Ireland’s Wars: Scarrifholis

Having spent the last few entries discussing matters in the south and south-east of Ireland, it’s time to head back north.

The Parliamentarian conquest of Ulster had been quick, efficient and brutal. The disparate opposing forces, ranging from remnants of the Scottish Covenanters to Robert Stewart’s Laggan Army, had been largely defeated by the rapid and devastating advance from Colonel Robert Venables and Sir Charles Coote. Only a small amount of positions in Ulster were still in Royalist hands, the largest being the Charlemont Fort.

But while they made not have held much territory, the Royalists still posed a threat to Ulster, in the form of the Ulster Army. Having long been the best fighting force of the Kilkenny Confederation, this army now found itself in union with the aims of Ormonde, even if it was basically operating independent of his command. The Ulster Army had been heading into the south of the country to aid Ormonde’s effort against Cromwell when their commander, Owen Roe O’Neill, died.

That was in November of 1649, and the Ulster Army, leaderless, had been largely paralyzed ever since, save the elements of it that had split off and taken part in the war against Cromwell in small units, like that of Hugh Dubh O’Neill at Clonmel.

The situation was not tenable for Ormonde. In the Spring of 1650 he was dealing with a potential catastrophe in the south, even with Cromwell’s departure imminent, and he desperately needed the Ulster Army, still well over 4’000 men strong when they could be mustered, to be actively involved in the war effort, possibly with an assault into Ulster. Such a move would, with success, provide a potent distraction for the Parliamentarians, forcing them to spread their forces around the country to counter numerous threats.

But that could not happen while the Ulster Army had no commander. With the Catholic body of clergy and nobility undermining Ormonde’s appointment choices and policy at every turn, it would be left to the higher-ups of Ulster to decide who the commander should be, with Butler expected to simply provide a rubber stamp to the decision. In no position to refuse, Ormonde was obligated to go along with this, and awaited the decision of a council that was meeting in Belturbet, County Cavan, in March of 1650.

The clergy, army officers and nobility that were meeting there had a difficult choice. Whoever commanded the Ulster Army would have to have a groundswell of support from both aspects of the former Confederation, but would also have to be capable of following in the footsteps of Owen Roe. There was a certain split in the convention, between those who supported the alliance with the larger Royalist cause and those, the hardcore, who opposed the alliance and the lack of specifics on what it would mean for Ulster in the event of a Royalist victory, especially in regards rights for Catholics and land redistribution. It was the Confederation split all over again. The problem was that not one of the potential choices seemed to be favourable to enough of this convention.

The group of leading candidates included Randal McDonald, the Marquis of Antrim, who had been a long time supporter of Cardinal Rinuccini and had the potential of getting members of the Ulster Scot portion of the north’s population onside. There was Richard Farrell, a leading officer who had acquitted himself well in campaigns around the Waterford area late in 1649. There was Phelim O’Neill, one of the original leaders of the initial rebellion, and a mainstay of the fighting in Ulster. There was Owen Roe’s nephews Hugh Dubh, who had distinguished himself in the fighting further south, and Daniel, along with Owen Roe’s own son, Henry. Alongside all of them were numerous officers who had commanded regiments or cavalry units in the Ulster Army. But they all had their problems. Antrim was rumoured to be seeking a rapprochement with Cromwell (which turned out to be true), Farrell did not appeal to the moderates, Phelim did not appeal to the radicals, Hugh Dubh was absent, while Daniel and Henry O’Neill did not have the requisite “cross aisle” support either.

The eventual decision of the council was based more on compromise to achieve unanimity rather than military logic. The chosen man to replace Owen Roe was Heber MacMahon, the Bishop of Clogher. MacMahon, a veteran of the Confederate assembly, was a well respected man, liked by most of the convention, supported by the clergy and considered tolerable by the nobility. The only problem was that MacMahon had zero military experience of any kind, his interest being in politics, not war. He had thus never fought in a war, let alone commanded an army, but his appointment was made anyway, in the hope that he would cause the minimum amount of division among the support base of the Ulster Army. MacMahon is not recorded as a career politician eager for his own advancement, and may well have accepted the commission with some reluctance.

