To the English, Ireland was one of the frontiers of Europe, a land on the edge of civilisation, full of barbarians. It is little surprise, then, that Queen Elizabeth I’s courtiers observed Shane O’Neill’s retainers with ‘as much wonder as if they had come from China or America’, according to a contemporary chronicler. Indeed, the Irish party, headed by The O’Neill, self-proclaimed ruler of Ulster in northern Ireland, presented a fantastic sight when they arrived in London in 1562.
In defiance of Tudor legislation, O’Neill’s warriors were wholly Gaelic in appearance. Their hair was long – fringes hanging down to cover their eyes. They wore shirts with large sleeves dyed with saffron, short tunics, and shaggy cloaks. Some walked in bare feet, others wore leather sandals. The elite Scots mercenary galloglas carried battle-axes and wore long coats of mail.
O’Neill was himself a man of fearsome reputation who could not abide anything English. He is said to have hanged a warrior for eating an English biscuit, and called a stronghold Fuath-na-Gall – ‘Hatred of Englishmen’.
Though bold and confident, O’Neill was no fool. In front of Queen Elizabeth, he begged for forgiveness and explained the case for his rebellion in the previous year.
His older brother Matthew O’Neill had been a mere bastard, so, according to both English and Celtic laws of succession, Shane was entitled to be The O’Neill. The O’Neills had run Ulster for as long as anyone could remember, but Shane was willing to admit Elizabeth’s overlordship and help her in any way possible.
The Queen restrained her anger and invited him to clear eastern Ulster of the ‘robbers of Hebrides’ – the Scots military families that had settled in Antrim. Thus, O’Neill returned to Ireland with his status enhanced, his position recognised, and carte blanche to acquire further territory in north-east Ireland.
Strong man of Ireland
The MacDonalds were the chief galloglas family of Antrim. They were the sons of the Lord of Islay and Kintyre and great-great-grandsons of John MacDonald of the Isles.
Arming his warriors with matchlock handguns, O’Neill saw no need to employ the hit-and-run tactics that he had used against the English, choosing instead direct confrontation.
The MacDonalds raised the alarm for reinforcements from the Western Isles by lighting beacons on the coastal cliffs of Antrim.
The two armies clashed a few miles south of Ballycastle in a battle that was ferocious and long, but by nightfall it was clear the O’Neills were victorious. The leading MacDonalds were made prisoner and 13 clan banners captured.
Queen Elizabeth rejoiced at the breaking of the Scots foothold in Ireland, but now she faced an independent Irish warlord of even greater strength.
O’Neill followed up his military victories with political strategy. He wrote to the King of France requesting 6,000 troops to assist in expelling the English. O’Neill was under no illusions. He had played along with Elizabeth’s efforts to set one Gaelic faction against another, but he knew that in the end it was the English who were his greatest enemy.
Sir Henry Sidney’s offensive
In 1566, Sir Henry Sidney, the new English Lord Deputy of Ireland, set about curbing the power of The O’Neill. ‘Lucifer was never more puffed up with pride and ambition than O’Neill is,’ he wrote to Elizabeth. ‘He continually keepeth 600 armed men about him and is able to bring into the field 1,000 horsemen and 4,000 foot. He is the only strong man of Ireland.’
Marching to the mouth of the River Blackwater, Sidney captured O’Neill’s Coney Island stronghold in Lough Neagh. A stone tower 30 feet high and surrounded by sharpened stakes, a thick hedge, ditch, and stone rampart, it was the Ulsterman’s treasury.
Sidney then progressed through Tyrone, demonstrating English power, but being avoided by O’Neill’s men, who sensibly chose guerrilla tactics. Such a parade of strength, however, had damaged Shane’s pride and purse and encouraged his rivals, the O’Donnells in Donegal.
With little money to pay his followers and a dent in his control of the land, O’Neill had to act decisively or risk losing the support of his warriors. He decided to regain his reputation as a winner by attacking the O’Donnells.
War against the O’Donnells
In the spring of 1567, the O’Neills rode into view of the O’Donnells at Farsetmore, a sandy ford across the River Swilly.
At first, the horsemen of both vanguards exchanged blows. Spears were thrown over-arm in the traditional Celtic manner, but the whoosh of javelins was joined by the crack of gunfire as the arquebusiers of each side joined in.
The O’Donnells were pushed back to their prepared positions on boggy ground. Reinforced by galloglas of the Clan MacSwiney, they then counter-attacked. Galloglas of the MacDonalds fought alongside the O’Neills.
‘Fierce and desperate were the grim and terrible looks that each cast at the other out of their starlike eyes,’ recorded the Annals of the Four Masters,
They raised the battle-cry aloud, and their united shouting when rushing together was sufficient to strike with dismay and turn to flight the feeble and unwarlike. They proceeded to strike and cut down one another for a long time, so that men were soon laid low, youths slain, and robust heroes mangled in the slaughter.
