THE General Assembly opened its first session at Kilkenny on the 23rd of October, 1642 and on that same day at Edgehill the first considerable battle was fought between Charles and his rebellious English subjects. By this great political convulsion not only England but Ireland too was rent asunder. With a Puritan administration in power supported by the king’s authority, all Irish Catholics had a common object of attack; but when between the king and the Puritans actual war broke out, those in Ireland whose motives for rebellion were exclusively Catholic naturally sided with the king. The peers, bishops, and wealthy commercial Catholics eagerly desired reconciliation, and before the elected Supreme Council had been one week in office, negotiations were opened to bring about an understanding. No doubt the unbroken series of disasters which had befallen the Irish armies during the year 1642 made the Supreme Council anxious to secure an honourable peace. In the very month before (September 3rd) Muskerry’s army of the South had been shattered at Liscarrol by Inchiquin and the Earl of Cork, who had thus secured supremacy over nearly the whole province of Munster. Earlier in the year Ormond, who then served as general under Parsons and Borlase, had routed the Leinster army under Mountgarrett, at Kilrush, and had made himself complete master of the Pale; and although new armies supplied with arms and stores from Owen Roe’s frigates were again in the field, grave doubts were entertained of their effectiveness, as neither they nor their commanders seemed to have any heart in the work. New hopes dawned on the Catholic party among the Confederates when Ormond and Inchiquin now pronounced themselves for the king. Monroe in Ulster, and Coote in Connaught, were declared Parliamentarians, while the Earl of Cork was biding his time patiently to see on which side the greater amount of plunder lay.[1]

In such a state of things it was evident that if the Supreme Council could bring about an understanding with Ormond and Inchiquin, an Irish Royalist army might be formed, which, having first cleared all Puritan invaders out of Ireland, might re-establish the authority of Charles, and then carry their triumphant swords to the help of the king in England. On the other side Ormond himself was equally willing to treat. His army, though victorious, was perishing of cold, hunger, and disease; the English troops in particular having suffered grievously from the unaccustomed severity of the climate. But Parsons and Boyle were against all truces and treaties which would dash their hopes of confiscation. Had not Boyle forwarded to the English House of Commons charges of treason against eleven hundred Munster freeholders, asking due authority to proceed against them as outlaws so that he might seize their lands and goods? And was not Parsons the main promoter of the traffic in the lands to be confiscated, amounting to two million and a half of acres? Both, therefore, resolutely set themselves against peace. Under the orders of Parsons, Ormond marched to the relief of New Ross, then besieged by the Wicklow men under Colonel Hugh McPhelim, and outside the town he inflicted on Preston a terrible defeat which shook all confidence in the ability of the chosen leader of Leinster (March 18th, 1643). Agents were then hurried to the king at Oxford, where Daniel O’Neill acted as intermediary, and Charles took two steps unusually bold for him; he dismissed Parsons, and he authorised Ormond to make terms.

Months were wasted in foolish verbiage by the Kilkenny diplomatists; in dexterous delays by Ormond. At the close of summer, indeed, the correspondence seemed to promise only an abrupt and fruitless termination. Ormond’s dilatory tactics were in fact caused by the first successes of the king’s army, the brilliant campaigns in Yorkshire and the Severn valley making it seem that without any Irish help the cause of Charles was won; and in that case Ormond was not the man to make gratuitous concessions which might anger his Protestant allies. So all hope of a settlement seemed to fade away.

But from neglected Ulster there came the sound of battle, and the word ran from end to end of Ireland that Owen Roe O’Neill was in the field. Ill-clad and half armed as many of his men were, they had held grim old Leslie at bay during all the winter, for the very name of Owen O’Neill, as the Scotch soldiers noticed, made Leslie and Monroe uneasy. When the guns were fired at Charlemount welcoming the chief to Ireland, Monroe struck his tents and retreated in hot haste to Carrickfergus to join Leslie, who refused to believe that so illustrious a soldier as O’Neill would come to lead a paltry rebellion in Ireland. Assured, however, that it was so, he led the combined army of Scots round the northern shores of Lough Neagh, making that enormous detour so as to descend unexpectedly upon the new commander. But “on the lower Bann-water” he found Owen’s sentries — nothing left to chance by the vigilant general.

