Ireland’s Wars: The Moyry Pass

While Hugh Roe O’Donnell was dealing with seaborne invasions and rebellious cousins, Hugh O’Neill had problems of his own to sort out.

O’Neill remained, as far as Elizabeth I and her administration in Dublin were concerned, the biggest problem and the biggest target of the rebel confederation and Lord Mountjoy was directed to go after him as much as possible. But Mountjoy was, unfortunately for the Irish, no fool. He could see the problems of terrain, of land, of forces all too clearly. The English had suffered two significant defeats – at Clontibret and the Yellow Ford – while attempting to attack Tyrone directly, and there was a reason for that.

Mountjoy preferred to play it patiently and advance slowly, making gains and consolidating them, putting the squeeze on. His big move in that regard would come later, but by the middle of 1600 he had already done much. The rebellion in Munster was all but over,  Tyrconnell had been invaded, the O’Donnell’s had been divided. But still, there was Hugh O’Neill.

Mountjoy had launched a small skirmishing operation in the late Spring in order to aid the landings in Tyrconnell, temporarily drawing off the forces of Hugh O’Neill without risking a major engagement. He continued a policy of establishing small forts all around the borders of Ulster in order to improve his position, places that would provide supplies and refuge to campaigning armies as well as “presence” for the English administration in terms of governance and tax collecting. The naval elements under his control also began to strangle rebel trade and shipping, and a concerted effort to devalue rebel coinage and disrupt commerce in rebel-held areas were underway. He engaged in a destructive midlands campaign in modern-day Offaly where Owen O’More, one of O’Neill’s most important lieutenants left, was killed, breaking the back of what was left of the Leinster rebellion. Active resistance was minimal. But Mountjoy held off on anything more substantial for a time. The bigger move came in September.

O’Neill had been quiet for most of the year, dealing with setbacks in Munster and at home. But that was not to say he was entirely dormant. He busied himself fortifying the entrances to his Tyrone heartland, and was continuing his correspondence with the royal court in Spain, making a case for foreign intervention in Ireland. While the situation was now turning against the rebels, his pleas were gaining more and more of a receptive audience and some aid had already been sent. Just what O’Neill was promising in return for a more substantial showing of support – in the form of a military expedition– is up for debate.

Mountjoy may not have been aware of the extent of correspondence between Tyrone and Spain, but it didn’t really change anything. The council in Dublin and the Queen in London were eager for him to bring O’Neill to heel. In September, under the direction of Elizabeth and perhaps feeling that he was obligated to be more aggressive, he gathered his forces and headed north. Such direct action was not what Mountjoy would have really wanted to do, but he did not want to follow Essex’ path and disobey the Queen.

I have mentioned in a past article, but it bears repeating for the following: there were very few ways that a large army could effectively attack Ulster in this time period. The land had few roads, and was covered in forests, bogs and mountains, impassable for any force of notable size. Ulster had only a few ways that were truly passable for an army, such as by Sligo to the west, or up the Blackwater river. One of the others, that the English had attempted before, was the Moyry Pass through the Mourne Mountains, located in modern day County Down, not too far from the border with Louth.

Mountjoy’s coming campaign aimed to head through this pass, but his goal was not primarily to engage O’Neill, though he must have expected this. The real aim of this expedition was to re-garrison and fortify the town of Armagh, which had been given up after the disaster of the Yellow Ford in 1598. Gaining military control over Armagh once more would continue to increase the pressure on Tyrone and would be a more forward launching point for any future offensive. The most northerly area suitable for such a purpose was Dundalk at that point, which was where Mountjoy marched from in mid-September. As stated, Mountjoy had patience, and was playing the long-game.

Hugh O’Neill had been preparing for an assault, probably thinking there would be a substantial one ever since the landings in Tyrconnell. His lack of support for the effort to repulse those invaders may be explained by his expectation of having to fight in the south-east of Ulster. The war was coming to both of the major rebel players, at the same time. O’Neill prepared, hoping to continue his streak of fighting on ground of his choosing which he had reconnoitred accordingly. Three lines of trenches had been dug through the pass, further defended by earthworks, stoneworks and other barricades, with the heights on either side also given attention in that regard.

Fully aware that any English offensive would have to come through this spot, O’Neill was leaving nothing to chance. While he could not have left the position fully garrisoned at all times, Mountjoy could make no secret of any move by his army, and by the time the Pale troops reached the entrance of the pass, four days after leaving Dundalk, the army of Tyrone was there to meet them. Both sides would probably have been fairly even in terms of numbers, the usual mix of infantry, musketeers, cavalry and artillery. Neither side would have had more than 5’000 men to put forward.

The weather was not good that autumn, and this, among other reasons, may have been why Mountjoy showed himself unwilling to just assault the defences like Conyers Clifford had done at the Curlew Pass the previous year. His army set up camp just to the south and a stand-off ensued, broken only on the 25th when a brief sortie by the English was made to probe the Irish fortifications. This sortie was made by Thomas Williams, who happened to be the officer who had commanded the Blackwater fort during the Yellow Ford debacle, when his efforts to intervene had been checked by a Tyrone rearguard. His reconnaissance, done in the advantage of a foggy day, cost the English around 40 casualties.