The galloglas mercenaries of both sides, axes swinging, were engaged in a struggle fuelled not by the animosity of their paymasters, but by deeply inbred clan rivalry. Exhaustion brought the battle to its crisis and the O’Neills were the first to break. They tried to cross back over the River Swilly, but the waters had risen since they had first crossed and many were drowned.
Shane O’Neill’s forces were routed, and with them disappeared his power. His judgement shaken by the defeat, Shane sought shelter among the MacDonalds of Antrim.
Although politics had united them while Shane was riding high, the Scots clan could not forget the damage he had done to their people on behalf of Elizabeth. Initially, they welcomed him and helped him forget his sorrows with a drinking party. But, whether it was the drink or a prepared trap, fighting broke out. Shane and his bodyguard were cut to pieces.
A few days later, O’Neill’s head was presented to Sir Henry Sidney. Where the English had failed, Irish warriors had succeeded in destroying the one Irish warlord who could have kept at least one part of Ireland wholly Gaelic. In 1569, the title of O’Neill and the sovereignty of the dynasty was abolished. The Elizabethan conquest had begun in earnest.
Frontier warfare brings out the worst in warriors. Both sides consider each other alien and inhuman, so savagery prevails. Beyond the Pale, English conquistadors suspended any humanity they possessed and treated the Irish as they would the Indians of America – natives to be dispossessed and exterminated. The Irish responded with equal ferocity.
The English spearheaded their campaigns with warlords of barbaric renown. In 1570, Humphrey Gilbert was made commander of the English army of Munster. Any visitor to his camp was compelled to walk between two lines of severed Irish heads leading to his tent.
Largely due to the efforts of Gilbert, resistance in Munster was crushed and the land divided into English plantations. Similar ruthlessness ensured the English conquest of Connacht. Only Ulster remained an independent realm. Yet the principal Gaelic heir of The O’Neill had been educated in England as a potential weapon against the Irish.
Hugh O’Neill was the son of Matthew, the son of Con O’Neill. After the murder of his father by Shane O’Neill, Hugh had been brought up in England as a royal ward. Attached to the household of the Earl of Leicester, he learned lessons in England, both political and military, which were to prove highly useful.
Returning to Ireland in the year after Shane O’Neill’s death, he served with the government forces. He was considered safe enough to be rewarded with the title of Earl of Tyrone. The English now had a puppet ruler of Ulster through whom they could further exploit the country. Or so they thought.
The Earl of Tyrone
Once settled in his homeland, Hugh’s Gaelic blood rose. He consolidated his native power base. ‘All men of rank within the province are become his men,’ it was observed. ‘They receive his wages and promise him service according to the usual manner of that country.’
In 1593, Hugh O’Neill was elected by his clan to the title of The O’Neill. It was a slap in the face of English law. Torn between both the role of an English peer and that of a Gaelic chieftain, it was to the latter that Hugh finally dedicated his life.
Such a turn of events was encouraged by the presence of Red Hugh O’Donnell. Having made a dramatic escape from Dublin Castle, O’Donnell gathered his forces, including 3,000 Scots mercenaries, and took his revenge on the English colonists in Connacht, ‘sparing no male between 15 and 60 years old who was unable to speak Irish’.
O’Neill was ordered to attack O’Donnell, which he did, but he also dragged his feet. Observing the English hard-pressed, he continued to build up his own forces. Queen Elizabeth had permitted him 600 troops, trained by English captains. These were then used to train further recruits – Irish and Scots mercenaries called bonaghts.
The institution of the galloglas had declined since the heroic days of the early 16th century. Many of the Scots adventurer families had long since become part of the Irish community. They were landowners and no longer needed to fight for their living. English fleets in the Irish Sea prevented easy access from the Western Isles. Besides, the traditional arms of the galloglas, the sword and the poleaxe, had been supplanted by the pike and the musket as the primary infantry weapons on the battlefield.
Those Scots warriors who now fought with the Irish served mainly under the name of bonaghts and wielded pike or musket. Organised in companies of 100 men and armed with the latest weapons – imported from Scotland and Spain, or smuggled from English ports – there was little to distinguish them from their English adversaries, apart from the drone of the bagpipe that urged them into battle.
By 1595, O’Neill had recruited and trained some 1,000 pikemen, 4,000 musketeers, and 1,000 cavalry. He was strong enough to declare his Gaelic interests and was forthwith proclaimed a traitor.
An English policing force was mauled at Clontibret. The O’Donnells captured Sligo, thus securing the south-western approach to Ulster against English reinforcements. But before all-out war could erupt, a truce was called. In the interim, O’Neill asked for assistance from England’s arch enemy – Spain. In his correspondence, he linked the survival of Gaelic Ireland with that of the Catholic religion in the British Isles. He received a friendly ear, but effective military aid was not forthcoming.
Despite the truce, no agreement was reached between O’Neill and the English, and, in 1597, a three-pronged campaign was launched against Ulster. Each element was repulsed, and O’Neill and O’Donnell were forced ever closer in the common defence of their land.
