Ireland’s Wars: The End In Tyrone

This is the second part of what was originally a single article, since split into two as part of a re-editing process. The first part can be found here.

The English had routed the main Irish rebel armies and pacified three quarters of the island. But while they had significant footholds in the last quarter, the province of Ulster, the main rebel heartland still needed to be dealt with decisively.

By the summer of 1602 Mountjoy was ready to launch what he hoped would be his last campaign in Ireland. His health had not been good over the last number of years, as he frequently complained of illness and headaches, conditions that were probably worsened by the drama around Kinsale. Like so many Lord Deputies before and after, he was probably desperate to get out of Ireland and back home, to make use of his powerful political and military position in the waning months of Elizabeth’s reign. For this campaign, aimed right at the heart of Tyrone, the sources claim he was able to muster around 3’500 infantry and 500 horse, a substantial army with which to try and pierce the heart of his enemy.

Marching from Newry in June, Mountjoy aimed centre north along the Blackwater route. The last time an English army of such size had attempted this passage the result had been the Yellow Ford debacle. Now Mountjoy swept forward almost unopposed. The ruins of the old Blackwater Fort were bypassed, and a new one, named after the victorious commander himself, Charlesmount Fort, was built a few miles further east. Nearby Dungannon, the traditional capital of the O’Neill clan, was evacuated and burnt by Hugh O’Neill and his remaining forces, the rebel chief in no position to offer a more conventional resistance to Mountjoy as he had before. The remnants of the town were occupied by a section of Mountjoy’s army a few days later, where the commander remarked joyfully that O’Neill “is turned a wood-kerne”. He was quite right. Where once a war effort that threatened to overturn the English position in Ireland had been run from Dungannon, it was now conquered by barely 700 soldiers.

Mountjoy had so far seen nothing but success on his march, and took one important symbolic step later that summer: at Tullyhogue Fort, a few miles north of Dungannon, he captured and smashed the traditional inauguration stone which was used to create the O’Neill Chieftain. Such a move was merely a propaganda piece, but its effect should not be understated: Mountjoy was showing his intention and power to destroy the O’Neill family. O’Neill, in no state militarily to defend his lands, fled to the forests of Ulster, there to begin a low-scale insurgency, initially contested primarily by Carrickfergus troops under Sir Arthur Chichester. As Henry Docwra put it when he heard the news, “The axe was now at the root of the tree”. English forces advancing from all directions went about reducing the last of the rebel garrisons and establishing their own, a task they carried out with terrible efficiency.

Mountjoy and his army did not go racing after O’Neill, who had retreated in a north-easterly direction, eventually to end up in Fermanagh. The Lord Deputy must have known that such a pursuit would prove largely fruitless. Instead, he turned into Monaghan and settled the rebellion there, rooting out the last of the hostile forces and placing a sympathetic member of the ruling clan into power. Such a tactic would be seen time and again in the coming months.

After a few weeks rest and gathering additional men from Carrickfergus and from Docwra, bringing his total number of soldiers under arms to over 8’000, Mountjoy was prepared to unleash the main point of his campaign. In autumn he ordered all who would submit to his authority to come south from Tyrone; many did so. On the 19th of August, he crossed the Blackwater again and proceeded to lay waste to the country to an extent that was almost unprecedented in Irish history. Every last scrap of produce, every herd, every source of farming resources was either taken for his own troops or destroyed. Villages and town were burned, civilians slaughtered or driven from their homes, forts and other strong points established, and elements of the Catholic faith annihilated. O’Neill and what paltry force he had left were far away, and were in no position to do anything about the hardships being forced upon Tyrone.

This was different to other pillaging tactics in the area. Frequently, that had just been a matter of feeding the army by necessity and had been carried out as much by rebel Irish in the course of the war, if not more so. This was “devastation”, a conscious targeting of the civilian population, an Early Modern form of total war in a way. Mountjoy had no intention of fighting O’Neill on the Tyrone Chief’s terms. He recognised that his conventional army could not march into bogs, forests and mountains without sapping their own strength to a large degree. He also recognised that O’Neill could not hold out without civilian support in intelligence and supplies. So, he put his troops to more effective use by ignoring O’Neill and aiming at the local population.

Civilians could not be brought over to the English line of thinking quickly, so it was easier to simply destroy. With no crops in the area, no civilians to act as a support, O’Neill would become hard-pressed. Further, as Tyrone had been the core of the revolt this far, the destruction carried out was as much a punishment as Munster had suffered several times over in the last few decades. In the event that O’Neill ever did come back from the Fermanagh boltholes he was now situated in, he would find nothing but royal garrisons in his homeland.

The effects were terrible. A famine quickly gripped Ulster, the depredations exacerbated by poor weather and nine gruelling years of a war economy. Thousands died from starvation or from exposure after being driven from their homes. There were not enough people left to bury the many bodies that began to pile up on roadsides, so the corpses remained where they were, decayed and rotten. People on the run ate leaves and grass to try and survive, with many dead bodies noted as having a green tint around their mouths. So many fled south of the Blackwater that there was not enough food to go around there either, and the English were not especially forthcoming.

The devastation policy was brutally effective. The people suffered horribly, but so did O’Neill. No one was willing to betray him and try to get an English reward for his death or capture, but they were equally unable to aid him after a time. As a bitter winter without food stores approached, the latest in a long line of bitter winters for Ulster, those few who were left in the province had enough trouble trying to ensure their own survival, let alone aid a chieftain who had fallen so low as to be completely unable to protect his homeland from the assault it was suffering. The sons of Shane O’Neill were temporarily installed in South Tyrone, further weakening Hugh’s position. So terrible was the results of the devastation that some English commanders didn’t entirely believe it, suspecting the Irish were actually engaged in subterfuge, hiding their strength in advance of another Spanish landing. At one point later in the year, food shortages became so acute that Mountjoy worried his own garrisons would struggle to feed themselves.

I have noted such “devastation” policies occurring in Ireland before, but nearly every source notes that this particular example was especially savage and unrelenting. The population of Ulster was horribly weakened, a boon to the English in terms of coming plantation plans. It would take years and generations for them to recover. More immediately, the very last plans of resistance from O’Neill and the 650 or so troops he still had left were dealt an unrecoverable blow. Resistance in Tyrone was largely finished. As 1602 came to a close, the final end was coming.

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

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