Lord Mountjoy was not a man to sit back.
The collapse of the rebellion in Munster and the securing of the Pale’s borders in Leinster were a good start to his time in Ireland, but he wanted to get more done, and in a hurry. Even while he was reforming the way the English military in Ireland worked – shaking up officer selection, establishing a dedicated training system, setting up hospitals, creating new supply depots, improving fortifications, focusing on infantry mobility and cracking down on desertion and other negative behaviour from serving soldiers, he was thinking on the bigger picture. The rebel strongholds of Tyrconnell and Tyrone remained largely untouched by the fighting and Hugh Roe O’Donnell continued to have almost free reign across the Shannon. If Mountjoy was going to bring the rebellion to heel, both those things needed to change.
While not enjoying the same military largess as Essex had, Mountjoy had enough men at his disposal, and was prepared for a frontal assault on Tyrone, even if that meant another march through the same dangerous territory that had seen the disaster of the Yellow Ford and Clontibret in previous years. But before he contemplated that, he went back over plans that had been previously mooted. It was the council in the Pale in 1599 that had encouraged the now-disgraced Essex to use what naval elements he had at his disposal to land an expeditionary force to the north of Ireland, in order to open up a new front and hit O’Donnell and O’Neill where they lived. The basics of the ides actually pre-dated this, to the very beginnings of the war. It was always a risky venture, as any naval landing is, due to the vulnerability of an isolated force operating in enemy territory, but for many there was no other way to radically swing the strategic situation in the favour of the English.
In April of 1600, with the permission and encouragement of Elizabeth, a fleet of ships arrived in Dublin to take part in this long-delayed endeavour. Such an outfitting is an example of English commitment to the war, despite the gigantic toll it had taken in lives and in money. The hope must surely have been that a combined attack from the sea to the north and from land to the south could prove to be a knock-out blow for the rebellion, squeezing the rebel heartlands from two points. It was a wise strategy, as the fabric of the Irish confederation of rebels was overly-dependent on both O’Neill and, to a slightly lesser extent, O’Donnell, for its cohesion. In Mountjoy’s words, a landing on the north coast would be an “iron hook” in O’Neill’s nose.
Mountjoy certainly didn’t skimp on numbers. At least 4’000 infantry and 600 cavalry, maybe more, were packed into the boats, some of them taken from the garrison of Carrickfergus, which was a stopping point on the way. The Irish had no real ability to challenge English dominance of the waves, another point in the plans favour, so little could have been done to stop the expedition on the sea even if the rebels had known about it.
The subsequent landings, occurring on the 14th May 1600, seem to have caught both O’Donnell and O’Neill somewhat by surprise, though O’Neill had been wary of just such a venture for a few years now. The fleet landed on the south side of Lough Foyle, on the modern day border of Donegal and Derry, and was able to disembark its troops without any harassment. In fact, it would be quite a while before any confrontation was made. The soldiers of Tyrone were busy further south preparing for what was seen as an inevitable attack from Mountjoy, while the O’Donnell armies in the field were situated near Sligo and the rest of Connacht. Mountjoy had mustered a force and made a feint manoeuvre towards the Blackwater area in order to draw Hugh O’Neill away from his northern coastline, a ruse that succeeded admirably.
The English were under an experienced commander in Henry Docwra, a man who had spent many years fighting in both Ireland and the Low Countries. He had been a close compatriot of Essex, serving as one of his chief advisers during Essex’s time in Ireland, but had avoided the same disgrace that Essex had suffered, with Docwra based largely in Wicklow in that period. Mountjoy was in need of capable officers, whatever their past friendships, and so Docwra was entrusted with this vital expedition.
His force set to creating a defensive posture immediately. Three separate forts were made, one on the Tyrone side, and two on the other. The most important was at Culmore, Tyrconnell, not far from the initial landings, but others were set up at the sites of old castles and at what was, at this point in history, the small urban settlement of Derry, soon to be significantly enlarged at Docwra’s direction (earning him the disputed title of “founder of Derry”). The English dug trenches, assembled earth walls, constructed ramparts and took whatever material was at hand to improve them, including the remains of several old churches.
