1598 was going to be a pivotal year in the conflict that was engulfing Ireland.
After the campaigns that had racked the country over the previous few years, the situation was in a precarious balance. The English remained in place with a strong army, but had been unable to make any headway against the Tyrconnell/Tyrone alliance where it really mattered. In Ulster, Hugh O’Neill held his ground, while in Connacht Hugh Roe O’Donnell was ever triumphant. The death of Fiach McHugh in Wicklow was a substantial success, but the main part of the rebellion remained active and healthy.
With Thomas Burgh dead of disease, Thomas Butler, the Earl of Ormond, became Lord Deputy of Ireland. The victor of Affane decades before, Butler was the old man of Irish politics, 67 in 1598. He immediately had to deal with new truce negotiations. His interactions with the two Hugh’s were successful enough in getting an end to armed activity for a long period, the better part of a year, while the rebels “terms” were sent to London for the perusal of the Queen.
Most sources portray Hugh O’Neill as very aggressive in these talks, making terms and demands that were impossible to agree to. The English were not in a good strategic position, but talk of ending reformations, denying any influence over what they deemed an English Earldom and a lack of hostages were all examples of Hugh’s strong line stance they couldn’t tolerate.
The truce between the two sides lasted the rest of 1597 and the first half of 1598. Save for the continuing Burke infighting in Connacht, which both sides were involved in, there was little fighting in Ireland during this period, a chance for both sides to rest, rearm, levy more troops and train them. Hugh O’Neill busied himself with the hiring of more Scottish mercenaries and the purchase of arms to make them more effective. He also maintained contact with the royal court in Spain, eagerly seeking more support from the aging Philip II. The English gathered more troops from Irish allies, like the Clanrickarde and Thomond, and imported more soldiers from England.
By the summer of 1598, Elizabeth had rejected the suggested peace terms several times over, with the agreement of a pardon for the rebels not being enough to move Hugh O’Neill from his hardline stance. The truce expired in June and the two sides were back where they started.
It was in Hugh O’Neill’s “front” that things would now come to a head. The English maintained a fort on the Blackwater River, not too far from Hugh’s headquarters at Dungannon. The fort had been the scene of at least four significant clashes of arms already in the war, one of which had probably been the worst defeat that the rebels had suffered thus far. Now, with the truce off and needing to announce his resumption of hostilities with a bang, the Tyrone leader gathered his forces and marched on the enemy enclave once more.
The Pale administration was in a bind. O’Neill’s aggression could not go unanswered and the time for campaigning was now. But the Blackwater Fort was viewed by many as an expensive mistake, a drain on exchequer funds in its maintenance, garrison and constant resupply, in return for very little strategic gain. The fort was dangerously far from allied lands, offered no real threat to Tyrone in its isolated state and needed relief efforts often. But there it was: O’Neill’s repeated sieges had to be dealt with, with rumours abounding that he would soon launch attacks on the Pale itself.
O’Neill, for his part, was going about things more cautiously than his last attempt. No assault on the walls of the fort were made this time. Instead, he went for the starvation route, cutting off access to the forts garrison and preparing trenches and other siege works to inch slowly up to the walls. These eventually grew quite extensive, crisscrossing the marshy land around the fort, while other defences were prepared on the roads from the Pale. O’Neill was no simple Irish brigand: his armies had muskets and cannon at their disposal. Any attempt to relieve the Blackwater Fort, now in the midst of its fifth fight of the war, would need to deal with the Tyrone army.
The council in Dublin resolved to attempt a relief, though only much fractious debate. Those who advocated the forts surrender in return for the garrisons lives lost out to the more hawkish nobles at the table. One of those, and the man chosen for the job of leading the relief force, was none other than Henry Bagenal, Hugh O’Neill’s brother-in-law, presumably still smarting from his near total disaster at Clontibret.
Bagenal had a grudge against Hugh and lobbied hard for the right to try and relieve the Blackwater Fort. Bagenal was no military amateur, the unfortunate result of his last great campaign aside. He was well used to Irish warfare and the terrain on the approach to the Blackwater. He was intimately familiar with Hugh and his army. I say that to make the reader understand that his appointment was not an unwise one on the face of things, no matter how it turned out in the end.
Bagenal was given command of a very substantial army with which to try and break through Hugh O’Neill’s defences and get to the Blackwater. He had close to 4’000 foot, a mix of hardened English soldiers stationed in Ireland for several years, fresh levies from England and a large contingent of ground forces from Irish allies. Over 300 cavalry joined the group, as well as a small amount of artillery. The overall experience level of the army, with the exception of those English veterans and horsemen, was probably quite small, but Bagenal presumably hoped to overcome that with the size of his force.
Assembled by early August, Bagenal set off north. By now the garrison at the Blackwater were starving, and desperately needed any form of help. Bagenal set out from the English town of Armagh on the 14th August, prepared for the final march on the Blackwater.
O’Neill had not been idle. He knew, through various contacts in Leinster, about the army that was coming towards him. When faced with such a threat, he must surely have considered the idea of withdrawing and dispersing, as the Irish usually did. This time though, he decided to make a stand and risk battle. But he would not do so alone.
