Ireland’s Wars: The Rebellion Of Cahir O’Doherty

Finally we move on from the Nine Years War and its immediate aftermath, but before advancing forward some years, we will discuss a brief rebellion, little more than a coda to the large scale fighting that preceded it, which broke out in Ulster in 1608.

Cahir O’Doherty was the native Irish noble of Inishowen, North Donegal, at the beginning of the 17th century. Only 15 in 1600, he had joined up with the English forces under Henry Docwra shortly after their initial arrival in the area, proving himself enough of a valuable asset to the invaders as to be knighted by Lord Mountjoy on Docwra’s recommendation. In typical English style, Cahir was their backed man for the Lordship of Inishowen, in competition with a Hugh Roe O’Donnell favoured candidate, but the sources indicate that he was more than just an English patsy, but a noted part of their war effort in the region. Cahir seems to have twigged that the English were the power to back once they were able to land troops in Tyrconnell, and subsequent events would prove him right. He was rewarded, in the aftermath of Mellifont, with land, a good marriage, prestige and favour by the English authority, who seem to have seen him as the perfect example of a native Irish noble, bowing to his superiors when necessary and proving himself useful against rebels and traitors. In all this he was advised and supported by two of his kinsmen, Hugh Boy and Phelim Reagh MacDavitt.

Such peaceful coexistence was not to last. Henry Docwra would be granted the governorship of Derry in the aftermath of the Nine Years War, and under him the town would start the growth that would see it become the city it is today. Relations between him and O’Doherty were cordial and things were good enough in the recovering province. But his replacement, following accusations of neglect from England towards Docwra, would not enjoy such good friendship.

Henry Paulet, an English noble, was that man, at the forefront on a new wave of English scheming and dealings in the region. The Flight of the Earls would take place during his tenure, an event that would lead to the seizure of large parts of Tyrconnell and Tyrone by the crown as confiscated lands due to its prior owners “treachery” in leaving Ireland without permission. Paulet would have been one of the main local organisers of such acts, and quickly attracted a reputation as an unpleasant, aggressive individual, equally disliked by English lords like Arthur Chichester in Carrickfergus (who was also the new Lord Deputy) and Irish lords like Cahir O’Doherty. Paulet lacked any military or administrative experience and was known to be slack with the troops under his command. Somewhat ironically for what occurred afterward, both Paulet and O’Doherty were part of the jury that found the fleeing Earls guilty of treason earlier that year.

Paulet seems to have gone out of his way to seriously antagonise Cahir and other local Irish lords, stationing troops on their lands and writing insulting letters, practically aiming to get an aggressive response. On at least one occasion prior to 1608 he almost had Cahir declared to be in rebellion due to a “misunderstanding” about some of O’Doherty’s movements: Cahir managed to square things away with a concerned Chichester, but only for a time. Continuing disputes over portions of land that Cahir felt were his by right, that had been taken from him for a time by Mountjoy and then Paulet, made the situation worse. Again, somewhat ironically, the English legal system of the time would actually side with Cahir, but the notice of such came only after rebellion had broken out.

The Four Masters claim that at some point later, in spring of 1608, Cahir and Paulet had a face-to-face confrontation at which Paulet actually struck O’Doherty. Such an act is not impossible, but could also be so much excusing for what happened afterward. Cahir, not yet 21, felt humiliated by his treatment from the governor of Derry and resolved to take matters into his own hands, since the English authority had so let him down since Docwra’s replacing. There is an obvious air of anger in any recounting of this part of the story.

This strikes true at any rate, since such a rebellion had little chance of success. O’Doherty must have known that he was no Hugh O’Neill or Hugh Roe O’Donnell, and even they had been defeated eventually. This uprising seems more to me like an emotionally driven lash out, one based around personal honour rather than political motivation. Perhaps O’Doherty was merely seeking personal address between himself and another individual through the medium of battle, like with Affane several decades earlier, and had no wider intentions of revolt. The suggestion has been made, considering the rapid pace of events that followed, that he was hoping for support and assistance from those Irish lords now in exile, but such an ambition must be seen as a bit of a stretch. Hugh O’Neill and his confederates were barely gone a year and had had no success in creating any sort of armed force to invade Ireland. If Cahir acted on the idea that he would receive such support, he was badly mistaken. He may also have been driven to his decision by his kinsman Phelim, who played a key role in what transpired later.

On the night of the 19th of April 1608, Cahir gathered a few hundred loyal followers and seized the small fort of Culmore “by stratagem”: that is, without a fight. Depending on who you believe, he had the garrison slaughtered wholesale or completely spared. One source puts forward the somewhat romantic tale that O’Doherty invited the commander of the fort to dinner, and then threatened to kill him afterwards if he wouldn’t hand over the fort. When he refused, Cahir got the man’s despairing wife to trick the garrison into opening their gates. How true any of that may be is up for question, but Cahir needed Culmore because of the guns and ammunition it held. From the seizure of Culmore, he launched a sudden assault on the unprepared Derry itself, just as the sun was starting to come up.

