FOR three weary and miserable years Ireland had been held in the bonds of foolish treaties and arrangements; Scots overrunning Ulster, Inchiquin desolating Cork, and the Cootes and Ormsbys holding Connaught by a line of fortresses stretching from Sligo to Athlone. New hope, indeed, had dawned with the coming of the Papal Nuncio. From Limerick he summoned all Celtic Ireland to war. Absolute master by virtue of the stores of arms and of gold which he had carried from Rome, the Nuncio had for a time power to direct the whole campaign. No longer in the relaxing air of Ormond’s city but in the western capital the Supreme Council sat; and, instead of weary hypothetic talk, men were called to action. Maintained by Papal subsidies three armies were put into the field; one under Rinuccini’s own eye to reduce the strong Castle of Bunratty; another, under Preston, to break through the barrier fortresses which hemmed in Connaught; and the third for the relief of Ulster under Owen Roe O’Neill. Years later, in making a final report, Rinuccini declares that he had personally desired to spend all the money on the Ulster forces, but that yielding to great pressure he had really distributed it in the proportion of two-thirds for Leinster and one-third for Ulster; and in explanation of the disparity he tells the Holy Father that the men of Ulster care little for food or money and only think of their muskets and spears, while Preston’s army, moulded on the Flemish model both as to accoutrements and pay, had to be maintained in a high degree of comfort. The explanation was quite accurate; but Rinuccini at the distance of years was entirely mistaken about his own views at the actual time of these events. Poisoned by the calumniators of Kilkenny, the Nuncio long looked upon Owen O’Neill as “a strange grasping man,” with whose services, however, he unhappily dared not dispense, and it was only by slow degrees that he came to a true understanding of Owen and Preston and Castlehaven, and by terrible experience learned on whom dependence might be placed.

For the moment his mind was fixed upon the relief of Limerick and Connaught, and while his own army undertook one duty the other was given to Preston. Bunratty Castle, a huge fortress capable of holding thousands of men, fell after a spirited siege of ten days; and Roscommon, the key of Connaught, was yielded up to Preston after a vigorous defence. Trifling and insignificant, however, were these achievements compared with Owen’s glorious triumph in Ulster. For the first time since that great master of the art of war landed in Ireland he found himself, by the assistance of the Nuncio, able to maintain an army in a regular manner, with fixed pay and permanent quarters. Summoning the clans of Ulster, Connaught, and the Midlands, the great chief fixed his camp on the Hill of Gallinagh, far away from the demoralising little country towns with their whiskey-shanties, and there, looking down on the beautiful waters of the Inny and of Lough Sheelin, the clansmen spent seven weeks in unceasing drill. Owen was the strictest of disciplinarians, but he was also the most punctual of pay-masters; and the strange spectacle of an Irish army under native authority in receipt of regular pay so impressed the people of the Midlands, that they unconsciously bore testimony in their own way to Owen’s fulfilment of his trust; for they ceased to call the hill by its ancient name, and spoke of it only by the name it bears to-day — Knockanoer, the Hill of Gold.

The spring and early summer of 1646 were spent in forming the new army. At last, when all was ready, it set out under O’Neill’s orders for Cavan. In the Franciscan monastery where the General took up his quarters an amusingly impudent letter reached him from the Lord Lieutenant, under whose orders he had been placed by the Cessation. The Scotch were threatening Connaught again, said Ormond; Castlecoote was strongly fortified; Clanricarde’s mansion at Portumna was in serious peril. “Certainly something is expected from you, but I am not able to advise what is fit for you to do.” The wrath and scorn of O’Neill’s great heart seethes through his strongly restrained answer: —

“My lord, at my arrival in this province, where I came obeying order, I found all things unready. Some of my horse, too, obeying order, are scattered in Munster, which, if I had here now, I would, my lord, spoil the homes of those that went for Connaught that all the booty they could light upon could hardly countervail their losses. Please Your Excellency, I have in the fourth article of my instructions order to receive such directions and commands as Your Excellency may impart, and any such orders for the annoyance of the common enemy I shall with all alacrity be willing to observe and obey. In five days, my lord, I shall be in a posture for service. Before I left Kilkenny I sent a thousand pounds to lay up provision in a magazine for this army; but no part has been taken up or done; still, my lord, within five days at the furthest, I, for all that, shall have men and provisions in readiness. I shall be glad to learn Your Excellency’s pleasure. But, under favour, my opinion is that I should advance to the quarters of these Scotch rebels where, with God’s helping hand, I hope to be strong enough for them. To march into Connaught, Your Excellency’s forces not yet in the field,[1] leaving passage clear for the enemy, would only bring destruction upon Meath and Westmeath. I should have long written to Your Excellency” (note this) “had I not been assured that you were daily expected with forces towards the frontiers at Dundalk. If my forces were together I would be 5,000 foot and 4 or 500 horse; which I conceive of good hopeful men to be a considerable strength. — Cavan, 10th May, 1646.