First, he encouraged lesser allies – minor clans and families mostly – in Leinster and Munster to begin attacking English targets in their areas, thus drawing the attention, and military resources, of the council. Thomas Butler led detachments against these smaller attacks (as they were close to his Earldom) and this served to reduce the size of Bagenal’s army.
Second, he sought the aid of every ally near to him, and, by most accounts, got it. Hugh Roe wasted little time in gathering his armies and heading east to aid his father-in-law, bringing with him Hugh Maguire and a large number of soldiers from sympathetic clans in Connacht and other parts of Ulster. Even the MacDonnells were represented, by one of the brothers of the victor of Carrickfergus.
The Irish allies force probably numbered somewhere around 4’000 infantry and 600 cavalry, with a smattering of their own artillery. They would have been surprisingly well-armed for an Irish army, with plenty of caliver harquebus’s to go around along with the standard swords, pikes and axes. From lightly armoured kerns to the heavier armoured Redshank mercenaries, this would have been a battle-hardened force, from previous conflicts and earlier campaigns in the Nine Years War. Presumably Tyrone soldiers would have made up the bulk of it, and most sources seem to indicate that Hugh O’Neill was in charge.
So, the armies were set, not too unequal in number and make-up, heading towards a fateful clash. O’Neill, seeing the roads and paths that Bagenal would have to take in order to move such a large army, prepared accordingly, digging trenches and amassing earthworks in the region, hoping to fight a defensive battle while hitting the English with smaller attacks from the flanks through his musketry and horses. These defensive positions were substantial, with at least one trench cutting five foot deep through a large swath of the countryside.
Bagenal’s army set out from Armagh expecting a fight. The Blackwater Fort was only a few miles away, but Bagenal was all too aware of the Irish efforts to fortify the road to it. The English set out in the standard formation to repel the expected guerrilla attacks – a core of pike and melee troops in the centre, muskets on the sides, and cavalry as a further flank protection. The army was, on Bagenal’s instruction, split into six “regiments”, two in the front, centre and rear, with the commander taking up position in one of the front two units, perhaps wanting to avoid a repeat of the Clontibret disaster. Knowing that the road itself would be the most likely ambush point, Bagenal attempted to chart a course through the wild land around it, mostly boggy, forested terrain along the River Callan.
The English were already operating under a distinct disadvantage it must be remembered: they had to get to the Blackwater Fort no matter what, with the garrison there having eaten their own horses by this point. As such, Bagenal’s manoeuvring options were limited. O’Neill knew where he had to go and the direction he was going to come.
It was a beautiful day by most accounts, and the English proceeded at first without incident. Going was slow however, through the difficult terrain, especially with the artillery having to be moved through bogs and the numerous small streams that crisscrossed the land. Small attacks began to occur by hidden Irish troops, mostly musket fire, meant to harangue and pick away at the enemy. The tactics were simple: maintain distance from the enemy, keep difficult ground between you and them, and fire away. Hugh Roe led one of the larger detachments on this exercise, hitting the English right flank from a forested area.
For the moment though, the English dealt with such expected assaults and kept moving, although the different sections of the column were now beginning to drift dangerously apart due to delays on different parts of the line. One whole regiment was essentially lost to the coming battle when it had to stay behind to protect an artillery piece whose cart had become stuck in boggy ground.
As the English traversed a small tributary stream of the Callan, over a place called “Cath Bhéal-an-Átha-Buí” – the Yellow Ford – they came upon a series of hills. Between these hills was one of the deeper trenches, lined with thorny bushes moved to add an even more difficult defensive obstacle. The first regiment crossed this trench and formed up on the other side.
It was here that the main fighting of the day would take place. O’Neill, holding the hills, sent down skirmishers and musket troops to engage the English. The fighting quickly became brutal and strained, as the English attempted to push on while regiments further back crossed the trench to join them. By now the Blackwater Fort was actually in view, with its garrison attempting to sally out and join in the fight, only to be checked by a reserve that O’Neill had left in place to prevent just such an act.
The English over the trench fought on and made some advances, but the scattered nature of the column now began to show serious weaknesses. None of the section leaders knew what was happening elsewhere. The vanguard was under heavy attack across and around the trench, the rear was fighting off a sustained assault from O’Donnell and his men, and the centre was trapped between both situations. Bagenal was completely unable to direct his forces due to lack of information.
An idea was formed that the vanguard would withdraw to hold the ford while the rest of the column moved up to reinforce it for a better push on the Irish. But the orders to do so did not reach the leader of the regiments in front, a Colonel by the name of Percy, and his troops remained where they were, now fighting a losing battle with the Irish under Hugh O’Neill himself.
At this point, Bagenal rode forward to get a clearer view of the situation, ordering the regiment under his direct command to cross the trench. Though dubbed as brave by many sources, this act ran smack into the now withdrawing troops of Percy, confusing the situation and giving a significant advantage to the Irish. English soldiers were running out of ammunition and some were already wavering. Others, the native Irish allied to the English, were starting to go over to the rebel side. Bagenal threw up his visor to get a better look at the situation. A musket ball went through his face, killing him instantly.
