Rosslare Point, runs northward forming Wexford Harbour, and at Rosslare there is now a good harbour. Between Dublin Bay and Wexford there is no other good inlet. The county of Wexford, sloping towards the sea from the Arklow and Wicklow mountains, is very fertile. It has become famous for its butter and eggs and dairy produce, which are easily shipped off to other places through the port of Wexford, which has therefore become important. The streets are narrow and the houses small, and among them may still be seen that in which Cromwell lived after he had taken the town.
For Wexford, like Drogheda, was soon taken, and as at Drogheda, the defenders were slaughtered cruelly.
The weather had been wet and dreary, and Cromwell's camp was turned into a quagmire. Many of his soldiers fell ill. But as soon as Wexford was taken, he was on the march again to New Ross. Along the muddy roads, and by the bare fields of barley stubble they went to the little agricultural town on the river Barrow.
Cromwell began at once to bombard the town. But the news of the massacre of Drogheda and of Wexford had reached the garrison. The fear of Cromwell was upon them, and in three days they yielded. This time the soldiers were allowed to march out, leaving their arms and ammunition behind them. Some of the garrison were English, and five hundred of them immediately joined Cromwell. He was very glad to have them, for many of his own men had died, worn out by the long marches and terrible wet weather.