Ireland’s Wars: A Summary Of The Nine Years War

The Nine Years War was a brutal contest, and I hope that I have done something to make that clear in the mind of the reader. Such a long and drawn out affair requires some reflection and more elaborated final points than just to be tacked on at the end of the last entry, so here they are, grouped under specific headings.

Irish Successes

-Hugh O’Neill’s military reforms

Probably no other thing did more to put some steel in the Irish war machine than the reforms that Hugh O’Neill brought to the Tyrone military in the years leading up to, and during, the fighting. A form of conscription, tying the peasantry to the land and hiring Scottish mercenaries was one thing, but O’Neill also actively tried to incorporate modern military technology and tactics into the army he was creating, methods soon copied by other Irish leaders. Having fought alongside the English during the Second Desmond Rebellion, Hugh knew that any future war against them would be doomed without adaptation to the military reality of the time. To that end, his procurement of muskets and people to train his army in their use was vital. Paying his gunmen more, hiring English veterans to train them initially, Hugh O’Neill was able to create an army that found a degree of balance between the melee-weapon focused kern and the musket-wielding element. In combination with the previously-mentioned factors, it made the rebel army something the English hadn’t faced before in Ireland.

-Irish organisation

O’Neill, O’Donnell and others also brought greater organisation than there had been in Irish armies before this time. Irish armies in the north were regimented into compact units of 80-100 men (companies) under a specific commander with their own “rank” system to better keep the men in check. Better weapons, in the form of muskets and more modern swords, spears, small bows, darts and axes augmented this force. Light cavalry protected the flanks and a core of heavily armoured gallowglass could also be called upon if required. At one time, the rebels could have fielded armed forces numbering nearly 20’000 men overall, to be split between active participation in the war and garrison/siege duty, the kind of numbers that were a serious threat to the English. They could never be mustered all at once (they had to be paid and fed after all), but they were still an option.

-The Tyrone/Tyrconnell alliance

The two main players formed an effective partnership for most of the war. For so long enemies, the combination of Ulster might made any potential attack from the English a dicey possibility. Such a strong union also attracted numerous smaller clans and Kingdoms to the cause. Besides that, Hugh and Hugh Roe complimented each other nicely, one a more strategically minded patient man, the other a fast-moving impetuous raider.

-Fighting battles their way

While they had done much to update and evolve the Irish armed forces at their command, the commanders of the rebellion still did well to fight battles of their choosing in their own way. The rebels war, especially in Ulster, was mostly a defensive one, of using intelligence to determine the size and date of enemy attack and preparing accordingly. Clontibret, the Yellow Ford, the Curlew PassMoyry Pass and other victories all came about as a result of a mostly static defence, of absorbing enemy attacks and launching a counter at the right moment, in combination with typical skirmishing and sniping techniques. The digging of ditches and construction of obstacles also helped immensely, trapping the English time and again. Elsewhere, Hugh Roe and others operated the classic Irish tactics of raid to the fullest extent, riding unchecked throughout nearly all the lands west of the Shannon for a time.

-Use of terrain

In line with that, the rebels use of terrain was excellent, seeking to control mountain passes, high points, to leave enemies only with a path through boggy or rocky ground. It is remarkable to see the amount of Irish victories that include elements of the English having to advance through unsuitable ground, and this comes back to Irish intelligence and experience with their country, utilising it in the best way possible.

-Presenting a viable option for the Spanish

In winning so many victories throughout the earlier part of the war, inflicting so much personnel and financial damage on the English monarchy, the Irish rebels successfully made themselves a viable proposition to foreign powers, most notably Spain. The Irish could probably never have won the day without some form of foreign help, so convincing the court of Philip II and III that they could be counted upon was critical. Hugh and Hugh Roe achieved that, though the end result was not as they would have wanted.

Irish Weaknesses

-Lack of battle experience

Specifically set-piece battle experience, which resulted in the debacle at Kinsale. Avoiding a straight up fight with the English in the manner traditional at the time meant that the Irish survived and won smaller victories at a constant rate, but the risk of a traditional large-scale battle, with wings and centre, was ever-present. Having trained their new forces vigorously, Hugh and the other rebels could not do anything to help them overcome inexperience when it came to such encounters.

-Fragility of some allies

As any grand confederation will experience, but notably so for this country, the Irish rebels would always suffer from a cavalcade of allies who could not be sufficiently relied upon to fight the cause with as much backbone as others. Huge Roe found that out to his cost with Niall Garbh, but everywhere you looked in the Nine Years War you could see smaller clans and Kingdoms switch sides as it suited them. The Gaelic powers of Munster came out at Hugh’s urging for the Sugan Earl but ditched him just as quickly when George Carew began exerting his power. The Clanrickarde position switched back and forth between pro-English and pro-rebel claimants, eventually settling on pro-English. The MacDonnell’s of Antrim seemed at first likely to enter the war against the English, then settled on a more passive approach to the conflict. While many rebels, like O’Rourke and O’Sullivan Beare fought nearly to the death, so much of the alliance could not be totally relied upon.

