A. D. 1505—1597. 

During the following winter the two parties remained inactive: and what we find chiefly interesting, is the warm attachment which General Norreys conceived for O’Neill, the man whom he had it in command to reduce by and sword. He convinced himself that the chief had been heavily wronged, recommended him to the favourable consideration of his government; and would answer it with his life that kindness and justice would make this formidable chieftain one of the queen’s best subjects. The strange fascination of O’Neill’s character had captivated the soldier-like and generous Norreys; and instead of vigorously prosecuting the war, he was devising means to bring about a reconciliation between the revolted “earl” and his offended sovereign. There is reason to fear that the politic Hugh misled this straightforward soldier, to gain time for his own projects and his negotiations with Spain; — a supposition which is strengthened by his dealings with the queen’s envoys in the following year. 

For the English government, finding that no progress was made in reducing Ulster by force of arms, directed a commission to the general along with Sir George Bourchier, styled Master of the Ordnance, and Sir Geoffrey Fenton, commanding them to invite the Northern chiefs to a conference, and propose terms of peace. The commissioners wrote to O’Neill requesting a meeting at Dundalk; and though well aware that it was to his own successes he owed these friendly dispositions of the English court, which would last only until they had an army in the field able to cope with him; yet, having objects of his own to serve by delay, he proceeded to Dundalk, and declining, as usual, to enter a town, he held conference with the English negotiators across a small river, O’Neill standing on the north bank and the commissioners on the south. Here he assured them of his loyalty and his desire to be treated as a good subject of the queen, provided only that the laws, customs, and religion of the Irish country should remain inviolate; (a proviso which included precisely the old demands of exemption from sheriffs, bishops, judges, and “reformation;”) and upon those terms he protested that her majesty would have no more devoted subject than he.1 As for holding communications with Spain, he denied it altogether; but be much feared that Hugh O’Donnell was a disaffected person, and engaged in some treasonable correspondence; for he was credibly informed that a ship had arrived from Spain in one of the ports of Tyr-connell.2 

The commissioners were delighted by his zeal and candour, communicated with their government, and were immediately vested with full power to conclude a final peace with O’Neill upon easy terms; and then it was hoped they should soon be able, by his help, to deal with that pestilent O’Donnell. So they wrote again to O’Neill, appointing another meeting at Dundalk, on the second of April, which he “accepted,” says Moryson, “with shew of joy;” but when the second of April arrived, and the commissioners waited for him at the place of meeting, he did not condescend to appear. Apparently his end had been answered, and he was not yet ready to assume his new character of a loyal subject. Yet, unwilling to abandon their mission, the English diplomatists once more plied him with letters, and appointed yet another day, the 16th of April; when they conjured him by all his hopes of pardon, and his duty to her most sacred majesty, that he should not fail to attend them. The 16th came, and the commissioners looked anxiously northward from Faughart hill, in vain; the chief did not arrive; but the next day, as if to make a scornful jest of their mean solicitation,3 sent them his reasons, “justifying,” says Moryson, “his relapse into disloyalty;” for that the truce had not been duly kept with him and his people; causes of offence had arisen at the Blackwater; and moreover the Marshal had not restored some cattle which had been driven off the lands of a certain O’Neill. And under these circumstances, how could a prudent chieftain lay down his arms, or abandon the guardianship of his faithful clansmen? 

