War Songs on the Battle of the Blackwater

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900
CHAPTER XLII. (continued)

Beal-an-atha-buie, or, as some of the English chroniclers call it, Blackwater, may be classed as one of the great battles of the Irish nation; perhaps the greatest fought in the course of the war against English invasion. Other victories as brilliant and complete may be found recorded in our annals; many defeats of English armies as utter and disastrous; but most of these were, in a military point of view, not to be ranked for a moment with the "Yellow Ford." Very nearly all of them were defile surprises, conducted on the simplest principles of warfare common to struggles in a mountainous country. But Beal-an-atha-buie was a deliberate engagement, a formidable pitched battle between the largest and the best armies which England and Ireland respectively were able to send forth, and was fought out on principles of military science in which both O'Neill and Bagnal were proficients. It was a fair stand-up fight between the picked troops and chosen generals of the two nations; and it must be told of the vanquished on that day, that, though defeated, they were not dishonored. The Irish annals and chants, one and all, do justice to the daring bravery and unflinching endurance displayed by Bagnal's army on the disastrous battlefield of Beal-an-atha-buie.

As might be supposed, a victory so considerable as this has been sung by a hundred bards. More than one notable poem in the native Gaelic has celebrated its glory; and quite a number of our modern bards have made it the theme of stirring lays. Of these latter, probably the best known is Drennan's ballad, from which I quote the opening and concluding verses:

"By O'Neill close beleaguer'd, the spirits might droop
Of the Saxon three hundred shut up in their coop,
Till Bagnal drew forth his Toledo, and swore
On the sword of a soldier to succor Portmore.

"His veteran troops, in the foreign wars tried,
Their features how bronz'd, and how haughty their stride,
Step'd steadily on; it was thrilling to see
That thunder-cloud brooding o'er Beal-an-atha-Buidh!

"The flash of their armor, inlaid with fine gold,
Gleaming matchlocks and cannons that mutteringly roll'd,
With the tramp and the clank of those stern cuirassiers,
Dyed in blood of the Flemish and French cavaliers.


"Land of Owen aboo! and the Irish rushed on:
The foe fir'd but one volley—their gunners are gone.
Before the bare bosoms the steel coats have fled,
Or, despite casque or corslet, lie dying or dead.

"And brave Harry Bagnal, he fell while he fought,
With many gay gallants: they slept as men ought,
Their faces to Heaven: there were others, alack!
By pikes overtaken, and taken aback.'

"And the Irish got clothing, coin, colors, great store,
Arms, forage, and provender—plunder go leor.
They munch'd the white manchets, they champ'd the brown chine,
Fuliluah for that day, how the natives did dine!

"The chieftain looked on, when O'Shanagan rose,
And cried: 'Hearken, O'Neill, I've a health to propose—
To our Sassenach hosts,' and all quaffed in huge glee,
With Cead mile failte go! Beal-an-atha-Buid!"

The same subject has been the inspiration of, perhaps, the most beautiful poem in Mr. Aubrey de Vere's "Lyrical Chronicle of Ireland:"


Glory to God, and to the Powers that fight
For Freedom and the Right!
We have them then, the invaders! there they stand
Once more on Oriel's land!
They have pass'd the gorge stream cloven,
And the mountain's purple bound;
Now the toils are round them woven,
Now the nets are spread around!
Give them time: their steeds are blown;
Let them stand and round them stare,
Breathing blasts of Irish air:
Our eagles know their own!

Thou rising sun, fair fall
Thy greeting on Armagh's time-honored wall
And on the willows hoar
That fringe thy silver waters, Avonmore!
See! on that hill of drifted sand
The far-famed marshal holds command,
Bagnal, their bravest: to the right,
That recreant, neither chief nor knight,
"The Queen's O'Reilly," he that sold
His country, clan, and church for gold!
"Saint George for England!"—recreant crew,
What are the saints ye spurn to you?
They charge; they pass yon grassy swell;
They reach our pitfalls hidden well:
On!—warriors native to the sod!
Be on them, in the power of God!


Seest thou yon stream, whose tawny waters glide
Through weeds and yellow marsh lingeringly and slowly?
Blest is that spot and holy!
There, ages past, Saint Bercan stood and cried,
"This spot shall quell one day th' invader's pride!"

He saw in mystic trance
The bloodstain flush yon rill:
On!—hosts of God, advance!
Your country's fate fulfill!

Hark! the thunder of their meeting!
Hand meets hand, and rough the greeting!
Hark! the crash of shield and brand;
They mix, they mingle, band with band,
Like two horn-commingling stags,
Wrestling on the mountain crags,
Intertwined, intertangled,
Mangled forehead meeting mangled!
See! the wavering darkness through
I see the banner of Red Hugh;
Close beside is thine, O'Neill!
Now they stoop and now they reel,
Rise once more and onward sail,
Like two falcons on one gale!
O ye clansmen past me rushing,
Like mountain torents seaward gushing,
Tell the chiefs that from this height
Their chief of bards beholds the fight;
That on theirs he pours his spirit;
Marks their deeds and chants their merit;
While the Priesthood evermore,
Like him that ruled God's host of yore,
With arms outstretched that God implore!


Glory be to God on high!
That shout rang up into the sky!
The plain lies bare; the smoke drifts by;
Again that cry; they fly! they fly!
O'er them standards thirty-four
Waved at morn: they wave no more.

Glory be to Him alone who holds the nations in His hand,
And to them the heavenly guardians of our church and native land!
Sing, ye priests, your deep Te Deum; bards, make answer loud and long,
In your rapture flinging heavenward censers of triumphant song.
Isle for centuries blind in bondage, lift once more thine ancient boast,
From the cliffs of Innishowen southward on to Carbery's coast!
We have seen the right made perfect, seen the Hand that rules the spheres,
Glance like lightning through the clouds, and backward roll the wrongful years.
Glory fadeth, but this triumph is no barren mundane glory;
Rays of healing it shall scatter on the eyes that read our story:
Upon nations bound and torpid as they waken it shall shine,
As on Peter in his chains the angel shone, with light divine.
From th' unheeding, from th' unholy it may hide, like truth, its ray;
But when Truth and Justice conquer, on their crowns its beams shall play:
O'er the ken of troubled tyrants it shall trail a meteor's glare;
For the blameless it shall glitter as the star of morning fair;
Whensoever Erin triumphs, then its dawn it shall renew;
Then O'Neill shall be remember'd, and Tyrconnell's chief, Red Hugh!

The fame of this great victory filled the land. Not in Ireland alone did it create a sensation. The English historians tell us that for months nothing was talked of at court or elsewhere throughout England but O'Neill and the great battle on the Blackwater, which had resulted so disastrously for "her highness." Moryson himself informs us that "the generall voyce was of Tyrone amongst the English after the defeat of Blackwater, as of Hannibal amongst the Romans after the defeat at Cannae." The event got noised abroad, too, and in all the courts of Europe Hugh of Tyrone became celebrated as a military commander and as a patriot leader.