-Lack of artillery expertise

Muskets were one thing, but cannon was another. The Irish were able to deploy some cannon throughout the war, but nowhere near the numbers that the English used, nor with the same competence. It wasn’t due to lack of pieces – the Irish captured enough English guns to have had quite a sizable artillery section if they wanted – but simply through lack of experience and training. This made siegework by the side of the Irish to be an almost impossible task in most instances, a weakness the English did not share.


The Irish failed to really grasp the importance of the pikeman in 16th century warfare, not until it was too late. Use of the pike in the kind of warfare Hugh and the others practised was not necessary or practical, so the position was largely ignored. When a large body of experienced pikemen was needed at Kinsale, the Irish had none, and the troops they did use for the purpose were easily broken with the clash came.

-Too much daring

Perhaps the biggest weakness of the Irish was their daring, which went too far at the critical point. The decision to attack at Kinsale, in the manner that they did and the time that they did, destroyed the Irish war effort, when a more patient approach could easily have yielded a more positive result.

English Successes

-The patient approach late in the war

The most critical success for the English was their switch from a strategy seeking a decisive victory before the Yellow Ford to one of encirclement, attrition and eventually devastation. This more patient approach was costly in many ways but was the best method to ensure victory in the fight over Irish rebels who were content to absorb conventional attacks over and over again. The decisive victory came at Kinsale, but it was not a battle that the English sought out, as opposed to earlier defeats in the north.

-Mountjoy’s command

The instillation of Charles Blount as Lord Deputy and overall commander of English military force in Ireland was also a master stroke. Mountjoy was capable, patient and ruthless when he had to be, certainly several steps above the multitude of lesser men who had come before him. In the aftermath of Essex’s disastrous command, the English in Ireland needed a strong leader who could cut through the typical Irish tactics, strengthen morale and keep the war effort going. They found that in Mountjoy and his leadership was exemplary throughout the later stages of the war.

-Continental experience

While many commanders had a sub-par performance in Ireland, it is to be noted that many others, especially somewhat junior officers and the leaders that Mountjoy assembled late in the war, were of a far higher calibre. One of the reasons for this is the experience that such men were able to garner in campaigns outside the British Isles. Places like the Low Countries, the Azores, Spain and the African coastline were all areas where English troops and seamen were engaged before and around the time of the Nine Years War. This kind of combat engendered a higher degree of competence in those that experienced it, the kind of experience that was vital at Kinsale or the Moyry Pass or any fight late on in the war. When we read accounts of English officers launching unit-saving cavalry charges uphill on rocky ground, or other officers successfully rallying a routing army, we can trace such success back to training and familiarity they picked up in fighting abroad.

-Ability to besiege and take positions/artillery

The English had great knowledge and know-how when it came to bigger guns, artillery pieces and siege cannon, a positive not shared by their opponents (save the Spanish). As such, one level of warfare, the defence of forts or the taking of them, was entirely unique to them in Ireland. No rebel fort or castle was strong enough to withstand English guns for too long, and the Irish never had much of a chance of reversing the trend. The Irish relied so much on natural terrain to do their defence for them that it was often a shock when they came face to face with a “big gun”. The example of George Carew at Dunboy might suffice to make the point: it took him 54 days to move his canon down to the target and get them into position, and just one day of firing to make a breach capable of being stormed.

-Use of Irish troops

The English, especially as the war went on, made effective use of Irish allies and Irish troops. The amount of kerns in English service was probably massive, and they may well have been the largest part of many English armies of the time, save for a period late on when Elizabeth and Mountjoy actively tried to make their forces more English in make-up. Irish troops may, on occasion, have had a tendency to desert or flee battle, but the vast majority of them served as admirably as their opposite numbers. More than that, the best of the English commanders utilised the locals in a productive manner, for intelligence, for supply lines and as a source of financial remuneration.

-Gaining Irish loyalty

The English were also keen to utilise the tried and true tactics that they had always employed in Ireland, namely grabbing the loyalty of what Irish they could, and turning rebels back to their cause. The case of Niall Garbh O’Donnell was probably the most notable, but the English also got numerous Munster clans and families to switch sides through simple bribery. They were also successful in places at using loyalist English family members, like the direct descendents of Shane O’Neill in Tyrone, as leaders to consolidate their own power in the region. The Irish could not match the financial muscle of the English when it came to bribes and positions and their cause suffered because of that.


The devastation policy of the English, as a matter of course in Munster and more directly in Ulster, was the final blow in both areas when it came to rebellion. Mountjoy and Carew recognised that removing “wood-kerne” support in the form of sympathetic peasantry and the supplies they offered was the key step to defeating any insurgency in Ireland. This sort of COIN work must seem brutal by modern sensibilities but was a very effective way of getting the job done. Once implemented in Munster, the rebellion fizzled out, as it had several times before. When implemented in Ulster, it saw the final collapse of what was left of the rebels’ movement.


