As 1600 dawned, things were looking good for Hugh O’Neill. Tyrone and Ulster were secure, the English forces were taking a beating on nearly all fronts, Elizabeth’s treasury was being drained and support from Spain and the Papacy was becoming more concrete day by day.
Such was the strength of his position, in January of 1600, O’Neill decided to muster a few thousand troops from his native land and march south to personally survey the situation in Munster and the Earldom of Desmond, where allied forces, under the “Sugan Earl”, James FitzThomas FitzGerald, were carrying out their side of the conflict, holding castles and lauching guerrilla attacks on the crown forces in the area.
O’Neill’s march south was eventful enough, as he took the opportunity, in Westmeath, Offaly and other places, to attack local Irish clans who had remained loyal to the English or who had weakened his position in any way. His 3’000 strong force of battle-hardened troops would have easily crushed any who stood in their way, and the Pale army was nowhere to be found. The Earl of Ormond briefly moved west with an army in response to these attacks and burnings, but avoided a direct confrontation, his hosting little more than a show of loyalty to the crown. In the end, O’Neill was able to march to Munster practically unmolested, an important sign of the power he now held in Ireland. O’Neill was the number one target for the Tudor administration back in England, and his march to Munster can be seen as a clear thumbing of his nose at them.
He found the situation in Munster to be satisfactory, if mostly unchanged. Most of the native Irish were on the side of FitzThomas, with strong local feeling in Desmond also behind him. The English retained control of many castles and walled towns, but large parts of Limerick, Tipperary and Kerry were in rebel hands. Donagh O’Brien, the Earl of Thomond, had successfully driven Tyrconnell forces out of his territory in Clare and remained a threat from the north, but was thus far failing to exert much pressure on FitzThomas. Hugh O’Neill used the weeks he spent in Munster discussing the situation with FitzThomas, trying to sort of out successions disputes among other nobles – especially over the title of McCarthy Mor – and shoring up the general state of the army.
But he decided to, rather quickly, turn back for home upon hearing news of the new man who had been sent to take over the royal forces in Ireland. Charles Blount, the Baron Mountjoy, would prove to be O’Neill’s most dangerous and ruthless foe. He came from a decent military background, serving in the Netherlands, Brittany and the Azores. He was on very good terms with Elizabeth, a rather critical difference than the relationship between the monarch and Essex. Mountjoy came to Ireland with one primary objective: to defeat O’Neill and destroy the Irish rebellion, using whatever means he found necessary.
The activities of Mountjoy will be studied in greater detail over the next few weeks. For now, we can look at his instant moves towards the county of Leix (Laois), where the O’Neill allied O’More clan had held sway for many years, providing soldiers and support for rebel campaigns in Leinster and Munster. Mountjoy and the soldiers he brought over from England moved into the area aggressively and essentially destroyed any rebel resistance they found, killing the chief of the area, Owen O’More, before the year was out. The campaign in Leix was, according to some sources, fought with tactics that would soon become commonplace – destroying or plundering all crops and foodstuffs, severely weakening the ability of the rebels to hold out. Save for a brief, embarrassing incident where the Earl of Ormond was captured by the rebels in a botched parley – he was released on O’Neill’s instruction soon afterwards – this campaign was one of dominance for the English.
O’Neill clearly understood the threat that Mountjoy posed to him. Perhaps he had heard of his military experience, or knew something of his apparent prudence and intelligence. Maybe he simply decided that the English were bound to have finally sent someone with more sense than Henry Bagenal or the Earl of Essex.
Either way, upon hearing of his arrival, O’Neill headed home almost immediately, hoping to avoid any encounter with the new forces that had landed. Aside from a small number left behind to aid FitzThomas, O’Neill and his army marched straight back to Tyrone, doing so without incident. Mountjoy may have hoped to intercept O’Neill in the field, but for now the Tyrone chieftain was moving too fast.
Mountjoy was drawing up his plans for Ulster, but that would take time. Munster, however, could be dealt with immediately. To that end, the very capable Sir George Carew, an English noble with a vast amount of experience fighting in Ireland, was appointed the new President of the province. Given a contingent of troops, Carew’s task was to bring an end to the fighting in this part of the country.
His goal was a difficult one, given the terrain, the disposition of the enemy forces and the general feeling of the local population. While he did not shirk from martial confrontations if the opportunity arose, his main form of offence was that of “wit and cunning”, which Irish sources more generally describe as “treachery”.
Of Carew’s schemes, most revolved around various shades of “divide and conquer”, as he sought to destroy the delicate confederation that had sprung up around James FitzThomas. Such attacks on alliances were not difficult to carry out. FitzThomas’ position was not exactly strong, with plenty of rival claimants and factions within the FitzGerald family alone, unhappy with his leadership. Various minor clans and nobles could count themselves as less than gung-ho about the rebellion, nervous about the consequences of failure, perhaps only going along with the rising due to the evident power of Hugh O’Neill and his personally backed Desmond claimant. Carew aimed to get the allegiance of such people back on the royal side.
