In the years following the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the actions of the English in Ireland, and the reactions of the native Irish, propelled the island on a course towards a war that would be more destructive than any that had come before it. As the 1590’s began, one might have been forgiven for scoffing at the idea that, within 12 years, the English would be maintaining a standing force of 18’000 troops in Ireland, nearly bankrupting themselves in the process. But that is exactly what happened. The Nine Years War, as this conflict has come to be known, did not come to be overnight, but was the logical end of Tudor policy and actions in Ireland, an extension of the campaigns that were waged or being waged in the rest of Ireland. The aggressive moves made in Leinster, Connacht and Munster had resulted in rebellions and blowback. How would Ulster be any different?
In the decades leading up to the Nine Years War, Ulster had been, relatively speaking, quiet. The campaigns of Shane O’Neill were becoming a distant memory, and the states of the northern province posed no direct threat to the Pale.
Those states – the Earldoms (or Kingdoms, depending on the time) of Tyrconnell and Tyrone, the Scottish colonies, the numerous smaller vassal Kingdoms – were of the typical Irish variety, fighting each other constantly, rarely uniting. The enmity and feuding between Tyrconnell and Tyrone alone would be enough to fill up several entries of this series.
But for the English, Ulster seemed to be the last big challenge. Munster had been utterly crushed. Most of Leinster had been subjugated and the south was peaceful for the time being. Connacht was being beaten down. But Ulster remained a province of large, powerful Irish states, that any Tudor conquest could not ignore.
It is the two main states that concern this entry, and the men who rose to lead them in the 1590’s. Both named Hugh, they were to become some of the most famous figures of Irish history.
The first I will discuss is Hugh Roe (Red) O’Donnell, probably nicknamed for his red hair. Born in 1572 to the King of Tyrconnell, also Hugh, Hugh Roe was probably brought up in an atmosphere of distrust and occasionally violent family feuds, as was typical of the Irish noble leadership of the time. Though one of Hugh’s elder children, Hugh Roe was in no way guaranteed to succeed his father, due to the succession laws that ruled over Irish nobility.
Judging from what came after, we can assume that in his first 15 years of life Hugh Roe got some experience in military affairs, whether it was taking part in raids or combat in a more substantial form. He probably learned to be distrustful of the Pale, which was ever seeking to play off the Ulster states against each other, offering help and support when it suited them, opposing armies when it didn’t. In the great game of Irish politics, a person in Hugh Roe’s position was just another pawn for the English to try and use to their own ends.
This they did in 1587, kidnapping Hugh Roe from under his guardians noses in a daring seaborne operation, imprisoning him in Dublin Castle for several years, in a bid to keep his father compliant with English wishes and strategy in the regions (with partial success). Lacking any leverage over the English, the elder Hugh could do little but accept the situation.
On a second attempt in 1592, Hugh Roe escaped from Dublin Castle with several others, making his way to friendly faces in southern Leinster: none other than Fiach McHugh O’Byrne, the victor of Glenmalure, who was allied to sympathetic forces in Ulster. Hugh Roe barely survived this gruelling escape in the depths of an Irish winter, losing several toes to frostbite.
Having spent the last of his teenage years in an English prison as a ward against his countries possible actions, Hugh Roe returned home with no love for the Pale, and a determination to face them aggressively from then on in. One can think of few other experiences that could spark such future actions.
The return of such a prince, coming at a time when English incursions into Tyrconnell territory – all part of the wider strategy for Tudor conquest – were increasing, rallied much popular support around Hugh Roe, who suddenly found himself with many men flocking to his banner. His ageing father laid aside his role as Chief of Tyrconnell, and just like that Hugh Roe was in charge.
His first act as a new Chief, as was tradition, was to launch a military expedition at Tyrconnell’s enemies. Moving against English garrisons in the area, he also led a large raid into Tyrone. But he had more in mind than just pillage. The really crucial outcome of this period was in who would end up leading Tyrone.
Hugh O’Neill was the grandson of Conn, son of Matthew, who had been murdered by Shane O’Neill during that figure’s rise to power. As a child Hugh had been forced to flee Tyrone to escape his uncles machinations – he was raised under English eyes in the Pale, the administration seeing in Hugh a potential Earl of Tyrone that would be sympathetic to them.
After Shane’s ignominious end Hugh was able to return to Tyrone as the Baron of Dungannon, though the real power of the province lay in the hands of Turlough Luineach O’Neill. Turlough was not recognised as Earl of Tyrone by the English though, and they continued to favour Hugh for that role. This all fit in to the wider English strategy: they could possibly have wound up with a controllable Earl in the form of Hugh, but they could also simply continue the in-fighting of the O’Neill family, just as good an outcome.
They reckoned without Hugh’s rebellious streak though. Through his lands, his hiring of foreign mercenaries, his peasant reform and general popularity, Hugh was able to garner a very notable amount of support and power very quickly, using that power to undermine Turlough at every opportunity. He maintained “loyalty” to the crown, even going so far as to take part in campaigns during the Second Desmond Rebellion and excursions against the McDonnell Scots, but it is clear now that he was always seeking a means to undermine the English position.