English horse and their soldiers were a step above the Irish, not because of any superiority in breeding, but in training, weapons and gear. English cavalry tended to have more experience in battle than their Irish counterparts, to be able to find fighting success with their lances, and to have a better position in the charge thanks to their stirrups. Irish cavalry typically rode without stirrups, which could prove fatal when having to deal with a charge from heavy English horse. Such a charge proved disastrous at Kinsale, and English cavalry saved many days throughout the war, especially at the Curlew Pass and other fights.


England had almost complete dominance of the seas throughout the conflict. Save for some rebel-backed piracy that occurred up and down the west coast, the Tudor Navy was able to patrol the seas around Ireland at their leisure, providing fire and supply support, ferrying and landing troops as well deterring any would be foreign invaders. In situations like the invasion of Derry from the sea and the blockade of Kinsale, English naval skill and superiority was critical.


The English policy of building forts, usually simple earthworks augmented by basic wood or thin stone walls, was an understated but vital part of their war effort, especially under Mountjoy. Forts provided England with reach, points of supply and garrisons from which to dominate an area, collect taxes and gather food stuffs. More than that, if kept adequately manned and supplied, they could also provide harassment to the enemy and force him to siphon off troops in order to guard against any fort. The Blackwater Fort, over which at least five fights took place early in the war, is probably the most famous example of such an English fortification, but there were many others that provided a similar role. An isolated fort could be a drain on men and funds, and the attempted relief of the Blackwater did lead to the disaster at the Yellow Ford, but overall the fort system was more a boon than a detriment to the English.


It may be a bit cliché to say, but the English also exhibited plenty of spirit, elan or esprit de corps during the Nine Years War. There were plenty of moments when a collapse in English morale and fighting spirit seemed inevitable and likely to be a permanent state of affairs, but there is never any indication that the English were prepared to back down, leave Ireland or give into some of the more forward terms that the rebels were proposing. Numerous decades of war against Spain and others provided much backbone, and the English certainly had no intention of being driven out of Ireland by such a force of rebels. The fact that the English were so hard to wear down is a testament to their military machine and tradition and was a lesson that the Irish would learn again and again in the following centuries.

English Weaknesses

-The house of cards

The structure of Irish society in the lead-up to the Nine Years War was always a house of cards, the English were trying to prop up and manipulate for their own ends, but that system came tumbling down once Tyrconnell and Tyrone both rose in rebellion together. Keeping Irish Kingdoms and clans busy fighting and scheming against each other could not stop the war from happening this time, nor could the various political machinations emanating from the Pale itself – like the hostage taking of Hugh Roe as a younger man for example. It was, perhaps, inevitable that the Pale would face a larger war, the kind that they had avoided during the rebellions of Silken Thomas and Desmond, eventually in Ireland, once the precarious balance on the island had ended.

-Poor commanders early in war

The English military suffered from a succession of very poor senior commanders in the first half of the war. The Earl of Essex is the real stand-out, but others included Henry Bagenal and Thomas Burgh, men who faltered when leading armies in Ireland, whether it was through lack of experience, or a poor understanding of Irish terrain and warfare against Irish soldiers. So many of these soldiers were obsessed with seeking the “decisive” battle against the rebels that they failed to realise such a possibility was nearly impossible to actually find. It took the English leadership a criminally long period of time to adapt to the war that the rebels were fighting, throughout the various fronts of the Nine Years War.

-Low numbers early in the war

The military presence of the English in Ireland always fluctuated over time, but the generally low amount of troops in “peacetime”, allowed the rebellion to flourish in the critical early stages. The Pale, when it suited the Tudors back home, could be garrisoned by a paltry number of professional soldiers, with a dangerous amount of defence left in the hands of Irish allies. The lack of men on hand when Hugh Roe, and then Hugh O’Neill, rebelled was a great boon to the rebels, and the complete lack of troops in Munster when fighting broke out there resulted in the almost total destruction of the plantation work that had gone on. Eventually the crown would fill Ireland with a multitude of fighting men – the Pale itself perhaps held as many as 10’000 soldiers towards the end of the war, mostly for garrison duty – and this kind of overwhelming force would prove critical.

-Army not the right fit for a COIN war

So many elements of the English army were not suitable for the sort of war they had to fight in Ireland. This was no clash of “battles” like in the wars against Spain, but an intensive insurgency conflict for the most part. The packed formations of the English were ill-suited to deal with the sort of hit-and-run ambush and skirmishing of the Irish, and even less able to deal with the natural defences and barriers employed against them. Such concentration of troops could prove disastrous, as was seen at the Yellow Ford. More than that, the English army was made up of a large number of soldiers, like pikemen, who were the exact wrong type of soldier to be fighting a counter-insurgency campaign. They were useful at the critical battle, this is true, but their worth throughout the war was negligible.

-Inability to attack into Ulster effectively

As stated often in the series, perhaps the key geographical weakness for the English – and advancement to the rebels – was the sheer lack of entry points into the rebel heartland of northern Ulster. Due to the multitude of mountains, forests and bogs around the border, only three routes into the area were passable for armies. It is a measure of how true this is, that it was only once all three were controlled by the English that the war came to a close. Sligo, the Blackwater and the Moyry Pass area were all critical battlegrounds throughout the war, and it took a lot of time for the English to force their way through all three. Once taken and fortified, the ring was complete around the rebels.