Bribes or offers of support in succession disputes were the common tools. Dermot O’Connor, a son-in-law of the previous Earl of Desmond, was convinced for a cash payment and promise of future employment to turn on the Sugan Earl along with the thousand or so men that he commanded. Using false intelligence of an “understanding” between Carew and FitzThomas to betray him as his excuse, O’Connor found an opportunity to arrest James and imprison him in Castleishin, on the border of Limerick and Cork. He was unable to complete the plot and hand FitzThomas over to Carew however, as the Sugan Earl’s supporters rallied 4’000 troops rapidly and forced O’Connor to flee without his prize. But the actions of Carew and O’Connor stretched the loyalty of the confederation in Munster to a breaking point, with accusations of mistrust and tempting offers of gold from the English clouding the issue.,
Carew was happy enough to spread his troops out among many garrisons and not seek out pitched battles that would never come. Instead he focused on unsettling and unseating FitzThomas, judging that without a figurehead the rebellion in Munster could well fall apart. In the vicious and critical succession dispute of the McCarthy Mor title, Carew was successful in getting Florence McCarthy, a powerful figure of the time and place, to adopt a policy of neutrality in the Desmond/English conflict, and later got another claimant, Donal McCarthy to side with the crown. Florence’s lack of commitment would later see him live out the rest of his life in an English prison cell.
One by one, bit by bit, “rebel” clans, families and nobles either made their peace with the English or switched sides altogether. When Carew wanted firepower he was able to call on the Earl of Thomond and the stores in Limerick to provide it: such support helped English forces to capture the castle at Glin, Limerick, in July of 1600. This act seems to have been especially useful in intimidating the native Irish, as scores of fortifications and castles, previously held by the rebels, were either abandoned or handed over in the aftermath.
There seems to have been nothing that James FitzThomas could do to stem the tide, as his position and army grew weaker by the day. The Desmond rebels clearly lacked the ability to stand against the English in the field or in a siege, and the northern rebels no longer had the breathing room to send them support (more on why next week). An attempt by Carew and the Tudor administration to use James FitzGerald, imprisoned son of the last Earl, as a propaganda tool to further weaken FitzThomas’ claim and popularity with the people backfired somewhat – locals were horrified when the heir of Gerald attended a Protestant service one Sunday – but it does not seem to have really mattered.
By the end of the year the rebellion in Munster had essentially collapsed, with FitzThomas living in the wilds of Aherlow, much like James FitzMaurice FitzGerald had been forced to do nearly 30 years earlier during the First Desmond Rebellion. By now, with nearly all his former allies either done with him or actively hunting the Sugan Earl, FitzThomas was left with only a handful of followers and nowhere to run. In the past the Tudors had been willing to make peace and let bygones be bygones, but not in this war. With the Third Desmond Rebellion in living memory dying out, Elizabeth and her servant Carew were not in a mind to be merciful.
FitzThomas no longer posed any threat, nearly all the rebel-held castles were back in English hands and the fighting in the south was nearly done. All that remained was the last act for the would-be Earl himself, which finally came in May of 1601. The procurement of FitzThomas took some time, due largely to the unwillingness of locals to give him up, but Carew did eventually get his man. It was actually a member of the FitzGerald family, Edward FitzGibbon, who found him hiding in a cave near Mitchelstown, Cork. There was no rescue for the Sugan Earl this time. FitzThomas escaped his fool-hardy war with his life despite a conviction for treason, but spent the rest of his days – seven or so years – in the Tower of London, along with other Munster Irish who had found themselves on the wrong side of Carew.
The Munster “front” of the Nine Years War had been resolved in a brutally efficient fashion. Carew did not have tens of thousands of troops or unlimited resources, but had affected a solution to the Munster problem by looking backwards to the past tactics that had once made the English all powerful in Ireland: provoking internal fighting among the Irish enemy and taking territory wherever you could. With the right application of threats, displays of intimidation, money and diplomatic manoeuvring, results could be achieved, the kind of results that Essex could only have dreamed of.
The fighting in Munster appears to have just petered out with no escalation of force, like that employed in Leix, to speak off. The English were probably just delighted to finally be done with yet another Desmond rebellion, now able to focus all of their efforts on events in the north and across the Shannon. There would be one more bout of fighting in Munster as it happened, but it would not come for a few years.
For now, the northern rebels, already becoming hardpressed from the actions of Mountjoy, would have to deal with the reality of their new situation, how other parts of the country could no longer be relied upon to distract the enemy and stretch his resources to the breaking point. The wheels were starting to come off the bus. The south of Ireland, Munster, Leinster, had been secured. Now, the English would once again look to the north.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.