Battle of Clontribret

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


THERE was no misunderstanding all this. "It was clear that, let King Philip send his promised aid, or send it not, open and vigorous resistance must be made to the further progress of foreign power, or Ulster would soon become an English. province." Moreover, in all respects, save the aid from Spain, Hugh was well forward in organization and preparation. A great Northern Confederacy, the creation of his master-mind, now spanned the land from shore to shore, and waited only for him to take his rightful place as, leader, and give the signal for such a war as had not tried the strength of England for two hundred years.

"At last," says Mitchel, "the time had come; and Dungannon with stern joy beheld unfurled the royal standard of O'Neill, displaying, as it floated proudly on the breeze, that terrible Red Right Hand upon its snow-white folds, waving defiance to the Saxon queen, dawning like a new Aurora upon the awakened children of Heremon.

"With a strong body of horse and foot, O'Neill suddenly appeared upon the Blackwater, stormed Portmore, and drove away its garrison, 'as carefully,' says an historian, 'as he would have driven poison from his heart;' then demolished the fortress, burned down the bridge, and advanced into O'Reilly's country, everywhere driving the English and their adherents before him to the south (but without wanton bloodshed, slaying no man save in battle, for cruelty is nowhere charged against O'Neill); and, finally, with Mac Gwire and Mac Mahon, he laid close siege to Monaghan, which was still held for the queen of England. O'Donnell, on his side, crossed the Saimer at the head of his fierce clan, burst into Connaught, and shutting up Bingham's troops in their strong places at Sligo, Ballymote, Tulsk, and Boyle, traversed the country with avenging fire and sword, putting to death every man who could speak no Irish, ravaging their lands, and sending the spoil to Tyrconnell. Then he crossed the Shannon, entered the Annally's, where O'Ferghal was living under English dominion, and devastated that country so furiously, that 'the whole firmament,' says the chronicle, 'was one black cloud of smoke.' "

This rapidity of action took the English at complete disadvantage. They accordingly (merely to gain time) feigned a great desire to "treat" with the two Hughs. Perhaps those noble gentlemen had been wronged. If so, the queen's tender heart yearned to have them reconciled; and so forth. Hugh, owing to his court training, understood this kind of thing perfectly. It did not impose upon him for a moment; yet he consented to give audience to the royal commissioners, whom he refused to see except at the head of his army, "nor would he enter any walled town as liege man of the Queen of England." "So they met," we are told, "in the open plain, in the presence of both armies." The conditions of peace demanded by Hugh were:

1. Complete cessation of attempts to disturb the Catholic Church in Ireland.

2. No more garrisons—no more sheriffs or English officials of any sort soever to be allowed into the Irish territories, which should be unrestictedly under the jurisdiction of their lawfully elected native chiefs.

3. Payment by Marshal Bagnal to O'Neill of one thousand pounds of silver "as a marriage portion with the lady whom he had raised to the dignity of an O'Neill's bride."

We may imagine how hard the royal commissioners must have found it to even hearken to these propositions, especially this last keen touch at Bagnal. Nevertheless, they were fain to declare them very reasonable indeed; only they suggested—merely recommended for consideration—that as a sort of set-off, the confederates might lay down their arms, beg forgiveness, and "discover" their correspondence with foreign states. Phew! There was a storm about their ears! Beg "pardon" indeed! "The rebels grew insolent," says Moryson. The utmost that could be obtained from O'Neill was a truce of a few days' duration.

Early in June Bagnal took the field with a strong force, and effecting a junction with Norreys, made good his march from Dundalk to Armagh. Not far from Monaghan is Clontibret—Cluain-Tuberaid, the "Lawn of the Spring." What befell there, I will relate in the words of Mr. Mitchel:

"The castle of Monaghan, which had been taken by Con O'Neill, was now once more in the hands of the enemy, and once more besieged by the Irish troops. Norreys, with his whole force, was in full march to relieve it; and O'Neill, who had hitherto avoided pitched battles, and contented himself with harassing the enemy by continual skirmishes in their march through the woods and bogs, now resolved to meet this redoubtable general fairly in the open field. He chose his ground at Clontibret, about five miles from Monaghan, where a small stream runs northward through a valley inclosed by low hills. On the left bank of this stream the Irish, in battle array, awaited the approach of Norreys. We have no account of the numbers on each side, but when the English general came up, he thought himself strong enough to force a passage. Twice the English infantry tried to make good their way over the river, and twice were beaten back, their gallant leader each time-charging at their head, and being the last to retire. The general and his brother, Sir Thomas, were both wounded in these conflicts, and the Irish counted the victory won, when a chosen body of English horse, led on by Segrave, a Meathian officer, of giagntic bone and height, spurred fiercely across the river, and charged the cavalry of Tyrowen, commanded by their prince in person. Segrave singled out O'Neill, and the two leaders laid lance in rest for deadly combat, while the troops on each side lowered their weapons and held their breath, awaiting the shock in silence. The warriors met, and the lance of each was splintered on the others' corslet, but Segrave again dashed his horse against the chief, flung his giant frame against his enemy, and endeavored to unhorse him by the mere weight of his gauntleted hand. O'Neill grasped him in his arms, and the combatants rolled together in that fatal embrace to the ground:

"'Now, gallant Saxon, hold thine own:
No maiden's arms are round thee thrown.'

There was one moment's deadly wrestle and a death groan: the shortened sword of O'Neill was buried in the Englishman's groin beneath his mail. Then from the Irish ranks arose such a wild shout of triumph as those hills had never echoed before—the still thunder-cloud burst into a tempest—those equestrian statues become as winged demons, and with their battle-cry of "Lamh-dearg-aboo!" and their long lances poised in Eastern fashion above their heads, down swept the chivalry of Tyrowen upon the astonished ranks of the Saxon. The banner of St. George wavered and went down before that furious charge. The English turned their bridle-reins and fled headlong over the stream, leaving the field covered with their dead, and, worse than all, leaving with the Irish that proud red-cross banner, the first of its disgraces in those "Ulster wars. Norreys hastily retreated southward, and the castle of Monaghan was yielded to the Irish."

This was opening the campaign in a manner truly worthy of a royal O'Neill. The flame thus lighted spread all over the northern land. Success shone on the Irish banners, and as the historian informs us, "at the close of the year 1595, the Irish power predominated in Ulster and Connaught."