-Money issues

Such was the amount of military action that the English were engaged in, against Spain, on sea and in the Low Countries, that one could scare imagine the treasury could support a war that was nearly more expensive than all of the others put together. The Nine Years War would end up costing the English state millions in troops’ pay, damages and other costs, millions they could barely afford. Part of the strategy of the rebels, especially in delaying during negotiations and the like, was surely to continue the process of bleeding Elizabeth’s treasury dry. Financial concerns would always be at the back of English minds throughout the war.

-Political pressures/interference

The game of court politics was always a factor in Ireland. It led to the appointment of the incapable Earl of Essex at a time when more steely resolve was needed and Elizabeth’s breath would probably have been felt on many commanders necks throughout the war. She was constantly berating people for the course of the war, its costs, its failures and the negotiations that some would engage in with the rebels. She could be a proud woman sometimes, and it took a great deal of convincing for her to acquiesce to the eventual end at Mellifont, an end she did not even live to see. The Irish rebel leadership, operating largely from their own authority, had no such problems.

Course of the War

I think the Nine Years War can generally be divided into four phases:

-First Phase: Low scale conflict

From the beginning of the war with the fighting around Enniskillen and the Ford of the Biscuits, through to Hugh O’Neill’s involvement and the opening Blackwater fights. This phase is marked by low-scale fighting, a limited response from the Pale and limited gains by the rebels. The first couple of fights at the Blackwater Fort were an indicator of where things were going, but during this time there were few hints of how much the war would escalate.

-Second Phase: String of Irish successes

From Clontibret through to the Earl of Essex’s campaigns, this period saw Irish victory after Irish victory, from the Yellow ford to the Curlew Pass, along with risings in Wicklow, west Leinster and Munster. This period is marked by increasing numbers of English troops being sent to Ireland, but for little actual gain.

-Third Phase: Mountjoy’s Campaigns

From the installation of Charles Blount as Lord Deputy to the defeat at Kinsale, this period saw the English slowly reverse the previous trend and peg the Irish back. George Carew’s successful destruction of the Sugan Earl, the gradual encirclement of the Ulster position and the decisive battle of Kinsale all marked a resurgence of English power, now being wielded by a much more capable individual in Lord Mountjoy.

-Fourth Phase: English victory

From the immediate aftermath of Kinsale to the final surrender at Mellifont, this period saw the destruction of the rebel cause, from the capture of numerous passes and fortresses, the death of key rebels and the devastation policy that brought famine to Ulster. This was largely a mopping up operation, its result never really in doubt.

The Nine Fronts

The Nine Years War can generally be seen have had nine key areas of conflict that are worthy of consideration:


This area was the gateway to Tyrconnell, and the fighting over its main towns and fortresses was important to determining the security of one of the main rebel Kingdoms. It included an important naval element in terms of disembarking English troops and piracy, as well as some of the key powerplay games for the Sligo O’Connor’s and the Clanrickarde position. Such was the back-and-forth that Sligo Town itself was largely wrecked between the two armies by the fighting’s conclusion.


As one of the only routes into the heart of Tyrone, it was obvious that the Blackwater River, and the numerous forts placed there by both sides, would be critical, with the place serving the same importance to O’Neill as Sligo did to O’Donnell. At least five fights (some not large enough to really be considered “battles”, not really) took place in the early years of the war, and the Yellow Ford was also nearby. The installation of Charlesmount Fort near the war’s conclusion was as sure a sign as any of the way things were going.

-The Moyry Pass

The last of three routes into Ulster, this part of the country was not keenly contested until later in the war, perhaps because the possibility of an armed force taking it from the south was so unlikely. O’Neill’s keen defence of the pass in 1600 was exemplary, but it was ruined by his hurried demobilisation in the aftermath. Once taken, with a fort on the other side, it was just another gaping hole for the English to pour through.


The O’Byrne’s had been a thorn in the English side for decades under Fiach McHugh, and memories of Glenmalure would surely have surfaced when they began to fight the many English garrisons scattered around their territory once more. The fighting in Wicklow was actually to the credit of the English in many ways, as they brought the insurgency to a relatively swift end without incurring many losses.

-West Leinster

The O’More family and others like them were some of Hugh O’Neill’s most fervent supporters, and they would never forget the ignominy of being turfed out of their ancestral lands during the first plantation in the Laois/Offaly region. Their attacks on the English position and Pale forces was extremely troubling for a time, but in truth they were dealt with or fizzled out around mid-way through the conflict. The Earl of Essex could count defeating them and capturing some of their castles among his (very few) successes.


