Ireland’s Wars: Hugh O’Neill Gets Off The Fence

In the aftermath of the victory at Enniskillen, the combined forces of Hugh Roe O’Donnell and Hugh Maguire swept through northern Connacht, laying waste to all English settlements that they could find, enacting a slaughter that even pro-Irish sources are in difficulties to excuse. The blood was up perhaps, but this rampage had the added effect of simply enlarging the scope of the victory that the Irish had achieved at the “Ford of the Biscuits”. A large part of English territory in the west was pitifully defended, and what troops were in place were more inclined to stay behind walls than march out and fight.

Changes were taking place in the Pale. Though his replacing was due, William Fitzwilliam was finally sent home to be replaced by Sir William Russell, a son of the Earl of Bedford and an experienced soldier from campaigns in the Netherlands. While many in the Pale administration advocated a peaceful approach of negotiation with the Irish “rebels”, Russell took an opposing view. His job was to crush any attempts to usurp the English position in Ireland, and it was a task that he took to immediately.

In the meantime, there was the problem of Hugh O’Neill to deal with. His position, treading a fine line between rebel Irish and English, was increasingly untenable and his constant delays of declaration were no longer satisfactory. Called to account for his lack of support for English armies, O’Neill went as far as visiting Dublin to answer the charges. This episode was complicated by the man leading those charges – Henry Bagenal, a chief commissioner of Ulster under the crown, who happened to be Hugh’s brother-in-law. The Tyrone Chief had eloped with Bagenal’s sister several years previously, and relations between the two men were always confrontational.

Hugh met with the council in Dublin, and was allowed to return home unmolested, but the charges against him were not dismissed. Many Irish sources take great time to excuse the behaviour of Hugh in this period, insisting that he was always of a mind to join the rebels, but was simply waiting for the right time. This is probably biased thinking. More likely that Hugh wanted to wait for as long as possible in order to see with which side he could gain the most for himself and Tyrone. If the crown had offered him a position of power in Ulster, like the Lord Presidency for example, it is not inconceivable that he would have declared for them.

But the crown and the Pale did not trust Hugh, so the final destination of the matter was set. What is more believable from Irish sources is that Hugh was in communication with foreign powers, hoping to bring French, Spanish or Papal armies into Ireland on the side of the rebels. He must have known, as Huge Roe also must have, that success for the rebels could not be lasting without outside support. But, for now, that support was lacking.

For the Pale though, matters were soon to start spinning out of control. They had already lost control of southern Ulster and the north of Connacht. Now, trouble flared up in south Leinster, as Russell’s inaugural act as Lord Deputy was to lead an army against Fiach McHugh O’Byrne of Wicklow, seeking to avenge the defeat at Glenmalure several years previously and end the threat to Dublin from that direction.

In late 1594, Russell moved south with an army, marching rapidly, and managed to attack and capture the O’Byrne stronghold at Glenmalure without much fuss. Fiach escaped, allegedly warned in advance because of some errant drumming from the English army.

The capture of the fortress was a great success, but it was rather ruined by the escape of the O’Byrne chief. An insurgency broke out throughout the region, as Fiach organised his own men to raid and ambush the English forces now garrisoned in the area, while relatives further afield even managed to set fire to the Crumlin area of Dublin. Russell would garrison Glenmalure with his own men and continue to fight this campaign for the next several years. In truth, it was a separate from that the English could have done without, and the strategic positives of the initial assault were soon outweighed by the drain on men and resources trying to hunt the O’Byrne’s down. Russell soon had to call for reinforcements from England, which arrived in the form of 3’000 veterans of the Brittany campaigns under Sir John Norris.

The attacks against his ally Fiach and the arrival of the new troops finally settled it for Hugh O’Neill. Taking the decisive step past the point of no return, he choose the path of rebellion, attacking and occupying a major English fort on the Blackwater River, near the borders of his own territory. It was now the early months of 1595, and Hugh Roe responded to these events by launching fresh attacks into Connacht, noted as being so fast as to avoid any entanglements with the enemy – not that there were many to be entangled with. The two largest, most powerful Irish states were now allied in a war against the English, which was already spreading to different parts of the country. Maguire was on the march in Cavan, trouble was brewing again in Munster. And it was only going to get worse.

John Norris marched north as soon as he could once word came of Hugh’s attack. The O’Neill chieftain, now turning to caution after his aggressive action, dismantled the Blackwater fort, burned his own fortresses in the area to deny them to the enemy, and retreated back north. Hugh seems ready to have entered the fray, but unwilling to risk an open confrontation with the English at that point. His army was impressive for its day, but it lacked experience fighting the English as a cohesive unit.

The war continued to escalate in Connacht, as Ulick Burke, head of the Clanrickarde territories, temporarily seems to have given up his allegiance to the crown. The Burke family had been involved with a naval raiding expedition on Tyrconnell undertaken by George Bingham, brother of Richard and one of the commanders at the Ford of the Biscuits. After some dispute over pay to the Irish contingent, Ulick and Bingham had come to blows and the English noble was killed.

