As 1595 wound down and 1596 began, the Nine Years War continued in its haphazard manner, still yet to evolve into the all or nothing struggle it was later to be defined as. In truth, around this period, the Nine Years War could be better described as multiple brushfire wars with the common thread of native Irish (or Scottish) fighting the English (or English backed Irish). These wars – “fronts” might not actually be too inaccurate a description – were in south-eastern Tyrone, Connacht, Wicklow and Antrim. Let’s take them one at a time for the period between 1595 and 1597.
South-Eastern Tyrone was where Hugh O’Neill was fighting. But as 1595 came to a close and the English recovered from the rather nasty result of Clontibret, peace overtures were sent and negotiations for an end to the hostilities began. Soft power, after the initial failings in the north and the situation in the rest of the country – especially Wicklow, which was closer to the Pale – was back in effect. The Tudor administration was willing to give a little leeway in negotiations if it meant peace, a return to the status quo, and a chance to focus on the fighting elsewhere. They also perhaps felt they were in a stronger position after getting the better of O’Neill in an extended skirmish at the Cusher River in September 1595, a very minor victory.
The terms demanded by the rebels were bullish and far outside what the English were willing to concede. Respect for borders was one thing, pardons to be welcomed, but O’Neill’s terms of ending the reformation were not to be accepted. O’Neill also saw the continued operations against his ally Fiach McHugh in Wicklow as an affront (or an excuse). We’ll never know if the Irish rebels really wanted peace or if they viewed the talks as just another part of the game they were playing. Either way, while the war in the north died down for a time, it did not stop. The peace talks resulted in a truce that lasted for a while, but no other demands from either side were met, and the terms of the cessation were lightly held to. The rumours and intelligence of appeals to the Spanish crown, and of Spanish arms and powder being sent to aid the rebels, may also have been a factor in this outcome. King Philip II was indeed planning to send a sizable force to Ireland, but it was not planned to depart until the latter half of 1596, and in the end never sailed at all. Philip, enticed by the possibility of expanding this front against England, and even becoming King of Ireland as O’Neill and O’Donnell allegedly offered, would continue to support the rebellion with munitions and other supplies.
This was the signal for a massive influx of English troops into Ireland, the Four Masters claiming the numbers as 20’000 or more (it was probably less). By the time 1597 came around, William Russell had been relieved of the post of Lord Deputy, replaced by Thomas Burgh, an English Baron and veteran of Flanders.
Though he was reconciliatory in parts of Ireland, Burgh was aggressive towards O’Neill, mustering a Pale army of several thousand at Drogheda in July 1596 and heading straight for Tyrone. His aim was to hook up with forces in the west as part of another (see below) plan, but first to target the Blackwater Fort, attacked and destroyed by O’Neill a few years before. With the force of men that he had available to him, he was easily able to attack the new fort that the Tyrone leader had built, tear it down, and construct a new one in its place.
O’Neill had been quiet in the war for a time, so was able to engage the new fort with a substantial force of men. With the new Lord Deputy distracted by military needs elsewhere, the Blackwater position was ripe for attacking. O’Neill attempted to storm it, with no success and some notable losses, and then sat back for the siege. O’Neill apparently admitted to Hugh Roe later that he had lost nearly 400 men in this aggressive attack, the Irish falling at the earthworks and walls that the English had created, with musket fire doing the rest. They were serious numbers, and this assault – the third fight over the Blackwater of the conflict – could be classed as the first serious defeat of the northern rebels.
Burgh came swinging back from expeditions elsewhere, and the two sides became caught up in a low scale running battle in the area. The sickly Lord Deputy was able to break the siege and relieve the garrison of the fort – the fourth fight – but fell ill and died shortly after, possibly of typhus. He wasn’t the only one: the Earl of Kildare, Henry Fitzgerald, was wounded in this campaign and died some time later at Drogheda. It was a hard blow for the English to take, losing one of their main Anglo-Irish allies in such a manner. Still, the Blackwater held, and the English could claim an advantage in the area. Hugh O’Neill, after fighting most of his war in a small-scale manner, had suffered a reverse that must have stung him and emboldened the Pale. And yet, we must not go too far: Burgh’s hope had been to march into the heart of Tyrone and devastate it, and he had been prevented from doing so.
Not so much in Connacht. Here, Hugh Roe held sway, moving armies at his whim, manoeuvring past or beating back a succession of English or Irish foes. The early years of the Nine Years War, a constant collection of Tyrconnell raids into the western province, of plundered land, wrecked castles and burned towns, had been his time.
The situation was complex past the Shannon. Aside from the direct conflict between Hugh Roe and Bingham, both sides were caught up in a MacWilliam Burke Civil War in the north of the province. Several times over the preferred candidate to head this clan was installed by either side, only to be supplanted by the other. Such power plays were convenient ways for the English and Tyrconnell to maintain a proxy war with each other, each wanting a sympathetic man in charge of the Burkes.