Possibly these reasons may have seemed frivolous to the commissioners; more especially as it was notorious that O’Neill was improving the intervals of truce in arming and training more troops, in strengthening his alliances, and stirring up the Irish of Leinster to invade the Pale; for at this time we find that “Fiach Mac Hugh,” says Moryson, “breaking his protection, entered into acts of hostilitie; and he, together with the O’Mores, O’Connors, O’Byrnes, O’Tooles, the Cavanaghs, Butlers, and the chiefe names of Connaught, animated by the success of the Ulster men, combined together, and demanded to have the barbarous titles of O and Mac, together with lands they claimed, to be restored to them, in the meanwhile spoiling all the country on all sides.” These Leinster Irish were led principally by Owen O’More and Fiach O’Byrne. Their inroads were fierce and bloody; the smoke of their burnings darkened the air of Dublin;4 and there needed large forces to guard the frontiers of the Pale, and sleepless watch and ward upon the city walls. Bat now the deputy resolved to make another effort against the mountain septs of Wicklow. In the month of May he penetrated with a strong force into the glens; took the fort of Ballinacor by surprise, and put its inmates to the sword, including the gallant chief of the OByrnes, who had so long held those fastnesses against the utmost efforts of English power. He left, however, two sons, Phelim and Raymond, who received some troops from Hugh O’Neill to assist them, joined with the O’Mores, recovered the glens and mountains of their tribe, and still kept the field against the stranger. At this time, also, Hugh O’Donnell was pressing the English hard in Connaught, detaching the chiefs from foreign alliances, and combining them in the national confederacy. Mac Dermot of Moy-luirg he compelled to make submission to himself as an Uriaght or tributary chief; ”as with those of his place it was always customary.”5 And over Clanrickarde he reinstated the Mac William, who had been supplanted by Theobald Burke, surnamed, ”of the Ships,” supported by the English, and claiming his chieftaincy by English tenure.”  

Armagh was still occupied by an English garrison: a strong force under command of Stafford was stationed there; and General Norreys, with the main body of his troops, was encamped at Killoter church. On the expiration of the truce, O’Neill attacked this encampment with desperate fury; and drove the English before him with heavy loss till they found shelter within the walls of Armagh.6 Norreys left here five hundred men to reinforce Stafford, and himself retired, to Dundalk: leaving the whole country northward im possession of the Irish. O’Neill now resolved to recover the city of Armagh. He cut off all communication between Norreys and the town, sat down before it, and began a regular, siege; but the troops of Ulster were unused to a war of posts, and little skilled in reducing fortified places by mine, blockade, or artillery. They better loved a rushing charge in the open field, or the guerilla warfare of the woods and mountains; and soon tired of sitting idly before battlements of stone. O’Neill tried a stratagem. General Norreys had sent a quantity of provisions to relieve Armagh under a convoy of three companies of foot and a body of cavalry; and the Irish had surprised these troops by nighty captured the stores, and made prisoners of dl the convoy. O’Neill caused the English soldiers to be stripped of their uniform, and an equal number of his own men to he dressed in it, whom he ordered to appear by day-break, as if marching to relieve Armagh. Then having stationed an ambuscade before morning in the walls of a ruined monastery lying on the eastern side of the city, he sent another body of troops to meet the red-coated galloglasses; so that when day dawned, the defenders of Armagh beheld what they imagined to be a strong body of their countrymen in full inarch to relieve them with supplies of provisions: then they saw O’Neill’s troops rush to attack these; and a furious conflict seemed to proceed; but apparently the English, were overmatched: many of them fell, and the Irish were pressing forward, pouring in their shot, and brandishing their battle-axes, with all the tumult of a heady fight. The hungry garrison could not endure this sight. A strong sallying party issued from the city, and rushed to support their friends; but when they came to the field of battle all the combatants on both sides turned their weapons against them alone. The English saw the snare that had been laid for them, and made for the walls again; but now Con O’Neill and his party issued from the monastery and barred their retreat. They defended themselves gallantly, but were all cut to pieces, and the Irish entered Armagh in triumph. Stafford and the remnant of his garrison were allowed Jo retire to Dundalk, and O’Neill, who wanted no strong places, dismantled the fortifications and then abandoned the town. Soon after this, however, in O’Neill’s absence, some English troops from Newry or Dundalk made their way to Armagh — fortified it again — and held it till after the battle of the Yellow Ford. 

In May 1597, Bussell was recalled from Ireland, and Lord De Burgh sent over as deputy. Norreys also was instantly dismissed from bis northern command, and sent to govern the English forces in Munster; where he shortly after sickened and died, broken-hearted, it was said, at being superseded by De Burgh, who was his personal enemy; and also by the ill treatment to which he had been subjected by Russell; for this Deputy was jealous of the general’s high reputation, and of the ample powers which had been vested in him; and never lost an opportunity of thwarting his plans and crippling his resources.7 

The new Lord Deputy was a man of determination and experience in war, having commanded in the Netherlands against Spain, and done good service there. 