Docwra garrisoned all three of the forts under his command with substantial numbers of troops, ready to try and hold them all. The English mentality was pre-dominantly defensive, as these fortifications were expected to hold out far from friendly territory for a long time, a distraction for the rebels that they could not ignore. In terms of offensive movement, this English force limited itself to the immediate area around their forts, unwilling to travel out any further and risk being surrounded and cut off.
The landing and the forts were, much like the Blackwater fortress earlier in the war, something that the rebel confederation had to do something about, and it was Tyrconnell who answered the call. Hugh Roe, once he heard about the English landing and fortifications, immediately gathered what force he could and headed north. English plans to build more forts were cancelled upon his approach, although they comforted themselves with the arrival of several bands of native Irish who joined their cause, perhaps seeing which way the tide was turning.
When O’Donnell got there, he found the English armies behind their walls and trenches, unwilling to come out and give him a battle. After a limited and unsuccessful assault on the walls at Culmore, a siege began. The Irish were, after the experience at the Blackwater perhaps, not enthusiastic for assaulting English defences, and it seemed clear after a few days that the English were similarly apathetic about leaving them. The Tyrconnell chief decided to leave it to hunger and disease. This was what the English had expected, and they had supplies to last for a time.
This stand-off was to the immense boredom and frustration of O’Donnell, who was unused to such static warfare. He was a raider and a cavalry fighter, and was ill at ease waiting out the enemy. As a result, he soon decided to leave the siege in the hands of a cousin (and brother-in-law), while he returned to the forms of fighting that he preferred. This kinsman was Niall Garbh O’Donnell, and along with enough men to maintain the siege, he was left to continue on as best he could.
Hugh Roe travelled south, gathered the greater part of those loyal to him, and embarked on yet another monster raid and plundering of Connacht and Thomond. By all accounts, he did so almost without any opposition, taking what he wanted, when he wanted. Thomond and its people were no cravens, but it may simply have been better to absorb these assaults rather than risk serious loss with defeat in battle. Hugh Roe spent several weeks at this, before riding back to the siege works to inspect what was going on. At this time, in one of the only bits of active warfare for the area, he led a cavalry ambush on a group of English soldiers grazing their horses. One of this group was Henry Docwra himself, who was badly wounded by an O’Donnell family member who may actually have been Hugh Roe’s son (also Hugh). Docwra survived, but lost many horses on this raid, and the hard-pressed English rarely ventured from their forts afterward.
Again, O’Donnell quickly grew restless with siegework and after only a few weeks was off on another great raid in October, along the same path as the one before. Hugh O’Neill had achieved some partial success to the south-east (more next week), so he may have felt that such a move was covered. He was badly mistaken, as events were suddenly about to go beyond his control.
While they maintained a passive state in immediate tactical terms, the English were not satisfied to just wait and hope that they would be relieved or that the Tyrconnell forces would give up. Sickness was a problem, supplies were already starting to dwindle and it did not seem like an allied force would be breaking through to them for a while. To that end, Docwra began communicating with Niall Garbh, looking to change his allegiance. It was a tried and true tactic in Ireland, manipulating enemy families to turn on each other, and one that Docwra was well-versed in.
We’ll probably never know just what was promised to Niall, whether it was position, money or both. We know that Niall had been a rival of Hugh Roe’s when it came to the Tyrconnell chieftainship, and was unhappy with the loss of some his lands in the nearby area. Whatever it was, the temptation proved too much and Niall – along with his brothers, a substantial number of powerful O’Donnell family members – changed sides and ended the siege of the Lough Foyle forts. He allowed supplies to be let through to the English and was soon marching in step with them. The first target was the O’Donnell town of Lifford, just to the south of Lough Foyle, which had once been a fairly substantial fortress of Tyrconnell, under Niall Garbh. Originally designed to act as a bulwark against attacks from Tyrone, Lifford was by now a substandard defensive point. The meagre garrison there was quickly brushed aside by the thousands of Anglo-Irish troops that arrived and soon the English were once again building improved fortifications.