Paulet was caught totally off guard, and the town’s meagre defences were quickly overwhelmed. It had no walls, only a ditch and basic wooden defences, and the small garrison was asleep. The two forts that characterised the town were both assaulted at once, and both taken without too much trouble. A sack ensued, and most of Derry was burned in the process. Civilians barricaded themselves inside the home of the local bishop, but were compelled to give that up when Cahir produced an artillery piece he had taken from Culmore. The bishop’s home was destroyed.

Paulet himself fell in defence the town, his posturing and brash nature bringing destruction down upon himself and his governsership. Worse was to follow. Cahir had no choice but to move on after disposing of Derry, with the town now largely destroyed and not worth defending. Dumping the cannons he had captured but could not use (due to lack of skill and ammunition) into the sea, he moved south and burned the town of Strabane near the modern day border of Donegal and Tyrone before putting pressure on the castle at Lifford. His actions swept up others, most notable the O’Cahan, O’Hanlon and even the remnant of the O’Donnell clans, who rose in revolt with him and begin raids on English position.

It seemed like a dire situation for the English, one that was rapidly getting out of their hands, but in truth Cahir’s rebellion had gone as far as it would go. The rebels had no outside support to look forward to, no real plan of action, and were facing an enemy of immense strength, albeit also an enemy that had been badly stung. Cahir took advantage of a lack of preparedness from the English, but that would not continue.

Chichester organised his response as fast as he could after the calls for help began pouring out of English garrisons in Ulster. Numerous English lords, from Oliver Lambert in Connacht to Henry Folliet of Ballyshannon began gathering their forces and sending them into Ulster, seeking to blunt Cahir’s advance into Tyrone. Nearby Niall Garbh O’Donnell was also called upon to help, but appears to have done so very slowly, going as far later as to take English cattle under pretence of “protecting” them from the rebels – cattle he never returned. Almost immediately the response was effective though, with Lambert capturing the rebel fortification of Birt Castle, Donegal after only a few cannon shots.

Richard Wingfield, the Marshall of Ireland and veteran of Kinsale, retook the burnt out shell of Derry on the 20th of May. What few forces Cahir had left in the area, under Pheilim, were forced to retreat. Wingfield pressed on, confronting Cahir himself on the 5th of July at the Rock of Doon, near Kilmacrenan, Donegal. In a small scale skirmish, Cahir was killed and his followers defeated. Some sources suggest Cahir was killed by his own men in the moment of decision, a result of a high bounty placed on his life by Chichester. Cahir was posthumously decapitated and his head sent to Dublin for display. The nearby Dogh Castle, held by the O’Donnell’s and besieged, was captured soon after with the defenders hunted down and slaughtered.

The rebellion floundered after Cahir’s death, more so than it already was. The English, some under the direct command of Chichester, advanced on all fronts, bringing the O’Hanlons, O’Cahane’s and even a few O’Donnell’s to heel, either making them submit or driving them into hiding. The remaining leaders of the rebellion, like Phelim and Hugh Boy, were hunted down and suffered the expected fate, hung or beheaded (or both). Accusations levelled against Niall Garbh of clandestine support for Cahir and his actions resulted in his arrest and imprisonment in London, where he would remain for the rest of his life, a rather ignoble end for a man who had been of such great use to the English in the region previously. Derry would be rebuilt, shortly to be rechristened Londonderry by James I.

Cahir’s rebellion was an uncoordinated thing, one where its main figurehead didn’t seem to know what to do after his first initial success. Cahir spent his time after the fall of Derry wandering around North and Mid Ulster looking for someone to take on, with no real communication with any of the other families rebelling with him. His death came in a very small scale clash while his forces were trying to besiege a castle they had little real hope of taking, and his position was never a strong one. His rising was an ill-advised event, one that had next to no chance of any success. Ultimately he cannot be counted among the great leaders of Irish military history, just another in a long line of failures. What few families remained in Ulster who could potentially be troublesome were further weakened or outright dispersed by the military actions of the English in suppressing the rebellion.

His actions would help provoke the newer policies of James I, that of plantation. Moving in Protestant settlers to take over Irish land was an idea that had mixed results when first attempted in Laois and Offaly and the plantation in Munster was only just starting to recover from its near total destruction during the Nine Years War. But the plantation in Ulster would have far greater success in implanting a brand new social class and radically changing the nature of the province, changing it from a hotbed of Catholic resistance to a predominantly Protestant area in time. That process would be remarkably peaceful over the following decades, and I’ll talk about it in the next entry.

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

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5 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Rebellion Of Cahir O’Doherty

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Mountjoy’s Peace | Never Felt Better

  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Bloodshed Of 1641 | Never Felt Better

  4. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The 1689 Siege Of Londonderry | Never Felt Better

  5. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Robert Emmett’s Riot | Never Felt Better

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