The greater part of the island was now in the power of the Irish. In Ulster especially the English had not a foot of land save what was enclosed by the walls of seven castles, Newry, Carrickfergus, Dundrum, Carlingford, Greencastle, Armagh, and Olderfleet, (now called Larne,)8 and De Burgh’s instructions were to prosecute the northern war vigorously, to enter upon no conferences and listen to no terms. A truce, however, of one month was agreed upon, and the time was used by the Deputy in collecting his forces and planning operations: neither was that interval altogether wasted by O’Neill; as we shall presently see. 

At the close of the truce, attended by the Earl of Kildare and Lord Trimbleston, the Deputy marched northwards by Newry and Armagh, while Sir Conyers Clifford, who now commanded for the queen in Connaught, was ordered to penetrate into Ulster by the western shores of Lough Erne. A thousand men of the Anglo-Irish of Meath had assembled at Mullingar, and were also destined for the North under command of young Barnewall, a son of Lord Trimbleston: and to prevent the junction of all these forces was plainly the thing most desirable for O’Neill. Now there was in the Irish army a gentleman of English descent, by name Richard Tyrrell, of Fertullagh, in the district of Meath, a zealous Catholic, and one of O’Neill’s most trusted friends and bravest officers. He was instantly detached, at the head of four hundred chosen men, to watch the movements of the Meathians; a service for which Tyrrell was well fitted by his activity and knowledge of the country. Barnewall and his troops marched from Mullingar; and when he heard of the small number of Tyrrell’s band, which was then posted in his neighbourhood, he resolved to attack it without delay and sweep it from his path. Tyrrell retired before him till he arrived at a defile winding between thick woods, being precisely the spot which he had marked out for the destruction of his enemy. Here he placed a part of his band in ambush under O’Connor, his lieutenant; and himself retreated still further to draw the English onward into the pass. They rushed impetuously forward, and the moment they had all passed the ambuscade, (O’Connor sounded a charge and attacked them fiercely in the rear, while Tyrrell on the same instant wheeled round and engaged them in front. The whole Meathian detachment was hewn to pieces; and it is said that besides Barnewall, who was reserved as a prisoner for O’Neill, only one man escaped through a neighbouring bog, to carry the news to Mullingar.9 O’Connor so fiercely plied his sword that day, that his hand swelled within the guard and had to be extricated in the evening by means of a file. The place of battle received the name of Tyrrell’s-pass, and still preserves the memory of that slaughter. 

Tyrrell and O’Connor lost not a day in marching to join O’Neill: for by this time Lord De Burgh was as far north as Armagh; and they counted upon warm work at the Blackwater. 

But before the two main bodies met, we have to tell how it fared with Sir Conyers Clifford and his Connaught levies. He set forth with seven hundred men, and was to make his way northward by Ballyshannon and join the Deputy at Portmore. But on that side the passes into Ulster were under the special care of Red Hugh O’Donnell: and before Clifford had proceeded far he found himself in front of a body of two thousand of the Clan-Conal (“two thousand desperate rebels,” as the English historians call them), and perceiving that he was overmatched he thought it best to retire. For thirty miles he retreated through the mountains, in good order and with but little loss, and made good his way back to Connaught in the face of a superior enemy.10 For that time he escaped the sword of Red Hugh: but, in a certain pass amongst those mountains of north Connaught, these two warriors were to meet once more, and there to do and suffer what their fate decreed. From pursuing Clifford, O’Donnell hastened back to join O’Neill where the brunt of battle was to be borne. 

