A. D. 1599—1600.

Bagnal’s death, and the signal disaster of the Yellow Ford, frightened and enraged Queen Elizabeth’s government and people. The military prowess of this formidable Northern chief was even exaggerated in their estimate; and Moryson himself tells us that “the generall voyce was of Tyrone amongst the English after the defeat of Blackwater, as of Hannibal among the Romans after the defeat of Cannae.” The queen was highly enraged against her Lord Lieutenant for remaining idly in Leinster, engaged in petty contention with the O’Mores and O’Byrnes, whilst he had intrusted to Marshal Bagnal the leading of those fine troops which she had sent him, to end, as she hoped, these Irish wars at a blow. Yet it was by no means clear that Ormond’s commanding the army in person would have ensured a victory. An enemy was now to be dealt with such as England had never encountered upon Irish soil before; and it was plain that the amount of forces hitherto employed in Ireland would no longer suffice. De Burgh and Kildare, Norreys and Bagnal had been successively hurled back from the frontiers of Ulster with ignominious rout and overthrow; each campaign only strengthening O’Neill, wasting the power and ruining the reputation of English government, until at length a time had come when either the Queen of England must at once yield up her footing upon Irish ground, or put forth all the powers of an empire to retain it.

Two thousand men under Sir Samuel Bagnal were hastily sent over to strengthen Ormond’s garrisons in the mean time. And Robert Devereux. Earl of Essex, then the most powerful subject in England, the queen’s prime favourite, and son to that Essex who had made the unfortunate attempt to plunder, convert, and colonize the North, was selected as Lord Lieutenant and commander-in-chief of the splendid army now destined for Irish service. Some dark intrigues there were connected with his appointment—malignant contrivances of his enemies at court—self-seeking machinations of his friends at court—a whole net-work of court intrigue; which may be found in English historians, but in which we do not here concern ourselves. Essex had commanded with some distinction against the Spaniards, and ardently coveted this Irish service as a sphere in which he might arrive at still higher fame; — might crush the dreaded O’Neill; and, as his friend and councillor Sir Francis Bacon expressed it, “refound and replant the policie of that nation.” “Which design,” continues Bacon, “as it doth descend to you from your noble father who lost his life in that action though he paid tribute to nature and not to fortune, so I hope your lordship shall be as fatal a captain to this war as Africanus was to the war of Carthage, after that both his uncle and his father had lost their lives in Spain in the same war.”[1]

Under such auspices, with such high hopes, and with twenty thousand men at his back, the Earl of Essex set forth for Ireland, and landed in Dublin on the 15th of April, 1599[2].* His instructions were to neglect, in a great degree, all chiefs of lesser note, and to strike at the head of the Irish confederacy by stationing strong garrisons at Lough Foyle and Ballyshannon[3], and then, having barred O’Neill’s country from its communications with Connaught and Scotland, to grapple with the chieftain in his fastnesses of Tyr-owen. The plans were unexceptionable, the means furnished to carry them out were enormous but it soon became apparent that the Man was a-wanting.

O’Neill and his confederates were not dismayed at the arrival of this great army and its magnificent leader. They did not now, what had been too frequent in Ireland, and what appears to have been looked for in the present case, vie with each other in proffering submissions and suing for pardons. O’Neill had, in Ulster, six thousand veteran and victorious troops; no landing of foreigners was likely to be made in Lough Foyle without stern resistance; and the chief himself, with his main body occupied the passes north of Dundalk, calmly watching for the first movement of his enemy. O’Donnell with four thousand men, was holding Connaught, and guarding the defiles near Lough Erne; O’More had greatly increased his forces in Leinster ; and, in the South, the Geraldines, headed by O’Neill’s Earl of Desmond, were once more in arms and eager to wipe away the shame of their former defeats. Ireland had never been so strong, so proud, or so united.  Foreign nations also, when they saw her so well able, to help herself, began to offer their assistance; and, early in June, a ship arrived from Spain in the bay of Donegal, carrying arms for two thousand men, all which O’Donnell divided into two equal parts, one for himself, and the other, says his chronicler, ” he sent to Hugh O’Neill, as was becoming.”