The Burke’s held a castle at Sligo in the name of the English, but handed it over to Hugh Roe on his request. From this base the Tyrconnell chief was able to extend his raids and plundering throughout further reaches of Connacht, creating even more of a problem in the region. Richard Bingham, still a person of authority in Connacht, gathered his forces, including elements from Thomond and the Clanrickarde families, to march north and besiege Sligo castle. One might have thought that Hugh Roe had worked himself into a dead end, playing into the English’s hands, but for whatever reason the siege came to nothing. Attacks against the castle were repulsed and attempts to sap the walls were thrown back by fire from the battlements. Bingham was compelled to raise up his army and depart shortly after the siege began. Perhaps he lacked sufficient artillery, ever an English trump card, to do what the English usually did to Irish occupied castles, or maybe he simply lacked the men.

With another victory under his belt, Hugh Roe returned to Tyrconnell. His ability to outmanoeuvre hunting English armies, to strike deep into enemy territory, to take forts and castles with apparent ease, all increased his reputation. He soon had a large amount of people from outside Tyrconnell lining up to join his army, from different parts of Ulster, Connacht and even Scotland.

Hugh O’Neill was not sitting back either. After the brief face-off over the Blackwater fort, he decided instead to look for advantage further south. After a minor engagement with the army of Sir John Norris near Armagh, Hugh eventually decided to besiege the English garrison at Monaghan town. Dates are a bit confused here, but what we do know is that it was in the summer of 1595. Sources also differ on just who was in charge, whether it was Norris or Henry Baganel. Likely enough that both men were commanding to some extent.

With the garrison holding out but running short of supplies, the Pale leaders made the decision to send a relief force of Norris’ troops, whose task would be to convoy a load of supplies to the castle and return home, perhaps scaring off any besiegers in the process. Most sources indicate that the English did not expect a major engagement during this operation, perhaps expecting O’Neill to back down as he had at the Blackwater.

What followed next is described as the “Battle of Clontibret”, after a small townland to the east of Monaghan, but was really more of a two day running fight between the opposing armies centred in the countryside around the castle.

The English relief choose to head towards Monaghan via the Newry route from Dundalk. Roughly 1’750 men, mostly infantry with a smattering of cavalry, made up this army. On the road to Monaghan, the force came under sporadic attack from Hugh O’Neill’s army, a vast mixture of various Ulster clans and foreign mercenaries. No hand-to-hand fighting took place, this warfare consisting of sniping and distant engagement.

English casualties were light, but they made the mistake of expending much of their powder and ammunition in warding off such attacks. The relief force made it to Monaghan castle, left their supplies and a chunk of their manpower, and then turned for home.

The army took a different route back to Newry, likely motivated by a desire to avoid the same welcome they had received going in, which led through a more hilly, boggy area, ripe for an ambush. O’Neill’s army, all 4’000 men of it, laid an ambush at a pass that the English force had to go through, perhaps as part of a wider strategy to lure the English in and then hit them at a preferable point. O’Neill had a surplus of musketry and cavalry, and the English suffered badly from repeated flank attacks from that Irish horse as they moved through the pass.

The fire must have been intense, given the lack of ammunition later in the fight. The English commanders released what little cavalry they had to try and strike back – this attack got within striking distance of Hugh himself, but he survived.

The fighting lasted through the day, as the English convey moved on, and the Irish continued to attack from hills and natural cover. As night fell, the situation became confused and desperate for the English, who made camp at a hill. Fears were rife that the English were surrounded by a superior force, a force that could well slaughter them all the following morning. The English had, by this point, ran out of ammunition and were uniformly exhausted.

The sun rose and no attack came. The Irish had withdrawn, presumably taking what supplies and material the English had been forced to leave behind with them. Reinforcements from Newry bolstered the English army, and they marched back to safety. Hugh O’Neill, apparently unaware of the similar deficiencies of his enemy, had refused to press the attack due to a lack of powder and ammunition for his musket men. It was a missed opportunity, but he could still claim to have won a victory.

The result of the battle, and the miniature campaign, was hardly catastrophic though. Losses were generally estimated at around 400 and many supplies had fallen into Irish hands, but the army had remained intact, had avoided a greater slaughter and had achieved their objective of re-supplying Monaghan castle. While it could hardly be called a victory, it was not a crushing defeat either.

But the aftermath of the battle demonstrated a poor control of PR. Rumours of a massacre abounded throughout the Pale, and far too late did the administration do anything to suppress them. Many people believed in the far greater casualty figures being bandied about by the rebels and this lack of knowledge contributed to a growing sense of crisis within the Pale.

It is hard not to blame them, for to be an English person in Ireland in the summer of 1595 was to see the colony unravelling. Open warfare had broken out with two very strong states to the north. Connacht was being overrun at will by the enemy. The O’Byrne’s were proving difficult to tie down in Wicklow and had even gone as far as attacking Dublin itself. Various clans and families in Ulster and the west were joining the rebels. Foreign mercenaries, mostly from Scotland, were beginning to arrive in greater numbers. The MacDonnell’s of Antrim were becoming troublesome. Rumblings from Munster, the population seething under the heels of an unpopular plantation, were growing. And there was ever the threat of a foreign power lending support.

The English still had a large amount of troops, an advantage in artillery and ships, and a strong fallback position in the Pale. But the arrival of Tyrone into the war had made it an infinitely more dangerous event, one that had rapidly transformed into a potentially game-changing conflict. The English nightmare had always been the disparate elements of Ireland uniting in common cause against them. This war was as close to that nightmare as the situation had ever been.

It was only going to get worse still.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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8 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Hugh O’Neill Gets Off The Fence

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