Ormonde was disgusted with the choice, recognising the potential calamity of putting such a person in charge of an important military force. Butler was already beginning to feel that his position was becoming untenable because of such things, but allowed himself to be convinced, by Castlehaven and others, to give his assent to the appointment, which he did on the 1st of April. Keeping the Catholic population onside trumped everything.

MacMahon threw himself into preparations for an assault into Ulster, mustering as many men as he could in the region of south Armagh on the borders of Leinster. He would eventually be able to call upon over 4’000 infantry and 600 cavalry, but they suffered an acute lack of ammunition: the majority of the infantry would go into the campaign armed with pikes and little else.

MacMahon’s plan was good enough really. There were two forces to consider in Ulster, that under Venables, based out of Carrickfergus in the east, and that of Coote, based out of Londonderry in the north-west. MacMahon aimed to get between these two armies and defeat both of them one after the other, taking several vital positions along the way. In order to do that, he would have to march between them and keep the two commanders from joining their forces. On the 20th of May, as the Siege of Clonmel was happening, MacMahon and the Ulster Army were on the move northwards, their first offensive in a great deal of time.

They were helped right from the off, with the Parliamentarians, especially Venables, distracted by Irish guerrilla fighters. Dubbed “Tories”, these descendents of wood-kernes were starting to become a greater and greater problem for the Parliamentarians, and Venables was dealing with their activities in the south-east of Ulster when MacMahon was on the move. Another day I will go into greater detail on the Tory threat, but for now it is enough to say they provided a way to keep Venables, albeit temporarily, locked down.

In the early days of the march, things went well. There was precious little resistance, and when the isolated Parliamentarian garrisons gave battle, they were usually just short-lived holding actions. Coote and Venables were caught a little off guard by this offensive, with Coote able to muster less than a thousand men to his command in a hurry, the rest garrisoned in the towns they had taken the previous year.

MacMahon called upon the local Ulster Scots population to join with him, but received precious few soldiers from that avenue. War exhausted and unlikely to follow a Catholic banner against fellow Protestants, their resolve for fighting was badly overestimated by the Ulster Army. MacMahon had hoped that such local support would provide both troops and supplies, but was forced to forge on alone.

Still, things continued to go well. At the end of May, less than two weeks into the operation, MacMahon achieved his first real martial success when he stormed and took Dungiven Castle, in Derry, after a short fight. Having rejected a previous summons to surrender, the garrison was slaughtered to a man. It was a little taste of the kind of warfare the Parliamentarians had become used to dishing out, and indicated the remaining strength and competence of the Ulster Army, who took hardly any time to swarm over the castles defences. Coote and Venables scrambled to come up with an effective counter-response, but for the moment both avoided rushing in to a premature engagement.

MacMahon still had hopes of getting the Ulster Scots on his side, and spent the next week trying to do so, advancing as far as the position at Ballycastle on the coast of Antrim. Such movements came to nothing, bar fulfilling the need to take crops to feed the army, and to destroy those that could not be taken so they could not feed the enemy. By now the situation was much more precarious, as MacMahon had led his army far from its base of supplies, without ever really challenging the enemy. Determined to do so, MacMahon decided to confront Coote, in and around Londonderry, directly.

Coote and his army, less than a quarter of the size of his opponent, had chosen to stick in the general region of Londonderry, probably reckoning that in the event of a disaster they could flee back to its walls for safety. When he heard of MacMahon’s approach, Coote held his ground at the town of Lifford, 15 miles south of Londonderry. He knew reinforcements from Venables were not that far away, and that any delay he would be able to force on the Irish could prove crucial.

On the 2nd of June the two armies came within sight of one another, not far from a ford over the River Foyle. A standoff ensued, as neither side moved to attack or retreat, and this situation lasted for several hours. Coote had reason to be hesitant, given the size of his army, but for MacMahon there were fewer excuses. He may have felt nervous about attacking given the lack of ammunition he had, but whatever the reason, his hesitation did not bode well.

