Irish Confederacy

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


IF Ulster was Ireland, Ireland now was free. But all that has been narrated so far has affected only half the island. The south all this time lay in the heavy trance of helplessness, suffering, and despair, that had supervened upon the desolating Desmond war. At best the south was very unlikely to second with equal zeal, energy, and success such an effort as the north had made. Munster was almost exclusively possessed by Anglo-Irish lords, or Irish chiefs in the power of, and submissive to, the English. Ulster was the stronghold of the native cause; and what was possible there might be, and in truth was, very far from feasible in the "colonized" southern province. Nevertheless, so irresistible was the inspiration of Hugh's victories in the north that even the occupied, conquered, broken, divided, and desolated south began to take heart and look upward. Messengers were dispatched to Hugh entreating him to send some duly authorized lieutenants to raise the standard of Church and Country in Munster, and take charge of the cause there. He complied by detaching Richard Tyrrell, of Fertullah, and Owen, son of Ruari O'More, at the head of a chosen band, to unfurl the national flag in the southern province's. They were enthusiastically received.

The Catholic Anglo-Norman lords and the native chiefs entered into the movement, and rose to arms on all sides. The newly-planted ' settlers," or "undertakers" as they were styled—English adventurers among whom had been pareled out the lands of several southern Catholic families, lawlessly seized on the ending of the Desmond rebellion—fled pell-mell, abandoning the stolen castles and lands to their rightful owners, and only too happy to escape with life.[1] The lord president had to draw in every outpost, and abandon all Munster, except the garrison towns of Cork and Kilmallock, within which, cooped up like prisoners, he and his diminished troops were glad to find even momentary shelter. By the beginning of 1599, "no English force was able to keep the field throughout all Ireland."

O'Neill's authority was paramount—was loyally recognized and obeyed everywhere outside two or three garrison towns. He exercised the prerogatives of royalty; issued commissions, conferred offices, honors, and titles; removed or deposed lords and chiefs actively or passively disloyal to the national authority, and appointed others in their stead. And all was done so wisely, so impartially, so patriotically—-with such scrupulous and fixed regard for the one great object, and no other—namely, the common cause of national independence and freedom—that even men chronically disposed to suspect family or clan selfishness in every act gave in their full confidence to him as to a leader who had completely sunk the clan chief in the national leader. In fine, since the days of Brian the First, no native sovereign of equal capacity—singularly qualified as a soldier and as a statesman—had been known in Ireland. "He omitted no means of strengthening the league. He renewed his intercourse with Spain; planted permanent bodies of troops on the Foyle, Erne, and Blackwater; engaged the services of some additional Scots from the Western Isles, improved the discipline of his own troops, and on every side made preparations to renew the conflict with his powerful enemy. For he well knew that Elizabeth was not the monarch to quit her deadly gripe of this fair island without a more terrible struggle than had yet been endured."[2]

That struggle was soon inaugurated. England, at that time one of the strongest nations in Europe, and a match for the best among them by land and sea, ruled over by one of the ablest, the boldest, and most crafty sovereigns that had ever sat upon her throne, and served by statesmen, soldiers, philosophers, and writers whose names are famous in history—was now about to put forth all her power in a combined naval and military armament against the almost reconstituted, but as yet all too fragile Irish nation. Such an effort, under all the circumstances, could scarcely result otherwise than as it eventually did; for there are, after all, odds against which no human effort can avail and for which no human valor can compensate. It was England's good fortune on this occasion, as on others previously and subsequently, that the Irish nation challenged her when she was at peace with all the world—when her hands were free and her resources undivided. Equally fortunate was she at all times, on the other hand, in the complete tranquillity of the Irish when desperate emergencies put her on her own defense, and left her no resources to spare for a campaign in Ireland, had she been challenged then. What we have to contemplate in the closing scenes of O'Neill's glorious career is the heroism of Thermopylae, not the success of Salamis or Plataea.

Elizabeth's favorite, Essex, was dispatched to Ireland with twenty thousand men at his back; an army not only the largest England had put into the field for centuries, but in equipment, in drill, and in armament, the most complete ever assembled under her standard. Against this the Irish nowhere had ten thousand men concentrated in a regular army or movable corps. In equipment and in armament they were sadly deficient, while of sieging material they were altogether destitute. Nevertheless, we are told "O'Neill and his confederates were not dismayed by the arrival of this great army and its magnificent leader." And had the question between the two nations depended solely upon such issues as armies settle, and superior skill and prowess control, neither O'Neill nor his confederates would have erred in the strong faith, the high hope, the exultant self-reliance, that now animated them. The campaign of 1599—the disastrous failure of the courtly Essex and his magnificent army—must be told in a few lines. O'Neill completely out-generaled and overawed or overreached the haughty deputy.

