In the years following the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the actions of the English in Ireland, and the reactions of the “Old English” and 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, have come perilously close to a total collapse, and nearly bankrupted 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 were being waged in the rest of the island. The aggressive moves made in Leinster, Connacht and Munster had resulted in rebellions and blowback. How would Ulster be any different? The only variance was where the rebellions elsewhere had been somewhat localised and manageable, the rebellions in Ulster, and those who led them, were going to be a different breed, capable of inciting an all-Ireland conflict.
In the decades leading up to the Nine Years War, Ulster had been, relatively speaking, quiet. The campaigns of Shane O’Neill were already becoming a distant memory, and the states of the northern province seemed to pose no direct threat to the Pale. Those states – the Earldoms (or Kingdoms, depending on the time or your background) 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, with the clashes between the two having an almost routine quality.
But for the English, Ulster seemed to be the last big challenge. This is not to say that London had established total dominance over the rest of the island, but from a detached perspective, Ireland in the early 1590’s seemed to be a place where the Queen’s rule was firmly established. Munster had been utterly crushed, repeatedly. 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 Aodh, or the more familiar 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 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, the practise of tanistry.
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 of 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 administration of Sir John Perrot 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 region (with partial success). They especially disliked a growing closeness between Tyrconnell and Tyrone. 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, rivals were unceremoniously offed by supporters, and just like that Hugh Roe was in charge. One of his first acts was actually to swear allegiance to the English crown, even while he was already dallying with Spanish agents.
Across the border to the east was the more important of the two Hugh’s, namely Hugh O’Neill, also known as Hugh the Great. No other figure in this period would have as much of an impact as Hugh O’Neill, on Irish society, culture, militarism and in rebellion against the English.
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 uncle’s machinations and, somewhat ironically for all that occurred after, 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. Hugh appeared to play the part, serving in English armies in Ulster and Munster later in his life.
After Shane’s ignominious end Hugh was able to return to Tyrone as the English recognised Baron of Dungannon, though the real power of the province lay in the hands of Hugh’s opposing kinsman 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, general popularity and, most crucially, his almost unique ability to form a complex network of supportive Irish lords through marriage, negotiation and outright threat, 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, ordering Spanish survivors of the Armada in his lands butchered and engaging in 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 may never be firmly known, Hugh provided help and support to Hugh Roe during his escape attempt and journey back to Tyrconnell. The two had strong ties: Hugh was married to Hugh Roe’s sister, and Hugh Roe to Hugh’s daughter (Hugh’s general romantic life was immensely complicated: he was married five times and sired a large amount of legitimate and illegitimate children). Hugh recognised that an ally as popular as Hugh Roe, and with such strong distaste of the English, could be very useful. The game-changing potential of a strong Tyrconnell-Tyrone alliance was a tantalising prospect as well, and so it was an obvious avenue for O’Neill to take. And, in the short-term, alliance with O’Donnell made O’Neill more likely to become the O’Neill. Indeed, within a few years Turlough would be obliged to give up his control of the title, partially because of the pressure from east and west.
Within the territory that he controlled, Hugh wasted no time in bringing a new style of rule to Tyrone, taking his cues from his dead uncle, tying the peasantry to the land to increase food production, making numerous steps to improve the quality of both military equipment and military training and continuing to hire a large number of mercenaries to supplement his increasing forces. Especially notable was his Scottish contingent, dubbed “Redshanks”, though their overall effectiveness in the coming war is very debatable. He also formed a formidable looking coalition that went beyond Tyrconnell, to include Hugh Maguire of Fermanagh (O’Neill’s son-in-law) and Fiach McHugh O’Byrne in Wicklow. All the while, O’Neill continued to maintain a public façade of loyalty to the crown.
A summation of the geographical situation is needed before we go further. 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 no pushovers and had no great history of English domination, Ulster had other problems from an English perspective. Not least of these were the viable approaches. If you were sending a large army into Ulster, thanks to the existence of mountain ranges, uncultivated forests, treacherous boglands and rivers/lakes with limited means of egress, there were only two places you could really go.
The first, the Curlew Pass near Sligo, went straight into O’Donnell territory, and was the furthest from the Pale, both realities making it less than convenient. The second, in the east near Newry, included traipses through several passes, like that at Moyry, 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, at least at that point. 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 and throwing them back on when it was politically convenient.
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, starting in the late 1580’s. 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, who both had ties to the abused families. FitzWilliam was suspicious of O’Neill and, starting in 1590, had tried to bring Tyrone under greater English control through the altering of law and imposition of Pale officials, with partial success. One of those officials was a Sir Henry Bagenal, who had a bitter enmity with O’Neill, since Hugh eloped with his sister in 1591: the rivalry between the two would be a critical factor in the early years of the coming conflict. In Tyrconnell, Hugh Roe brooked no such attempts to subordinate his control over his lands, driving away an attempt to place an English Sherriff in his home by force in 1592.
The exact start date of the Nine Years War is difficult to determine, but it can certainly be placed in the summer of 1593. When the Maguire clan in Fermanagh began to be targeted by FitzWiliam’s encroachments that year, 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 side-lines as the Ulster crisis – for a larger war was becoming inevitable – evolved, doing nothing that could be seen as overly-belligerent, paying lip-service to the crown, offering some scant support in these early Fermanagh campaigns, while 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, helping to negotiate the withdrawal of English soldiers from Fermanagh during O’Donnell’s initial assault, while secretly courting the support of the Spanish crown for any future rising against Dublin.