There in good Bobadil style, Daniel O’Cahan, a “brave linguist,” the captain of Owen’s scouts, proposed a friendly interchange of pistol shots, “twenty gentlemen each side,” amusing old Leslie while two fleet horsemen went tearing across the country to Owen’s quarters. The Irish army was soon in order, and Leslie, far from trying to assail it, admonished the hotter Monroe, telling him, “I know Owen O’Neill and his stratagems of war, and belike he means to lead us on into his toils. Instead of attacking, Leslie, who boasted that as a soldier he was “only second to the King of Sweden,”[2] wrote a letter of expostulation to O’Neill wondering why so renowned a soldier should come to lead rebels. Owen answered that it was every man’s duty to come to the help of his suffering country, taking thought of nothing else; “not as you do,” said he, “coming against a people that never did you wrong, or warring as you war against your own legitimate Scots King; against whom you have joined yourself with Englishmen.”

Neither by letter nor by arms was the argument further prolonged, and Leslie, the newly created Earl of Leven, soon returned to Scotland for, indeed,” says Sir James Turner, “the Earl of Leven was less a soldier than General Leslie had been”); warning Monroe before he left to be on his guard, for “if O’Neill can once succeed in getting an army together, he will most surely worst you.” All through the autumn, therefore, the Irish were unmolested in their cornfields, the creaghts were safe in their fastnesses, and O’Neill’s army was steadily transformed from an irregular multitude into a well disciplined army. In these months his great anxiety was for the unfortunate people on whom his men had to be quartered; deeply touched as he was by the poor condition of the clansmen, and keenly alive to the heavy burden which an army at the best of times must be. To lighten as far as possible the troubles of the people he disbanded most of his levies after a few months, keeping only about 600 men at Charlemount in addition to the garrison, and dispersing all the others to their homes to remain there until he should recall them, while each county was charged to look after its own defence and warn the neighbouring counties of impending danger.

At the end of the winter O’Neill was summoned to Kilkenny to confer with the General Assembly on matters of grave importance. A respecter at all times of strict constitutional forms, Owen replied that being neither Lord of Parliament, nor knight of a shire, nor representative from any city or borough, he could only come if duly commanded by the Supreme Council or by the General Assembly in its sovereign capacity. The General Assembly thereupon summoned him to attend and advise them. Clandestine negotiations were on foot between the Supreme Council and a foreign Power, by which the Council proposed that a few Irish towns (Wexford and Waterford were named) should be assigned as fiduciary pledges, and that in consideration of these, money, arms and ammunition should be advanced by the foreign prince, and an informal protectorate inaugurated. Owen warned the General Assembly against this proposal, and reminded them that Ireland would not be bettered by changing one set of chains for another, “and,” said he, in my time, and in all other times of which books tell us anything, foreign fingers close tightly on whatever comes within their grip.” Besides,” said he, ” we are not mercenary soldiers and may well be satisfied with what oar own people are willing to give us.”

