Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone (3)

Eleanor Hull
Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone | start of chapter

The spring of 1596 saw a fresh attempt to patch up a peace. Once more Tyrone submitted at Dundalk, “craving the Queen’s mercy on the knees of his heart,” and he was followed by all the leaders in the North. He promised to renounce the title of O’Neill, to dismiss his forces, and to give aid to the English garrison on the Blackwater. In addition all his dealings with Spain were to be made known to the Government. But his prayer for full liberty of religion became more insistent, and he required the withdrawal of the English garrisons and sheriffs, which would have set his country free from English interference; these petitions were persistently evaded.

Much desultory fighting went on during the following year, especially around Armagh and Portmore, the two positions that lay on the main path of entry into the province. Norris did not meet Tyrone again in the field. He carried his still strong and well-equipped army into Connacht to fight O’Donnell and his confederates, but with no more success than he had met with in his Ulster campaign. Though Norris was reckoned first in military skill as well as in valour of all the English commanders of his day, he was singularly unsuccessful in Ireland, and he is said to have railed terribly against the fate “which condemned him to lose in Ireland, the smallest speck of the wide world, that fame which his great valour and military skill had earned for him in France and Belgium.” He did full justice both to the excellence of the leadership and to the valour and steadiness of the rank and file of the Irish armies he met in battle. Norris died in Ireland, a man admired and beloved even by his Irish enemies, who have ever shown a sincere appreciation of an honourable adversary.

In 1597 Lord Brough was sent over as Viceroy, and on his arrival he won over some of the Leinstermen and others by his courtesy and graciousness. He advanced against O’Neill, and occupied Armagh and Portmore, from which O’Neill had withdrawn his troops, but when he tried to advance farther north he found his way blocked by two camps, one of them held by MacMahon and Cormac, O’Neill’s brother, the other by O’Neill himself and James MacDonnell of the Glens with his Scottish forces. They had intercepted him a short distance south of Benburb.

Throwing a garrison of three hundred men into Portmore under Captain Williams, a capable officer, the Viceroy under the continual fire of the enemy attempted to construct a new fort called after the late general Fort Norris, but O’Donnell having effected a junction with O’Neill the Irish made a combined attack on the Queen’s troops and defeated them. Rumour said that the Viceroy was mortally wounded, and it is certain that he had to withdraw from the conflict, dying a few days later. The command fell on the Earl of Kildare, who, flushed with his position of authority, endeavoured to push forward, only to meet his death, while his army, having lost several of their officers and a large body of their men, had to retreat completely routed.

For about four months the royal army had faced the Irish of the North, but the only result of the campaign, which had been elaborately planned from Dublin, was that Portmore and Armagh were fortified anew. Furious fighting went on around these important forts, which had to be revictualled from the Pale. On one occasion Bagenal surprised Tyrone’s camp at night, and nearly succeeded in capturing him; on another O’Donnell and O’Neill made a persistent attack on Portmore, endeavouring to starve out the garrison, but Captain Williams was a dauntless antagonist, and they were obliged to give up the attempt.

By August 1598 the sufferings of Captain Williams and his garrison in Portmore had become so acute that Marshal Bagenal determined on a strong demonstration to relieve the fort. The garrison would have been driven to surrender at an earlier moment had not a successful raid enabled them to capture some horses belonging to O’Neill on which they were subsisting with the help of every blade of grass which they could find in the enclosure.

Bagenal, of whom O’Sullevan Beare speaks highly as “equally pre-eminent in council and in courage, cautious in prosperity, courageous in adversity,” drew together an army of 4500 foot, under forty captains and officers of inferior rank, and 500 horse.[12]

As usual there was a slight majority of Irish mercenaries, excellent marksmen and sharpshooters, and among the officers were some of illustrious Irish family. But all were veteran troops, either survivors of the picked forces of Norris who had endured with him the long wars in Flanders, or men who had fought in Ireland under experienced commanders and had become inured to the military tactics practised in Irish warfare. All were equipped with the best arms and armour known in their day.

“Foot and horse were sheathed in mail; the musketeers were equipped with heavy and light guns, swords, daggers, and helmets. The whole army gleamed with crested plumes and silken sashes. Brass cannon mounted on wheels were drawn by horse, and they carried a large supply of gunpowder and ball of lead and iron. An immense train of pack-horses and oxen followed, both to feed the army and revictual Portmore.”

On the other side the combined armies of O’Neill and O’Donnell, with their Connacht mercenaries under MacWilliam Burke, numbered about the same body of foot, though they had a slight advantage in the number of their horse. They were very inferior in equipment, all being light-armed except a few musketeers, who had heavy guns.

On hearing of the advance of the Marshal, O’Neill moved his camp farther south, within two miles of Armagh, leaving a few men to prevent a sally from Portmore. He was in doubt whether to stand the chances of a battle or to retire into those wilder parts of his province where the English armies had always found it difficult and disastrous to pursue him; but a fortunate reminder by one of the family of the O’Clerys, the official chroniclers of Ulster, that St Ultan had foretold a Catholic victory on this spot, encouraged him to put the valour of his troops to the test, and in a spirited harangue he called on them to “defend Christianity, fatherland, children, and wives.” “Victory,” he declared, “lay not in senseless armour, but in living and courageous souls.”