No more attacks were made for nearly a week, as much to do with the weather as well as any fears of the defences that Williams had taken a close look at. The conditions became increasingly rainy, and this reduced any muskets or artillery to the status of dead weight in combat. The two armies continued to just stare back at the other. Such a state of affairs could not last. Neither side had the ability to keep an army in the field for so long without any gain, and ceaseless rain turned camps into a mire where desertion and disease ran rampant. O’Neill was certainly not going to leave his defences though, and Mountjoy’s aim was on the other side of the pass.

On October 2nd, with the weather breaking, Mountjoy finally made his move, sending four regiments worth of soldiers forward into the pass. The fighting was tough and lasted most of the day, with different units switching to the forefront for every line of defence breached. The Irish fought limited engagements behind the first two lines, with the English securing both. It was not until a try was made on the third line that full enfilade fire erupted on the English from the heights of the pass, O’Neill having kept most of his force in reserve, content to lure the English in and then hit them when they were in the most perilous position.

English declarations of their loss are quite low given the situation, but even allowing for some addition, the numbers could not have been that high. The counter-attack from the Irish was sudden and vicious, with the English forced into a retreat that left a good deal of equipment behind, but the result is not noted by any source as the equal of earlier setbacks. After three hours of fighting in the last part of the defences, the English retreated out of the pass.

It was another Irish victory, but Mountjoy did not slink away. Three days later he attempted something a bit more artful, sending a cavalry unit up the middle of the pass while two infantry units attempted to hit the Irish on the flanks by scaling the western height. This attack went nowhere, neither part of the English plan coming to any noteworthy success. It was a risky move, very difficult to co-ordinate in that kind of terrain and O’Neill easily dealt with both parts of the attack, neither of which could have succeeded without the success of the other. The English again recorded their losses as rather light, no more than 250 casualties.

The stand-off resumed, but now Mountjoy had seemingly had enough. A few days later, the English packed up and headed back to Dundalk, leaving the Irish in their defences. It looked like another O’Neill success, badly wanted given the failures earlier in the year. While it had not been the slaughterhouse of previous battles, Mountjoy had been frustrated in his aims.

What happened next is not well recorded (in fact, many Irish sources barely record this fight at all), but within a few days of Mountjoy’s retreat, the Moyry Pass was undefended. O’Neill and the vast majority of his forces had gone home, leaving the road to Ulster yawning open, with O’Neill himself situated at a base on Lough Lurgan far to the north. Mountjoy had only just gotten back to Dundalk, on the 14th of October, when he received this news. He probably was suspicious not believing in his luck.

What happened? Maybe O’Neill misjudged the situation, and assumed Mountjoy would now return to the Pale for the winter. Maybe he was worried that another far-reaching flank attack, through Newry, could catch him unawares. Maybe he was simply running short on food and supplies, and couldn’t keep his army going. Or maybe his troops could not be kept together, wanting to head back to their lands after being in place for several weeks with just one major engagement. Or maybe it was all of these things.

Whatever it was, Mountjoy gleefully accepted the gift that had fallen into his hands, occupying the Pass on the 17th of October. It is likely that a token force had been left behind to garrison the area but this would have been brushed aside. After destroying the Irish defences there he moved on to Carrickban, not far from the town of Newry, before beginning a march in the direction of Armagh.

He got as far as Mountnorris, around halfway between Newry and Armagh. By that time O’Neill had found out about what was happening and was scrambling to enact another defence, worried that he had left his entire country undefended. Mountjoy decided not to chance his arm, unwilling to face into an unexpected battle and risk another defeat like the others who had come before him. Armagh remained out of England’s reach for now, though Mountjoy did raise up an earthwork fort in Mountnorris which he kept garrisoned with 400 men, as a threat to the Tyrone position behind the Moyry Pass.

After that, the rest of the Pale army headed back to Newry, and from there to Dundalk. They took a more circular route though, through the settlement at Carlingford on the Cooley Peninsula. It was going through a pass here, the Fathom, that another clash with O’Neill apparently occurred, with some small loss on the English side, but Hugh was not able to stop their passage back to the Pale. Why Mountjoy took this route is not recorded in any detail, though maybe he was just trying to avoid an encounter with O’Neill and his suddenly reassembled army, and wanted to avoid the Moyry Pass again if he could help it. It was now November, and just as was the case in Tyrconnell, campaigning season had come to an end, with none of the chief rebel confederation happy with the state of affairs.

The Battle of the Moyry Pass is a rather bizarre episode in the history of the Nine Years War. Mountjoy did not have sufficient force or tactical options to take the pass and had seemed to blunder in even attempting it. O’Neill then abandoned this strong position that his men and fought and killed for, allowing the English to pass through the mountains unhindered. Then Mountjoy failed to complete his original objective anyway, and faced another threat on the way home. Neither side is able to cover themselves in much glory, with mistakes and bad decisions being committed by both Mountjoy and Hugh O’Neill, though I would argue that O’Neill’s faults were worse. Mountjoy may not have made it as far as Armagh, but he did penetrate into Tyrone territory, was able to build another fort there, all while O’Neill was elsewhere. Mountjoy now had an advantage in any future offensive he cared to make, and that would not be long in the coming.

So, the stage was set heading into the New Year. Hugh Roe O’Donnell faced down his own family and English invaders. Hugh O’Neill considered how best to respond to growing English presence in or close to his own land. Mountjoy made ready his more devastating moves. The Spanish readied their own response. 1601 would be a momentous year for all parties.

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

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