Connaught, no doubt, was in danger; but soon Kilkenny and Dublin heard the rumble of less distant thunder, and learned with terror that the Scotch were in full march for Leinster, their ultimate destination being Kilkenny. Into O’Neill’s hands his ancient enemies and detractors now hastened to commit their safety: if with his 5,500 “good, hopeful men” he can save the Pale from Monroe, all may be well again for the courtiers of Dublin and Kilkenny. Of these courtiers Owen thought little, but he thought of the common fatherland, and resolved to baulk the Scotch in their enterprise. The task was one of the utmost difficulty and danger. From Derry, from Coleraine, from Carrickfergus, a preconcerted movement was planned by the enemy. Three Scotch armies with English auxiliaries were to meet on a fixed day at an appointed place. General Robert Monroe set out from Carrickfergus with 6,000 foot and 800 dragoons, marching by Lisburn to Armagh, from which point he was to reach Glasslough on the 5th of June, and form a junction with his brother George, who marched from Coleraine with 500 men; thence both were to advance to Clones and meet the Stewarts with the “Laggan” or Derry army, comprising over 2,000 soldiers. Once united they might defy all resistance, so great were their numbers and so perfect their martial equipment and preparation. In presence of such forces, it was only by taking them in detail that the Irish troops could have even the shadow of a chance of success.

Choosing the boldest plan, O’Neill determined to cross Robert Monroe’s path and prevent his junction with his brother George. To effect this he marched rapidly from Cavan, “going on the defensive,” and reached Glasslough on Thursday, the 4th of June, when Monroe had just come within sight of Armagh and pitched his tents at Dromore. Leisurely and quietly the Irish army marched on that same day for Benburb, and at night stretched their tents and coverings along the meadows and sloping banks of the Blackwater, while the light horse under Henry Roe O’Neill pushed on beyond Bagenal’s bridge towards Armagh. All was order and repose within the Irish camp as the army lay down to rest that lovely summer night. Representatives from every region of Celtic Ireland were gathered there under O’Neill’s command – O’Connors, O’Rorkes, McDermotts, and O’Kellys from Connaught, every great clan in Ulster, and contingents from Wicklow and Longford. They saw the great fires on Slievegullion, and knew that the next day they should cross steel with the soldiers who were even then wasting and desolating the line of march from Lisburn.

But on Monroe’s side intelligence of Owen’s march was only brought at ten o’clock that Thursday evening, and the worn-out troops were already sleeping when the impatient general suddenly ordered them under arms and set out on a night march for Armagh. Late that night his horse reached the old cathedral city; but the infantry remained for a few short hours’ sleep at Hamilton’s Bawn, and at the dawn tramped into Armagh to join the cavalry. In the early June morning 6,000 foot and 800 horse in brave array passed through the streets of Armagh marching towards Dungannon. Midway in the line of march at Benburb lay the Irish troops, compact, well-ordered, and fresh for fight. In the open air Mass had been celebrated, and the whole army had knelt in silent worship. Then O’Neill addressed them; and his words, we are told, so wrought upon them that they seemed to seek death. Reminding them of Ireland’s long sorrows and the special woes of Ulster, he bade them acquit themselves that day as men— and “remember whoever retreats deserts Ireland and deserts me.” Between the armies still lay the Blackwater, and as Monroe marched along the eastern bank of the river seeking a ford, O’Neill kept pace on the western bank as it were watching his movements, and so step to step until Kinard or Caledon was reached. There Monroe led his army across, and the forces at last stood face to face on the Tyrone side of the river.