In more than one fatal engagement his splendid force was routed by the Irish, until, notwithstanding a constant stream of reinforcements from England, it had wasted away, and was no longer formidable in O'Neill's eyes. In vain the queen wrote letter after letter endeavoring to sting her quondam favorite into "something notable;" that is, a victory over O'Neill. Nothing could induce Essex to face the famous hero of Clontibret and the Yellow Ford, unless, indeed, in peaceful parley. At length having been taunted into a movement northward, he proceeded thither reluctantly and slowly. "On the high ground north of the Lagan, he found the host of O'Neill encamped, and received a courteous message from their leader, soliciting a personal interview. At an appointed hour the two commanders rode down to the opposite banks of the river, wholly unattended, the advanced guards of each looking curiously on from the uplands."[3] O'Neill, ever the flower of courtesy, spurred his horse into the stream up to the saddlegirths. "First they had a private conference, in which Lord Essex, won by the chivalrous bearing and kindly address of the chief, became, say the English historians, too confidential with an enemy of his sovereign, spoke without reserve of his daring hopes and most private thoughts of ambition, until O'Neill had sufficiently read his secret soul, fathomed his poor capacity, and understood the full meanness of his shallow treason.

Then Cormac O'Neill and five other Irish leaders were summoned on the one side, on the other Lord Southampton and an equal number of English officers, and a solemn parley was opened in due form."[4] O'Neill offered terms: "first, complete liberty of conscience; second, indemnity for his allies in all the four provinces; third, the principal officers of state, the judges, and one-half the army to be henceforth Irish by birth." Essex considered these very far from extravagant demands from a man now virtually master in the island. He declared as much to O'Neill, and concluded a truce pending reply from London. Elizabeth saw in fury how completely O'Neill had dominated her favorite. She wrote him a frantic letter full of scornful taunt and upbraiding. Essex flung up all his duties in Ireland without leave, and hurried to London, to bring into requisition the personal influences he had undoubtedly possessed at one time with the queen. But he found her unapproachable. She stamped and swore at him, and ordered him to the tower, where the unfortunate earl paid, with his head upon the block, the forfeit for not having grappled successfully with the "Red Hand of Ulster."

The year 1600 was employed by O'Neill in a general circuit of the kingdom, for the more complete establishment of the national league and the better organization of the national resources. "He marched through the center of the island at the head of his troops to the south," says his biographer, "a kind of royal progress, which he thought fit to call a pilgrimage to Holy Cross. He held princely state there, concerted measures with the southern lords, and distributed a manifesto announcing himself as the accredited Defender of the Faith."

"In the beginning of March," says another authority, "the Catholic army halted at Inniscarra, upon the river Lee, about five miles west of Cork. Here O'Neill remained three weeks in camp consolidating the Catholic party in South Munster. During that time he was visited by the chiefs of the ancient Eugenian clans—O'Donohoe, O'Donovan, and O'Mahony. Thither also came two of the most remarkable men of the southern province: Florence McCarthy, Lord of Carbery, and Donald O'Sullivan, Lord of Bearhaven. McCarthy, 'like Saul, higher by the head and shoulders than any of his house,' had brain in proportion to his brawn; O'Sullivan, as was afterward shown, was possessed of military virtues of a high order. Florence was inaugurated with O'Neill's sanction as McCarthy More; and although the rival house of Muskerry fiercely resisted his claim to superiority at first, a wiser choice could not have been made had the times tended to confirm it.

"While at Inniscarra, O'Neill lost in single combat one of his most accomplished officers, the chief of Fermanagh. Maguire, accompanied only by a priest and two horsemen, was making observations nearer to the city than the camp, when Sir Warham St. Leger, marshal of Munster, issued out of Cork with a company of soldiers, probably on a similar mission. Both were in advance of their attendants when they came unexpectedly face to face. Both were famous as horsemen and for the use of their weapons, and neither would retrace his steps. The Irish chief, posing his spear, dashed forward against his opponent, but received a pistol shot which proved mortal the same day. He, however, had strength enough left to drive his spear through the neck of St. Leger, and to effect his escape from the English cavalry. St. Leger was carried back to Cork, where he expired. Maguire, on reaching the camp, had barely time left to make his last confession when he breathed his last. This untoward event, the necessity of preventing possible dissensions in Fermanagh, and still more the menacing movements of the new deputy, lately sworn in at Dublin, obliged O'Neill to return home earlier than he intended. Soon after reaching Dungannon he had the gratification of receiving a most gracious letter from Pope Clement the Eighth, together with a crown of phoenix feathers, symbolical of the consideration with which he was regarded by the Sovereign Pontiff."[5]


[1] Among them was Spenser, a gentle poet and rapacious freebooter. His poesy was sweet, and full of charms, quaint, simple, and eloquent. His prose politics were brutal, venal, and cowardly. He wooed the muses very blandly, living in a stolen home, and philosophically counseled the extirpation of the Irish owners of the land, for the greater security of himself and fellow adventurers.

[2] Mitchel.

[3] M'Gee.

[4] Mitchel.

[5] M'Gee.