So scattered was the fighting in Munster, so low-intensity, that it must all be considered one front. James FitzThomas FitzGerald, the Sugan Earl, was able to keep his fight going for perhaps longer than he really should have, taking advantage of a lack of military preparedness of the enemy and a general willingness of local nobles to back the rebel cause for a time. But so easily was their effort undone, through the scheming and bribery of George Carew, that it is clear that the rebellion in Munster was always on very shaky ground. This front is marked by numerous sieges and seizures of castles, not least the infamous siege of Dunboy as the war was beginning to wind down. I suppose the fighting in Kinsale must also be considered part of this front, though it was nearly large enough to merit its own one.


The war in Connacht was marked mostly by raids and more raids, as Hugh Roe and his cavalry had mostly free reign west of the Shannon throughout the war. Twice going as far as Thomond, burning many loyalist towns on their way, the O’Donnell’s did a great deal of damage and carried off a great deal of plunder in this region throughout the war and this front also saw at least two major fights in the Curlew Pass, both Irish victories, one of which was almost on a par with the Yellow Ford. It took a great deal of political manoeuvring and weakness in other areas for the English to regain a dominant position in Connacht, and the final push in Sligo was the result.


Once Mountjoy had troops on the northern coastline of Ireland, the dynamic of the war, especially for Tyrconnell, changed drastically, added to further by the defection of Niall Garbh O’Donnell. Forced to place a great deal of their military power in trying to contain that threat, the offensive capabilities of Hugh Roe, much more at home on the raid, were stretched. The landing of that force was a risky move, but more than paid off for the remainder of the war.


That little slice of the north-eastern coastline was one that had to be garrisoned against any attack. While it only saw really active combat during that brief fight with the MacDonnell’s, the Chichester leaders also did much in terms of raiding and warding off attacks from the Ulster-Scot residents of Antrim. Late in the war, much of O’Neill’s insurgency was combated by soldiers operating out of Carrickfergus, who were more than enough to contain him.

The Spanish Factor

-Interest in Ireland

It is obvious that the Spanish, fighting a lengthy war with Elizabeth, were interested in helping the Irish rebels, but to what extent we may never really know. Claims that Philip II or his successor Philip III were being bandied about as possible Kings of Ireland might be a bit much, but they certainly saw an opportunity to put the squeeze on England in the form of the Nine Years War, which really can be seen as just another front in their conflict with England. The key was viability, and the rebels proved they could be an effective partner in the first ¾’s of the war.


How committed the Spanish were is a different question entirely. While willing to send what was indeed a very substantial and well-armed group of men to Ireland, their communication with the rebels was extremely lacking, leading to their chosen landing site being far from optimal. The commander of the force, Aguila, was distrusting of the Irish and never particularly aggressive when it came to fighting the English, and the Spanish were also somewhat tardy when it came to reinforcements. Once the Kinsale force was defeated, it was never likely that the Spanish would send another, no matter what the Irish chroniclers might have thought.

The Religious Factor


The rebels were, one can only presume, nearly 100% Catholic, lending a very Papal bearing to the war that they fought. In any negotiation with the English, freedom of conscience was always on the list of Irish demands, and Hugh O’Neill was eager to utilise this option as a way of gathering more troops and endearing himself to both the local population as well as foreign Catholic powers. Many may claim that the Nine Years War was a religious war, and that was certainly part of it. The reformation was a cause, and it is impossible to separate the faith from the army. But the war was, in my eyes, much more of a political one, a fight over the traditional rights and powers of native Irish families and Kingdoms over the encroachment of the English. “You care for religion as much as my horse” was what the Earl of Essex allegedly said to Hugh O’Neill when they met for talks, and I think he might have been right. The rebel leaders may very well have been devout Catholics, but it is rare in history that a war was fought for purely religious reasons.


The English and their armies were much more mixed up than the Irish. Containing a large amount of Irish kerns in their make-up, the armies that Burgh, Essex and Mountjoy fielded would have contained a high quantity of Catholics, further pointing against an overtly religious conflict. The leadership of that army though, under the appointment of Elizabeth, would have been both Protestant and active reformers, keen to spread their changed faith to the areas where it had not yet taken a hold. Some, like Mountjoy, would have been more tolerant than others when it came to the Catholic faith, and in the end they were aiming primarily to defeat a challenge to the crowns authority, not Gods.

Irish Commanders

-Hugh O’Neill

Easily the best of the Irish leaders, from both a strategic and tactical viewpoint, O’Neill well-earned his sobriquet “the Great” as used by some. His reforms and army building initiatives were enough to rank him high, but O’Neill was also just a very decent battlefield commander. He understood how the English military worked and knew how best to defeat it. His reputation for utilising good intelligence and preparing adequately for clashes was almost unmatched in Ireland. He knew how to base his defences and counter-attacks around the terrain and was not afraid to get into the thick of the fighting when he had to. He understood that getting foreign support into Ireland was the critical thing, and every delay and stretched out negotiation helped his cause. He knew how to garner religious and popular support. He was a patient leader, knowledgeable of his own strengths and weaknesses. He managed to create a complex web of alliances through marriage, diplomacy and threats. In battle his strength was the direction and placement of different infantry types to best effect. The accounts that he was pressured into the disastrous attack plan at Kinsale ring true, because what occurred there was not a true reflection of the military leader O’Neill really was. For his faults, O’Neill sometimes misjudged the enemy (like at the Moyry Pass or his initial assault on the Blackwater Fort) and seemed sometimes to be hedging his bets to too much of an extent, in terms of entering the war late and seeking peace (and a pardon) at later points.