O’Neill knew that Lord De Burgh would direct his efforts to recover the fortress of Portmore, and therefore had entrenched a part of his army in a pass of the woods near the southern bank of the Blackwater, and right in the path of the English army, where, “to the natural strength of the place,” says Moryson, “was added the art of interlacing the low boughs, and casting the bodies of trees across the way.” De Burgh instantly attacked and forced this pass, drove the Irish northward across the river, took possession of Portmore fort, and garrisoned it. Their prayers and thanksgivings for this success were interrupted by calling to arms; and on the left bank of the river they saw the Irish issuing from their woods, and taking up a position between Portmore and Benburb,11 as if bent to renew the battle. The Earl of Kildare was sent forward to attack them; and was shortly after supported by De Burgh, with his whole army. They pressed forward, and after some severe skirmishes, had advanced a mile beyond Benburb, when they found themselves in front of the chosen troops of Tyr-owen and Tyr-connell, led by their chieftains in person, and supported by the Antrim Scots under James Mac Donnell of the Glynns; and it was now plain that O’Neill had purposely decoyed them across the river that he might engage them according to his wont, on his own chosen battle-ground. The Lord Deputy, however, attacked them gallantly, and was mortally wounded in the beginning of the conflict, and carried off the field. Kildare took the command, but he also was struck down from his horse, and his two foster-brothers, in rescuing him from the press of battle were slain by his side. The English were routed with terrible slaughter: great numbers were drowned or cut to pieces in their flight; and amongst the slain, besides Lord De Burgh, were several officers of distinction, Sir Francis Vaughan, brother-in-law to the Lord Deputy, Thomas Waller and Robert Turner. Kildare also died in a few days of his wounds, or, as English historians will have it, of grief for the death of his foster-brethren. That battlefield is called Drumfluich; it lies about two miles westward from Blackwater-town, (Portmore); and Battleford-bridge marks the spot where the English reddened the river in their flight.12 

The Queen’s army retreated with all speed to Newry, and so to the Pale, leaving the garrison they had stationed in Portmore unsupported in the midst of a hostile country. Captain Williams, however, who commanded there, caused the defences to be speedily made up, and maintained himself bravely for a long time against all the efforts of O’Neill’s troops.

1 Moryson would have us believe that both at this conference and several others O’Neill made the most abject protestations of repentance and submission, craving pardon on his knees for his “rebellion.” But no Irish historian says anything of this; and it Is hardly probable that, after such brilliant victories he would so humble himself to those who were entreating for peace. The Abbé Mac Geoghegan says, with some reason, ”Les Anglois conviennent qu’ on desiroit fort la paix avec O’Neill: mais ils ajoutent que ce Prince et les autres chefs des Catholiques Irlandois avoient coutume de demander pardon ǎ genoux aux commissaires charges de leur proposer la paix: Ceux qui sollicitent la paix sont ordinairement plus dans le cas de demander pardon que les autres.”

2 In this year, as we learn from the MS. Life of O’Donnell, Alonzo Copis came to that chief from Spain, bringing arms and ammunition: and Red Hugh sent him home with his ship well stored with “fat bucks and white-fleeced sheep.”

3 “A mean solicitation on the part of government to Tyrone.” – Leland.

4 ”The village of Crumlin was plundered and burned down, within two miles of the city.” — Cox

5 MS. Life of O’Donnell. Moryson says ”all Connaught was in rebellion.”

6 O’Sullivan. 

7 The Abbé Mac Geoghegan notes (as a judgment of heaven) that poor Norreys died, loaded with disgrace, in the very country which had given birth to St. Rumold, first bishop and patron of Malines, whose relics he had profaned in the Low Countries.

8 Moryson. 

9 Mac Geoghegan.

10 Moryson.

11 Beinn-Boirb, the “Hill-brow.”— Stuart’s History of Armagh.

12 The authorities for this battle are O’Sullivan, Mac Geoghegan, the MS. Life of O’Donnell, Moryson, and Camden. There is more than usual discrepancy in the several accounts, but all agree that Vanghan, Waller, and Turner, with many of the English troops, fell on the field; that De Burgh and Kildare died very soon after, having been wounded in the battle; and also that the English army retreated without attempting to penetrate further; though, as Moryson tells us, it was the express intention of De Burgh to march straight to Dungannon, a bold undertaking, he says, ”which no other lord deputy had yet attempted.” But the same Moryson, in describing the battle, coolly says, the English ”prevailed against them” Leland tells us that De Burgh met with a ”sudden death” on his way to Dungannon, and that Kildare died of ”affliction,” — hardly a satisfactory account of the transaction. On the whole, the present writer prefers to rely upon the unanimous testimony of the Irish chroniclers.