Hugh Roe also had to deal with the return of the Sligo O’Connor’s, who had previously fled the province upon the beginning of hostilities, now returned and fully loyal to the English. When O’Connor’s’ return saw several smaller Irish clans leave Hugh Roe’s ranks and declare for the English, the Tyrconnell chief reacted rapidly, launching vicious attacks into Sligo, targeting especially the cattle of the region. From there, he pressed on and, in a daring cross-province raid, went as far as Athenry, one of the main English towns in the province, breached it, sacked it, plundering anything of value and burning what was left. On his return to Tyrconnell, he was able to intimidate an O’Connor army into disbanding before they ever took the field against him. Such was the reputation, power and military strength that the Tyrconnell chief now held.
Late 1595 and early 1596 in Connacht was characterised by a succession of relatively minor engagements, that generally went the way of the Irish. English towns and garrisons were increasingly isolated, and any English or pro-English force that went marching around the province was liable to be ambushed and attacked constantly. A reverse at Nephin Mountain in October 1595 was especially bad, where an attempt to relieve a besieged position at Beeleck was turned back and mauled by a force of Burke’s allied to Tyrconnell.
Burgh, when appointed the new Lord Deputy, made Connacht and its security one of his primary goals, at least after O’Neill had been initially faced down at the Blackwater. The most part of the Royal army in Ireland, along with the troops of the new Connacht governor Sir Conyers Clifford, allied forces from Thomond, Clanrikarde and elsewhere, were ordered into Connacht in an attempt to reverse the near all-powerful strangle hold Hugh Roe had on the province.
Clifford’s campaign had some great initial success, re-capturing Sligo and a number of other positions with relative ease early in 1597, but his contingent ran into more serious trouble that summer. Clifford’s army advanced as far as Ballyshannon Castle, on the modern-day border of Donegal and Sligo, in late July. Defended by only a small number of troops in O’Donnell’s name – some of them Spanish according to accounts – they held out under heavy bombardment from the English for three days. Hugh Roe and his allies hastily assembled a countering force in this time, not wanting such a crucial fortress on the frontier of Tyrconnell to fall into enemy hands, or for the English to be emboldened into a direct assault on Ulster by a victory.
After several days of raiding and small-scale cavalry attacks on the besieging force, while the castles defenders utilised their own muskets and stone to damage the English army, Hugh Roe was able to arrive near the enemy encampment with a more substantial gathering. Fearing encirclement, Clifford decided to break the siege and move back south.
His army was cumbersome and slow to move, and left many supplies behind in the hurry that they were in. Crossing the nearby Erne again, they were pursued by Hugh Roe’s army in a fight that probably bore some similarity to Clontibret, but sudden torrential rain dampened the enthusiasm of either side for an engagement, with any advantage in musketry negated by the wet conditions. Hugh Roe backed off, and the English army was able to make it to Sligo. Some sources claim the Irish left the battle with a high opinion of Clifford and his army, dubbing the crossing at the Erne where they had fought “Casan-na-gCuradh” –the Ford of Heroes, though it might have been named as such beforehand. Clifford, due to his soft-handed approach and reconciliatory policy to families in Connacht, is noted by even Irish sources as being a popular governor, regardless of the fighting taking place.
Hugh Roe had beaten back an assault, though it is impossible to know if the rain that ended any chance of a larger battle was a good or bad thing for him. Crossing the Erne to engage the infantry, cavalry and artillery that the English had (and had formed up in battle array before the rain came) might not have been too smart a move. He was not numerically superior, though he had all the momentum it might be argued.
Still, his operational effectiveness and martial reputation were undaunted, a friendly fortress saved. Better still, allies like Hugh Maguire were carrying out their own campaigns, burning Mullingar later in the year and launching raids into eastern and northern Leinster. Hugh Roe remained dominant on his front of the war, though it was now clear that the numbers the enemy could bring against him were considerable.
To Wicklow then. Fiach McHugh and William Russell shared a deadly enmity, and the war in south Leinster was of a vicious and unforgiving kind, one of civilian slaughter, subterfuge and little quarter given. Fiach avoided direct engagements, preferring ambush and raids far afield in other parts of Leinster, while Russell did his best to secure the area through forts and garrisons while keeping an eye out for his hated foe. While the armies or Hugh O’Neill and Hugh Roe O’Donnell were gaining victories in the north, they were no direct threat to Dublin: Fiach was, and that made him a priority. That brief period of truce and peace took place when Fiach, feeling his age, went along with O’Neill’s cessation. It was only temporary, with the English distrusting an ally of Tyrone so close to their borders. Attacks on government forces in Wicklow didn’t take long to resume and the English hit back, with a tit-for-tat series of strikes around the fort at Ballincor, that rapidly spread into a resumption of the raids and spoliation from both sides, with O’Byrne reinforced by troops out of Tyrone.