-Hugh Roe O’Donnell

It’s strange how Huge Roe and Hugh O’Neill almost complimented the other. The Tyrconnell chief was young, charismatic, active, a true firebrand. He could mass no great armies and could fight no great battles, but he excelled at quick manoeuvre, at raids, at cavalry usage. His reach stretched from the northern coast to near the gates of Limerick, and his dominance of Connacht was nearly total at one point in the first half of the war. Having lost some toes escaping an English jail, his passion to the cause of their defeat was obvious, and every account mentions Hugh Roe’s inspiration and morale-strengthening abilities. Building a connection of allies in line with O’Neill, he was a truly fearsome adversary. His daring and aggressive nature served him well throughout the war, but it invariably fell through at points, most notably at Kinsale when he pushed hard for battle, then appeared late for the actual fight. Hugh Roe also struggled under the monotony of siegework, a flaw that indirectly led to the defection of his cousin Niall Garbh. But much of the success of the rebels, in the land they seemed to control, the leaders they propped up and the alarm they caused the English stemmed from Hugh Roe. The fact that his death precipitated the withdrawal of Tyrconnell from the war is proof enough of his value.

-James FitzThomas FitzGerald

The Sugan Earl owed everything to the power and prestige of Hugh O’Neill, but proved a somewhat able leader himself, at least for a time. It managed to co-ordinate a wide degree of Munster families and clans into a loosely arranged fighting force, enough to control Munster for a period, seizing towns and castles. His war was one of ambush and retreat, of resisting sieges and insurgency. In the end, FitzThomas never really got a chance to prove himself on the field of battle, limited to the guerrilla war that nearly all Munster rebellions were marked with. Isolated from northern support and facing renewed English efforts in the form of George Carew later in the conflict, his plans fell apart. Not lacking bravery or commitment to the cause, FitzThomas lacked loyal allies and enough resources to really make a go of it. His unfortunate end was the result of his daring grasp for power.

-Brian O’Rourke

The most committed of the committed, O’Rourke was one of the first to declare rebellion with Hugh Roe and could well be considered the last to bow out of the conflict. While he served under the Tyrconnell chief in most engagements he still covered himself in glory, especially at the first Curlew Pass fight, when his men did most of the actual fighting. Making Leitrim an inhospitable place for the English throughout the conflict, O’Rourke did his bit to aid the defence of Ulster even with limited resources. Always willing to lend a hand in the campaigns through Connacht or around Sligo, it is interesting to wonder what he may have achieved with a more direct command or a larger army. Laying down his arms after Mellifont, O’Rourke was a bitter foe for the English.

-Hugh Maguire

Young and impetuous Maguire was one of the main reasons the rebellion ever got started in the first place. Though perhaps he only rebelled as he did with the backing of High Roe, he could claim credit for the first major rebel victory and for seizing Enniskillen castle sometime later. An active part of many fronts, from Thomond raids to the Yellow Ford, his death near Cork in 1600 shows how committed he was to the rebels’ cause, fighting so far from home.

-Richard Tyrell

Probably Hugh O’Neill’s most trusted lieutenant, Tyrell found himself fighting throughout Ireland during the war, without ever really taking centre stage himself. His campaigns in Leinster did some damage and his performance at Kinsale was probably the best of the Irish. His eventual retreat from Munster in the aftermath, when O’Sullivan Beare was in desperate need of help, was not so positive, but the rebels could probably have used more people like him.

-Fiach McHugh O’Byrne

Two decades on from Glenmalure, it was probably too much to expect Fiach to perform the same miracles. His clan had long fought the English in insurgency warfare, and by the time of the Nine Years War the English had learned how to respond. Hunted down and butchered near his home fort, the rebellion Fiach started essentially died with him.

-O’Sullivan Beare

A true die hard, O’Sullivan was one of the only ones to keep fighting even after the collapse of the Sugan Earl’s position. His possession of numerous castles in the south-west of Ireland helped with that of course and, if nothing else, he put strain on the English in Munster long after they had secured the majority of the province. His hopes largely dashed after Kinsale, seizure of most of his fortresses and the capture of Dunboy, he destroyed the last remnant of his support during his ill-fated march to O’Rourke country. Never knowing when to quit was certainly his biggest weakness.

-Rory O’Donnell

While he could not be faulted for bravery, having served in the thick of battle throughout the war, Hugh Roe’s younger brother was simply not as capable of the Tyrconnell chieftain position himself, lacking the aggressive daring and charismatic personality required. Thrust into a leadership role just as his country’s strength was collapsing, there was only so much that Rory could do. He performed well in facing down Lambert in Connacht (though a bit more forward movement could have done more) and contained the Derry garrisons as well as his brother had (which is to say, not very well), but Rory would never escape the idea that he was simply a stand-in. The news of Hugh Roe’s death sucked the fight out of him, and his eager agreement to terms was the result.