Eventually giving in to discretion over valour, MacMahon ordered his army to withdraw over the Foyle. Coote released some cavalry units to harass the Ulster Army as it did so, but these were thrown back by a quick and decisive Irish counterattack. With Coote’s cavalry temporarily scattered, it might have been a good time to turn and launch a decisive thrust into the main body of his army, a course urged on MacMahon by many of his subordinates, who saw an opportunity to rout Coote. But MacMahon refused, and stuck to his pre-ordered withdrawal.

Any chance to hit Coote vanished, as the Parliamentarian commander withdrew his own forces behind the walls of Londonderry, which was also drawing in large amounts of the local population, desperate to get away from a Catholic force that brought back unpleasant memories of 1641 and the rampage of sectarian bloodshed that had taken place.

For the moment though, things were safe enough. Any momentum that MacMahon might have had vanished in the aftermath of the Lifford encounter, as he and his army moved into Donegal, to the Letterkenny area, and simply set up camp and waited. What he was waiting for is unclear, as his vacillation allowed infantry units that belonged to Venables to meet up with Coote and combine their forces. Perhaps he was simply waiting for the right opportunity, but it seems likely that someone of MacMahon’s inexperience simply wasn’t sure what to do at this point.

On the 21st of June, Coote brought his forces towards MacMahon’s position (Venables himself being absent). The odds were now much more even, with MacMahon having detached a significant portion of his army to go and scavenge for foodstuffs. The hoped for Ulster Scot support had never materialised, and similar ambitions that Ulick Burke, in Connacht, might have sent additional troops came to nothing in the end. Thus, the two armies made ready to engage each other at Scarrifholis, a hill a few miles from Letterkenny, around what is today the Newmills area. The exact numbers remain a source of dispute. MacMahon had at least 3’000 men under his direct command that day, possibly a bit more. Sources vary over whether Coote was able to match that, or if he was still slightly outnumbered. What we do know for sure is that Coote had much more cavalry, and much more ammunition.

Despite that, the situation still looked more promising for the Irish. MacMahon held the high ground, where his army had been camped. His closest subordinates, who included Henry and Phelim O’Neill, urged him to stay put. If the Ulster Army remained entrenched where they were, the Parliamentarians would have to risk a dangerous assault uphill to try and dislodge them, or simply march away without getting the engagement they wanted. Either way, the Ulster Army would dictate the terms of the engagement (or lack of one).

MacMahon refused to listen, with some alleging he berated his officers for cowardice. Perhaps thinking about his earlier failure to take the initiative, or with thoughts of a Benburb-level triumph in front of him, he ordered the Ulster Army to march down the hill and meet their enemies on more even ground.

That move was bad enough, but it was as deployments were made that MacMahon’s deficiencies became blindingly obvious. A vanguard of musketry moved ahead of the main force as a skirmish/screen unit, but the rest of the Army, near 3’000 men, were all forced together in one large mass. There were few options for manoeuvrability or utilisation of rear ranks in such a formation, but that is what MacMahon ordered. On the other side, Coote, who had been fighting for the entirety of the Civil Wars and whose family had a military tradition, deployed his troops, and cavalry, in smaller separate units spaced from each other, not unlike the checkerboard pattern that Owen Roe O’Neill had used at Benburb.

An advanced guard from the Parliamentarian side meet the Irish between the armies. Musket fire turned rapidly to hand to hand fighting involving sword and pike. Only a few hundred men were engaged, but this would actually be the closest Scarrifholis came to being an actual battle.

MacMahon did not reinforce his skirmishers, unlike Coote, and so the Irish were gradually forced back, with losses on both sides. When the musketeers of the Irish side were forced back so far that they merged with the larger mass of the army, confusion began. Coote moved his units up, and they commenced unleashing devastating fire on the Ulster Army.

There was little the Ulster Army could do. In one large mass, there was no capacity for movement, individual responses from Colonels or just efficient communication. Fear began to set in and the severe lack of ammunition meant that MacMahon was forced to simply withstand the incoming fire without being able to reply. There was no forward attacks, no retreats, no attempts at moving the Ulster Army in any way.