The continued attempts to exert crown control in Fermanagh was simply provoking further violent resistance and Maguire was more than holding his own, having launched a serious of devastating raids into Sligo and Roscommon in the summer of 1593, which included the burning of Ballymote and the seizure of over 700 cows. During the second raid a brief skirmish was fought between Maguire’s men and Sir Richard Bingham, the chief commissioner of Connacht, at Rathcroghan on the 23rd June, where Bingham was obliged to retreat, but this resistance led to Maguire ending his raid without a notable success. The next few months saw a gradual escalation of the crisis, as members of the O’Neill family loyal to Hugh struck against rival crown-supported family members, Maguire began to send raiding parties into Monaghan and the government fort on the Blackwater River, on the southern borders of Tyrone, began to put under pressure for the first time.
FitzWilliam needed to respond and ordered an English Army to march into Maguire’s lands and subdue him. This force was to be under the joint command of Bagenal and O’Neill, an opportunity for the former and perhaps a test of loyalty for the latter. The moment was not yet right for O’Neill to show his true colours, but when he did form up with Bagenal, he did so with a lot less soldiery than he had initially promised. The total “English” force made up perhaps 1’500 men.
Bagenal sought to strike at the Maguire stronghold of Enniskillen directly, but found this an impossible task, due to the crossing of the River Erne near the castle being held against him, and O’Neill’s general refusal to co-operate with his more ambitious plans. Bagenal was obliged to march north, where he engaged Maguire’s men at the Ford of Belleck on the 10th October. The English won the day, advancing over the ford under fire, and putting the Irish to flight with a resolute attack, supported by fire from the southern bank, the battle finished off by a scattering of the defenders by cavalry, perhaps commanded by O’Neill himself. Casualties were light on both sides, but it was a clear government victory.
O’Neill actually received a light wound to his leg in the process of the brief fight but survived. According to some sources, he ordered a nearby Hugh Roe to hold off on any major support for Maguire, aside from a small amount of infantry commanded by a troublesome cousin who would have a greater role to play in later events, Niall Garbh O’Donnell. O’Neill clearly did not want his own future plans tainted by a clash between himself and those whom he hoped to direct in war within a short time. After the battle he returned to Dungannon, leaving Bagenal capable of some raiding and burning around Lough Erne and the fortification of some local positions with crown loyalists. Still, FitzWilliam was satisfied that Maguire’s “rebellion” was finished and allowed Bagenal to disperse his troops back to their garrisons without any assault on Enniskillen.
FitzWilliam’s hopes that Fermanagh had been broken and would now be ripe for a more straightforward conquest, were to be disappointed. But for the moment, he ordered his local forces to press their advantage. In January 1594 a force under a Captain John Dowdell, which had been fighting a struggle of raid and ambush in the area since Belleck, attacked and took Enniskillen after a nine-day siege. The Irish garrison were butchered.
The fall of Enniskillen was a signal for a scattered, but intense, campaign of raid, burning and plunder by the Irish, against almost every English town, fort or position within reach, with the depredations reaching a fever pitch throughout spring and early summer of 1594. English troops and settlers found themselves cut off and hemmed in from the constant pillaging, and Irish nobles loyal to the crown were also targeted. Fermanagh, Monaghan and large parts of Ulster were effected, with Maguire, O’Donnell and O’Neill’s loyal to Hugh the perpetrators.
By late May, these actions had evolved into a more open warfare and rebellion against the crown, as Hugh Roe and Maguire took part in an Irish counter-siege against Enniskillen, that stretched into August, putting the garrison under immense pressure. Hugh O’Neill would not commit fully to rebellion just yet, though his brother Conn went south with a substantial force of his own, 400 or so men and horses, to join the Irish 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: while the English were focused so much on Enniskillen, O’Neill took the opportunity to expand his power elsewhere in Ulster, by raid or assassination. As for the siege, it was a sit-and-wait operation for the Irish: while they were far from lacking in cannon themselves, they did lack the variety necessary for siege work, and enough skilled hands to use them.
With the defenders running short on provisions and the English controlled lands under severe pressure from the Irish army, Fitzwilliam, unwilling to simply let the garrison hold out without support, organised a relief force to head west, 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 advancing English were caught in the front, flank and rear by well-concealed Irish and a rout of the English army ensued, with the possible loss of up to 400 men. Maguire is credited especially with the victory. 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, now under the new Lord Deputy William Russell, would actually be able to send out another relief force to break the siege and relieve Enniskillen shortly afterwards, but it could not change the defeat that had occurred. Things calmed somewhat in the aftermath, with Hugh O’Neill, Hugh Roe and Maguire all suing for peace and pardon with Russell, with O’Neill even doing so in person. Russell was inclined to believe the Irish had had enough and reduced the military numbers in the region. He would soon realise his mistake. The state of open rebellion had only been paused and the area of operations showed how things were going: Enniskillen castle fell back into Maguire’s hands the following year, the English unable to keep a viable presence in the region.
These Fermanagh based campaigns were 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 had captured English fortifications and used their numbers and unique martial skills to squeeze the government’s ability to govern. English positions all across the country and the larger area were under threat from a considerable Irish force, a coalition of competent military leaders, determined to resist English inroads into Ulster. Whether they were doing it to maintain their own independence, or as part of a grander scheme to replace an English monarch with a Spanish one, they were showing that the old paradigm of well-equipped and advanced English soldiery running rampant over Irish wood-kerne’s was not the standard state of affairs anymore.
The English would respond. Just as with Desmond, this kind of military activity and resistance could not go unnoticed or unmet. Soon, 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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