Ireland’s Wars: Munster Rises For Hugh O’Neill

The victory at the Yellow Ford had radically altered the strategic situation in Ireland. In the aftermath, with the northern confederation separating and returning home while the Pale waited with baited breath for a possible attack on its borders, both sides took stock.

The Irish had smashed an English army and Hugh O’Neill had secured his own borders. But the time had come to spread the rebellion much further afield than southern Ulster and Connacht. With their numbers bolstered after Yellow Ford, as more and more clans and peasantry joined up with what seemed like the winning team, O’Neill set about causing more problems for the English down south. Families like the O’More’s now went on the warpath in Leix (Laois) and Offaly, devastating large parts of the Earldom of Ormond. Thomas Butler, after an unsuccessful attempt to curb this activity, sequestered himself in the relative safety of Kilkenny.

While that was going on, Hugh Roe O’Donnell was launching his most expansive raids yet, through Connacht and into the Burren region of modern day County Clare. Taking advantage of some not untypical infighting among the O’Brien’s of Thomond – nominally loyal to the English crown, but with plenty of family members who thought joining the rebels was now the smarter course – he was able to capture an amount of cattle large enough to be noticed by many sources as gigantic for the time. Such predations would have been extremely damaging to the Earldom of Thomond, keeping them weak and ineffective through much of what followed. Hugh Roe also busied himself with further forays into the Clanrickarde territory, striking at English and English-loyal Irish in the region continually.

The English were in a tough place. The Yellow Ford was an undeniable catastrophe, and morale was plummeting all around. Thomas Butler seemed ineffective as their leader, and Elizabeth’s first replacement, a returning Richard Bingham, died of illness only days after arriving back in Ireland. The Queen had sent another 2’000 troops over with him, but they did not seem to be anything much they could do in 1598, lacking a competent commander or the initiative to deal with O’Neill and O’Donnell.

But it was in Munster that the next big phase of the war would unfold. After the failure of the Second Desmond Rebellion, the Earldom had been almost a write-off: lacking leadership, under populated, with wide swaths of its infrastructure destroyed in the fighting. Munster, under the Presidency of Thomas Norris, had undergone a large plantation effort over most of its territory, with land previously belonging to the FitzGeralds and their allies sold off to new English landlords or “undertakers”. The arrangement had mixed results. Many of the new landlords were of the absentee variety, had estates so large as to be unmanageable, were unable to follow the laws that barred the hiring or leasing of land to local Irish lest the land go untended and struggled to colonise an area that still seethed in resentment after their two rebellions and an unpopular reformation.

Just as it had been with James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald when he arrived with the Spanish/Papal army in 1579, the situation was such that any spark could start an explosion. The Yellow Ford, as it was doing throughout Ireland, provided that spark. O’Neill, recognising that opening up the war in Munster would be to his side’s advantage, made his move. Before the end of 1598, he had ordered the Leinster “insurgents” under his command, led by a man named Owny MacRory O’More and numbering perhaps around 3’000 men, to move into the former Desmond Earldom and raise the area.

It was, by all accounts, a breathtakingly easy campaign. This rebel army moved into Tipperary and then Limerick before sweeping southwards, destroying undertaker settlements, farms and fortresses wherever they found them. Those landlords who were in the province were forced to flee for their lives as even the peasantry rose up against them, casting out what were seen as foreign usurpers of Desmond land.

Within two weeks, huge progress had been made. Thomas Norris had been forced to abandon his stronghold at Kilmallock in favour of Cork. The force he assembled to counter-act the rebellion found itself without a clear concentration of the enemy to fight, with rumours of the size and location of the enemy contradictory: Norris eventually ordered his men to disperse back to their forts and garrisons to survive as best they could. English castles were being captured left and right: only a handful of such fortifications and walled towns survived, and it was in them that many of the English or loyal natives fled. Most of the major Munster families – the Fitzmaurice’s, the Knights of Glynn, some of the McCarthy’s, the Condons, the O’Donoghue’s, the Butlers of Mountgarrett and Cahir – came out on the side of O’Neill and his forces.

But they needed a leader, just as O’Neill needed someone more local to be the head of things in Munster. What remained of the Desmond Geraldines were also heavily involved in the rebellion and it was to one of their members that he turned. James FitzThomas FitzGerald was, on the face of it, an unlikely candidate to be the new Earl of Desmond. He was a grandson of James FitzGerald, the 14th Earl who had quarrelled with the Earl of Surrey in the early 1500’s, through his father Thomas Ruadh, a bastard child. Thomas had been disinherited by his father in favour of his legitimate half-brother Gerald, but in the eyes of native Irish his son still had a claim to power.

It was perhaps only the damage done to the FitzGerald line that allowed FitzThomas the chance. Having had his claims for the Earldom dismissed and ignored by the English and others, he now threw in his lot of Hugh O’Neill, taking the risk of defeat and execution in return for what he had wanted ever since he had been old enough to recognise his position. Hugh O’Neill got his leader, and the chance to show off his new power, proclaiming James to be the new, 16th, Earl of Desmond.

With the rebellion in Munster now including some FitzGerald legitimacy, Norris acted. Kilmallock had been isolated but not taken, and in December of 1598 he was able to, under some duress, to relieve it. But he was hard-pressed with the limited amount of soldiery that he had, the vast majority of English troops deployed to defend the Pale or in the north. He had some assistance from Ormond, whose own forces secured some towns as well as positions along the Cork coast, but there was a limit to what Butler could so, especially with members of his own family openly siding with the rebellion, and with the perceived cowardice of the undertaker class, who lacked the will, (and the means, if we are being fair) to resist as much as was expected of them.  Such a limited counter-effort serves to illustrate the realities on the ground at the time: the English were outnumbered, operating in unfriendly territory and no longer had the confidence to go into battle with the Irish as they had before. No one wanted another Yellow Ford, and the sources suggest hesitancy among English commanders during this particular period.

In truth, this uprising may have gone further than any of the Desmond rebellions. The Geraldines had captured and held a lot of territory, but had never achieved the amount of success that O’More and FitzThomas had in such a short time-span. Having spent so much, in lives and money, to defeat those Geraldine rebellions, this must have been very hard for the English to take. Such realities simply made the English position in Ireland look worse, losing a major battle and now losing a major province, with a lot of money in the process.

The Irish, under O’More and the new Earl of Desmond, were kept busy capturing – or liberating if you side more with their viewpoint – the rest of the former Desmond Earldom as 1598 ended, though several castles, like that at Askeaton in Limerick and Castlemaine in Kerry, held out against any attacks, being strong enough and garrisoned enough to resist them. But that was hardly much good news for the English, who spent the winter months of 1598/99 in as bad a position in Ireland as they ever had been. Ulster was well beyond them, Connacht was at the mercy of O’Donnell, Munster had been largely torn from their grip in a matter of weeks and large parts of Leinster had felt the rebels bite. Only the Pale region, south Leinster and the Carrickfergus area remained under their control to a reasonable extent.

The situation in Ireland needed a response. The bitter disputes going on in the council chamber of Elizabeth’s court could make for a good entry all of their own, but they would soon come to a decision over who to send to Ireland. A massive army, created at significant cost and earmarked to end the threat of the northern rebels once and for all, was being put together. The man who would lead it, and the focus of the next entry, was Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex. While confident, the task would prove far more difficult than he probably imagined.

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

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12 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Munster Rises For Hugh O’Neill

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