A. D. 1597—1598. 

Shortly after Lord De Burgh’s death, the civil government of the Pale was committed to Loftus, Archbishop of Dublin, and Chief Justice Gardiner. The Earl of Ormond, O’Neill’s ancient friend and ally, was made Commander-in-chief of the queen’s army, with the title of Lord Lieutenant. Ormond had instructions to conclude a peace, if possible, with O’Neill; and a truce of eight weeks was agreed upon between them in the mean time. O’Neill and Ormond met at Dundalk to arrange the terms of a peace, and the chieftain stated the conditions on which he and his allies would consent to lay down their arms: — First, perfect freedom of religion, not only in Ulster, but throughout the island; then, reparation for spoil and ravage done upon the Irish country by the garrisons of Newry and other places; finally, entire and undisturbed control by the Irish chiefs over their own territories and people.1 These claims were to be transmitted to England; and during the truce O’Neill was to hold no communication with Spain, to suffer no outrage by his soldiers in violation of the truce, to recall his troops from Leinster, to give safe conduct to English officers in going to and from the several castles, and to permit his people to supply victuals to the fort of Portmore. And on the other hand, Ormond engaged that the Northerns should be allowed free intercourse with the Pale, and that none of O’Neill’s troops or confederates should be molested by the English without his consent.2 Moryson asserts that O’Neill began this conference by making the humblest professions of penitence, loyalty, and submission to the queen; which cannot be true, being not only unsupported by other authorities, but altogether at variance with the chieftain’s haughty demands, and his contemptuous treatment of the queen of England and her officers immediately after. At the end of the eight weeks’ truce, authority arrived from the queen, giving Ormond power to offer her ”gracious pardon” to O’Neill, on his engaging to comply with certain articles to the number of thirteen; of which the principal were that he should break up the Northern confederacy, disband his forces, and send all foreigners out of his country; that he should repair the Blackwater fort and bridge; renounce the title of O’Neill, and all jurisdiction belonging to that chieftaincy; admit a sheriff into Tyr-owen; pay a fine; deliver up all traitors (that is all who should presume to profess the Catholic religion, or bear arms against the English); that he should discover his negotiations with Spain; surrender into the hands of Ormond, Shane O’Neill’s two sons (whom he had kept in prison for many years), and finally give his own eldest son as a hostage for due performance of his engagements.3 

These were insolent terms to propose to a victorious sovereign prince at the head of his army; and he rejected them with scorn. He could not think, he said, of abandoning his allies, nor would he send strangers out of his country, without safe conduct, nor deliver up those who sought refuge with him for conscience sake: as for Shane O’Neill’s sons, they were his prisoners, not Elizabeth’s; and for the name O’Neill, he would not insist upon the authorities of the Pale addressing him by that title; they might, if they pleased, call him Earl of Tyr-owen; but in Ulster he would, with their good leave, (or without it,) continue chief of his sept: and then the articles relating to English sheriffs, and the giving his son for a hostage, were wholly inadmissible: rather than be pardoned upon these terms he would dispense with pardon altogether. 

Notwithstanding his contumacy, the gracious pardon was at Ormond’s urgent entreaty duly made out and sealed with the great seal; and the Lord Lieutenant now pressed him to accept it upon any terms; the Irish should have all Ulster, north from Dundalk,4 without hostages, without tribute, without sheriffs: it was all in vain; the truce was out, and O’Neill was preparing to besiege Armagh and Portmore. Yet, as a last resource, this notable “gracious pardon” was sent, with its great seal, filter him to the North: but the haughty chieftain manifested a surprising indifference to the precious document, and ”continuing still his disloyal courses,” says Moryson, “never pleaded the same” — which it seems it was needful to do — “so as upon his abovementioned indictment in September, 1795, you shall find him after outlawed in the year 1600.” Moryson is also precise as to the date of the pardon. It passed the great seal upon the 11th of April, 1598. 

