Ireland’s Wars: The Final Campaigns Of The Nine Years War

Having seen the last of the Nine Years War in Munster, and with the conflict long since wrapped up in Leinster, we turn now to the end of things in the main rebel provinces.

Hugh O’Neill limped back to Tyrone after the defeat at Kinsale knowing full well that things had dramatically changed for him and what allies he had left. Hugh Roe was gone, leaving Tyrconnell in the hands of his less capable brother, Rory, and there were no more friends to be found outside Ulster or Connacht. Having lost substantial numbers of men at Kinsale and maybe more in the long march home, O’Neill now faced the indignity of watching his remaining armies disintegrate rapidly, dwindling to less than a thousand by the middle of 1602. This came from a mixture of submissions, those deciding that the English victory was inevitable and not worth contesting and those who figured that they were needed more at home than in a war that had already taken many years from them. O’Neill’s gallowglass element in particular had been practically wiped out at Kinsale, and they would never really rise again as a fighting force in Ireland, the mercenary culture in Ireland now to be eradicated by the English.

But as 1602 progressed from a drab winter and into a dismal Spring, O’Neill and his allies did not go crawling on their knees to Mountjoy. They still had some forces, they still had terrain advantages and they still had hope that Hugh Roe’s mission to Philip III would be successful. In the immediate term, the constant threat of Henry Docwra and Niall Garbh O’Donnell had to be dealt with, and after that the inevitable invasion by Mountjoy. But the rebels were not giving up the fight yet, even if they no longer had any qualms about the doomed nature of the conflict.

The aim now, in reality, was not to expel the English from Ireland or make way for a Spanish expeditionary force, but to grind the English down and make them agree to terms. Hugh O’Neill, the ruling O’Donnell’s and the others had all committed treasons and been attainted, so faced execution if they gave up then and there. Continuing the struggle, making the English pay for every bit of ground they took, draining the English exchequer dry, these were all ways that could get Elizabeth and Mountjoy to offer suitable terms to O’Neill and the others, much as had been offered to the leaders of the First Desmond rebellion. Such terms had been offered before, and been rejected, but the rebels were no longer in a position not to listen.

For Mountjoy and the English, early 1602 was a much better time. The effective threat from O’Neill and O’Donnell was over, the last vestiges of rebellion in Munster were being squashed. The summer and autumn campaigning season could well see the end of the rebellion. Through fresh reinforcements from England to supplement the current force and the Irish kerns that made up a large part of it, Mountjoy alone could afford to field somewhere in the region of 4’000 men himself, with English forces all over the island coming closer to three times that. The forts around the borders of Ulster provided a viable means of launching deeper offensives, and the English position around Derry had proved an excellent operation for harassing and pinning down enemy forces.

But all was still not well. Elizabeth, now 68, was entering the last year of her life, and would become increasingly sickly towards the end of 1602 and the beginning of 1603. She maintained a harsh policy of offering no terms to O’Neill, whom she deemed the key rebel and the most genuine threat to the English position. She wanted Hugh dead, with his head on a pike, punishment for his rebellion and the many victories he had won. Lesser rebels could be bartered with and brought to the table – at Mountjoy’s discretion – but the crown wanted the main rebel leader to suffer a traitor’s fate.

This was against the wishes of Mountjoy. He was playing a dangerous enough game himself, all too aware that, in the event of Elizabeth’s death, he could have had a great deal of power in the possible succession crisis to follow. That would not work out well if he was still bogged down fighting a war in Ireland. The conflict was costing the English an extraordinary amount of money, in both pay for soldiers and in the damage the rebels had caused. It is no exaggeration to say that the Nine Years War was coming close to bankrupting the English state, even with the winning position they now found themselves in. The conflict in the Low Countries and the continuing naval combat with Spain did not come close to matching the amount of money the war in Ireland cost.

Mountjoy had no interest in sticking around Ireland for another few years, fighting a guerrilla war against the last of the rebel forces that could drag on interminably. The Irish could always vanish into the mountains and forests when the thousands of English troops available marched by. Mountjoy had plans to try and deal with this scenario, but he recognised that the optimal course – for him and for England – was to invite O’Neill to talk and work out a peace deal, on terms advantageous to the English. It is a measure of how capable O’Neill was that things got this far. Some sources indicate that Mountjoy rather admired O’Neill for his political and martial skill, which might have been part of this leniency, but it was also simply good politics.

The interim period in Ulster, between O’Neill and O’Donnell marching off to the return of their armies, was marked by continuing aggression from Docwra and Niall Garbh. Tyrone and Tyrconnell were not completely removed of troops – such an action would have been extremely foolish given the enemy forces in their rear – but there was certainly no rebel force strong enough to take on the English in Derry for the winter months and beyond. Both Docwra and Niall Garbh were able to raid far and wide over Ulster, free from any fear of effective retaliation. The garrison at Carrickfergus was also now free to engage in the conflict more pro-actively, raiding down the Bann River.