But Owen had already chosen his place of battle — the spot where the little river Oona flows into the Blackwater. Early that morning Owen O’Dogherty and Brian Roe O’Neill had been despatched to hold George Monroe in check as he came on by the road from Coleraine; and the general taking a map pointed out a narrow pass and said, ”secure that strait and hold it.” His own movements and feints were all directed to the wearing out of the long summer day, and the bringing of the Scotch very slowly on from Caledon to the chosen ground. Monroe, however, was on fire with fear that even now when he held O’Neill thus in his hand, that astute strategist might in some way escape him and retire to the lines of Charlemont. Knowing all this Owen pushed on his own regiment of foot under the command of General O’Farrell to the pass of Ballaghkillagwill through which Monroe’s army must advance on its way to Benburb, with orders that O’Farrell should hold the pass only so long as he could safely harass the enemy, and when hard pressed should retreat firing. O’Farrell was a most able officer. Lord Ards and the English cavalry attacked the lines, but they were driven back in confusion. Monroe hurried up reserves; they too were hurled back. Five hundred musketeers at treble quick were flung forward, and then O’Farrell in perfect order retired, his musketeers covering the retreat with well-directed volleys on the worn-out enemy. Quickly forming beyond the pass the Scotch and English solidly and steadily fronted the main lines of the Irish; but Owen ordered up strong reinforcements to O’Farrell, and thus consuming time, and still leading the enemy on, he slowly fell back on the hill of Knocknacloy.

Here Owen Roe had determined that the battle should be fought. Almost instantaneously his troops took their positions; the centre resting upon the hill, about 100 feet high and “covered with scrogs and bushes,” the right wing protected by a bog, and the left by the waters of the Oona and the Blackwater. Four columns formed the front line, stretched out with “large open spaces” between them; the second line in three columns, at convenient distance, could easily form an unbroken front by filling up the open spaces should need be; while the cavalry on the wings, massed behind the column in front, stood ready to repel the attack of the enemy or to charge through the gaps in the front line. The infantry were armed half pike and half musket, and the pikes were longer by a foot in the handle than the ordinary weapons, while the square heads with no axe or hook were deadly in the charge. The Irish had no cannon, and the British carried, as field service went then, a powerful park of artillery. Now, however, in the scroggy slopes the Irish were in little danger from the guns, and as attack on either wing was impossible the whole afternoon was spent in repelling fierce assaults upon the centre. Lord Blayney seized a little hillock something more than a quarter of a mile from the central elevation of Knocknacloy, and there planting his cannon and opening fire upon the Irish columns, he pushed forward under shelter of the fire Scotch musketeers along the banks of the Oona. When the Irish saw them coming they raised deafening cheers, rushed upon them with the pike, and flung them back in terrible disorder. One of the Irish captains, O’Cahan, dashed across the field to the general, imploring him to give the word and the enemy would be soon cut to pieces; but Owen gently directed him to return to his post. The British bravely rallied, and a little after six o’clock Lord Ards and the cavalry made a bold attempt to force a way across the Oona and turn the left flank of the Irish. But they were met by Henry Roe and the Irish horse, and soon routed and torn asunder, they fled back to the main body. Monroe’s army was now jammed into a very narrow space. He had five columns closely packed in front and four behind, with no shelter for his wings “in the large open campagnia” encircling him around; and when the last charge of Lord Ards failed he was preparing for another attempt, and had concentrated his cavalry for a desperate assault.

