O’NEILL IN ARMS — CLONTIBRET.
A. D. 1594—1596.
It had become too plain that Hugh O’Neill was not likely to answer those politic ends for which Elizabeth’s government had been so long protecting and cherishing, and, as they believed, educating him. His ingratitude, as English historians term it, had become too apparent. “Though lifted up,” says Spenser, “by her majesty out of the dust to that he hath now wrought himself unto, now he playeth like the frozen snake.” And nothing better, Spenser fears, would be the result if Shane O’Neill’s sons could be taken out of the hands of this Hugh, and set up as rivals to his power — for “if they could overthrow him, who should afterwards overthrow them?” Wherefore he infers “it is most dangerous to attempt any such plot.”1 However the queen’s councillors, pondering these things with care, and believing that O’Neill was the main hope of the northern confederacy, advised the Deputy, as the best that could be done in the mean time, to offer O’Donnell “pardon,” provided, says Moryson, “he would sever himself from O’Neill;” a proposal which, it hardly needs to be said, took no effect. Imagine the haughty Beal-Dearg receiving that offer of an English pardon!
Private orders had been given to Sir William Russell, the new Deputy, to make a prisoner of O’Neill if ever he should have him in his power; of which the chief had immediate information through a friend. “It is credibly made known unto him,” says Lee, “that upon what security soever he should come in, your majesty’s pleasure is to have him detained.” Yet, in contempt of this base plot, O’Neill appeared in Dublin immediately on Russell’s landing, where he found himself formally accused before the council, by his mortal enemy, Bagnal, of various articles of treason — of confederating with the Northern chiefs, of being The O’Neill, of harbouring priests, and finally, of seducing the accuser’s sister and carrying her off to Tyr-owen. It was debated in council whether the chieftain should be detained a prisoner to answer these charges, notwithstanding a “protection” he had obtained: but the majority, either through scruples about violating the protection, “or from some secret affection for Tyrone,”2 declared that he ought in justice and honour to be dismissed. Ormond, however, informed O’Neill privately that Russell would obey his orders from England and arrest him unless he speedily escaped from Dublin. And no man better knew the treacherous devices of English policy than this Earl of Ormond, whose indignant letter, in reply to the Lord Treasurer Burleigh (when similar orders had been sent to himself), is recorded by Carte: —
“My Lord, I will never use treachery to any man, for it would both touch her highness’s honour and my own credit too much; and whosoever gave the queen advice thus to write, is fitter for such base service than I am. Saving my duty to her majesty, I would I might have revenge by my sword of any man that thus persuadeth the queen to write to me.”
By advice of his friend Ormond, O’Neill fled from Dublin, made his way, with some risk, through the Pale, for Russell had been drawing a cordon around him, escaped to the North, and prepared to stand on his defence.
It was about this time (1594) that Captain Thomas Lee drew up the celebrated memorial addressed to Queen Elizabeth, and intended to inform her how her servants in Ireland executed the trust committed to them. Lee had commanded some troops himself in various posts on the frontiers of Ulster during Fitzwilliam’s administration; and he indignantly describes the many villanies and cruelties of that officer and his creatures; but the most remarkable feature in the production is the strong affection which the writer manifests for O’Neill. O’Neill is his hero: in assertion of O’Neill’s loyalty and truth, honest Lee is ready (perhaps rashly) to lay down his life.
“If he were so bad as they would fain enforce (as many as know him and the strength of his country will witness thus much with me,) he might very easily cut off many of your majesty’s forces which are laid in garrisons, in small troops, in divers parts bordering upon his country; yea, and over-run all your English Pale to the utter ruin thereof; yea, and camp, as long as should please him under the walls of Dublin, for any strength your majesty yet hath in that kingdom to remove him.