Around the same moment, an ammunition wagon exploded, for reasons that aren’t that clear, further adding to the destruction and the confusion. Bagenal’s death, as the death of any commander in such circumstances, caused a ripple of panic throughout the English lines, as units started to break and run for their lives. Hugh O’Neill plunged into the fray with a unit of horse and spearmen, as the rebel Irish began a slaughter of the enemy still trapped on the wrong side of the trench, and continuing this assault to the other side. The intermixed English regiments, confused, panicked and largely inexperienced, were easy targets.
The English column was in total disarray, with every section now under various degrees of assault, unable to come to the aid of the others. The new commander, by the name of Thomas Wingfield, decided to cut his losses and retreat back to Armagh. Engaging in his own heroic assault on O’Neill’s lines in order to gather up what forces he could and rescue some trapped English units, he was able, with some loss, to get things into a more coherent shape. A large portion of guns, powder and cannon had to be abandoned in the hasty retreat that followed, though some of the smaller English guns were used to beat back O’Neill’s pursuit of the near routing enemy. Wingfield gathered up what had been the rear of the column, which had been engaged in a bitter running fight with Hugh Roe and his men all day, and marched back to Armagh. The Irish, exhausted and suffering their own losses and ammunition shortages, decided not to pursue.
Around 2’000 English soldiers struggled into the town of Armagh around six or so hours after they had first left it. Of the rest, 800 of them were dead, half that number wounded. At least 300 of the English army had switched sides in the course of the fight, and the others had scattered to the four winds. It was, by that point in history, the worst defeat the English had ever suffered in Ireland. The Battle of the Yellow Ford was a total disaster with the loss of men and colours, the loss of supplies, the failure to achieve the primary objective of relieving the Blackwater Fort and the deaths of Bagenal and dozens of English officers.
The Irish, for their part, had around 800 casualties from the more trustworthy sources, 300 or so of them dead.
The Blackwater Fort remained besieged and Armagh soon suffered the same fate. After a few days of negotiation, the English were allowed, minus their arms and remaining ammunition, to march home in exchange for the town. The rebel leadership must have known that Armagh had a decent supply of provisions and that their own forces could not be relied upon to stay in place for long, hence the lenient terms. Hugh O’Neill also feared Pale reinforcements landing by sea nearby, but in the event this operation was cancelled. Part of the deal was the surrender of the Blackwater Fort also, the very object that the English had been attempting to save.
It was worse than Glenmalure, Red Sagums, the campaigns of Richard II, Dysert O’Dea or Connor. A gigantic amount of English troops were dead or had betrayed their masters. They had been killed by a well-armed, disciplined, and well led native force of a diverse background, which had outsmarted the English commander at every turn. The English had lost two important positions in the north as a result. The Ulster rebellion was buoyed tremendously, the reputation of Hugh O’Neill made for the rest of history. The English in the Pale and beyond were dismayed, the Irish celebratory. And the Spanish began to take a keener interest now that such a decisive victory had been achieved.
Bagenal’s plans had fallen apart almost immediately. In allowing his forces to be split into such distinct parts he allowed the Irish to defeat him in detail. In failing to maximise his offensive push at the trench, he allowed Hugh O’Neill the opportunity to destroy him. In choosing the path he took, he allowed his army to be easily targeted and dealt with. In choosing his own position, he allowed his own death to happen much easier than he should have.
O’Neill had led a confederate Irish army to victory, doing so through the smart use of terrain, labour to create obstacles, the correct division of his own troops, and choosing the right moment to spring his main attack. Hugh Roe had previously been the golden boy of the rebellion, but now that honour most definitely went to Hugh O’Neill, who reaped much of the credit for the victory. That is not to downplay the actions of O’Donnell on the day, as his increasingly severe attacks did their part in separating and weakening the English column.
In fact, the result would not have been possible had it now been for that alliance between Tyrconnell and Tyrone. Aided by their previous actions in the war, which had added numerous other territories and clans to their confederations, this loose alliance had been able to come together in a very short period of time and do something extraordinary. The English nightmare of united Irish foes had become a horrifying reality.
Elizabeth was apocalyptic, upbraiding her council in Ireland and demanding more success in the campaigns to destroy the northern confederates. But the summer of 1598 was the time of these rebels, as they celebrated a truly enormous victory over their foe, the possibility of increased support at home and abroad, and the opening of new fronts in their war. Now, the forces of the two Hugh’s could rightfully claim to be the real deal, a clear and present danger to the English regime, potential “liberators” of the island – at least insofar that they could potentially push the English out of Ireland.
If the rebels could inflict such a defeat as they had, where else could they target? Athenry, Sligo and Armagh had been hit after all, why not Galway? Or Carrickfergus? Or Ormond? Or the Pale itself? Such fears would easily occupy the minds of the English in Ireland and at home, as they sent more men and money to the colony, transforming this border skirmish into a fight for the very survival of the Pale state.
But it was in the south, in the seemingly conquered province of Munster, that the next blow would fall. Like the spark that starts a prairie fire, the Yellow Ford’s results would spread from one end of the island to the other.
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