Though to what extent it is not known, Hugh provided help and support to Hugh Roe during his escape attempt and journey back to Tyrconnell. Hugh was married to Hugh Roe’s sister, so they already had a strong diplomatic tie. With Hugh Roe’s popularity and the potential of a strong Tyrconnell-Tyrone alliance, it was obvious avenue for the O’Neill pretender to take.
So, when Hugh Roe launched his campaigns against Turlough O’Neill, he had regime change in mind. After several excursions from the west and continuing attacks from Hugh internally, Turlough bowed to the inevitable and left aside his role as chieftain in favour of Hugh.
Hugh wasted no time in bringing his new style of rule to Tyrone, taking his cues from his dead uncle, pressing the peasantry into military service, tying them to the land to increase food production and continued to hire a large number of mercenaries to supplement his increasing forces. Especially notable was his Scottish contingent, soon dubbed “Redshanks”.
Having secured his eastern border with the rise of Hugh O’Neill, Hugh Roe turned to his primary foe. Now is the time to discuss in more detail the military and strategic situation of Ulster.
The English wanted greater control over Ulster, this is clear, but they couldn’t just send a big army to do it. Aside from the fact that the states within Ulster were not weak and had no great history of English domination, Ulster had other problems from an English perspective. Not least of these was the general geography of the approaches. If you were sending a large army into Ulster, thanks to the existence of mountains, forests, boglands and rivers/lakes, there were only two places you could really go.
The first, near Sligo, went straight into O’Donnell territory, and was the furthest from the Pale, both realities making it less then convenient. The second, in the east near Newry, included traipses through several passes and valleys that were easily defended, whether it was by Tyrone or the MacDonnell’s. Further, there were no ports on the northern shoreline that the English controlled or had a realistic hope of capturing intact. What few loyal colonies the English had in Ulster were ill-placed for any military advantage to be claimed.
For all those reasons, the English strategy towards Ulster had been one of slow manoeuvring and little bites. Just as they had in Leinster, the approach of Sherriff’s and numerous small garrisons was taken in the counties close to the Pale border, there to establish control, reap taxes and turn the land into that which could be considered loyal. It was a basic counter-insurgency campaign of “Clear, Hold, Build” as we would see it today. This long game would bear fruit in some cases, but the patience that it required was rarely respected by the long line of Lord Deputy’s that had to oversee it. And as stated, the efforts to make the larger states English Earldoms had only met with partial success, with O’Donnell and O’Neill chieftains throwing off the weak yokes of English titles whenever it suited them.
Lord Deputy William Fitzwilliam, fresh from seeing off the remnant of the Spanish Armada, wanted more tangible results fast. To that end, he started making more aggressive moves in the counties on and around the borders of Ulster. The ruling septs of Monaghan, Longford and Cavan (the McMahons, O’Farrell’s and O’Rourke’s respectively) were targeted. Troops were sent in, forts and garrisons established, taxes taken, resources seized. The leader of the McMahon and O’Rourke septs, upon briefly resisting, were caught and hanged, with their lands divided between more loyal tenants.
Such actions were an open challenge to Tyrconnell and Tyrone, which both had ties to the abused families, and could not be seen to do nothing while the Pale started gaining greater ground in Ulster. Hugh Roe brooked no such assault on his land, driving an attempt to place an English Sherriff in Tyrconnell away be force in 1592.
When the Maguire clan in Fermanagh began to be targeted, Hugh Roe had enough, mobilising his forces and heading south in an aggressive campaign of raids and burning, attacking isolated garrisons and forts throughout northern Connacht and southern Ulster. More large-scale warfare did not break out yet, but in conjunction with the head of the Maguire’s, Hugh Roe was already doing a lot of damage.
All that time, Hugh O’Neill stood on the sidelines as the Ulster crisis – for a larger war was becoming inevitable – evolved, doing nothing, paying lip-service to the crown, offering some scant support in the Fermanagh campaigns, conspiring in secret with Hugh Roe without tangible action. He may have had hopes that Elizabeth would favour him in the event of an Ulster Lord President being appointed, and continued to hedge his bets for as long as possible.
In 1593, tired of the continued resistance of Maguire in Fermanagh, Fitzwilliam raised a larger army from the Pale and surrounding regions with which to seek a greater result. The continued pillaging and oppression in Fermanagh was simply provoking further violent resistance and Maguire was more than holding his own. This new English army, joined in person by the still (seemingly) loyal Hugh O’Neill, advanced on the town and castle of Enniskillen, located between the upper and lower sections of Lough Erne.
