Ireland’s Wars: O’Sullivan’s March

Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare was devastated by the loss and then destruction of Dunboy Castle, with the associated loss of most of the Beara peninsula to the troops of George Carew. Though O’Sullivan Beare continued his guerrilla campaign, he was operating on borrowed time. Carew went back to the tried and true methods of crop stealing/burning in order to reduce his enemy’s access to supplies and weaken his connection to the local population, already living on the edge of starvation. This “devastation” policy would soon be mirrored in other parts of Ireland, and was part of a Pale-ordered effort to strangle the last support that the rebels across the country had. Cork and Kerry received the worst of it, with reports of mass executions and slaughter of wounded and sick. Though Irish accounts are to be taken with a degree of salt, it’s clear that the English in Munster were, at this stage, not relying too much on soft power.

Though O’Sullivan Beare and what remained of his followers still held a few lesser fortresses and remained an irritating source of raids and ambushes for the rest of 1602, it couldn’t last. All of the Spanish gold would not help him if there was nothing to spend it on. Once Richard Tyrell and the last of his meagre force left the area (he had actually attacked civilians in Kerry as a result of feeling he had been betrayed by the McCarthys), O’Sullivan Beare was largely alone, with little chance of any support coming to him from outside the province. The loss of Dunboy, according to at least one source, was the final death knell in Spanish plans to send a new force to Ireland, though I personally find the idea of Philip III sending any more troops to be highly improbable after Kinsale. Still, if O’Sullivan believed this, it might explain the near-suicidal course he took as 1602 drew to a close. With the loss of a fastness in the Glengariff Forest after a bitter fight with Carew’s armies, and the final defeat of the Kerry rebels in a skirmish at Carbery, his positions of last retreat had been captured or cut off. He was out of crops and herds, and Carew stood poised to bring him to heel at last.

With the last thousand of his loyal followers – maybe half of whom would have been soldiers, the rest being elderly, women and children – O’Sullivan Beare made the decision to strike out of Cork, out of Munster, and head to the relative safety of allies in the north of Ireland. His letter connections to the Spanish court continued to make his survival upon surrender unlikely, and he could not continue to stay where he was and live. Carew pushed him too hard, necessitating the leaving time being one of the worst possible, December 31st. In a grim mirror of the Gaelic Army’s march from the north the previous year, O’Sullivan would now lead a force in the other direction at the height of winter.

This march has become famous – or infamous if you prefer – as one of the great (and last) struggles of Gaelic Ireland. The thousand strong host left Glengarrif, not far from Bantry, and headed north towards Limerick. Sanctuary was hundreds of miles off, with some of the only allies O’Sullivan had left, in North Connacht and Ulster.

All along the way, more especially after they had left Cork, this column would come under attack, from both English forces, Irish forces and just whatever local population they would stray near. The intent of the attacks would have been both military and opportunistic, as the slow-moving host would have been a ripe target for brigands as well as Carew and company. Covering anywhere between 20 and 30 miles a day, O’Sullivan kept his people moving at a pace that was near murderous at times but was a result of their many enemies. The route they took varied from roads and countryside depending on the environment and suspected attack. I have replicated their journey below to the best of my ability, with the green dots representing major camp sites, and the red dots representing major fights. It should not be taken as anything other than a very rough guide to their route and progress.

(The dots, from south to north, would be Glengarrif, Millstreet, the East Limerick region (Hospital perhaps), Donohill, North Tipperary camps, Portumna, Aughrim, Glinsk and Leitrim Town.)

The first major combat, aside from a few raids suffered near Millstreet, occurred as the group entered the east of Limerick, and came under attack from White Knight forces based out of Kilmallock. Supplemented by soldiers from Limerick City itself, they caused many casualties and drove O’Sullivan and the survivors on to the mountains in Tipperary in a running battle. O’Sullivan and his people survived, perhaps due to the piecemeal and undisciplined way their enemies attacked, not to mention their own soldiers firing back with their stock of muskets. The Shannon had to be crossed, a passage on the eastern side not something that could be contemplated due to the English domination of the midlands. A direct approach, crossing to the south of the rivers course, was also out of the question, due to the English control of the estuary and the immediate area. So, O’Sullivan was obliged to swing into Tipperary and pursue a curving path northwards past Lough Derg.

Along the way they attacked the small fort at Donohill for desperately needed supplies, but came under constant attack themselves from local raiding parties and some forces under the Earl of Ormond. None of these was large enough to cause a fatal blow, but the attacks chipped away at the column’s strength, and over 300 of them had already fallen or left. The winter froze some to death, starvation took others. Carrying no food, they were forced to eat what they could find on the road, which was slim pickings at that time of year.