Docwra did have some problems, mostly in dealing with his Irish allies. They were prone to rash violence and frequent changing of sides, which frustrated and annoyed him enormously. It is not hard to imagine, as news filtered through of the English being besieged at Kinsale and the Irish drawing close to a decisive blow, that kerns in Docwra’s service may have thought better of their loyalty to the crown. And just as much, it is easy to imagine the final result of Kinsale sending them scurrying back. There was also the O’Neill family members that Docwra was using to try and supplant O’Neill, sons of Shane O’Neill from a different line, who frequently butted heads with Docwra and proved difficult to control. Ever and anon, the English had to be careful about who to give support to. It is easy to forget that Hugh O’Neill once fought alongside the English, and that allies could become enemies all too easily in 16th century Ireland.

Still, that had not prevented Docwra from extending his own area of influence, building basic forts and capturing others, leaving such places with small garrisons that were more than enough to defend them. Mountjoy, in the North Leinster/South-East Ulster region, was doing the same, building up his advantage piece by piece, as could be seen in the Moyry Pass region. What is striking here is the complete freedom of movement that people like Docwra and Niall Garbh had in rebel heartlands, able to move from point to point without harassment, capturing forts and other places without any challenge. Only a year ago such an activity would have been fraught with risk, but now, with the collapse of the Tyrconnell and Tyrone militaries, the English operating out of Derry had almost free reign.

One of the big coups of this period was the attack on Ballyshannon Castle. Hugh Roe had successfully defended the castle from Conyers Clifford in 1597, and it was noted as an impressive structure. But this did not suffice to dissuade Niall Garbh and Docwra from combining forces to attack it, this time with the key advantage of artillery support. The Tyrconnell military was powerless to do anything about the situation, and after a bombardment of several days the castle was breached and captured. It’s location on the southern border of Tyrconnell, near a key area of fighting in Sligo and North Connacht, made its capture an important success for the Anglo-Irish side, and just another step on the road to dominating the region. Its fall had long been sought, and was as sure a sign of the way things were going as anything else. Now, the English had a degree of control over two of the traditional routes into Ulster, with only the Blackwater opening left. Niall Garbh went even further a short time later, attacking and capturing the castle at Enniskillen, Fermanagh. Everywhere, the resistance of the rebels was ending. Kinsale had simply been too bad a blow.

Now might be a good moment to briefly step aside and mention Antrim. The MacDonnell’s, with the exception of a few black sheep and the brief fighting around Carrickfergus several years earlier, stayed out of the conflict. Theirs was now a decently powerful position in the north-east of the island, with plenty of new settlers coming yearly from their Scottish homes. This country was still a technically unauthorised one in English eyes, but the days of conflict between the two sides was long past.

Scottish mercenaries, frequently through the medium of the Antrim area, had previously made up a substantial core of the Tyrone army, the impressive “Redshanks”. But this resource had dwindled over time, thanks to two main factors. The first was some family/marriage insults that Hugh O’Neill had unwittingly dealt out to factions in MacDonnell lands by spurning his one-time Scottish mistress I’ve usually stayed away from O’Neill’s personal life due to lack of relevance, but this is one occasion when his tendency to create as many (or more) illegitimate children than legitimate and swap partners like he swapped socks was a problem for his political ambitions. The other factor was the King of Scotland, James VI, soon to become a very major figure in Irish history. Earlier in his reign he had been lackadaisical about the flood of mercenary soldiers departing his lands to fight for Ulster Chieftains, but in later years he stepped in and tried to put a stop to it, worried about the military resources that were leaving his Kingdom. He was never able to plug the leak completely, but he certainly ensured that recruitment to O’Neill’s army suffered over time.

We must now turn to Connacht, where the war was rapidly drawing to a conclusion. The military efforts of the English here, so long subordinate to the movements and operations of Hugh Roe, was in the ascendant, but mostly consisted of mopping up. The new governor of the province was Sir Oliver Lambert, a long term veteran of the Irish wars, noted as a capable soldier by many high ranking figures of the time. He had been a key subordinate to the Earl of Essex, and had even been the acting commander of all royal forces in Ireland for the time between Essex’s fall and Mountjoy’s appointment. Despite his martial experience, he had actually bought the position of President for 500 pounds, and was not noted as an effective administrator. But his immediate priority in the province was not to govern peacefully, but to drive the rebels out and help bring Tyrconnell to heel.