A few days before Owen’s appearance in the General Assembly, Lady Rosa and Henry Roe O’Neill reached Wexford in the frigate of Don Antonio, which Owen had sent back from Doo Castle to carry them tidings of his landing. At the first news of his arrival Lady Rosa had sent a letter in Gaelic to an Ulster priest, asking if the “Campmaster” had indeed landed, if all munitions were brought safe to shore, what chiefs had joined him, and how stands Tyrconnell? “She and her son were waiting for news; they longed to come to Erin.” At the first chance they set sail, and met Owen in Kilkenny, to return with him to Ulster. And as at Brussels, so in Ireland, too, that devoted and heroic group became the head, heart and soul of the struggle for liberty. Even in the chief’s short absence trouble had fallen upon Ulster. Two Scotch armies marched through Armagh and Monaghan, plundering, burning, and laying waste the homes of the people. Unable to restrain his hot impetuous spirit Daniel O’Cahan, Owen’s lieutenant, boldly faced them with a totally inadequate force, and after a uselessly brave resistance the Irish were driven back with severe loss, O’Cahan as became him dying in the thick of the battle. It was with difficulty that Owen again brought his men into line, and fixed his camp at Anaghsawry, near Charlemount. Here he was unexpectedly assailed by Monroe, who marching by night across the hills hoped to fall upon the Irish camp and cut the army to pieces; but O’Neill himself, curiously enough, first observed the enemy’s approach and took instant steps to meet the Scotch. He was “hunting abroad” with a few favourite officers when he saw Monroe’s cavalry galloping towards Anaghsawry. Owen and his companions turned their horses’ heads for the Irish camp, and near that camp, in a pass through a quaking bog, with a few hundred men he held Monroe and his whole army at bay, “with the experience of a knowing soldier,” until he gradually got off his men by “a narrow quickset lane” which favoured their retreat. Monroe’s men tried to force this lane; but they fell back from the Irish pikes. Monroe himself jumped from his horse and, pike in hand, tried to break through the Irish line. While so engaged his own cavalry gave way in disorder, and Monroe, exasperated, yelled out at them: “Fy, fy, fy! run awa frae awheen rebels!” But his men were driven back and O’Neill’s little force was saved.

Monroe, however, was a dangerous neighbour, and as he made another attempt in June to beat up O’Neill’s quarters, Owen ordered his men to march for Leitrim, where his eye had fallen upon choice camping ground near Mohill. Each county was, as before, to organize its own system of sentinels. All went well for some months; but the Fermanagh gentlemen having set no watches, two armies under Sir Robert Stewart and Sir William Stewart appeared at Clones, just as O’Neill was on his march with his creaghts back to his Ulster quarters. O’Neill had barely 1,600 men. He was against accepting battle. But his officers told him that the men grumbled about the over caution of their general and clamoured loudly to be led out against the enemy. Mutiny was impending if battle were not offered. He chose the less shameful evil; but he admonished the soldiers that they had to face a hardy enemy and that they should bear themselves courageously. They answered with loud shouts on which Owen did not set much value. Calling his old comrades of the foreign wars round him he solemnly enjoined them to stand firm and guard the retreat (for he knew that retreat was inevitable) of these hot misguided men. He placed Colonel Shane McBrian O’Neill at a ford, with instructions to stay there until further orders; as this ford was the key to one of the best routes of retreat, and with it in his hands Owen felt fairly secure. But scarcely had he set out with some of his officers to take a view of the enemy’s strength, when they were suddenly assailed by the Scotch, who issued from a lane shouting out (for they were almost mad drunk with usquebagh) “Where’s McArt? Where’s McArt?” meaning Owen Roe. Colonel Shane O’Neill dashed forward from his post at the ford — “an argument and proof rather of his courage than of his conduct, for which error and rashness he fell ever after into the General’s ill opinion,” A terrible encounter of an hour’s duration took place. The Irish were beaten, and Owen lost many of his bravest and best officers. Some were made prisoners, including Hugh McArt Oge O’Neill, and that splendid soldier remained in a Derry dungeon until his uncle’s glorious victory at Benburb restored him once more to freedom. The rest fell back again to the Leitrim fastnesses.

In the shelter of the hills Owen once more turned to the new building up of an army. He recruited his forces from the Connaught clans. He enforced an iron discipline. He punished some negligent and drunken sentries with instant death. He inured the men to skirmishes, night marches, and camp life. At last, towards the end of August, he had a force of nearly 3,000 men ready for the field. At this time, as we have seen, the three armies of Leinster, Munster, and the centre were broken and beaten. The garrison of Drogheda under Lord Moore had swept down upon Meath and, assisted by Colonel Monk, had driven out Lords Slane and Gormanstown. In the extremity of their need the Supreme Council now summoned O’Neill to the Pale to confront the combined forces of Dublin and Drogheda. Summoning to arms all the Irish that lay in his line of march, Owen set out from his encampment with a small but gallant army. As he marched southward his numbers grew, and from the OTarrells of Longford and the O’Reillys of Cavan small bands of eager recruits presented themselves to join his regiments. Still in numbers and equipment he was no match for the armies of Monk and Moore. The Supreme Council however bade him have no misgiving, as Sir James Dillon with two thousand well-armed men was on the march from Killucan, and would be with him in the hour of need.