These things being considered, and how unwilling he is (upon my knowledge) to be otherwise towards your majesty than he ought, let him (if it so please your highness) be somewhat hearkened unto, and recovered if it may be, to come in unto your majesty to impart his own griefs, which no doubt he will do, if he will like his security. And then, I am persuaded, he will simply acknowledge to your majesty how far he hath offended you; and besides, notwithstanding his protection, he will, if it so stand with your majesty’s pleasure, offer himself to the marshal (who hath been the chiefest instrument against him) to prove with his sword that he hath most wrongfully accused him. And because it is no conquest for him to overthrow a man ever held in the world to be of most cowardly behaviour, he will, in defence of his innocency, allow his adversary to come armed, against him naked, to encourage him the rather to accept of his challenge. I am bold to say thus much for the earl, because I know his valour, and am persuaded he will perform it.”3
This cartel took no effect: bat it was plain that O’Neill would soon have an opportunity of meeting his enemy, if not in listed field, yet in open melee of battle: for news arrived in the North, that large reinforcements were on their way to the Deputy from England, consisting of veteran troops who had fought in Bretagne and Flanders, under Sir John Norreys, the most experienced general in Elizabeth’s service; and that garrisons were to be forced upon Ballyshannon and Belleek, commanding the passes into Tyrconnell, between Lough Erne and the sea. The strong fort of Portmore also, which O’Neill had permitted to be built on the southern bank of the Blackwater, was to be strengthened and well manned; thus forming, with Newry and Greencastle, a chain of forts across the island, and a basis for future operations, against the Irish country to the North.
And now it was very clear that, let King Philip send his promised help, or not send it, open and vigorous resistance must be made to the further progress of foreign power, or Ulster would soon be an English province. The northern confederacy too, that great labour of O’Neill’s life, was now strong and firmly united. Even Mac Gennis and O’Hanlon, two chiefs who had long been under the influence of Bagnal, were in the ranks of their countrymen, and O’Neill gave his daughter to the chieftain of Iveagh, his sister to him of Orier. In Leinster, the O’Byrnes, the O’Cavanaghs, and Walter Fitzgerald (surnamed Riagh) had entered into close alliance with O’Neill, and were already wasting the borders of the Pale: and O’Donnell and Mac Gwire were in arms, impatient for the chief of Tyr-owen to lift bis banner and take his rightful post in the van of embattled Ulster.
At last the time had come; and Dungannon, with stem joy, beheld unfurled the royal standard of O’Neill, displaying, as it floated proudly on the breeze, that terrible Red Right Hand upon its snow white folds; waving defiance to the Saxon queen, dawning like a new Aurora upon the awakened children of Heremon.
With a strong body of horse and foot O’Neill suddenly appeared upon “the Black water, stormed Portmore, and drove away its garrison, “as carefully,” says an historian, “as he would have driven poison from his heart:” then demolished the fortress, burned down the bridge, and advanced into O’Reilly’s country, everywhere driving the English and their adherents before him to the South, (but without wanton bloodshed, slaying no man save in battle; for cruelty is no where charged against O’Neill; and finally, with Mac Gwire and Mac Mahon, he laid close siege to Monaghan, which was still held for the Queen of England.
O’Donnell, on his side, crossed the Saimer at the head of his fierce clan, burst into Connaught, and shutting up Bingham’s troops in their strong places at Sligo, Ballymote, Tulsk, and Boyle, traversed the country, with avenging fire and sword, putting to death every man who could speak no Irish;4 ravaging their lands, and sending the spoil to Tyr-connell. Then he crossed the Shannon, entered the Annally’s, where O’Ferghal was living under English dominion, and devastated that country so furiously that ”the whole firmanent,” says the chronicle, ”was one black cloud of smoke.”5
Not having sufficient force to meet the confederates in the field, Russell had recourse, for the present, to negotiation; and while O’Neill lay before Monaghan he received intelligence that a certain Sir Henry Wallop, who was styled “treasurer at war,” accompanied by Sir Richard Gardiner, the queen’s chief justice, had arrived in Dundalk, as commissioners, to confer with the Irish chiefs. They summoned O’Neill, by his Saxon title of Earl of Tyr-owen, and the other leaders, according to their rank, to attend them at Dundalk, as English subjects, and state their “grievances” there. But O’Neill haughtily refused to see these commissioners, save at the head of his army, or to enter any walled town as a liege man of the Queen of England; “For be it known unto thee, O Wallop, that the Prince of