Ireland’s Wars: The Campaigns And Winter March Of 1601

The Nine Years War had been a vicious conflict. But now, entering the final vortex, it would become even more devastating to Ireland, as massive armies from both sides came together and swept across the land.

1601 had dawned and things were becoming altogether messy in Tyrconnell and Tyrone. The English forts near Derry continued to provide a source of raids into the surrounding countryside. Much worse were the depredations of Niall Garbh O’Donnell, having survived his cousin’s initial wrath, who proceeded to plunder all around him from his base in Lifford, going as far as to lead a substantial force into Tyrone, which managed to defeat a unit of O’Neill’s men sent to deter it. With a free hand , and re-enacting the wars between Tyrconnell and Tyrone of old, Niall Garbh returned to Lifford with scores of booty and plunder. Such actions were more than just a death by a thousand cuts for the rebels, they were a clear sign of Niall’s intent to place himself as an alternative to Hugh Roe inn terms of leadership of the O’Donnell clan. Raiding into each other’s territory had oft been a traditional way for an O’Donnell or O’Neill chieftain to begin his reign after all. That Niall’s raids were backed by the English probably didn’t matter much. Having escaped Hugh Roe’s grasp, Niall fully intended to continue his own little rebellion.

Hugh Roe had other problems to deal with. The in-fighting of the Burke’s in North Connacht, centred around the Clanrickarde lands, resolved itself with Rickard, son of Ulick taking the helm. Rickard was a staunch royalist, and his apparent victory stabilised the situation in the area and further led to more local leaders and lords to switch sides, even in Tyrconnell itself. Hugh Roe’s chieftaincy was looking ever more uncertain. A Clanrickarde army, supported by the English out of Galway, made aggressive moves on Sligo, but backed down after a face-off from Hugh Roe’s forces and some small-scale fighting. Hugh Roe had previously had free reign to pillage and raid throughout the western province, but the sudden appearance of a more resolute enemy in the area changed that strategic picture substantially. The confederation of rebels was starting to lighten.

In late summer, a chance to hit back did appear. Niall was sent, with English support from land and sea, to the coastal town of Donegal, where they occupied the local monastery, presumably ransacking it in the process. Religious houses were frequent targets in the raids of the time, not just for their wealth or their Catholicism, but because they were usually built as half-decent defensive structures in the event that trouble came.

Hugh Roe was enraged on the news that the monastery had been hit and resolved to take action, gathering who he could and heading to Donegal rapidly. Niall, having tarried in the area, was trapped in the monastery and yet another siege began. The English forces with Niall must have been well-armed, for no frontal assault was made. What they certainly were not was well-supplied, and it didn’t take long for starvation to threaten. English ships were anchored not far away, but were powerless to do anything in the face of Hugh Roe’s superior numbers, with the O’Donnell leader wisely keeping back far enough to be out of the range of their guns.

In late September, after several weeks of sorties, raids and sniping, Hugh Roe committed to what he hoped would be a successful attack of opportunity. However it happened, the supplies of gunpowder the English held in the monastery came in contact with fire. The resulting explosion and fire engulfed large parts of the monastery, and Hugh Roe made the decision to assault, the brightness of the fire illuminating the battlefield in the darkness of that night.

The resulting fight is recorded as a bitter one. The darkness, smoke and the fire must have created an air of confusion and desperation. Despite their fortification burning down, the defenders were still composed enough to level bursts of fire on the attackers and the hand-to-hand exchanges were bloody. Niall and his English allies were also supported by fire from a ship just off-shore. Hundreds were killed on both sides. Seeing which way the fighting was going, Niall slipped out with whoever he could, retreating in the confusion to another monastery/convent called Magherabeg nearby. Here he gathered more English soldiers who were garrisoned nearby. Some of the sources are somewhat garbled, but it seems that Niall returned to the original position with these reinforcements to save who could be saved, and with the naval screen as an additional help, retreated again to Magherabeg.