So Owen and his fearless followers pressed on. With their rations of oaten cake slung on their shoulders, their loose mantles gathered round them, and their cowhide “pampooties” on their feet, they outmarched all enemies, and never was heard one murmur from their ranks. When they came to the rich plains of Meath O’Neill selected a camping ground, and chose Portlester for his headquarters. Henry Roe at the head of the light horse scoured the country “within two miles of Dublin;” while the creaghts for once lived abundantly under the protection of the “mainguard” of the army. Soon, however, the well-arrayed armies of Monk and Moore were seen by the scouts; an attack in force was to be made, for Lord Moore had rashly boasted that no wild creaghts or kernes from Ulster could stay such an army as his. These foolish words had reached O’Neill, and he determined to profit by them. The Portlester garrison, by Owen’s orders, retired tumultuously towards the Irish camp; and Moore, fearing that the whole army might escape, hurried on his men by a narrow path leading to an old disused mill which covered the “very descent of the only ford.” In this mill O’Neill had placed sixty sharpshooters and a number of pikemen, while near it under cover were the few guns in his service. As Moore’s men came rushing on they were assailed by cannon shot and musket shot; and while still reeling under the shock they were furiously charged and driven back by the pikemen. Forming bravely they returned again and again up to the very walls of the mill, and at last burst into the ford, but only to be assailed by Henry Roe and the light horse, who cut them down before they could come to land. Numbers were unavailing as the passage only admitted a few at a time, so Moore threw forward a few companies across “an open plain field” to turn the flank. These were attacked so violently that “they were very glad to be rid of the fury of the fairies,” and retreated; and ” some of their horses stayed ever since in that field.” As Lord Moore tried to rally his men he was struck down by a cannon-shot and killed, and the tradition ran that Owen Roe himself, displeased with an incompetent gunner, had with his own hand fired the shot which killed Lord Moore; fact or fiction, the story was commemorated in doggerel Latin verse by some friend of Owen’s: —

“Contra Romanos mores, res mira, dynasta
Morus ab Eugenio canonizatus erat.“ 

Sir James Dillon and his men arrived when all was over. “They came,” says the Aphorismical Discovery, “the day after the fair.” Owen Roe despised Dillon heartily. ”Sir James,” said he, ”war is an ugly, coarse kind of work. I think glory awaits you in withdrawing rooms rather than in the rough life of the camp.”

For the moment it seemed that all things had gone well. The engagement cleared Meath and Kildare of the enemy. Owen was now master of both. The Leinster men enthusiastically called out for O’Neill and promised to follow him wherever he should choose to lead them. With Ulster and Leinster so rallied, what might not be done? But at the crisis of the country’s fate, the hope of union was again dashed to the ground. Ormond shrank from seeing the “Ulster army in the field triumphing, ranging at will over the counties of Meath and Dublin;” and it is likely that O’Neill’s close neighbourhood was not welcome to the negotiators of Kilkenny. The fruit of the great general’s victory was plucked from his hand.

Only a few days after the victory at Portlester Owen was informed that the Supreme Council had made a truce with Ormond which was to last at least a year: O’Neill and his army were sent back to Ulster. This ill-omened “Ormond Cessation” was signed September 15th, 1643, changing the whole direction and prospect of affairs.


[1] Boyle, Earl of Cork, came to Ireland with £27 3s., a diamond ring, and forged letters of introduction. He had at this time vast estates in seven counties, thirteen castles, seven abbeys, and two colleges all taken from Papists. Four of his sons were peers and seven of his daughters peeresses. He had been three times in gaol, once for embezzlement and twice for forgery; while the accusations of perjury against him pass count. His constant boast was that he was of pure unmixed English breed.

[2] Gustavus Adolphus.