Indeed it must be acknowledged that all these negotiations for peace and for pardon were mere diplomacy on the part of O’Neill, who was well acquainted with the rapacious views of the English court, and only wished to prolong the truce in hopes of receiving Spanish succours he expected, that he might carry on the war with greater vigour. In the month of April, 1597, a ship from Spain had arrived in Killybegs, “on the west side of the glen blessed by the holy Columba,” as an Irish chronicler has it; and O’Donnell had entertained King Philip’s envoys with distinction at Donegal, and presented them with hounds and horses.5 We have no account of the arrangements made between them and the northern chiefs; but it seems unaccountable that Philip did not, about this time, give some efficient support to O’Neill and O’Donnell, who were so gallantly defending their country and religion against their and his deadliest enemy; but some Irish historians account for this by the rumours which it was the policy of England to spread abroad throughout the Continent, of the low condition to which O’Neill had been reduced, carefully concealing or denying the victories obtained by him and his allies, and representing every truce and conference as an abject ”submission” to the queen. An agent, they say,6 was employed at Brussells to publish pretended submissions, treaties, and pardons; so that the Spanish governor of Flanders might report to his master that the power of the Irish Catholics was broken and their cause wholly lost. And notwithstanding the frequent intercourse between Spain and Ireland, it seems that such representations must have had some effect; for O’Neill, during his whole contest received no effectual help from Spain; and the foolish expedition to Kinsale, as we shall see, was rather an injury to his cause than an addition of strength. 

In the summer of this year, however, he seems to have thrown aside all reliance upon foreign aid, and to have organized his countrymen for a resolute standi with all the powers of the Irish against their enemy. And it is worth while to know the proportions in which the various tribes of Ulster contributed to their national army: — Of the O’Neills, we find that Neal Bryan Fertough, in Upper Claneboy, furnished eighty foot and thirty horse; Shane Mac Bryan, of Lower Claneboy, sent eighty foot and fifty horse; Mac Rory, of Kilwarlin, gave sixty foot-men and ten horsemen; Shane Mac Bryan Carogh, from the Bann side, fifty foot and ten horse; Art O’Neill, three hundred foot and sixty horse; Henry Oge O’Neill, two hundred foot and forty horse; Turlough Mac Henry O’Neill, of the Fews, had three hundred foot and sixty horse; Cormac Mac Baron7 (Hugh’s brother) three hundred foot and sixty horse; O’Neill himself, of his own household troops had seven hundred foot and two hundred horse. Then White’s country (Dufferin in the district of Down) sent twenty foot-men; Mac Artane and Sliaght O’Neill, also of Down, one hundred foot and twenty horse; Mac Grennis of Iveagh, brought two hundred foot and forty horse; Mac Murtough, from the Mein water, sent forty foot-men; O’Hagan, of Tullogh-Oge, had one hundred foot and thirty horse; James Mac Donnell, son of the yellow-haired Sorley, from the Route and the Seven Glynns of Antrim, led four hundred foot and one hundred horse; Mac Gwire of Fermanagh, six hundred foot and one hundred horse; Mac Mahon and Ebhir Mac Coolye of Farney (another Mac Mahon), contributed five hundred foot and one hundred and sixty horse; O’Reilly of Breffni O’Reilly, eight hundred foot and one hundred horse; and O’Cahan from the shores of Lough Foyle and the banks of the Bann and Roe led on five hundred foot and two hundred horse. All these chieftains were tributary to O’Neill.8 

From Tyr-connell, Red Hugh himself and his brother, brought three hundred and fifty foot, and one hundred and ten horse; O’Dogherty of Inishowen led three hundred foot and forty horse; Mac Swyne, five hundred foot and thirty horse; O’Boyle one hundred foot and twenty horse; and O’Gallagher of Ballyshannon two hundred foot and forty horse.9 Hugh O’Neill and Red O’Donnell led these two great divisions; they seem to have been of equal rank and authority, and to have acted independently of each other, but always in harmony, and their only contest was which should pierce deepest into the columns of the Saxon. 