English Commanders


Charles Blount wasn’t really anything resembling a strategic genius or a tactical wizard, but he was head and shoulders above most of his fellow English officers during the Nine Years War. He took control of a battered military force that was used to defeat and pointless marches and put them to more productive work. Introducing smaller mobile units to counter rebel “wood-kernes”, establishing a system of forts on or near the major passes into Ulster, landing troops on the north shores of Tyrconnell, sending extra men to garrison positions in Connacht and Munster, appointing the right kind of regional commanders, using “devastation” where he saw fit and being more conciliatory elsewhere, Mountjoy simply made the English army in Ireland do better. His victory at Kinsale, both over the Irish and the besieged Spanish, showcased his patience and tenacity, as well as his concern and care for his own beleaguered army. Mountjoy was the kind of commander who fitted the situation in Ireland. Like O’Neill, he knew his weaknesses and his strengths, was willing to back off when battle didn’t suit him and join it when it did. In the end, his lasting legacy is Mellifont and the lengthy peace that it brought to the land. He was, from both sides, the best commander of the war.


Deverux was only appointed to lead the English in Ireland for political reasons, and boy did it show. Commanding a massive army, Essex proceeded to march it to Munster and then back the long way, in return for defeating some of the smaller Irish clans and capturing a few castles. His huge force was sapped by guerrilla war, disease and desertion, and he largely wrecked his own chances in Ireland. Under his leadership the situation in Ireland simply deteriorated more, especially in Connacht where Conyers Clifford lost his life. He was unable to do anything to really stem the tide in Munster, was hesitant to make any offensive moves towards Ulster and, when finally ordered north by the Queen, proceeded to hash out a truce agreement without permission. Simply unsuited to the war he was being asked to fight, Essex was just the latest in a long line of English commanders who faltered in Ireland and was the worst commander of the war.

-Henry Bagenal

In another universe, Bagenal is the man who squashed a brief northern rebellion with a decisive victory at Clontibret or the Yellow Ford. Alas for him, that is not the case here. His personal enmity with Hugh O’Neill drove him on in the two key engagements he led the English into, but in both he showcased his unsound judgement, his lack of unit cohesion and his reckless aggression. Clontibret was a near total disaster that he at least was able to escape, but he merely delayed his unenviable fall from grace. Leading the English into their worst military defeat on the island, he rode headlong into Hugh O’Neill’s trap. Bagenal had bravery and plenty of experience, but no intelligence to use those assets in the right way. His death at the Yellow Ford was the result.

-George Carew

Probably Mountjoy’s most able lieutenant, Carew was a sly and cunning leader, who understood the Irish way of war and the effective means to beat it. Using the limited military resources at his command only when required, it was his effective use of inter-clan diplomacy and financial bribery that won him the day in Munster. That is not to underestimate his military endeavours though, as his army used local intelligence keenly to hunt down and trap the remnants of the Sugan Earl’s army, and he was probably the busiest commander on the island when it came to taking castles. Dunboy was probably his most notable success, a daring seaborne campaign that yielded a valuable prize in little time and with little loss. Largely overshadowed by Mountjoy and others, Carew’s part in bringing the war to an end – and leaving the north isolated and alone – is not to be underappreciated.

-Conyers Clifford

While respected as an administrator and civilian leader, Clifford never quite got the hang of the military part of his job description. England needed someone bold enough to match up to Hugh Roe west of the Shannon, and Clifford did not have the experience or the resources to do so. His two engagements up north were both failures, though he did well to keep his force intact at the Ford of Heroes. Later sent on an extremely difficult mission by Essex through the Curlew Pass, he pushed his troops too hard and was easy prey for the ambush party of O’Donnell’s and O’Rourke’s that was waiting for him. Cut down in the heat of battle, he can at least be remembered with more respect than the similarly hapless Henry Bagenal.

-Thomas Norris

Like others, Norris seems to have fought everywhere during the Nine Years War, from initial attacks towards Tyrone, through pacification campaigns in Connacht, to trying desperately to halt the spread of the rebellion in Munster. He was a tenacious and active leader, though his combat credentials were a little sparse. Vicious counter-insurgency campaigns were more his strength, and these he carried out with gusto in Connacht and Munster. Largely swamped by the rebellion that broke out under the Sugan Earl in the late 1590’s, he could do little more than fall back to walled towns and await reinforcements. His death shortly after came mostly by happenstance.

-Oliver Lambert

A hardened veteran of Ireland, Lambert’s rise in position was one of the few good aspects to Essex’s leadership. Largely excused of association with the Earl in the aftermath of his campaign, he went on to form the backbone of the resurgence in Connacht. More patient than previous commanders there, he was willing to work alongside more numerous Irish allies and close the net around Tyrconnell and O’Rourke more slowly. The capture of Sligo near the end of the war was his real shining moment.