Ulster, on his own soil, does homage to no foreign monarch: and for your ‘earls of Tyrone’ — earl me no earls; — my foot is on my native heath, and my name The O’Neill.”6 So they met in the open plain, in presence of both armies; and O’Neill demanded, as the first condition of a peace, that no garrisons or sheriffs should for the future be sent into any part of Ulster, save to Newry and Carrickfergus; — that no attempt at religious persecution, or, as the English called it, ”reformation,” should be made in the North; and finally, that Marshal Bagnal should be restrained from encroaching upon the Irish territory, or the jurisdiction of its chiefs, and also be compelled to pay him, O’Neill, one thousand pounds of silver, as a marriage portion with the lady whom he had raised to the digity of an O’Neill’s bride. O’Donnell made the same demands, as to garrisons and sheriffs, and freedom of religion; and further complained of his treacherous abduction and severe imprisonment, and of a certain “Queen’s O’Donnell” who presumed to claim his chieftaincy by “English tenure.” Their terms, in short, were, that all pretence of English interference with the North should forthwith cease.7
The queen’s commissioners pretended to consider some of these conditions reasonable: others they “referred” to her majesty; but when they came to propose certain terms to the confederates, as a kind of temporary arrangement, until the queen’s pleasure should be known, — as that they should lay down their arms, beg forgiveness for their “rebellion,” discover their correspondence with foreign states, and the like; the chiefs rejected their proposals with scorn: in Moryson’s phraseology, “the rebels grew insolent;” and the conference was hastily broken off, O’Neill having agreed only to a short truce. The English deputy and his lawyers, seeing they could do no better, on the 3rd of September in the same year (1595) solemnly empanelled a jury to try O’Neill and his allies, for what they termed “high treason” The chiefs of the North, in their absence, were, with the utmost gravity, given in charge to this tribunal, which speedily found them all guilty: and O’Neill, O’Donnell, O’Ruarc, Mac Gwire, and Mac Mahon were forthwith proclaimed “traitors.”
O’Neill well knew that, notwithstanding the overtures of peace, Norreys and Russell were actively engaged in preparing for war. Bagnal, about the beginning of June, had marched with a strong force from Newry into Mac Mahon’s country, relieved Monaghan, and compelled the Irish to raise the siege, and, shortly after, the deputy and General Norreys made good their march from Dundalk to Armagh after a severe skirmish with some Irish troops at the Moyry pass.8 On the approach of these forces, O’Neill burned down Dungannon and the neighbouring villages, and retired into the woods, hoping by the show of terror and hasty retreat to draw the enemy further into the difficult country, and destroy them at his leisure. But Russell contented himself with stationing a garrison at Armagh, and returned to Dublin, leaving the Northern forces under the command of Norreys.
The castle of Monaghan, which had been taken by Con O’Neill, was now once more in the hands of the enemy, and once more was besieged by the Irish troops. Norreys, with his whole force, was in full march to relieve it; and O’Neill, who had hitherto avoided pitched battles, and contented himself with harassing the enemy by continual skirmishes, in their march through the woods and bogs, now resolved to meet this redoubted general fairly in the open field. He chose his ground at Clontibret,9 about five miles from Monaghan, where a small stream runs northward through a valley enclosed by low hills. On the left bank of this stream the Irish, in battle array, awaited the approach of Norreys. We have no account of the numbers on each side, but when the English general came up he thought himself strong enough to force a passage. Twice the English infantry tried to make good their way over the river; and twice were beaten back, their gallant leader, each time, charging at their head, and being the last to retire.10 The general and his brother. Sir Thomas, were both wounded in these conflicts; and the Irish counted the victory won, when a chosen body of English horse, led on by Segrave, a Meathian officer, of gigantic bone and height, spurred fiercely across the river, and charged the cavalry of Tyr-owen, commanded by their prince in person. Segrave singled out O’Neill, and the two leaders laid lance in rest for deadly combat, while the troops on each aide lowered their weapons and held their breath, awaiting the shock in silence. The warriors met, and the lance of each was splintered on the other’s corslet: but Segrave again dashed his horse against the chief, flung his giant frame upon his enemy, and endeavoured to unhorse him by the mere weight of his gauntletted hand. O’Neill grasped him in his arms, and the combatants rolled together, in that fatal embrace, to the ground: —
“Now, gallant Saxon I hold thine own: —
No maiden’s arms are round thee thrown.”