In the month of July O’Neill sent messengers to Phelim Mac Hugh, then chief of the O’Byrnes, that he might fall upon the Pale, as they were about to make employment in the North for the troops of Ormond; and at the same time, he detatched fifteen hundred men and sent them to assist his ally, O’More, who was then besieging Porteloise,10 a fort of the English in Leix. Then he made a sudden stoop upon the castle of Portmore, which, says Moryson, ”was a great eye-sore to him, lying upon the cheefe passage into his country,” hoping to carry it by assault. 

An eye-sore surely, brave O’Neill! and a heart-sorrow, is that accursed fortress of the Blackwater, bristling with Saxon spears — frowning over the green vales of Tyr-owen; the farthest step in the onward march of English power towards the ancient territories of the Kinel Eoghain. And by the souls of Heber and Heremon it shall be swept from the banks of that fair river — crazed and abolished from the face of the earth, if there be right arms enough in all Ulster to carry it away stone by stone. 

Once and again he assayed to take it by storm: but the fort was powerfully manned and commanded by a skilful officer; and without artillery or the science of attacking fortified places, no progress could be made. The Irish assailed the place with desperate bravery, and tried to force their way by escalade: in vain; — they were shot down or flung headlong from the mound and ramparts. The siege became a blockade; and day after day, week after week, the Irish lay encamped around, and suffered nothing alive or dead to enter or to leave the walls; grimly waiting till famine and hardship should do their work upon the garrison. In the mean time O’Neill had also invested Armagh, and formed an encampment at Mullagh-bane, between that city and Newry, to prevent all relief coming from the South; whilst his brother Cormac, with five hundred men, guarded the approaches near the beleagured walls. 

Ormond now perceived that a powerful effort must be made by the English to hold their ground in the North, or Ulster might at once be abandoned to the Irish. Strong reinforcements were sent from England; and O’Neill’s spies soon brought him intelligence of large masses of troops moving northward, led by Marshal Sir Henry Bagnal, and composed of the choicest forces in the queen’s service. Newry was their place of rendezvous; and early in August, Bagnal found himself at the head of the largest and best appointed army of veteran Englishmen that had ever fought in Ireland. He succeeded in relieving Armagh, and dislodging O’Neill from his encampment at Mullagh-bane; where the chief himself narrowly escaped being taken; and then prepared to advance, with his whole army, to the Blackwater, and raise the siege of Portmore. Williams and his men were by this time nearly famished with hunger: they had eaten all their horses, and had come to feeding on the herbs and grass that grew upon the walls and in the ditches of the fortress.11 And every morning they gazed anxiously over the southern hills and strained their eyes to see the waving of a red-cross flag, or the glance of English spears in the rising sun. 

O’Neill hastily summoned O’Donnell and Mac William to his aid, and determined to cross the marshal’s path, and give him battle before he reached the Blackwater. His entire force, on the day of battle, including the Scots and the troops of Connaught and Tyr-connell, consisted of four thousand five bundled foot and six hundred horse, and Bagnal’s army amounted to an equal number of infantry and Ave hundred veteran horsemen,12 sheathed in corslets and headpieces; together with some field artillery, in which O’Neill was wholly wanting. And small as these forces appear, they were the two largest armies, Irish against English, that had met upon this soil since Strongbow’s invasion. In Bagnal’s ranks (a thing most unusual at that period) we find but one Irishman, Maelmorra O’Reilly, surnamed ”the Handsome,” a disloyal traitor, who fought against his country and his lawful chieftain, and was not ashamed to call himself the queen’s O’Reilly