The crossing of the Shannon took place at the top of Lough Derg, near the village of Portumna. The river could not be forded, so O’Sullivan Beare took the measure of slaughtering the last of their horses and skinning them to make currachs (a small Irish boat). Two were constructed to ferry the remainder of the column across. One of these sank on the way, though close enough to the shore that no one drowned. The other, after an agonising time, got the rest across and into modern day County Galway. Local Irish out of Redwood Castle, loyal to the English, launched a number of attacks while the refugees waited on the eastern side, inflating their misery.

O’Sullivan Beare, his group leaking members all the time, continued north. In the Aughrim area of Galway he was able to stop for a while and raid about for supplies, which would not have endeared him to the local population. North of this area O’Sullivan Beare and his group were attacked by a force under a Thomas Malby, an English veteran of the Yellow Ford and Kinsale, but beat off the assault. Malby is depicted in most accounts as severely outnumbering his pennants, making this fight an historical oddity. Given the lack of information, it is strange that, with a reported 3-1 advantage over a group of tired, starving wanderers, Malby was not able to destroy his foe, so we must assume that the numbers are exaggerated, or that the attack failed for other reasons – poor weather, bad timing, etc. One account claims O’Sullivan Beare made use of a false retreat tactic to put his enemy to (temporary) flight, allowing he and his followers to escape the danger. Malby was killed in the fighting, which may also explain why the English were deterred.

As O’Sullivan Beare maintained his pace, snow began to fall, leaving the threat of exposure ever present for those few who now remained, well less than half of who set out. Some would not have died, but simply turned aside or gone home, seeking shelter wherever they could, rather than continue the brutal journey. When it wasn’t snowing, it was raining.

O’Sullivan Beare went on, now following the course of the Suck River. Eventually this brought him close to Glinsk Castle, controlled by the Burke’s. O’Sullivan approached the castle, apparently hoping to find help or shelter there, but the castles owner not only shut his doors, but organised the locals to drive the refugees off. Though mostly unarmed, they heavily outnumbered the marchers, and O’Sullivan Beare was hesitant to confront them. One source claims he tried to trick the garrison of Glinsk into opening up by displaying colours captured from Malby, but this ruse failed to work. A pursuit until they were clear of Burke lands continued, a consistent harassment, that meant O’Sullivan Beare could find no succour there.

So the column, now a week and a half in the wilderness, was compelled to keep moving, the numbers now dropping low. The route went into Roscommon and the many lakes in the north of the county. This was far closer to rebel territory, and the welcome the group received was probably friendlier here, or at least somewhat neutral. The last part of the march at least had a local guide of some sort. O’Sullivan made the pass through the Curlew Mountains, probably through the same point where Hugh Roe O’Donnell had defeated Conyers Clifford a few years earlier, then around Lough Arrow and into Leitrim, where the last of his exhausted hungry troop fell in the doors of O’Rourke’s castle, probably where Leitrim Village is today.

Of the thousand or so that set out, all that remained, apart from O’Sullivan Beare himself, were “18 soldiers, 16 horseboys and one woman”. Just 35 of the group made it to the relative safety of the north, two weeks after they had set out. A few dribs and drabs, groups of two and three, would follow over the following days. The rest had died from starvation and the cold, been killed by the near ceaseless attacks, or had turned aside and sought their own end. O’Rourke, long a rebel, freely offered comfort and what relief he could to them. The nightmare, for now, had ended.

O’Sullivan’s movement north was a desperate move that resulted in the loss of nearly all of his remaining followers. One could argue that it would have been better if he had just turned himself in rather than let the last of his people be slaughtered, but this thought does not seem to have occurred to most Irish sources, who paint the march with the most tragic/romantic brushes possible, emphasising the cruelty of those who were opposed to the marchers over the insanity of the marchers themselves. A famous jig may not have helped matters in that respect. The march was a near hopeless endeavour from start to finish, as O’Sullivan lacked the soldiers to defend all of his people and moved through an environment that was as hostile in nature as it was in locals.

The march offered nothing to the rebellion in the north, given the tiny numbers of military effectives who made it that far. By then, the Nine Years War was rapidly heading to a close anyway and those final moves will be the focus of the next entry.

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

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10 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: O’Sullivan’s March

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  5. I take it that the native Irish were cruel to their own just as the English Army was extremely cruel. Carew and others don’t realize that when you are too cruel, it only makes the oppressed more desirous to someday kill you, witness what Israel has done to the Palestinians.

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  7. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Siege Of Dunboy | Never Felt Better

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