Phelim O’Neill still seemed to be the leader of the rebellion, in the absence of any other stand-put candidate. He was the chief conspirator of the initial uprising still standing, and he controlled significant military forces.
But those forces were confined almost entirely to mid-Ulster and left Phelim in no greater position of true authority than Mountgarrett in Leinster or Barry in Munster. The trials of Summer 1642 would further showcase the shortcomings of the Irish rebel military and their leaders. Phelim would be no exception.
Irish eyes were trained on north-west Ulster for the coming campaign. Donegal and Derry had been late to join the uprising, the local Irish lords hesitant to encourage or engage in the same violence that was sweeping across the rest of the province. The area, the hot bed of the previous war, had been heavily planted by Scottish and English settlers, with Londonderry being a key centre of Crown authority.
The violence did sweep over this part of Ulster all the same, though the Protestant community perhaps had better success than other places in combating it, with many fleeing to walled areas and other castles where they were able to hold out under the initial wave of attacks. From that point, with the main rebel focus being elsewhere, local officials were able to start organising a more concrete response.
Sir Robert Stewart, like Robert Monro and so many others who would lead armies in the Confederate Wars, was a soldier with a great amount of experience fighting on the European continent in the Thirty Years War and other conflicts. He appears to have been a good recruiter of men and an assembler of companies. A local governor and M.P., he now took the lead in constructing a response, with the encouragement of the crown.
What he and several others formed would eventually come to be known as the “Laggan Army”, after the area between Lough Foyle and Lough Swilly. Together with Monro’s force of Covenanters in the east, it would be the cornerstone of British military activity in the province. Stewart was able to raise and equip numerous companies and several thousand men, aided by the fact that there was no substantial rebel presence in the immediate area to deal with.
The Laggan Army very quickly established itself as the dominant force in the area, carrying out reprisals attacks on Catholics and whatever rebels they were able to find. Almost exclusively made up of settlers of a Scottish or English origin, the Laggan Army also acted as a basic security force for the area of north Donegal.
After a time, when the capture of Londonderry became desirable and the activities of Stewart and his soldiers were too much of a blight to be borne without reprisal, Phelim O’Neill led some forces into Donegal in order to try and destroy the Laggan Army and secure nearly all of Ulster under his command. The resulting Battle of Barnesmore Gap should have been a telling sign for Phelim: despite picking a good ambush point and having a superiority in numbers, his forces were beaten back without inflicting many casualties, and the Irish were obliged to retreat. The Laggan Army had a higher relative proportion of muskets, and men trained to use them, not to mention leaders with military experience – all things the Irish lacked.
The Laggan Army, certainly buoyed by its success, only redoubled their efforts in the aftermath, capturing Strabane in April and going on a campaign around the area that relieved numerous strongholds from rebel attack.
That is not to say that the Laggan Army was not without its difficulties. There was little opportunity for reinforcement, save for what few companies Monro was willing to detach from his army in order to aid Stewart. The Laggan Army already had as many men as it was likely to get. Also, supply lines from friendly areas were stretched thin or non-existent, leading to a lack of powder for weapons. Stewart’s experience could only go so far, and the Irish would hold an advantage in numbers over him for most encounters. However, while the Laggan Army was regimentalised and compact, the Irish forces had nowhere near the same level of organisation, being little more than bands of men of varying size, who came together upon Phelim’s command to form a larger army, but without effective officers with any battlefield know-how.
In June, with Monro’s forces dominant in the east of Ulster and being largely unattackable, Phelim turned west once more, gathering roughly 6’000 infantry and a few hundred cavalry in order to try and make a fresh attempt to defeat Stewart’s armies and lock up his position in mid and west Ulster. Having found and defeated the Laggan Army, he presumably would then have been free to make an attempt at capturing the undefended Londonderry, thus securing one of the key northern ports.
Phelim crossed the Foyle and sought his engagement from the 14th of June. Stewart gathered his own regiments but withdrew, leading Phelim onwards. In this, the Irish leader erred, allowing Stewart all of the momentum and opportunity to choose his own battlefield. Phelim might have been better advised to move aggressively towards Londonderry or Strabane at first, thus provoking Stewart into attacking him, but Phelim was not a man with vast reserves of military knowledge.
On the night of the 15th the two armies made camp on opposite sides of a small valley just east of the little village of Glenmaquin. Stewart had settled on his position to fight, recognising the 3-1 disadvantage he was facing, making the defensive step of preparing basic breastworks and wooden obstacles on the top of the hill he had plated his army on. Phelim’s forces held a similar position but, geared, for offence made no similar preparations
On the morning of the 16th, the two armies mustered for battle, only a few hundred yards apart, though neither yet yielded the high ground. Stewart remained behind his walls, while the Irish formed up in two lines, Phelim commanding the rearward one. Neither side had any artillery worth speaking of, so the opening phase was marked by some simple exchanges of musket fire that did little damage to either side. As was the case in many battles, both sides were waiting for the other to do something before reacting.
Knowing that he could not attack, Stewart opted to goad the inexperienced Irish into attacking head on, sending a small force of his better musketeers, with some cavalry support, into an aggressive position in-between the two hills.
The first line of Irish took the bait and attacked, charging downhill pell-mell. The small vanguard force fired and retreated, encouraging the Irish to follow. After getting behind the breastwork defences, the Laggan Army was able to pour a murderous fire down on the advancing Irish, who took horrendous casualties. Losing officers and unable to make it even as far as a melee, the first line broke.
They ran back, straight into the advancing second line, which too broke apart despite Phelim O’Neill’s urgings for them to stay together and keep attacking. The rout was on. Stewart, not wanting to simply consolidate his current position, let his men and cavalry loose to chase the Irish for several miles, adding more casualties to the rebel side, who eventually totalled up losses of somewhere in the region of 500 men. Stewart’s casualties are not recorded, but must have been low.
Phelim retreated back into mid-Ulster, his army and his command in tatters. Londonderry was relieved from the possibility of attack, and other rebel operations in the area, like a siege of Colraine, were also ended. The Laggan Army had secured Donegal for the crown, and would soon start branching out more fully into neighbouring counties.
Glenmaquin is a standard battle scenario, which you see repeated across Irish history. The Irish advantages in numbers were offset by the ability of Stewart to set the pace of the campaign and select the battlefield. The advantages of the rebels were further undone by Stewart’s successful manipulation of their inexperience, and by their need to be on the offensive, an unnecessary state of affairs.
Phelim’s time in command was drawing to a close. He had proven himself unable to properly co-ordinate the rebel forces, even within just his specific catchment area, and had failed several times over as an actual battlefield commander. By now, with the rebel effort in dire straits on so many fronts, it seemed as if it was only a matter of time before it was crushed completely.
But several things would intervene in order to save it. One was the final disintegration of relations between Charles I and the Parliament, with both sides then arranging themselves for war against the other. Another was the arrival of Owen Roe McNeill.
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