Lord Essex soon showed what mettle was in him. Instead of marching in force upon the North, he began to waste his strength by petty expeditions into Munster, and against O’More. He gave the command of all his cavalry to his friend Lord Southampton; conferred the honour of knighthood and an office of high trust upon one John Harington, a trifling courtier and devoted slave of his own; then led his vast army to besiege Cahir castle, a fortress of the Butlers situated on the Suir[4];  but, before he reached it, whilst he marched through Leix, five hundred of the O’Mores waited for him in a defile, fell upon his rear-guard, slew many of his men, and shore 60 many waving plumes from the high-crested cavalry of England that the place was afterwards named by the Irish, Bearna-na-cleite, the Pass of Plumes[5]. Essex, however, held on his way to Cahir; invested the castle, battered it with cannon, and after ten days’ stout resistance, and some hard fighting with Desmond and Redmond Burke who came to relieve the place, succeeded in taking it. Then, having received submissions from Lords Cahir and Roche, he advanced into Limerick, but near Crome was encountered by the Geraldines and Mac Carthys. Sir Thomas Norreys, Lord President of Munster, was slain in the battle[6] and the English army was totally defeated and forced to retire with heavy loss and disgrace; towards the Pale, closely pursued for six days by the victorious Irish. When Lord Essex arrived in Dublin, stung by defeat and shame, he found that a body of six hundred men whom he had stationed on the borders of the O’Byrne’s country, had been set upon by the Irish mountaineers and utterly routed with terrible carnage. Essex chose to impute this disaster to misconduct: he subjected the officers who had commanded that detachment to a trial by court-martial; and, with the ferocious cruelty that belongs to a coward, decimated the surviving soldiers.

Soon after that, finding that the queen was impatient of that petty warfare, and displeased that he had not yet measured swords with O’Neill, he wrote her majesty a long letter, describing the many difficulties he had to contend with, the powerful and disciplined troops of the Irish, consisting, as he says, of men with stronger bodies and more perfect in the use of arms than her majesty’s forces: and he tells the queen that to subdue these Irish their priests must be hunted down; that Bacon’s policy of division and disunion must be resorted to ; and that all purpose of establishing English law, sheriffs and the like, throughout the island must be well concealed until the military power of the chiefs should be ruined. Then he develops a systematic plan for reducing the North: to guard the coasts, to plant garrisons, to lay waste the country:—most judicious devices for the purpose, not one of which he ever attempted to carry into effect, being indeed wholly incompetent for such a service. And the letter concludes, as was usual in all communications from Elizabeth’s courtiers, with expressions of passionate admiration for her majesty’s person, and constancy eternal.

All this did not satisfy the imperious queen; and at last Essex, for very shame, was obliged to announce his purpose of marching northwards against O’Neill; then suddenly another urgent occasion arose, that he should first go to Leix and O’Fally against the O’Mores and O’Connors, whom, says the historian, “he brake with ease;” and after that, finding his army much weakened, he asked for a reinforcement of one thousand men before he could venture upon O’Neill. These were speedily sent to him: and now at length he seemed resolved upon the northern war, and actually sent orders to Sir Conyers Clifford to attack Belleek on the Saimer, so as to cause a diversion on that side, while he should himself penetrate Ulster by Dundalk and Newry. But once again he changed his mind, and, the summer being nearly wasted, wrote again to England that he could do no more this year, except draw his forces towards the borders of Ulster[7]. The truth seems to be, that this courtier-general had no stomach for the North; he trembled to encounter the conqueror of far abler leaders than himself, and his craven heart melted within him at the very name of Blackwater.

Sir Conyers Clifford, however, who was a veteran soldier, and not a courtier, having received his orders from the commander-in-chief, set forth to execute them at the head of two thousand men, consisting of fourteen hundred infantry and Lord Southampton’s horse, with some auxiliary cavalry supplied by Clanrickarde, and commanded by Lord Dunkellin. Long before Clifford was ready to march, O’Donnell and O’Ruarc had intelligence of the intended movement, and were already waiting for him in the mountains of Sligo and Breffni, “chasing wild deer” to pass the time until nobler game should come[8]. Clifford left Boyle and marched northward by the passes of the Corsliabh mountains, till he arrived at a wooded gorge, which the general thought it prudent to explore first with the infantry, leaving his baggage, cavalry and artillery on the plain.

He led the troops himself into the defile, and when he had advanced so far as to make retreat perilous, the bagpipes of the Irish were heard both in front and on every side: the cry of “O’Donnell-aboo!” rung through the hills; and, almost before the English saw an enemy, with the rush of a winter torrent the Clan-Conal was upon them. Clifford’s soldiers fought bravely, and sustained the charge like men who knew that to turn their backs was death: but nothing could stand against the fierce onset of O’Donnell’s clansmen: Clifford himself and Sir Henry Batcliffe were slain, and their whole force was soon totally routed and driven back with slaughter into the plain. The cavalry, under Jephson, having now ground where they could act, dashed amongst the Irish and charged them up to the very skirts of the wood; but after a severe struggle the cavalry also yielded, and the whole army retreated, or rather fled, to Boyle abbey, pursued for three miles by the victorious Irish[9]. Next day a council of war was held in Boyle by the surviving officers, Jephson, Lord Dunkellin and Sir Arthur Savage; and, as they heard that O’Donnell’s entire force was at hand, they thought it best to abandon the whole expedition and withdraw their troops into garrison[10].