But Owen’s time had come. A masterly series of movements revealed his great design. Massing his forces strongly on the right wing he took the offensive, committing to O’Farrell the brilliant task of urging gradually by continued pressure the forces of the enemy ever onwards towards the angle where the rivers Oona and Blackwater meet. The ground favoured the Irish so long as they kept strictly on the defensive, Oona protecting the left wing, and the uneven bushy ground assisting the centre. Seeing this advantage, O’Neill despatched his best troops, including his own regiment, to the right, so that by striking heavy blows in that quarter the British forces would be compelled to change their front, and in so doing must be inevitably forced towards the junction of the rivers, where packed and impeded by their very numbers they would lie open to the onset of the Irish. The Irish army hanging as it were on Knocknacloy may be likened to a hand poised on the wrist, with outspread fingers representing the various columns; moving on the axis of the hill as the hand moves upon the wrist, the whole force swung slowly round from right to left jamming the enemy between their lines and the waters of the two rivers. Hotly contested as the battle was on both sides nature and skill alike aided the Irish. The sun and wind were now favourable to them, the British were thrown into confusion in trying to change their front, and impatient cries were raised, “Let us advance and cut them down.” But the soldiers were held back by Owen; and to Sir Phelim’s frantic demand, “Give the word now!” the general calmly answered, “Not yet.” Suddenly a great deafening cheer went up to the sky, as the four squadrons of horse under Brian O’Neill and Owen O’Dogherty were seen galloping at full speed along the road from Dungannon, spears and swords flashing in the June sun. It was now past seven o’clock, and the sun shone full in the faces of the enemy. The general raised his hat, and those near him saw his lips move for a moment. Then, summoning his staff round him, “Gentlemen,” said he, and he pointed to the enemy’s centre, “in a few minutes we shall be there. Pass the word along the line, Sancta Maria and in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, charge for the old land.” One mighty shout of exultation, and the Irish line extending from Oona to the great bog flung forward like a drawn bowstring suddenly let loose. At the first furious impact Monroe’s men reeled, but his cavalry charged down the slope upon the Irish foot; when to their amazement, through the “open spaces,” rigidly preserved in the hottest fury of the fight, the Irish horse dashed forward and with one tremendous shock carried Monroe’s first line of defence, while the foot soldiers, “body to body with push of pike,” fought stubbornly up the slopes, none wavering none pausing— “the best pikemen on both sides there now be.” Over the tumult the general’s voice now rang — “Redouble your blows, and the battle is won!” Colonels sprang from their horses, and pike in hand led their men forward up the slopes, as the infantry column dashed on to the capture of Monroe’s guns that crowned the hillock. Like a living wall O’Neill’s forces came on “in most excellent order,” flinging back the Scotch and English like foam, climbing the hill and at last with a wild hurrah rushing at full speed upon the battery. Then indeed, as Owen had said, the battle was won. The Scotch and English broke and rushed frantically from the field, while Sir Phelim and Henry Roe and “Myles the Slasher” tore down upon them sabreing and smiting the desolators of Ulster. In the blaze of the setting sun the Ulster plain looked like a sheet of blood, 3,248 dead bodies lying upon the field, and the whole proud array of the invaders wrecked, mangled, annihilated.

Never was a victory more complete. Tents, baggage, cannon, 1,500 draught horses, 20 colours, provisions for two months, prisoners of war, with Lord Ards himself among the rest, fell into O’Neill’s hands; while Monroe fled off, deserting Portadown, and with a few horsemen rode madly for Carrickfergus. The Coleraine forces retreated; and the Stewarts, who three years earlier had fired in their fierce raid friaries and homesteads, fell back hurriedly leaving the country clear of invader or enemy. So well covered had all Owen’s movements been that only 70 Irish were killed in this extraordinary battle; and the army summoned by bugle calls lay down to rest for a few hours on the meadows of the Oona and the Blackwater. The camp of the enemy was left untouched until morning, when a strict inventory was made, and with all due formalities possession was taken. Then was witnessed a memorable sight. The bodies of Lord Slayney and Captain Hamilton were carried in solemn procession with military state to the church of Benburb, and laid to rest by their chivalrous conqueror, as became soldiers and gentlemen dying bravely on the field of battle. But if Owen O’Neill paid his debt of honour to his enemies the English Parliament was in no mood to reciprocate. By special order of the House placards were posted over London inflaming English Puritans with the news that 5,000 Protestants had been put to the sword at the Blackwater by Irish Popish Rebels. The soldierly Monroe described the battle as a soldier should; an officer in Sir John Clotworthy’s regiment has given us the fullest and fairest account. They tell us indeed what O’Neill had no thought of mentioning, for if we only knew the story of Benburb from Owen’s own despatch, however we might marvel at the victory, we could never conjecture that the triumph was solely due to the skill of the great Irish general.

At the news of this astounding success, breaking the long spell of national disaster, Celtic Ireland went wild with delight. With abundant supplies, Owen was able to equip a large army, and in a few days 10,000 men were under his colours. On to Carrickfergus was now his plan, and he had already reached Tanderagee when a hasty summons from Rinuccini called him back. As he loved Ireland, the Nuncio implored him to march with all haste either on Dublin or on Kilkenny. Once more Ormond and the Supreme Council had made a treaty by which the great work of deliverance had been undone. After anxious counsel, Owen and his officers thought it their duty to respond, and turning from the pursuit of Monroe, the triumphant Ulster forces marched against the Kilkenny traitors.

[1] Though long enough promised.