Hugh Roe O’Donnell had snuffed the coming battle from afar, and on the 9th of August joined O’Neill with the clans of Connaught and Tyr-connell. They drew up their main body about a mile from Portmore, on the way to Armagh, where the plain was narrowed to a pass, enclosed on one side by a thick wood, and on the other by a bog. To arrive at that plain from Armagh, the enemy would have to penetrate through wooded hills divided by winding and marshy hollows, in which flowed a sluggish and discoloured stream from the bogs; and hence the pass was called Beal-an-atha-buidhe, “the mouth of the yellow ford.”13 Fearfasa O’Clery, a learned poet of O’Donnell’s, asked the name of that place, and when he heard it, remembered (and proclaimed aloud to the army) that St. Bercan had foretold a terrible battle to be fought at a yellow ford, and a glorious victory to be won by the ancient Irish. — Besides, are they not heretics, these English? and hath not Moran the son of Maoin said that ”Nought prevails in battle so powerfully as the Truth?”14 Even so, Moran, son of Maoin! And for thee wisest poet, O’Clery! thou hast this day served thy country well: for, to an Irish army, auguries of good were more needful than a commissariat; and their bards’ songs, like the Dorian flute of Greece, breathed a passionate valour that no blare of English trumpets could ever kindle. 

Bagnal’s army rested that night in Armagh; and the Irish bivouacked in the woods, each warrior covered by his shaggy cloak, under the stars of a summer night: — for to “an Irish rebell,” says Edmund Spenser, “the wood is his house against all weathers, and his mantle is his couch to sleep in.” But O’Neill, we may well believe slept not that night away; — the morrow was to put to proof what valour and discipline was in that Irish army which he had been so long organizing and training to meet this very hour. Before him lay a splendid army of tried English troops, in full march for his ancient seat of Dungannon, and led on by his mortal enemy. And O’Neill would not have had that host weakened by the desertion of a single man, nor commanded — no, not for his white wand of chieftaincy — by any leader but this his dearest foe. Ah! never had he desired the love of Bagnal’s sister with fonder eagerness than now his soul yearned for the heart’s blood of her brother. He watched the east and longed for the grey of morning. 

The tenth morning of August rose bright and serene upon the towers of Annagh and the silver waters of Avonmore. Before day dawned, the English army left the city in three divisions, and at sun-rise they were winding through the hills and woods behind the spot where now stands the little church of Grange. The sun was glancing on the corslets and spears of their glittering cavalry; their banners waved proudly, and their bugles rung clear in the morning air;15 when, suddenly, from the thickets on both sides of their path, a deadly volley of musketry swept through the foremost ranks. O’Neill had stationed here five hundred light-armed troops to guard the defiles; and in the shelter of thick groves of fir-trees they had silently waited for the enemy. Now they poured in their shot, volley after volley, and killed great numbers of the English: but the first division, led by Bagnal in person, after some hard fighting, carried the pass, dislodged the marksmen from their position and drove them backwards into the plain. The centre division under Cosby and Wingfield, and the rear-guard led by Cuin and Billing, supported in flank by the cavalry under Brooke, Montacute and Fleming,16 now pushed forward, speedily cleared the difficult country and formed in the open ground in front of the Irish lines. ”It was not quite safe,” says an Irish chronicler, (in admiration of Bagnal’s disposition of his forces) “to attack the nest of griffins and den of lions in which were placed the soldiers of London.”17 Bagnal, at the head of his first division, and aided by a body of cavalry, charged the Irish light-armed troops up to the very entrenchments, in front of which O’Neill’s foresight had prepared some pits, covered over with wattles and grass; and many of the English cavalry rushing impetuously forward, rolled headlong, both men and horses, into these trenches and perished. Still the Marshal’s chosen troops, with loud cheers and shouts of “St, George, for merry England!” resolutely attacked the entrenchments that stretched across the pass, battered them with cannon, and in one place succeeded, though with heavy loss, in forcing back their defenders. Then first the main body of O’Neill’s troops was brought into action; and with bagpipes sounding a charge, they fell upon the English, shouting their fierce battle-cries, Lamh-dearg! and O’Donnell Aboo! O’Neill himself, at the head of a body of horse, pricked forward to seek out Bagnal amidst the throng of battle;18 but they never met: the marshal, who had done his devoir that day like a good soldier, was shot through the brain by some unknown marksman: the division he had led was forced back by the furious onslaught of the Irish, and put to utter rout; and, what added to their confusion, a cart of gunpowder exploded amidst the English ranks and blew many of their men to atoms. And now the cavalry of Tyr-connell and Tyr-owen dashed into the plain and bore down the remnant of Brooke’s and Fleming’s horse: the columns of Wingfield and Cosby reeled before their rushing charge — while in front, to the war-cry of Bataillah-Aboo!19 the swords and axes of the heavy-armed galloglasses were raging amongst the Saxon ranks. By this time the cannon were all taken; the cries of “St. George” had failed, or turned into death-shrieks; and once more, England’s royal standard sunk before the Red Hand of Tyr-owen. 

