Ireland’s Wars: COIN In The Nine Years War

As with so much of Ireland’s military history, the Nine Years War was an insurgency war for the most part. Save for the handful of bigger engagements and the sieges that took place (mostly by the English side), the war was one fought by small, mobile groups of troops that carried out ambushes and raids, activities that were routinely opposed by similarly small, mobile groups of troops. Both sides attempted to win over and utilise the local population as much as they could, and it was this avenue of attack that proved most useful to ending the war in the north and in Munster.

Insurgency was the Irish way of war. Men like Hugh O’Neill changed that a bit, but the Irish “kerns”, or “wood-kerns” as the guerrilla element were often dubbed due to their propensity for hiding in forested areas, were still the primary arm of any Gaelic force when taking on the English. The English military was typically more numerous and experienced in any engagement, as well as using more gunpowder weapons and cannon. Since the Irish were reliant on an infantry group that was only lightly armoured (if at all) carrying basic melee or missile weapons and frequently lacking cavalry support, it was only natural that they should turn to guerrilla and insurgency tactics. O’Neill put actual recognisable armies in the field frequently, but so much of the fighting in Ireland during the conflict was not fought on traditional battlefields.

Faced with an enemy, unlike the French, Spanish or Dutch, who would disappear when an engagement was sought, would focus entirely on hitting smaller units and supply lines via ambush, and were incredibly hard to track down, the English were forced to develop a form of counter-insurgency (COIN). The frequent turnover of English commanders and officers meant that this was a difficult effort, as new leaders would routinely fall back on traditional means of fighting wars – that is, big armies marching into the enemy heartland and looking for a battle – only to fall victim to the Irish tactics yet again. The famous Leinster warlord Art McMurragh twice outwitted huge English armies under Richard II using such tactics and the Earldom of Desmond had fought several rebellions using the same methods in the not too distant past.

Counter-insurgency of this period (and this war in particular) has many differences to what we recognise as the COIN of today. Perhaps the most important was that this was not an insurgency designed to stabilise the area followed by a withdrawal of military force. This was a COIN war meant to be a conquest, not a pacification. It was not being fought in a foreign land, not according to the English anyway. It was an internal/domestic COIN campaign, not an expeditionary one. The English were not sending a large amount of troops to Ireland just to withdraw them all when things died down.

We can note several different policies/factors that formed the English COIN practise. This was not a doctrine of course, as no formal set of rules for the practise were ever set down, but just how the effort panned out generally. These factors were the control and occasional destruction of local foodstuffs, – the “devastation” or “feed fight” – the construction, maintenance and control of roads as the key method for gathering intelligence and moving armies quickly, the construction, defence and adequate use of forts to extend English control wherever they were located, the appropriate use of natives as members of the army as well as for intelligence purposes and the longevity of good commanders.

In combination, these things formed the English COIN method in Ireland during the Nine Years War, a campaign that eventually ended in not only the complete destruction of the rebels, but the destruction of the Gaelic way of life.

The policy of “devastation” was probably the most brutal aspect of the Nine Years War, and many rebellions before it, but it is important to analyse it for what it was, and to recognise the departure that it represented. The English in Ireland would often take crops and herds in areas they were campaigning in, but most times it was a simple case of feeding the army – nothing personal, you could say. Civilians were targeted for such plunder, but it was a matter of keeping the armed forces of the crown going, as opposed to the punishment of the civilian population. The Irish, rebel and loyalist, would do plenty of this too, with the cattle raid a long-standing aspect of military life.

Devastation was something else. This was the deliberate destruction of crops, herds, farms and anything else that could have been used by the rebels to sustain themselves in any form, for the purpose of hurting those rebels. This was targeting the civilian population with gusto, removing them and their support from the equation, so that the rebels could not function effectively, lacking food, local intelligence and other supports. It was population centric COIN with a brutal edge. The devastation policies in Munster and Ulster were the final daggers in both regions especially the one in the north, which caused a famine to affect the area for a time.

Roads, well-maintained ones anyway, were few and far between in Ireland at the time, making each one even more valuable to the war effort. Roads were far more than just a means of reliable transportation in a land dominated by forests, mountains and bogs. They were avenues of communication. In this age, it took over ten days for the death of Elizabeth I in London – perhaps the most major news you could possibly hear on any day inside her Kingdom – to become widely known on the eastern shore of Ireland. In war, units had to be ordered around, garrisons had to checked upon, enemy movements had to be reported. Communication for any army was haphazard at best. As such, control of roads and their correct utilisation could provide the decisive edge in war, and especially in a COIN war, where intelligence on the location and movement of insurgent forces had to be quick if it was going to be effective.

Throughout my narrative, I have mentioned the construction, defence and taking of numerous forts, most notably those on the Blackwater River. Forts served many purposes. They were far more than just military outposts, though that was an important function in and of itself. More important than that though, they were ways to increase English power over the land, without an army. Forts served as local centres of control, increasing reach. Forts’ garrisons did not just guard against the enemy, they governed the local area, taking in tax and produce with which to feed the army at large. Forts allowed the English a degree of civilian control, more than wood-kerne’s could do. Their garrisons could remain within a short distance of crucial produce in order to protect both it and the people who grew it.

Such displays of power could turn locals to the English side, perhaps better than devastation policies. This is rudimentary hearts and minds, which has nothing to do with getting the target population to like you, but to get them to throw their lot in with you out of a sense of self-preservation and self-interest. If the English could demonstrate control, protection and “presence”, then local Irish would side with them over the rebels. This may explain why Hugh O’Neill went after the Blackwater Fort as vigorously as he did, it being on the borders of his own territory. Forts also served obvious military needs, securing vital positions – like the Moyry Pass – but had their downsides. Many forts had to go long periods without resupply and were easily contained and besieged if the rebels had a committed enough force to do so.

