Ulster was ever a thorn in the side of the Tudors. Leinster was the easiest province to bring under sway, Munster the next. Connaught remained wild and untamed, but so divided that it lacked credibility as a serious threat to English interests. It was Ulster, home to two very powerful Irish states and various other enemies of the Pale, which would prove, time and again, to be the root of many anti-English activities and rebellions for centuries to come, in a way that would prove very difficult to counter.
While Ulster in the mid 1500’s was divided between many different families and clans, there were three entities that bear special mention – the Earldom of Tyrone, under Conn O’Neill, the still nominally independent Kingdom of Tyrconnell, under Manus O’Donnell and the newly claimed settlements in the Glens of Antrim that had been taken under the control of colonists from the Scottish Highlands, seeking new territory away from the mother country.
All of these states warred with each other, enemies and allies in equal measure. They all had their moments of enmity with the English as well, with the Pale administration leading numerous expeditions northwards throughout this period, with mixed success. Lacking the military power to really force a settlement with the states of Ulster, a standoff had evolved that soon gave way to political manoeuvring, especially when it came to supporting claimants to various titles. If the English couldn’t control Ulster the traditional way, they could try and control the people in charge. They were still mixing hard and soft power approaches.
Tyrconnell and Tyrone always had problems with heirs. Under old Irish custom, upon the death of a chief the throne could pass to any number of people, from legitimate sons, to illegitimate brothers. Whoever was strongest and carried the most support from nobles tended to grab the throne, usually after a bout of infighting and civil war. This was a key reason for Irish weakness in the face of English states in Ireland, which were governed by the laws of primogeniture – whereby a fathers titles passed to his eldest, legitimate son before anybody else. The Irish way – “tanistry” – did tend to create strong, battle-proven leaders, but the English benefited from the stability that primogeniture brought. For example, the records regarding those who fell at the Second Battle of Athenry include mentions of “28 men who were entitled to succeed to the Kingship of Ui Maine” which gives some indication of how fractious succession disputes in Irish states could potentially become.
In Tyrconnell, Manus had reigned for many years after essentially overthrowing his own father, but in 1555 he was himself undone by his own son Calvagh, impatient to be the head of the family and already in open conflict with his brother Hugh. This war would suck in the likes of Tyrone, the Scottish settlers – who were the precursors of the later, English approved, influx of what would become “Ulster Scots” - and mercenaries from Scotland itself.
Tyrone was just as bad. Conn O’Neill had, like Manus, ruled for many decades and under the policy of “surrender and regrant” had forsaken his royal crown for the title of an Earl, agreeing as well to the policy of primogeniture. He thus nominated his elder son Matthew to be his successor. Conn’s other son, Shane, was more inclined to follow the traditional Irish route of inheritance.
What followed was a deadly game of assassination and power grabbing, as Shane, a young man with vast ambition, rebelled, drove his father out of Ulster, murdered his brother and his brothers primary heir, leaving that line of the family dependent on young boy named Hugh O’Neill, who would become very important in Irish history, sheltered from his uncles targeting in England. Having garnered a great deal of support from the nobility of Tyrone, many of whom must have been none too enamoured with the switch from Kingdom to Earldom, Shane was able to have himself declared, sometime after his father’s death, King of Tyrone and chief of the O’Neills in 1559.
Almost immediately Shane was intervening in Tyrconnell, attempting to outdo his father by bringing his weakened neighbour under his rule. Most accounts indicate that Shane wanted to be King of Ulster, not just Tyrone, with an invasion of Tyrconnell, with some “island Scottish” help, being just a first step on a road to greater conquests.
It was not to be at that time. Calvagh was his father’s son, and beat off Shane’s initial invasion with a delicate act of subterfuge in a precise night attack on the heart of Shane’s encamped forces, just inside the borders of Tyrconnell. It was not the total slaughter and absolute victory of Knockavoe, where the two men’s fathers had played out a similar drama, but it was enough to send Shane back into Tyrone, nursing his wounds. Such ups and downs were typical of Irish warfare at the time.
England had a new ruler by now. It is one of history’s great ironies that the child Henry VIII was so unsatisfied with upon her birth would, in time, become one of the most famous English monarchs in history. That was all ahead of Elizabeth when she took the throne in 1558, being immediately presented with the problems facing her administration in Ireland. Thomas Radclyffe, the Earl of Sussex, had been the Lord Deputy of Ireland for much of the previous decade, and had led many several military incursions in Ulster during this time, fighting both the Scottish and Tyrone. His efforts faced the same old problems, most importantly the lack of an enemy to fight, Shane O’Neill, before and after his rise to the throne of Tyrone, being more than happy to melt away and fall back on guerrilla tactics like so many before him had done when faced with such a threat. Sussex was an aggressive Lord Deputy, but lacked the men and money to establish firm English control in the north of Ireland.
That did not stop Elizabeth from ordering him back north shortly after his ascent to the throne, with the aim of forcing some kind of settlement with Shane, be it military or diplomatic. Elizabeth was reintroducing reformation teaching to Ireland and wanted stability in the north. Whether that came through the military defeat of Shane and his supplanting with a rival claimant or through the supplication of Shane to the English crown, Elizabeth wanted greater control of Ulster.
Shane’s tactics of assassination and seizure of power flew in the face of apparent English overlordship in Ulster, so that was a challenge that had to be met. Further, there was legitimate concern that Shane would become an ally of France or Spain, a backdoor for foreign enemies to assault England.