Finally, Coote sent in more infantry and cavalry to attack the flanks of the paralyzed and now panic stricken Ulster Army. MacMahon’s force broke under the strain and a rout ensued.

I have talked about routs and the ensuing casualties before in this series. From what I have read, the severity of the slaughter depends upon four main factors. One, the time of day that the breaking begins, with few pursuits continued once light fails. Two, the amount of cavalry that the victorious side has to engage in a pursuit, matched against their level of fatigue from the preceding fighting. Three, the availability of natural defences nearby, like hills, bogs or forests, for the fleeing force to escape into, as well as the support of the local population. And four, the presence of a strong willed commander, who has the ability to rally his fleeing force back into a coherent military shape.

At Scarrifholis, the time of the battle allowed plenty of daylight, Coote had plenty of rested cavalry, there was no immediate avenue for the Ulster Army to retreat into safely and MacMahon had no ability to rally his men.

The result was obvious. Coote’s men rode as they willed, cutting down fleeing Irish soldiery with ease. There was little mercy shown, not even to officers. The local settlers refused to help the fugitives, and that was when they weren’t actively engaging in the slaughter, revenge for the atrocities of 1641. Many units of the Ulster Army stayed where they were and fought to the death it must be said, but many others could be found dead in a long line headed westwards.

By the time the killing had ceased, the Ulster Army was no more. At least two-thirds, or maybe as much as three quarters of its strength, was killed or, in a minority of cases, captured. The casualty numbers would have fallen somewhere between 2’000 and 3’000 men. It was one of the worst routs the Irish would ever suffer, in this war or in others. The military force Owen Roe had built was utterly smashed.

It was not just the rank and file either, though the loss of such men, battle hardened and experienced, was something that would cripple the anti-Parliamentarian effort as time went. The leadership of the army suffered to a disproportionate degree, in comparison to other battles. Usually in a rout, officers have a greater chance for escape than others. Typically they are horsed, are further from danger than the “enlisted” or, since they are usually some level of nobility, have the privilege of seeking to surrender. At this battle, this was not the case. Nine Colonels, four Lieutenant Colonels, three Majors and 20 Captains are listed as among the dead, as well as many other junior officers. They were the cream of the Ulster fighting machine, men who had come with Owen Roe when he first arrived, leaders and minds who could not be replaced. They included the likes of Henry O’Neill, Hugh Maguire and Hugh MacMahon, key subordinates who had helped make the Ulster Army what it had been.

But there were those that escaped. Phelim O’Neill was one, the 1641 instigator fleeing back to Charlemont, there to await a now inevitable attack by the Parliamentarian enemy. Richard Farrell, heading south-west into Connacht, was another. Heber MacMahon managed to get away from the initial slaughter, but was captured within a week, tried and hung, an ignominious end for a man who had been completely out of his depth. The garrisons that had been placed at Dungiven and Ballycastle fled when the news of the battles result arrived. The Parliamentarian takeover of Ulster was once again secure. While elements of the Ulster Army survived, it would never reform or march again as a coherent unit.

Any analysis of the battle does not have to delve into too much detail to see what went wrong. MacMahon was a military amateur, who had no idea when to take the offensive, how to deploy his troops or what to actually do when battle was joined. He was faced by a man with over eight years direct experience in the war thus far, who had better supplied troops and better cavalry. Though the Bishop’s larger plan had been sound in the early stages, there were so many mistakes and misjudgements that one cannot be surprised to hear about the final incompetence at Scarrifholis. Abandoning the high ground was the sort of error that Owen Roe O’Neill would never have made. The men of the Ulster Army suffered for that, facing their version of Knocknanuss and Dungan’s Hill. Benburb was a distant memory.

For Ormonde, presumably reeling at the news that the best army he could call upon was no more, things were just going to get worse and worse.

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: Scarrifholis

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  10. Edward Halloran says:

    What sources did you use?

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