He did so with rapid advance to the north, with the aid of his ally, the Clanrickarde. The aim was Sligo town, long in the hands of rebels now, and to complete the encirclement of Tyrconnell’s southern border that had been half-carried out with the capture of Ballyshannon. The last three rebels of the areas united to try and stop him, but their position was growing desperate. Rory O’Donnell was not his more illustrious brother, lacking his daring or his aggressive style. Brian O’Rourke was the last of the truly hardcore rebel leaders, but his position was becoming increasingly isolated. And O’Connor Sligo, forced onto the Irish side by the victories of Hugh Roe, was little more than a prisoner of the other two, his forces acting under some duress.

This last campaign took place in June, just as Mountjoy was commencing his own forward movement to the east. Such concurrent movement was probably well planned, to prevent one rebel side from coming to the aid of the other, though this probably would not have happened if the two attacks were not launched at the same time. The two armies faced off against each other near Sligo, a town now largely destroyed by the rebels, but no great battle took place save for some brief skirmishing between the two sides. Hugh Roe probably would have rushed to the attack, but not Rory, who was much more cautious. After a time, Lambert backed off, unwilling to risk open battle when he could simply let time pick away at his foes. The Tyrconnell army was in no great shape, sapped by casualties, hunger and the need to have garrisons elsewhere ward off Niall Garbh. Lambert choose to forgo an attack on Sligo, instead busying himself with a naval campaign up the west coast, securing various islands and ports that had been used by rebel-sympathetic pirates over the last few years. Eventually, a small naval landing would be able to capture Sligo, but the town was now noted to be next to useless as a defensive position and probably not worth fighting over to any degree. Certainly, the rebels do not seem to have made any attempt to retake Sligo once it was lost.

In August an Anglo-Irish force under the Clanrickarde and an English officer named Arthur Savage attempted to move into Leitrim via the Curlew Pass, the same point that had seen the end of a previous governor of Connacht and the final stages of a desperate march to the north. Rory and others got wind of this movement, and were waiting. At the top of the pass, in bad ground, the Anglo-Irish ran smack into a unit of 400 musketeers led by Rory. A vicious firefight broke out, and after a few hours of combat, the Anglo-Irish broke and fled. Casualties were light on both sides, this being no repeat of the more substantial slaughter of the first battle fought there. The Irish pursued, inflicting some further casualties. While it was only a minor success in the grand scheme of things they had at least beaten off another English assault on their lands, and Rory could claim to have matched at least one of his brothers accomplishments.

It was the last rebel victory of the Nine Years War.

By now Rory was wavering. Mountjoy had been in contact with him, seeking a submission, and it was from him that Rory first heard the news of his brother’s death in Spain. Once confirmed by other sources, all the fight went out of him and Tyrconnell. All of their hopes had remained tied up to their true Chieftain: with his death and the end of any chance for another Spanish expedition, continuing fighting seemed pointless. Further, numerous strongholds all over Tyrconnell and fallen into enemy hands and it was only a matter of time before either Lambert or Mountjoy made a more committed attack. No one wanted the devastation being carried out in Tyrone (see below) to spill over into Tyrconnell.

Mountjoy had his own reasons for offering acceptable terms. Aside from the cost and the closing of another front, he had more medium-term politics in mind. Success in Tyrconnell had come about with huge help from Niall Garbh O’Donnell, who was making clear his own desire for the top job in the country, something he hoped would come about after his significant aid to the English side. But Niall Garbh was a firebrand, a decent fighter, a competent raider, and inspired much loyalty from his own troops. In fact, he was more alike to Hugh Roe than Rory was. Having such a man in charge of Tyrconnell was not Mountjoy’s preference, and so he offered Rory a pardon, peace and his lands – under an English title, English laws and English religion – if he would submit.

Rory, while not considered especially capable by any source, had no options. Continuing to fight a losing war would only cost him his title and hand his country over to a bitter family rival, and there was no longer any chance of success. He submitted to Mountjoy, as did O’Conor Sligo. Both were pardoned and offered their old lands back, Rory to become the first “Earl of Tyrconnell”. Only O’Rourke of this Connacht triumvirate refused to bend the knee, but even he, as steadfast as anyone, was wavering. Tyrconnell was out of the war. The final defeat was punctuated by a brief sojourn taken by Mountjoy, in force, into Galway, from which he received numerous submissions from various minor Irish nobles.

The last real notworthy event of the fighting in this region was a brief rebellion by Niall Garbh, unhappy with his lot, who declared himself the Tyrconnell Chief and fought a short conflict with Docwra. His cause was doomed from the start, lacking sufficient support and facing powerful enemies. He eventually submitted, taking only his old ancestral lands in the Finn Valley region after a pardon, but his conflicts with the English crown would not end there.