Natives who could be persuaded to remain loyal to the crown, for whatever reason, could be utilised in two key ways. The first was simply as troops. Irish kerns and other soldiers made up a huge proportion of the English army in Ireland. While some had a tendency to desert at crucial moments – a large part of Henry Bagenal’s army at the Yellow Ford appears to have switched sides when the battle turned against the English – and many lacked the backbone of more experience English troops, they were still a major part of the war effort.

The other way, perhaps the more useful way, was as intelligence. The use of native peasants and lower classes as outlets for information is probably as population-centric as the COIN effort in Ireland became, but it yielded results as it would throughout history. Finding out where wood-kern bands were hiding, where they were planning to strike, where leaders were situating themselves, these were all things carried out with the support of local informants. In both Wicklow and Munster, cutting off the head of a local rebellions’ leadership precipitated its total collapse, and local intelligence was crucial in getting to that point. In such a COIN campaign, good intelligence could be far more valuable than thousands of troops. Using natives for information was of far greater value than using them as scouts of pathfinders, as they are often assumed to have been reduced to.

Irish soldiers, more and more made up the “rank and file” element of the English army, the basic infantry troops designed to skirmish with and then chase a defeated enemy. They were the back-up and force multiplier for the more specialised English troops, the musket and pikemen who made up the elite core of Mountjoy’s army. Kerns were light and mobile, carrying no great amount of armour and equipment, and they had an advantage in being more used to the varied terrain in Ireland than their English counterparts.

In getting native Irish leaders and families on their side, the English benefitted from some savvy dealings in the policy popularly known as “surrender and regrant”. When the English granted land to an Irish clan leader who had submitted, it tended to be a bit larger than the land he could expect under the Irish system of tanistry and “survival of the fittest”. Such a system naturally endeared the Irish nobles to the English, but it came with a price. No complete trust or favour would be lavished on an Irish lord until he had demonstrated his loyalty by combating Irish rebels disloyal to the crown. This “blood evidence” fluctuated according to the times, with Elizabeth generally more forgiving than insistent upon it, but it was still a system that helped guarantee subservience and acceptance of the English leadership.

It was recognised, even by contemporary chroniclers, that a constant turnover of commanders and political leadership had a detrimental effect on any effort. Through the course of the Nine Years War the head position in Ireland – the Lord Deputy – went through five holders, along with a few temporary stand-ins and numerous changes to regional commands. Such a policy might have been necessary on occasion– Essex could hardly have been said to have needed more time – but damaged any potential relationship with the Irish. There was no time for the locals to get to know a commander, to judge his trustworthiness, to grow any form of respect for his position, if they could be reasonably sure that there would be a completely new face with new policies within a few years. Mountjoy would become the longest serving English commander of the war, and the results speak for themselves.

The COIN campaign conducted by George Carew in Munster following his appointment in 1601 can be instructive. He inherited a somewhat difficult position, with his (small number of) forces confined to select castles and walled towns, and with guerrilla bands under James FitzThomas FitzGerald – the Sugan Earl – in control of large amounts of territory. Carew tackled the problem in numerous ways, focusing on his strengths and plentiful resources. He largely refused to seek out James and his forces for engagement, knowing that such a search would be fruitless and self-defeating. Instead, he focused on what siegework he could get away with, whittling away at the forts and castles that the rebels held, while utilising his monetary resources and power of appointment to woo the less hardcore rebels back to the English side. His offers and backstage bribery worked incredibly well, bringing in a large number of rebels, and almost leading to the capture of the Sugan Earl in 1600. Select examples of some castles being captured and their garrisons slaughtered inspired many others to give in without a fight. More than that, Carew practised good COIN, utilising what intelligence he was able to gather to hit wood-kern’s before they could carry out their own operations, making sure that he always had the element of surprise on his side. Mixed in with a little bit of “devastation” policies, Carew quickly caused the previously strong Munster rebellion to collapse completely, effectively ending it as a contest by 1601.

The lessons to take from COIN in the Nine Years War, in terms of usefulness to the COIN operations of today, are few beyond generalities. Moral and legal considerations make the “feed fight” option abhorrent to many. New aspects of warfare in the sea and the air, new communication outlets, have rendered roads to a lesser importance in terms of intelligence. Forts, or any kind of garrison system, would have mixed results in most COIN campaigns, depending on the specific situation.

On top of all that is the shift in COIN as a method of simply defeating insurgents to a form of war designed to shield the local population and win their support. “Hearts and minds” and all that. Lord Mountjoy was not so concerned with winning the outward support of the native Irish population, but of simply stopping them from enabling rebellions to be borne and to flourish.

Mountjoy’s closing thoughts on Ireland, recorded after his final departure, echo the bare traces of a counter-insurgency doctrine. His recommendations for Ireland was for more of everything generally: more forts, more roads, more bridges, to “bridle” the land and ease the way for any future military expedition that would have to fight in Ireland. He recognised the important things that would have to be controlled and improved if England ever found itself fighting another insurgency war in Ireland. The Anglo-Irish War of 1919-1921 was not so different to the Nine Years War in many respects, and the factors of forts (garrisons/barracks), roads and bridges, their control and dominance of a region, were important aspects of that conflict as well, over 300 years later.

With that, we have come to the end of the line on the Nine Years War, now updated. We’ll take a short break ahead of a resumption of the series at a further point down the widening road of history, in which time I will be writing a but on upcoming Irish votes.

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

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2 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: COIN In The Nine Years War

  1. An insightful post – really interesting to learn all the different tactics and ways to utilise resources for the war effort

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

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