In 1598, Sir Henry Bagenal of Newry was instructed to relieve an English fortress on the banks of the River Blackwater that was under siege by the Ulstermen. He commanded an army of around 4,000 foot and 300 horse. Almost 2,000 of these were raw recruits, barely a couple of months in Ireland and poorly equipped. ‘The want of the men’s apparel is such,’ wrote Captain Francis Stafford, ‘that if they be not speedily relieved, many will march without shoes or stockings.’
Irish clothing was recommended for the English soldiers as being cheaper and more durable than the clothing imported from England, but Lord Burgh, Lord Deputy of Ireland, could not agree because such clothing was made by the Irish, who would thus receive ‘her Majesty’s good coin, wherewith they buy out of Denmark, Scotland, and other parts, powder and munition to maintain their rebellion.’
The rest of Bagenal’s army, however, were veterans of the Irish war, half of them probably native Irishmen, including many cavalry.
The English force marched from Armagh to the Blackwater across ‘hard and hilly ground, within caliver shot of wood and bog on both sides, which was wholly possessed by the enemy continually playing upon us.’ Charles Montague, Lieutenant-General of the English, was correct in this account.
O’Neill and O’Donnell had deployed some 5,000 warriors in the densely-forested countryside. The English marched in battle order, returning the skirmishing fire, but the advancing line became strung out and soon it was to be every man for himself.
The English pressed on – the fort on the Blackwater was now nearer than Armagh. But O’Neill had carefully prepared the ground. Brushwood and undergrowth had been weaved together to create living fences. Pits had been dug to ensnare the unwary and impede cavalry action. Finally, boggy land was linked by a trench some five feet deep and four feet across, with a thorny hedge on the far side.
The English tried to break through. Their formations were scattered. The first half of the English vanguard was isolated beyond the trench, within sight of the beleaguered garrison of the Blackwater. The garrison threw up their caps in joy and dashed out to meet the English relief force, but O’Neill was well in command of the situation and pulled the noose tight.
His skirmishers pummelled the English ranks further. Then horsemen surged forward beside foot-soldiers armed with sword and shield. This was not a time for orthodox pike and shot tactics. Irish blades cut in among the English. The recent recruits broke before the Irish war cries. The vanguard was cut to pieces.
Realising the danger of his vanguard, Bagenal rode forward to support them. At the trench, he raised the visor of his helmet to gain a better view. Gunshot shattered his face and killed him instantly.
The other English commanders decided on retreat, but this was easier said than done. A loud explosion ripped through the chaos. As an English musketeer had gone to replenish his powder-flask, his lighted match carelessly sparked the open powder barrels and the contents blew up, throwing a black cloud over the disintegrating army.
Confusion tore apart the English army. Some had not received the order to retreat and pressed on to the killing ground of the trench. Others threw down their arms and fled into the woods.
At the end of the day, a shocked and bewildered English army reached Armagh. O’Neill had won a great victory.
He did not follow it up – the remnants of the English army were allowed to escape. But Ulster remained resolutely Gaelic until the end of the century.
The strength of Hugh O’Neill’s military leadership lay in his combination of professional training and the latest weapons, with a traditional Celtic talent for guerrilla warfare. In his victory he showed that Gaelic warriors, given arms and training, were more than a match for any contemporary army.
This is worth stressing, as much has been written about the archaic nature of Irish warfare. The hard truth, recognised by English officers at the time, was quite otherwise. ‘The Irish are most ready, well disciplined,’ said one, ‘and as good marksmen as France, Flanders, or Spain can show.’ The Elizabethan invasion of Ireland was not so much an act of colonial discipline as a full-blown continental war, and one in which the Gaelic Irish won much success.
In the next century, the Irish were joined by Spanish soldiers landed at Kinsale. Drawn out of their strong defensive situation in Ulster, the Gaelic Irish advanced to support the Spanish on the southern coast of Munster. The English were besieging Kinsale, and O’Neill hoped to crush them against the Spanish.
Advancing in the most contemporary of tactical formations – a tercio of pike and shot – O’Neill led a formidable force.
But his Celtic warriors were far away from familiar territory and were now drawn into a confrontation on open ground. Confusion and panic broke the army. The Spanish and Irish did not act together, allowing the English to triumph, and O’Neill dismally dragged his forces back to Ulster. The Spanish capitulated and sailed home.
A great opportunity had been lost. The Irish had taken the offensive in what could have been a final shattering blow to the English occupation. Instead, it presaged the downfall of the Gaelic regime.
The English pressed hard on O’Neill, and a harsh winter in 1603 finally compelled the Celtic warlord to surrender.
Queen Elizabeth was dead, but James I continued the anglicisation of Ireland. O’Neill was allowed to return to his Ulster estates, but it was no longer a Celtic realm. English law predominated. Gaelic laws and customs were illegal. English government reduced the power of the Gaelic chieftains; so much so that O’Neill and O’Donnell felt the land had now become alien and they preferred to sail into exile.
O’Neill died in Rome in 1616. There would be further uprisings against the English, and the O’Neill dynasty was far from finished, but essentially Irish power had been broken. •
Tim Newark is the author of The Fighting Irish and numerous other military history titles. He was Editor of Military Illustrated magazine for 17 years.