Stepping back a bit, by the summer of 1602, Mountjoy was ready to launch what he hoped would be his last campaign in Ireland. His health had not been good over the last number of years, as he frequently complained of illness and headaches, conditions that were probably worsened by the drama around Kinsale. Like so many Lord Deputies before and after, he was probably dying to get out of Ireland and back home. For this campaign, aimed right at the heart of Tyrone, the sources claim he was able to muster around 3’500 infantry and 500 horse, a substantial army with which to try and pierce the heart of Tyrone.

Marching from Newry, Mountjoy aimed centre north along the Blackwater route. The last time an English army of such size had attempted this passage the result had been the Yellow Ford debacle. Now, Mountjoy swept forward almost unopposed. The ruins of the old Blackwater Fort were bypassed, and a new one, named after the victorious commander himself (Charlesmount Fort), was built a few miles further east. Nearby Dungannon, the traditional capital of the O’Neill clan, was evacuated and burnt by Hugh and his remaining forces. The remnants of the town were occupied by Mountjoy’s army a few days later, where the commander remarked joyfully that O’Neill “is turned a wood-kerne” (a guerrilla). Mountjoy had so far seen nothing but success on his march, and took one important symbolic step next: at Tullyhogue Fort, a few miles north of Dungannon, he captured and smashed the traditional inauguration stone which was used to create the O’Neill Chieftain. Such a move was merely a propaganda piece, but its effect should not be understated: Mountjoy was showing his intention and power to destroy the O’Neill family. Hugh, in no state militarily to defend his lands, fled to the forests of Ulster, there to undertake a low-scale insurgency, initially contested by Carrickfergus troops under Sir Arthur Chichester. As Henry Docwra put it, “The axe was now at the root of the tree”.

Mountjoy and his army did not go racing after O’Neill, who had retreated in a north-easterly direction. He must have known that such a pursuit would prove fruitless. Instead, he turned into Monaghan and settled the rebellion there, rooting out the last of the hostile forces and placing a sympathetic member of the ruling clan into power. Such a tactic would be seen time and again in the coming months.

After a few weeks rest and gathering additional men from Carrickfergus and from Docwra, bringing his total number of soldiers under arms to over 8’000, Mountjoy was prepared to unleash the main point of his campaign. In autumn he ordered all who would submit to his authority to come south from Tyrone; many did so. On the 19th of August, he crossed the Blackwater and proceeded to lay waste to the country to an extent that was almost unprecedented in Irish history. Every last scrap of produce, every herd, every source of farming resources was either taken for his own troops or destroyed. Villages and town were burned, civilians slaughtered or driven from their homes, forts and other strong points established, the Catholic faith annihilated. O’Neill and what paltry force he had left were in Fermanagh far away, and were in no position to do anything about the hardships being forced upon Tyrone.

This was different to other pillaging tactics in the area. Frequently, that had just been a matter of feeding the army by necessity. This was “devastation” a conscious targeting of the civilian population, an Early Modern form of total war in a way. Mountjoy had no intention of fighting O’Neill’s wars on the Tyrone Chief’s terms. He recognised that O’Neill could not hold out without civilian support in intelligence and supplies, so he aimed to destroy that avenue. Civilians could not be brought over to the English line of thinking quickly, so it was easier to simply destroy. With no crops in the area, no civilians to act as a support, O’Neill would become hard-pressed. Further, as Tyrone had been the core of the revolt this far, the destruction carried out was as much a punishment as Munster had suffered several times over in the last few decades. In the event that O’Neill ever did come back from the Fermanagh boltholes he was not situated in, he would find nothing but royal garrisons in his homeland.

The effects were terrible. A famine quickly gripped Ulster. Thousands died from starvation or from exposure after being driven from their homes. There were not enough people left to bury the many bodies that began to pile up on roadsides, so the corpses remained where they were, decayed and rotten. People on the run ate leaves and grass to try and survive, with many dead bodies noted as having a green tint around their mouths. So many fled south of the Blackwater that there was not enough food to go around there either, and the English were not forthcoming.

The devastation policy was brutally effective. The people suffered horribly, but so did O’Neill. No one was willing to betray him and try to get an English reward for his death or capture, but they were equally unable to aid him after a time. As a bitter winter without food stores approached, the latest in a long line of bitter winters for Ulster, those few who were left in the province had enough trouble trying to ensure their own survival, let alone aid a Lord who had fallen so low as to be completely unable to protect his homeland from the assault it was suffering. The sons of Shane O’Neill were temporarily installed in South Tyrone, further weakening Hugh’s position.

I have noted such “devastation” policies occurring in Ireland before, but nearly every source notes that this particular example was especially savage and unrelenting. The population of Ulster was horribly weakened, a boon to the English in terms of coming plantation plans. It would take years and generations for them to recover. More immediately, the very last plans of resistance from O’Neill and the 650 or so troops he still had left were dealt an unrecoverable blow. As 1602 came to a close, the final end was coming.

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

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8 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Final Campaigns Of The Nine Years War

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