-John Norris

One half of a serious leadership divide, Norris struggled to enact any great change in the situation early in the war, guilty of tarrying too long and of being unable to bring Hugh O’Neill to a proper fight. His enmity with William Russell ruined any chance he had of doing more, along with the illnesses that struck him low late in the war.

-William Russell

The other half of the problem. Russell’s time in Ireland was not especially productive, and his sluggish response to the rebellion and feuding with subordinates meant he was never likely to rectify the situation. He settled for the relatively minor victory of crushing the O’Byrne rebels in Wicklow before his recall.

-Thomas Butler

The Earl of Ormond, traditionally the keystone of Anglo-Irish power in Ireland, took a relatively minor role in the war, only stepping into leadership positions on a provisional basis and largely keeping his armies and forces out of the field. It might be down to Thomas’ age more than anything, as he was, in his seventies, certainly the old man of Irish politics by the end of the 16th century. Lacking a direct male heir to take on the fighting responsibilities for him, Ormond’s role was thus limited.

-Donogh O’Brien

The Earls of Thomond may not have been the most gung-ho loyalists – many family members would actually join the rebels – but when push came to shove most fell into line behind their leaders. Donogh assisted the English effort consistently throughout the war, combating Hugh Roe’s raiding parties from the north and the Sugan Earl’s guerrillas from the south. At Kinsale his own camp was instrumental in keeping the Spanish garrison at bay, and he served almost continually in the field for several years, the only Irish earl on the English side to do so.

-William FitzWilliam

His last year in power coincided with the start of the war. He played his part in provoking the northern rebels but was only the last in a long line of instigators.

-Thomas Burgh

His atrocious health meant that his influence in Ireland was limited to little more than one serious campaign against Hugh O’Neill, one that was simply part of the back-and-forth over the Blackwater Fort.

-Henry Docwra

An invaluable asset for Mountjoy, his leadership of the Derry garrison was exemplary in distracting and tying down the forces of Tyrconnell and Tyrone. Knowing his limitations, he was ready to simply fall back when necessary, usually only heading out in force when relatively unopposed. Such was the strength of his defence, Tyrconnell was totally unable to dislodge him for the rest of the war. His compatriot, Niall Garbh, was probably the most offensive of the two, but his success hinged on the military back-up that Docwra provided.

-Niall Garbh O’Donnell

A capable fighter throughout the war, Niall only became really notable once he defected. In line with Docwra’s activities, he provided a raiding and pillaging component to the English position in Derry and was an altogether more dangerous foe to Hugh Roe because of his position within the family. Niall never came that close to unseating his cousin, but he certainly caused problems with his effective manoeuvres and bitter defences.

Final Thoughts

The war was not a doomed endeavour for the rebels, like so many other uprisings had been. Hugh and Huge Roe did something extraordinarily in pushing the English as far as they did, and but for a little more restraint at Kinsale, could have gone even further. There was an element of luck in their endeavours – or perhaps, it could be better put as “the English lost battles” rather than “the Irish won battles” – but they still made nearly the best out of their resources and position throughout the conflict. The effort did fail in the end, but only after costing the English far more than they were comfortable with.

All that being said, the English position was immensely strong. They were able to keep funnelling troops and money into Ireland, and never looked like they were ever seriously considering the rebels demands. Pardons and a white peace were one thing, but it would have taken a wholesale catastrophe for the English to actually think about ending their reformation in Ireland or ceding control and influence to the northern Kingdoms.

The outcome of the war dramatically favoured the English. They essentially gained control, through sheriff’s and military dominance, over both Tyrconnell and Tyrone. The last vestiges of rebellion were crushed completely in Munster and Wicklow as well, and before too long they would have an overlordship position in Antrim. After the Nine Years War, the Tudor Conquest of Ireland, a process that was started far back in the aftermath of Henry VII’s ascension, was completed. There was no longer any large part of the island that the English did not have a major hand in controlling and administering. Sure, you’d have the odd family or extremely rural place that still basically looked after themselves due to location or stubbornness, but the English either controlled the rest of the land directly or held the support and loyalty of those that did. From strongholds in Dublin, Waterford, Cork, Limerick, Galway, Sligo and Derry, the English way of life would move throughout Ireland as much as it could.

The English language would now pervade far more than it had before. English law would too, as the Brehon system died a death it would never recover from. And the English religion would spread too, especially in Ulster, which was seen, in the aftermath of the Flight of the Earls, as ripe ground for plantation. Ironically, the hotbed of Catholic resistance would now begin a transformation into the most Protestant part of the island.

A lot of changes resulted from this domination. The Pale would no longer be “the Pale”, its outer defences no longer required, its people merging with those on the outside. The “Old English” and their disputes with the new waves of settlers and colonists would come to the boil in time and would form part of the next major outbreak of violence in Ireland. The “Gaelic” way of life, with its almost ancient system of family hierarchy, tanistry and constant violent feuding would die out, not instantaneously, but inevitably.

It would be hyperbole to call the coming years a new age, but they were certainly a new era for Ireland.

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

This entry was posted in History, Ireland, Ireland's Wars, War and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Ireland’s Wars: A Summary Of The Nine Years War

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

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