With ill-health and his clan becoming divided over who should be doing the leading (all encouraged by the English), Fiach was pushed into desperate straits. Russell maintained a harsh campaign of civilian reprisal and cattle-stealing through 1596 and into 1597, with a bad winter adding to the problems for the Irish. Russell was perhaps motivated in his resolve by the knowledge that his time in Ireland was drawing to a close. Losing ground and capable of only hitting back at the English in small ways, Fiach was soon undone, ambushed and killed in the company of only a small number of soldiers at Fananierin in July of 1597, not far from the site of his greatest victory at Glenmalure. Russell could count it as his last significant act as Lord Deputy. It was an ignominious end for a man like Fiach, who had proven himself one of the better martial minds of the period, with his body hacked into pieces and displayed in Dublin, the head taken to London. The fighting in Wicklow simmered down in the aftermath, and there at least the English could claim a more decisive victory.
One last “front” remains to be mentioned in these years, that being in Antrim around the colony of Carrickfergus on the Belfast Lough, last mentioned in this series way back in the time of Edward Bruce’s invasion. In the context of the Nine Years War this was a small, strategically unimportant patch of ground, but it had a castle and a garrison to defend it. The castle, town and surrounding lands were close to the territory of the McDonnell Scots.
These Scottish settlers had been growing in population and power for a while now, and controlled a substantial part of modern day Antrim, with English permission. The expansion of Sorley Boy McDonnell had caused the Tudors some headaches, but that famed leader had passed in 1590 with English recognition of his families position in “the Route”, a large portion of Antrim land.
By late 1597, tensions had arisen between the McDonnells and the English at Carraickfergus, over raids that the English had undertaken against some minor O’Neill families nearby, O’Neill’s supporting of the McDonnell’s and an influx of Scottish soldiery into the region, that had already been the cause of a significant naval engagement in the summer of 1595. In November of 1597, the governor of Carrickfergus, Sir John Chichester, arranged a meeting with the current leader of the Scots, James MacSorley MacDonnell, to discuss the situation.
We may never know exactly what happened that day, in a plain outside of Carrickfergus. McDonnell arrived at the meeting place with a substantial force of men, well over a thousand. Perhaps he simply wanted to guard against trouble, or maybe he was planning on causing some (though, one can reasonably question: “why?”).
Chichester met him with a much smaller force of infantry and some cavalry. For reasons that elude us, he decided to charge the Scots before any parley had been made. The McDonnell’s initially retreated in the face of this unpremeditated attack, but turned and counter-charged when the governors cavalry went too far ahead of his main force. Chichester was isolated and killed, while the rest of his army fled for their lives, some cut down, some drowning in a nearby lake. Casualties approached 180 or so of several hundred, with the remainder making it back to the relative safety of the castle.
The affair was just another embarrassment for the English, but it did not escalate to wider conflict within the Nine Years War. McDonnell explained his actions by pointing out the provocation that had occurred: the Pale seems to have accepted this and decided to move past the issue. One war at a time, and in truth, the Tudor administration was moving to a point where the Scottish colonists were viewed as an opportunity rather than an enemy. O’Neill would also have been happy with the situation, as the Carrickfergus colony was left isolated and useless in terms of the wider conflict.
One last event of this period is to be noted. Given the large number of troops now being stationed in Ireland, it is no surprise to learn that it took a rather large amount of gunpowder to keep them supplied and ready to fight. On March 11th, 1597, a huge stockpile of such powder had amassed itself on the Dublin docks, due to a dispute between dock workers and the government over pay. Whatever happened that day, the gunpowder ignited, creating an explosion that engulfed much of the surrounding area, sent debris raining down on all of Dublin, and killed 126 people. This is an easy illustration of the dangers of gunpowder at the time. The disaster had one positive effect in its aftermath, opening up parts of the city to a more modern, brick-based, rebuilding project, but was a massive shock to the city at the time.
Between 1595 and 1597, the war ebbed and flowed, quiet in parts, vicious and bloody in others. The English and their native allies were still hard-pressed, being beaten back in Connacht, making little headway in Tyrone and facing challenges in other parts like Antrim. But they had made significant gains in Wicklow and had a large number of troops stationed in Ireland to continue the fight to a conclusion.
The rebels remained in a strong position, but one cannot help but notice that the main fighting had become limited to very specific areas. O’Neill was fighting a defensive war, barely emerging from his own territory, and while Hugh Roe was able to damage much of Connacht, he had done little outside the province. The English were not going to be decisively defeated in Connacht and the borders of Ulster alone, and if the two Hugh’s only aim was to defend their own lands it still required them to take offensive moves. Time played into English hands. Spanish reinforcements could not be relied upon to help them. Tyrconnell and Tyrone had a great deal of men at their disposal, but were yet to have a great engagement with the English foe.
The engagement was coming. A battle would soon take place that would alter the strategic picture of the war and increase stakes tenfold. A ford over a small stream of the Blackwater River would be the site.
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