Hugh Roe followed him to this new defence but did not attack. The bloody business of the previous night had put paid to any offensive mindset he may have had. Scores of O’Donnell’s, including one of Niall’s brother, were dead. The Donegal monastery he had come to reclaim was a burnt-out shell. Niall remained at large, and Huge Roe had lost more men in a fruitless cause. The attack was done in an impetuous manner, without realisation that the defenders were far from beaten, and the result was a bloodbath. It was one of the young chieftain’s worst results, if not quite a defeat. Another siege began, but Hugh Roe’s focus was rapidly taken by events down south.

On the other side of the Tyrconnell/Tyrone border, Hugh O’Neill also had problems to deal with. The continuing attacks from Derry were troublesome and his underlings in Munster who were not quite defeated yet at this time, petitioning him for help that would not come. Hugh was beset by the trouble in Connacht, the unrest in Tyrconnell, the dealings with Spain and the threat from Mountjoy whose forts remained intact and supplied. That earthfort constructed on the wrong side of the Moyry Pass made any defensive approach to the area more difficult.

So it proved in June of that year as Mountjoy swept forward again. Perhaps there was a lack of forward intelligence this time or the situation just wasn’t favourable to it, but O’Neill was unable to affect a defence of the Moyry Pass at all and Mountjoy took it with no loss. Intent on solidifying this state of affairs, he stopped and constructed a makeshift castle on the west side of the pass, claiming it as his in a more permanent manner than before. This was the final result of O’Neill’s unruly withdrawal the previous year. For Mountjoy, it was a brilliant moment, as a way into Ulster and the heartland of the rebels had been definitively secured.

Mountjoy then marched on north, and even though he had stopped for a month to build a new castle, still he did not meet any force to oppose him. The castle at Portmore, Antrim, was recaptured without a fight and Mountjoy proceeded from there towards the more substantial O’Neill stronghold of Benburb to the south, putting a force on the other side of the Blackwater, who built a new fort. Here, finally, he met resistance. A force of O’Neill’s kerns was in place, and were able to successfully deflect and drive off Mountjoy’s advance forces. Taking the hint, and happy to consolidate what he had, the Lord Deputy turned for home, placing garrisons in every fortification he had held or constructed.

The English were inside Ulster and inside Tyrone for the first time since the loss of the Blackwater Fort. With Henry Docwra’s raids from the direction of Derry and amphibious raiding carried out from Carrickfergus, O’Neill’s already depleted forces were being pulled in too many directions at once, which might indicate why Mountjoy had such an easy time of it. The Lord Deputy’s attacks on the rebel alliance system, their internal and external supply routes and their economy, were all combining to swing the war in the favour of the English.

Mountjoy’s campaign was also notable for another reason. On their march Mountjoy’s men took was they could and burned without consequence, stripping the land of crops and other resources, tactics replicated by Dcowra and others. The effect was limited in this specific campaign, but must still have had a bad impact on the area in question. Such tactics were nothing new, and common to both sides, but it was the first time Ulster had felt them in a while. Mountjoy was only just getting started. He understood at this point that attacking the local population, and their capacity to feed the rebels in arms, would be crucial to finding a conclusion to the war. On the face of it, Mountjoy may have just needed one more co-ordinated campaign attacking Tyrconnell and Tyrone from multiple directions, in line with his long-standing economic efforts, to collapse the rebel war effort entirely.

But before anything else could happen, news down south changed everything.

O’Neill and O’Donnell had long sought help from abroad. The natural target had been Spain, then wrapped in a long line of struggles with England and Elizabeth. Spain had shown itself open to helping Irish rebels before, during James FitzMaurice’s second rebellion, and sending assistance to Ireland aided their objectives too. Spain’s war with England was fought in many lands and on many fronts, from the Low Countries to the New World. Ireland, situated so close to England, could prove a more bountiful staging area for an invasion than the debacle that had been the Spanish Armada, and could tie down even more English forces on the island. It was the long-standing dream of England and then Britain’s foes, that would continue to be planned out as late as the 1940’s/

The issue, as it always would be, was how viable a landing in Ireland could be. The Armada’s experience proved how difficult it could be to land even a small number of troops in a country held by the English, and the previous military expedition had been slaughtered at Smerwick after the failure of the locals to really assist them. The Spanish crown wanted to carry the fight to Ireland, but would not be willing to just throw lives and money away on a bad cause.