There was one moment’s deadly wrestle, and a death-groan: the shortened sword of O’Neill was buried in the Englishman’s groin beneath his mail. Then from the Irish ranks arose such a wild shout of triumph as those hills had never echoed before: — the still thunder-cloud burst into a tempest: — those equestrian statues became as winged demons: and with their battle-cry of Lamh-dearg-aboo, and their long lances poised, in Eastern fashion, above their heads, down swept the chivalry of Tyr-owen upon the astonished ranks of the Saxon. The banner of St. George wavered and went down before that furious charge. The English turned their bridle-reins, and fled headlong over the stream, leaving the field covered with their dead, and, worse than all, leaving with the Irish that proud red-cross banner, the first of its disgraces in those Ulster wars.11 Norreys hastily retreated southwards, and the castle of Monaghan was yielded to the Irish.
Hugh Roe O’Donnell was by this time master of all Connaught, except a few forts: but George Bingham, who commanded for the queen in the castle of Sligo, knowing that the Mac Swynes were in O’Donnell’s army, and that the coasts of Tyr-connell must be lying open to any sudden descent, and having heard of the riches of Rathmullen priory, bethought himself of an expedition worthy of the pirate Danes from whom he derived his race. He fitted out two vessels, filled them with armed men, and leaving Sligo to be kept in his absence by Ulick Burke, sailed round the northern coast, entered Lough Swilly, plundered and destroyed the village of Rathmullan and the cloisters of the Carmelites, robbing the monks of their plate, their vestments, and sacred relics; — then on his way back to Sligo he landed on Tory Island, “a place blessed,” says a chronicler, “by the holy Columba,” illustrious then with its seven churches and the glebe of the saint: and the English burned and ruined both houses and churches, plundered everything, according to their wont, carried off the flocks and herds, and left no four-footed beast on the whole island. Tory never recovered from that hideous wreck. It is now a bare and dismal rock, lashed by the howling Atlantic, and inhabited by a few wretched fishermen; but still, by the ruins of a round tower, by its two stone crosses, and the mouldering walls of its many churches, attests the piety of the holy men who, in days of old, made a sanctuary of that lonely isle.
The English pirate returned with his booty to Sligo; but the division of the spoil caused a jealousy in the garrison between the English and Irish; which ended in Ulick Burke and his adherents falling upon and exterminating the Saxons and their leader, and then delivering up the place to O’Donnell. The castle of Ballymote was about the same time taken by Red Hugh from Sir Richard Bingham and given to its rightful owners, the Mac Donoughs; so that, on the whole, at the close of the year 1595, the Irish power predominated both in Ulster and Connaught.
1 Spenser’s View, p. 180.
2 Camden. Queen Elizabeth
3 Lee’s Memorial.
4 See Mac Geoghegan. Some writers say ”all Protestants;” but as all the Protestants then in Connaught were foreigners, and all the foreigners were hostile invaders, it is invidious and unjust to designate the sufferers in these wars by their sectarian appellation.
5 MS. Life of O’Donnell.
6 “My foot is on my native heath, and my name is Mac Gregor.“ The writer gladly acknowledges a plagiarism from the Red Gregarach: and further admits that the above may not have been the very words of O’Neill’s message; but it was to that effect.
8 Near Mount-Norris, county Armagh. Norreys afterwards built a fort, to command this pass, and called it by his own name. This district was at that time much encumbered by woods and bogs, but it was the only practicable passage from Dundalk northward, except round the coast at Carlingford.
9 Cluain-tiburaid, ”the lawn of the spring.”
10 ”Regii bombardarii bis a Catholicis confutati sunt, reclainante Norrise, qui ultimus omnium pugnâ excedebat.” — O’Sullivan. The Irish historians always do justice to the valour, good faith, and generosity of this general.
11 ”Circum Sedgreium octodecim equites splendidi regii succumbunt, et signum capitur.” — O’Sullivan. For the mode of charging used by the Irish cavalry, with their lances poised over the right shoulder, see Spenser’s View.