When the news reached the southwards facing Hugh Roe, he was apparently stunned. While the English could have been contained as they had been, bottled up in their forts, the defection of Niall could not. Here was a man, with troops at his call and allies in the English, who could prove a threat to Hugh Roe’s position as chief of Tyrconnell. The young commander could not allow that to stand. With the forces he had been expecting to lead on another easy plundering trip through Connacht and maybe to Thomond, he turned back north and made a beeline for Lifford.
So fast was Hugh Roe’s movement that he failed to keep his army in a coherent shape, and arrived with only a small vanguard at Lifford well before the bulk of his infantry. In this he was extremely frustrated, as his normal army would have been more than a match for the English numerically, but was unavailable when he needed it. He could see the trenches and the earthworks the English were creating, and feared another stalemate. An aborted face-off did take place, with some minor skirmishing between both sides. There was cause for regret here on either side. The English, with a bit more aggression, may actually have had a chance to take Hugh Roe if they had pressed the encounter, but feared an ambush by the incoming reinforcements and withdrew without much combat. O’Donnell reputation may also have played a part. Hugh Roe lamented the lateness of his army, which could well have crushed the English if their timing had been better.
By the time Hugh Roe’s army had assembled fully outside Lifford, the defences had been improved and the Anglo-Irish were embedded behind them, impossible to root out and defeat without significant loss. Hugh Roe did what he could in the circumstances, sending out spies, moving his siege lines as close as he could in order to protect nearby farms, guarding all roads and paths zealously, but it could not be denied that he had been placed in an awkward position. Only once, late in October, did fighting come to pass, as an English sortie did some damage to O’Donnell’s lines, with forces under Niall being responsible for the death of Hugh Roe’s brother, Manus. Tyrconnell could at least be happy with its infantry, which withstood an English cavalry charge and then forced the same horses into a headlong retreat.
After a month of this siege, the weather began to deteriorate. Facing a harsh winter, Hugh Roe had no choice but to uproot his army and move them to a more liveable spot west of Lifford, where they could make their own fortifications to see out the chilly months. As such the siege was largely broken, and the Anglo-Irish had survived.
The episode was Hugh Roe’s first big setback of the war, and while it was not entirely of his own making, he bears much of the fault. At several points over those months he displayed poor judgement and a lack of patience. He could not bring himself to remain stationary when first laying siege to the Lough Foyle forts, preferring to leave that operation in the hands of a rival than handle it himself. Twice he went off on predatory excursions far to the south when parts of his own home territory was under occupation. When he received the news of his cousin’s betrayal, he was unable to check his own mad dash to Lifford, or to keep his army in a coherent shape. Such recklessness would well have cost him his freedom, or even his life, if the opposition had just shown a bit more initiative. Still, the never-ending string of Tyrconnell victories, that had seen the end of many high ranking English officials already, was over.
As it was, the gambit had been a success, though Mountjoy had helped in a large way (to be covered in the next entry). An English position had been created, stabilised, defended and then enlarged in enemy lands. Native allies had been commandeered. One of the main rebel leaders was stuck fighting members of his own clan. More and more, the English were beginning to look at the situation in Ulster with optimism.
O’Donnell at least had good news before the end of the year, with the arrival of two Spanish ships at Killybegs which carried with them money, military supplies and words of encouragement from Philip III of Spain. The booty was split evenly between Tyrconnell and Tyrone, but it was the likelihood of more martial support from Philip that probably sustained Hugh Roe through his uncomfortable winter lodgings. In the new year, when the weather improved, he still had a traitorous family member to deal with.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.