At first, Sussex and the English forces moved diplomatically, reaching out with the hand of friendship to neighbours of Tyrone. The O’Reilly clan to the south of Shane were given the title of “Earl of Breffny (Breifne)”, while the O’Donnell’s were approached positively – with plenty of bribery indicated. It was a decent strategy to undertake. If implemented correctly, Shane would be surrounded on all sides by hostile powers willing and able to invade his territory. Irish allies would be a force multiplier for the English and Shane would have been very hard pressed if it came to a campaign. Sussex had raided his way into Tyrone before, and could do so again – this time with significant local backing which could be all the difference.
Shane found out what was going on. Having failed to make any headway in Tyrconnell by military means before, he now fell back on his previous successful tactics. Waiting for the right moment, when Calvagh O’Donnell was separated from most of his armed forces while staying at a monastery, the head of the O’Neill’s swooped in and abducted both the King of Tyrconnell and his wife, whom some sources claim he went on to make his mistress while keeping the Tyrconnell leader imprisoned in cruel conditions. He matched this stunning coup with a rapid campaign of burning and pillage in Breifne, mercilessly crushing the O’Reilly clan and making them his vassals.
Sussex and the English appear to have been caught totally off guard by these actions. That was in 1560, and the English unreadiness was encapsulated by the lack of response given when Shane launched a campaign of raids into the Pale itself, burning a large amount of crops and leaving the area in a state of hunger as the winter of 1560 approached.
While Elizabeth became further inclined to a solution brokered over a table rather than on a battlefield, Sussex was determined to enact a reprisal campaign. With the aid of the Earl of Ormond and new forces from England, he marched northwards as soon as the weather allowed it in 1561, aiming right for the Tyrone heartland.
Perhaps knowing that a traditional military victory would not come about, he made a large camp in Armagh before sending out a substantial body of troops into O’Neill country to raid and pillage, an eye for an eye that would prove the point of English power in Ireland while Sussex considered future moves. This raiding was, apparently, successful, as these troops took large amounts of plunder from Shane’s country and were soon heading back to Armagh.
Shane was ready to make his own move. Gathering a small force of cavalry and gallowglass, rapidly mobile and determined to make their own point, he followed the retreating English. Somewhere on the modern day borders of Monaghan, on the 18th of July, he caught up with them.
What followed is not recorded in great detail, only that the result was a total embarrassment for the English. Through surprise and quick manoeuvre, Shane was able to kill a large amount of the English rearguard before they could get better organised to deal with the sudden attack, with many of the Palesmen fleeing headlong southwards before the rest of their force could control the situation. Shane could have killed anywhere between 50-400 men depending on who you believe, but the numbers weren’t the point. The fight became known as the “Battle of the Red Sagums”, after the sight of colourful English sagums (cloaks) running from O’Neill’s forces (and is also, coincidently, one of the first written acknowledgement of English use of the colour for military formations, a precursor of the redcoats).
In military terms, the victory was small – most sources do not even mention the reclaiming of booty – but the result had powerful symbolism. Shane O’Neill had rapidly built up an aura of defiance and martial ability, and Red Sagums only backed that perception up to a greater extent. Sussex was somewhat humiliated, the Irish emboldened.
Determined to make Shane pay, Sussex called in every favour, every alliance and every oath of loyalty, and soon had a disparate coalition of Irish states, including Thomond, Desmond, Kildare and the Clanrickardes, swelling his army in size. They were soon marching through Tyrone as Sussex had before, but were again frustrated by the lack of an actual enemy to fight. There were plenty of villages to plunder, crops to burn, loot to divvy out, but Shane O’Neill did not dare to leave his forests and mountainous areas to face his enemies. In desperation, Sussex and Elizabeth attempted to arrange the assassination of Shane – this failed and it was clear that a lasting military solution could not be forced.
The season would soon turn against the military arts and the coalition that Sussex had was probably unenthusiastic for the task. Gerald, the Earl of Kildare and a relative of Shane, intervened for diplomacy. With Elizabeth willing to grant Shane a pardon for his apparent crimes, and a personal audience to sort out the inheritance dispute, terms could be found for a truce. Sussex was able to carry his force into Tyrconnell in order to secure the rights of Calvagh, just ransomed from Shane’s custody. Destroying any attempts to unseat the King of Tyrconnell, Sussex and his men could at least claim some satisfaction and honour from the proceedings.
Shane O’Neill has differing legacies in history. In some chronicles he is a chivalrous hero, standing up for his rights against usurpers, besting the English enemy again and again through his tactical genius and guile. In others, he is a cowardly, vicious usurper himself, dealing out death and cruelty to all in his way, be they family or others. Such differing accounts are no surprise when it comes to Irish history.
What we can take from all of the above is that Shane was a proficient user of targeted killing and special operations in order to achieve his ends, which was matched by a competent enough military mind. The disaster of his initial foray into Tyrconnell was a learning experience for him, which he would make good on in subsequent campaigns. He knew who he had to get out of the away in order to achieve his ends, when best to strike in order to take neighbouring enemies out of the picture. He had a decent intelligence net work set-up, which allowed him the foreknowledge of the English attempts to undermine his position.
He had good enough strategic mind to know when to avoid pitched battle, when to know he was outnumbered and outgunned. He knew when to go on the offensive (after Tyrconnell) and seems to have displayed good tactical know-how in the Red Sagums fight. After that, he knew when to quit while he was ahead, at least up to a point.
Sussex, on the other hand, was making the same mistakes that English commanders had been making for centuries in Ireland, and would keep making all the way to the present day. It didn’t matter how big the armies were, how wide the amount of powers brought together to fight a single foe were, how open to invasion a Kingdom might appear to be, as long as the Irish kept retreating to where the English couldn’t get to them, they would be a problem. If people like Elizabeth and Sussex wanted greater power, a greater impact, they would need to find a better solution.
A truce made, Shane did travel to London to meet Elizabeth, and received his pardon and recognition as ruler of Tyrone. But it would not be too long before he was warring with his neighbours, and the English, again.
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