Maguire attempted some defence, but he was badly outnumbered by the wave of English soldiers and firepower coming at him, unable to gather reinforcements or allies in time. He was soundly defeated and the area around Enniskillen was wrecked by victorious English soldiers. Hugh O’Neill actually received a light wound to his leg in the process of the brief fight before Enniskillen, but survived. According to some sources, Hugh actually asked a rapidly advancing Hugh Roe to hold off on an attack on the English army until he himself was no longer part of it, which might be a bit of wishful thinking from Irish writers seeking to make a nationalist hero out of the Tyrone chief.
Fitzwilliam returned home without doing anything more, for what reasons the sources do not say. A lot of his army was made up of men from outside the Pale, so perhaps he could not rely on them to maintain themselves as a fighting force for the English crown. The low-scale fighting around the Ulster border continued. Early in 1594, Fitzwilliam struck out again from the Pale, heading for Enniskillen for the second time within 12 months.
On this occasion, Fitzwilliam was seeking to establish a more permanent sign of English dominance. The siege of Enniskillen was short and brutal, the English cannon making short work of its basic walls and numerically inferior defenders. Now in English hands, the castle was garrisoned and repaired, as the Lord Deputy’s army went home, satisfied that it had landed a telling blow to Maguire’s cause.
This was a dangerous assumption to make of course, and belied a lack of understanding of just what such provocation was doing in the north of Ireland. Maguire was neither dead nor made impotent – the capture of Enniskillen simply gave him and Hugh Roe a clear target to channel their aggression at. An English backed attempt to get rebellious sections of the Maguire clan fighting its head (who was named Hugh as well, but for simplicity’s state I will continue to refer to him by his last name) was unsuccessful in making larger problems for the clan chief to worry about.
Maguire got all that he had together and called on Hugh Roe to aid him. The Tyrconnell chieftain, chomping at the bit presumably, marched south without delay, cutting any last, loose ties that he had to the Tudor administration. According to at least one source, he called on Hugh O’Neill to aid him, or be considered an enemy.
Hugh never made up his mind on this apparent ultimatum. Apparently without orders, his brother Conn went south with a substantial force of his own, 400 or so men and horses, to join Maguire’s army. Such an action seemed to show Hugh as on the side of the “rebels” without actually declaring so, and the Tyrone chieftain was able to put off the moment of decision for a while yet. Of course, only a cynical person would think Hugh orchestrated such a situation.
The combined Irish army besieged the garrison at Enniskillen in June. No attacks or breaches were made, the tactic being simply to starve the inhabitants of the castle out. The Irish perhaps lacked the English experience in storming castles with artillery, though it is unlikely that the Irish were completely without cannon at this point in history.
By August the defenders were running short on provisions and the English controlled lands had come under severe pressure from Hugh Roe’s army. Fitzwilliam, unwilling to simply let the garrison hold out without support, organised a relief force to head north, break the siege and replenish the garrison’s supplies.
This force, made up mostly of Palemen and under the command of several prominent English nobles (including George Bingham, brother of Richard) seems to have been expected to easily deal with the problems facing Enniskillen. Not wanting to be caught on the defensive again, Maguire, Hugh Roe and Conn O’Neill decided to take the initiative.
With the relief forces around five miles from Enniskillen, the Irish were able to launch an ambush at a ford of the Arney River. The particulars of this fight are not recorded, other than the result: a total rout of the English army, with the possible loss of up to 400 men. Maguire is credited especially with the victory. Considering the location, it is likely that the Irish picked the right moment or place to attack, possibly as the English were fording or preparing to ford the Arney.
The battle (and the ford) came to be known the “Battle of Bel-Atha-na-mBriosgaidh” – the Battle of the Ford of the Biscuits – due to the large amount of supplies and material left behind by the retreating English, which apparently included many biscuits meant to be used to replenish the stores of Enniskillen castle.
The English would actually be able to send out another relief force to break the siege shortly afterwards, but it could not change the defeat that had occurred Even with the relief, the castle fell into Maguire’s hands shorty after anyway, the English unable to keep a presence in the region. Enniskillen fell back into Irish hands, the completion of a rather remarkable victory.
Much more importantly, it was the signal of the start of something big. No longer was this fighting of the small-scale, tit-for-tat raiding variety. The Irish had defeated an English army in the field and then captured an English castle. Both victories had been done in a comprehensive and dominant manner. English positions all across the county and the larger area were under threat from a considerable Irish army, a coalition of competent military leaders, determined to resist English inroads into Ulster by force. They were probably not seeking to evict the Tudors, but just to maintain their own independence in Ulster.
The English would respond. Just as with Desmond, this kind of military activity and resistance could not go unnoticed or unmet. Fitzwilliam would be replaced, and the Pale would go on a war footing. The resulting conflict would shape the course of Irish history for many decades, even centuries. The provocations of the previous years had only resulted in creating the visage of a cornered beast, as the Irish states, backed into a corner, decided to fight back.
Hugh O’Neill remained outside of the fighting, for now. But his time prevaricating was also drawing to a conclusion.
The Nine Years War had begun.
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