This was why the previous victories of O’Neill and O’Donnell were important. It is undeniable that the tide had turned against the Irish rebels by 1601, but they had dished out a succession of major defeats to the English and had held a substantial amount of territory in the process. Hugh and Hugh Roe still commanded respect and loyalty throughout the island and were costing the English a veritable fortune to fight.

What exactly they envisioned as the outcome of Spanish military aid is not clear. Maybe they were of a view to taking over themselves, with O’Neill as a new Ard Ri, though this seems unlikely, with O’Neill never overtly championing such a scheme. Throughout the majority of the fighting, the rebel cause was presented officially as a battle for Catholic rights under Elizabeth, not a total overthrow of English royalty in Ireland, but the active involvement of the Spanish naturally changed things. Maybe, as indicated in their messages with Philip II in 1596, they were still angling for a member of the Spanish royal family to be given a Princely title over Ireland. Maybe they just championed the cause of the two Catholic allies fighting against a common foe, and there were no expectations of long-term Spanish control in Ireland. Maybe there were no such clear-cut postbellum plans.

Regardless, the Spanish were interested as evidenced by their material support for the rebels, but it was not until late in 1601 that they made the decisive move to get involved in Ireland in a more decisive manner. Perhaps they had been swung by the arguments and offers of Hugh O’Neill, perhaps they felt that what they had heard of the martial prowess of the rebels justified their expedition. Whatever it was and whatever they intended, they committed.

The full story of the Spanish in Ireland, from their outfitting, to their landing, to what happened after, is one I will tell in full in the next entry. For now, I will focus on the reaction of the Irish in the north to their arrival. The Spanish expedition landed far from where Hugh and Hugh Roe wanted them to, in Kinsale, County Cork. This was in the opposite end of the country from Ulster and the two forces could do nothing without the aid of the other. The Spanish were not in a position to re-embark, so a decision had to be made.

There does not appear to have been any great conference of the rebel leaders about what to do next, but in truth the options were limited. The Spanish needed support and they weren’t capable of marching to Ulster. The rebels either had to go to them or let them die or depart, wherein their own rebellion would be dealt a fatal blow. All that would be left would be fighting a long defeat that was already underway. They could have sued for peace, but they wanted more than a return to the status quo. The two main rebel leaders communicated in letters, but both must have come to the same conclusion rapidly: to gather what they could and then to march south.

What few they had to leave behind, to guard against the enemy forts and castles now peppering their lands, were left behind. The rest of their armies, their allies and friends were mustered in full. Perhaps they may not have liked to admit it, but it was an all or nothing throw of the dice. They were putting nearly everything that they could into the coming fight. This was no moment for divided forces, for strategic reserves. The northern rebels were heading south, through winter, to decide the fate of their movement.

To Kinsale the English had gone in similar force, and there the Nine Years War was going to be decided. Or so it may have seemed to the hordes of pikemen, skirmishers, cavalry, artillery and musketeers pouring out of Ulster. It is important not to over-emphasise the size of the armies heading south, given all that had to be left behind, but between Tyrconnell, Tyrone and all of their allies, it would still have been sizable. All told, the rebels may have been bringing as many as 7’000 men towards the Spanish position at Kinsale, not counting any that they picked up along the way. This was a huge number for the day.