The last who resisted was the traitor O’Reilly: twice he tried to rally the flying squadrons but was slain in the attempt: and at last the whole of that fine army was utterly routed, and fled pell-mell towards Armagh, with die Irish hanging fiercely on their rear. Amidst the woods and marshes all connexion and order were speedily lost; and as O’Donnell’s chronicler has it, they were “pursued in couples, in threes, in scores, in thirties, and in hundreds,” and so cut down in detail by their avenging pursuers. In one spot especially the carnage was terrible, and the country people yet point out the lane where that hideous rout passed by, and call it to this day the “Bloody Loaning.” Two thousand five hundred English were slain in the battle and flight, including twenty-three superior officers, besides lieutenants and ensigns. Twelve thousand gold pieces, thirty-four standards, all the musical instruments and cannon, with a long train of provision waggons, were a rich spoil for the Irish army. The confederates had only two hundred slain and six hundred wounded.20 

Fifteen hundred English found shelter in the city, which was forthwith closely invested by the victorious Irish, and “for three days and three nights nothing passed in or out.”21 On the fourth day they surrendered the place; and although some of the chieftains would have taken cruel revenge upon these unfortunate survivors of the battle, O’Neill’s voice prevailed, and they were disarmed and sent in safety to the Pale. Portmore was instantly yielded and its garrison dismissed with the rest. 

“Thus,” says Camden, “Tyr-owen triumphed according to his heart’s desire over his adversary.” All Saxon soldiery vanished speedily from the fields of Ulster, and the Bloody Hand once more waved over the towers of Newry and Armagh. 

1 Moryson, Mac Geoghegan. 

2 Moryson.

3 Moryson.

4 MS. Life of O’Donnell.

5 MS. Life of O’Donnell.

6 Peter Lombard cited by Mac Geoghegan.

7 Son of the baron. Irish names were sometimes formed from the English titles of honour, as Mac an Barlas. children of the Earl of Clanrickarde.

8 The Mac Gwires and O’Reillys had formerly been Uriaghts of O’Donnell.

9 Moryson is the authority for these numbers. He reckons in all of the Ulster troops 1,702 horsemen, and 7,220 foot-soldiers.

10 Afterwards called Maryborough.

11 Moryson.

12 O’Sullivan.

13 Or it may have been called yellow from the colour of the soil, which seems filled with ochre. 

14 MS. Life of O’Donnell.

15 “Sereno et grato die, vexillis explicatis, tubarum clangore tibiarum concentu,” &c. — O’Sullivan. He is the only writer, Irish or foreign, who gives an intelligible account of O’Neill’s battles; but he was a soldier as well as a chronicler.

16 Camden. Queen Eliz.

17 MS. Life of O’Donnell.

18 “Tyrone pricked forward with rage of envy and settled rancour.” — Moryson.

19 “The cause of the noble Staff.” War-cry of the Tyr-connell galloglasses, whose hereditary leader was one of the Mac Swynes — Ware Antiq,

20 O’Sullivan. See also Mac Geoghegan and MS. Life of O’Donnell. Moryson admits on the part of the English only 1,500 slain. The Irish piously buried all the dead — Irish Annals cited by Curry.

21 MS. Life of O’Donnell.