O’Neill left nothing to chance. He posted his men advantageously on a part of the plain bounded on both sides by a marsh, between which he had dug a trench a quarter of a mile long to impede the progress of the enemy. Beyond lay an open stretch of plain that had to be crossed, led up to on the English side by a narrow roadway lying between low trees and shrubs. Into this shrubby ground O’Neill had sent a body of five hundred skirmishers, mere lads, but expert sharpshooters, who harassed the advancing troops and cut off many of them before they could extricate themselves from the lane and reach the open country beyond.

The English army was divided into six regiments, which were to unite into three bodies as need required, Colonel Percy and the Marshal, as commander-in-chief, leading the first division, Colonel Cosby and Sir Thomas Wingfield commanding the main body, with a third division under Colonels Cunie and Billing. They marched with a space between each of some hundreds of paces. Sir Calisthenes Brooke led the cavalry.

After passing through the wooded country, the first bodies emerged on the open plain, and immediately turned and charged the skirmishers with cavalry. But O’Neill had dug numerous pits and trenches about the plain, covered with hay and brambles. Into these the heavily armed cavalry stumbled, breaking the legs of the horses and riders, and causing confusion in the rear. Nevertheless, they charged forward across the open, sorely distressed all the while by O’Neill’s light cavalry, who wheeled round again and again, though each time they were steadily pushed back.

The English mail-clad troops fought at close quarters with lances nearly nine feet long resting on the right thigh. The Irish light-armed men had still longer lances, which they grasped in the middle and held above the right shoulder, striking hard and with sure aim. They also hurled darts tipped with iron.

One who was engaged in the fight thus describes the next incident in the battle from the English side:

“After a mile’s marching thus, we approached the enemy’s trench, being a ditch cast in front of our passage, a mile long, some five feet deep, and four feet over, with a thorny hedge on the top. In the middle of the bog, some forty score paces over, our regiment passed the trench. The battle stood for the bringing up of the saker [a small piece of artillery] which stuck fast in a ford, and also for our rear, which, being hard set to, retired foully to Armagh.”

The vanguard, meanwhile, having succeeded in passing the ford and ditch through which oozed the dark water flowing from the bog, which gave this battle the name of ‘the battle of the Yellow Ford,’ were so distressed by the enemy that they were on the point of giving way.

Bagenal pushed up his troops to support them, and, having got them over the trench, he raised the visor of his helmet the better to survey the battlefield. Before he had time to close it again, a bullet had found him out; he was struck in the forehead, and fell lifeless to the ground. His own division fell into confusion, but the rear division, coming up ignorant of what had occurred, stoutly pressed on, only to find themselves surrounded by the main host of the enemy, who, at Tyrone’s command, charged them so hotly that, their captains being nearly all slain, they had no choice but to turn and try to extricate themselves as best they could. But the dyke and ditch were even greater obstacles in their flight than they had been in the advance; and falling over one another the men filled the dyke and were trodden down where they fell.

Young O’Reilley, called the Fair, who led a body of young Irishmen on the English side, tried to rally the flying troops.

“He was to be seen everywhere amongst the combatants helping those most sorely pressed and in greatest danger.”

He was slain, fighting most valiantly. The flying troops were cut down as they fled back to Armagh to take refuge in the cathedral and churches, which were held by royalist garrisons, leaving behind them guns, arms, colours, and their entire commissariat. Armagh and Portmore surrendered to O’Neill.

This disaster to the English was largely owing to a fatal error in tactics on the part of Marshal Bagenal in allowing so large a space between the divisions that those in the rear did not know what was going on in front and were unable to be brought up at the critical moment. The divisions of foot were not only separated by distance, but hidden by the cavalry which occupied the gaps between them. The sticking of the artillery in the bog further embarrassed them, and gave the enemy an opportunity of which they took full advantage while they were held up without cover trying to pull out the guns.

Undoubtedly O’Neill’s dispositions were much superior, and he took full advantage of every point in the ground at his disposal. All the English authorities of the period agree that at the battle of the Blackwater, as they generally name it, the English met the most severe defeat that their arms had ever received in Ireland. O’Neill was left with a reputation which none of his countrymen could hope to rival, and while the remnants of the English drew off, by his permission, to Newry and Dundalk, all Ulster rose in arms, all Connacht revolted, and the insurgents of Leinster swarmed into the English Pale. Ormonde, when called upon to account for the defeat, gives the military reasons, but adds, in case these were not enough, “Sure the devil bewitched them.”

The Queen wrote angrily that in spite of great armies and excessive charges she “received naught else but news of fresh losses and calamities.” She was angry that Ormonde, who was General of the army, had not been present in person, and still more angry with the Lords Justices that they had, after the retreat, “framed such a letter to the traitor as never were read the like either in form or in substance for baseness.” Her maids of honour had to bear the brunt of the Queen’s displeasure;

“she doth not bear with such composed spirit as she was wont; … since the Irish affairs she often chides for small neglects, in such wise as to make these fair maids often cry and bewail in piteous sort.”[13]

But no anger could conceal the fact that this year was so disastrous to the English and successful in action to the Irish “as they shaked the English Government in this kingdom, till it tottered and wanted little of fatal ruin.”