They moved in two main groups, one for each of the two main rebel leaders. Hugh Roe assembled his army and allies at Ballymote, Sligo. With him went the loyal O’Donnell’s, the O’Connor’s of Sligo, those Burke’s that had not yet submitted to Rickard, the O’Rourkes of Leitrim, the MacDermots of Moylurg and the O’Kelly’s of Ui Maine. With him also were numerous lords and clan leaders who had escaped from Munster during the final destruction of the rebellion there, including the MacMaurice’s of Kerry and the followers of the Knight of Glin.

They marched, at the beginning of winter, through Roscommon, crossing the Shannon at a ford called Ath Crocha, today called Shannon Harbour, near the border of Galway and Offaly. Shortly after he stopped and made to wait for O’Neill and went about plundering and devastating the English controlled land all around as he did so. The advance of a sizable English army under George Carew made him move, and he did so through Ormond, Limerick and then Kerry before turning east into Cork, outmanoeuvring his foes. All the way English possessions, crops and homes were destroyed as the army, by necessity as much as to hurt the enemy, lived largely off the land. Munster, after the repeated devastations of recent years, must have been slim pickings, though the rampage did not stop more and more local Irish nobles coming out to join the young Tyrconnell chief’s army as it moved inexorably towards their goal. His pace, given the weather and enemy forces in the area, was remarkable, with O’Donnell making it to his destination in only a few weeks, but speed was ever the great trait of Hugh Roe.

Hugh O’Neill left a week after his ally with a far larger force. They headed down the Blackwater route and into Leinster, aiming to join up with Huge Roe closer to Munster. He brought his sizable Tyrone army, with all of his assorted mercenaries and musketeers, and also gathered his scattered allies in Leinster. His army delayed frequently as it went, taking advantage of its size and the lack of enemy to hamper them to devastate and despoil large parts of Meath and Laois, before continuing on down the Suir Valley before heading west. It was not until he reached the River Bandon, deep inside Cork, that he met with Huge Roe and the two united their forces into one giant Gaelic Army. As proof of how successful the pacification of Munster had been over the last few years, there was no mass uprising as they marched.

The actions of these two forces are not to be understated, and aspects of what was occurring bear repeating. They had left home with nearly all they could muster, as winter was settling in. In what must have been bitterly cold weather, on what must have been hard marching ground, they had walked 300 miles from one end of the country to the other, dodged English forces sent to oppose them, and now prepared to fight the battle of their lives at the end of the march. Through November and into December they had marched, and now they came to close with an enemy force that was just as large, in fact larger, than theirs. They had survived by moving in separate groups on separate routes, taking what they needed to keep going and destroying anything that stood in their way. Just as Mountjoy and Niall Garbh had devastated parts of the north, so too did the rebels now devastate parts of their enemies’ homeland.

By the 21st of December, the combined rebel army was encamped not far from Kinsale, from both the Spanish and the English. The story of how those two warring parties had fared during the rebels’ march will be told next week. From there, we will discuss the decisive battle of this terrible conflict. For now, I’ll leave it with this from the Four Masters and invite you to contemplate the feelings and emotions of the Irish camp on the eve of this great struggle:

Many a host and troop, and lord of a territory, and chief of a cantred, were along with O’Neill and O’Donnell at this place. Great were the spirit, courage, prowess, and valour, of the people who were there. There was not a spot or quarter in the five provinces of Ireland where these, or some party of them, had not impressed a horror and hatred, awe and dread of themselves among the English and Irish who were in opposition to them, till that time. Frequent and numerous had been their battles, their exploits, their depredations, their conflicts, their deeds, their achievements over enemies in other territories, up to this very hour. They met no mighty man whom they did not subdue, and no force over which they did not prevail, so long as the Lord and fortune favoured, that is, so long as they did the will of their Lord God, and kept his commandments and his will. Efficient for giving the onset, and gaining the battle over their enemies, were the tribes who were in this camp (although some of them did not assist one another), had God permitted them to fight stoutly with one mind and one accord, in defence of their religion and their patrimony, in the strait difficulty in which they had the enemy on this occasion.

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

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