This battle of the Corsliabh mountains[11] was followed by the surrender of Sligo to O’Donnell.  That place had been held for the English by Theobald Burke “of the Ships” and O’Connor of Sligo: but now Burke made sail, with all his ships, for Galway; and O’Connor, having submitted to O’Donnell, was reinstated in his chieftaincy, on engaging to assist his countrymen against the English.

Another royal army scattered, like chaff, upon the borders of Ulster: another veteran general slain : the months of summer trifled away: the army wearied by drift-less expeditions, disheartened by defeat, and thinned by the Irish battleaxes: these had been hitherto the net result of an enterprise of such pith and moment as the expedition under Lord Essex. Having failed, however, in his military operations, we are next to see his lordship trying negotiation. On O’Neill’s invitation he met the chief at the old place of parley, near Dundalk: they were both on horseback at opposite sides of the “ford Ballaclinch;”[12] and O’Neill, ever the flower of courtesy, spurred his horse into the middle of the stream while Essex stood upon the opposite bank. First they had a private conference, in which Lord Essex, won by the chivalrous bearing and kindly address of the chief, became, say English historians, too confidential with an enemy of his sovereign,[13] spoke without reserve of his pretensions, his daring hopes and most private thoughts of ambition; until O’Neill had sufficiently read his secret soul, fathomed his poor capacity and understood the full meanness of his shallow treason. Then Cormac O’Neill and five other Irish leaders were summoned on the one side; on the other Lord Southampton and an equal number of English officers; and a solemn parley was opened in due form. On this occasion the demands of O’Neill seemed to have been precisely what he had always required before—freedom of religion exemption from English government—restitution of plunder, (or in English phraseology, of forfeited estates) and Essex, it seems, protested on his part that he thought those terms altogether just, and promised to use his influence with the queen to have them agreed upon as the basis of a peace. For the present the conference ended in the parties agreeing to a six weeks’ truce, each retaining a right to begin hostilities again, upon giving notice to the other fourteen days before[14].

This notable truce had scarcely been concluded until Essex, taking violently to heart a severe rebuke contained in a letter from the queen, and fuming like a peevish child, suddenly, in the month of September, threw up his Irish command, left all powers of government in the hands of Archbishop Loftus and Sir George Carew—hurried to London, attended by his creature Harington and some others, and flung himself at the feet of her majesty—a place better suited to him than an Ulster hill-side, with darkwoods around him, and the Bloody Hand of O’Neill beckoning him onward. How he was received at Greenwich; how the virago queen ordered him into instant arrest; how she stormed and swore at his presumption in daring to quit his post in Ireland without leave asked, what treasons were alleged against him, and how it fared with him thereafter;—all this belongs to English history, not to Irish. Yet one reads with pleasure how the queen spurned from her presence the foolish knight Harington as he kneeled at her feet and sought to excuse his unfortunate master:— “She caiched at my girdle when I kneeled to her,” says Harington, “and swore, By God’s Son I am no Queen: that man is above me.” Then she demanded of Harington a journal which he had been ordered to keep of the transactions in Ireland; and on reading the record of disgrace, said fiercely, “By God’s Son ye are all idle knaves and the Lord Deputy worse”[15]—in which sentiment of her majesty there are few that will not probably concur.

But to return to Ireland: Hugh O’Neill had not been idle. He had renewed his intercourse with Spain; and King Philip the Second having died in this very month of September, his successor, who appears to have been impressed with a higher idea of the importance of the religious war in Ireland, instantly despatched two envoys to O’Neill—Don Martin de la Cerda, and Mattheo of Oviedo, the latter of whom was an ecclesiastic and appointed by the pope to the archbishopric of Dublin. They brought to Ireland papal indulgences for those who should fight against English heresy; and presented O’Neill with a “phoenix plume,” blessed by his holiness, and, what was more useful, with 22,000 pieces of gold[16].

The six-weeks’ truce made with Essex had expired: and O’Neill sent warning to the queen’s council that in fourteen days he would take the field again. In the mean time he marched through the centre of the island, at the head of his troops, to the South;—a kind of royal progress, which he thought fit to call a pilgrimage to Holy Cross: for he was aware that religion was the bond of union amongst his adherents in Munster, and accordingly appeared there, not in his character of a Celtic chieftain, but rather as the pope’s champion and leader of the Catholic cause. He held princely state at Holy Cross, concerted measures with the Southern lords, and distributed a manifesto, announcing himself as the accredited Defender of the Faith. Those chiefs whom he found zealous in the cause he strengthened and encouraged: “from such as he held doubtful,” says Stafford,[17] ” he took pledges, or detained them prisoners;” put in irons the White Knight and his son-in-law, Donogh Mac Corraac Carty, whom he found trafficking with the enemy; displaced Donal Mac Carthy from the chieftaincy of Clan-Carrha, and advanced to that dignity Florence Mac Carthy, who was more devoted to the good cause. Those who still held back from the national confederacy, and could not be moved by persuasion, he treated as enemies, wasting their lands and pursuing them with fire and sword that so they might be brought to a better mind.  One of the most powerful of these refractory lords was the Viscount Barry. O’Neill therefore let loose a body of troops upon his country, took some prisoners, and drove away a spoil of three thousand cows and four thousand horses; — and then, having given him so intelligible a warning, reasoned with him earnestly by letter[18]:

“My Lord Barry,—Your impietie to God, crueltie to your soule and bodie, tyrannie and ingratitude both to your followers and country are inexcusable and intolerable. You separated yourselfe from the unitie of Christ’s mysticall bodie, the Catholicke Church. You know the sword of extirpation hangeth over your head as well as ours, if things fall out other wayes than well: you are the cause why all the nobilitie of the South (from the east part unto the west) you being linked unto each one of them, either in affinitie or consanguinitie, are not linked together to shake oflf the cruell yoake of heresie and tyrannie, with which our soules and bodies are opprest. All those aforesaid, depending of your resolution, and relying to your judgment in this common cause of our religion and countrey; you might forsooth with their helpe, (and the reste that are combyned in this holy action,) not only defende yourselfe from the incursion and invasion of the English, but also (by God’s assistance, who miraculously and above all expectation gave good successe to the cause principally undertaken for his glorie, exaltation of religion, next for the restauration of the mines and preservation of the countrey,) expel them and deliver [them and] us from the most miserable and cruell exaction and subjection, enjoy your religion, safetie of wife and children, life, lands, and goods, which all are in hazard through your folly—Enter, I beseech you, into the closet of your conscience, and like a wise man weigh seriously the end of your actions, and take advise of those that can instruct you and informe you better than your owne private judgment can leade you unto. Consider and reade with attention and settled mind tins discourse I send you; that it may please God to set open your eyes and graunt you a better minde. From the campe this instant, Tuesday, the sixt of March, according to the new computation.  I pray you to send me the papers I sent you as soon as your honour shall reade the same.” – O’NEILL.

Lord Barry’s answer was spirited: he reminded O’Neill, that he, an Anglo-Irish baron, was altogether differently circumstanced with respect to the Queen of England, from the ancient Celtic race;—which indeed was true:—”for you shall understand,” he says, “that I hold my lordships and lands, immediately under God, of her majestic and her most noble progenitors, by corporal service, and of none other, by very ancient tenour; which service and tenour none may dispense withal but the true possessor of the crowne of England, being now our sovereign lady Queen Elizabeth.” He then demands “restitution of his spoyle and prisoners;—and after,” he continues, ”unless you be better advised for your loyalty, use your discretions against mee and mine, and spare not if you please, for I doubt not, with the helpe of God and my prince to bee quit with some of you hereafter, though now not able to use resistance. And so wishing you to become true and faithful subjects to God and your prince, I end, at Barry Court, this twenty-sixe of February, 1599″—1600.

It does not appear that O’Neill used any further severity towards Barry or his people in consequence of this obstinacy.

All this time the English forces in Munster lay closely shut up in Cork, and a few other garrisons, not daring to keep the field. Sir Warham Saint Leger and Sir Henry Power were now the queen’s commissioners for the government of these southern troops until a new Lord President of Munster should be appointed instead of Sir Thomas Norreys: but while O’Neill was in the South, their dominion was bounded by the walls of Cork. One day, in this same month of February, 1600, “Tyrone with his hell-hounds,” as an English historian has it, “being not far from Corke,” these two functionaries were riding out to take the air, about a mile from the city, accompanied by some officers and gentlemen and a guard of horsemen. Suddenly they were confronted by Mac Gwire at the head of a patrolling party of O’Neill’s cavalry; and, on the instant. Sir Warham discharged a pistol at the chieftain of Fermanagh and wounded him mortally; but Mac Gwire, before he fell, struck Saint Leger so crushing a blow with his truncheon upon the head, that he also fell dead from his horse. Save these two, not a blow was struck on either side[19]. The English betook themselves to the city, and ventured abroad more cautiously afterwards.

“The intent of O’Neill’s journey,” as Moryson tells us, “was to set as great combustion as he could in Munster, and so, taking pledges of the rebels, to leave them under the command of one chief head.” And now having accomplished his mission there, he turned his face homeward; marched through Ormond,—through Westmeath between Athlone and Mullingar, and arrived in his dominions of Ulster without meeting an enemy; although there was then in Ireland a royal army amounting, after all the havoc made in it during the past year, to 14,422 foot, and 1,231 horse[20], well provided with artillery and all military stores.

[1]Letter from Sir Francis Bacon to Essex Scrinia Sacra. This celebrated person, who was afterwards Lord Chancellor of England, and (being one of the basest of mankind) sold his judgments to the highest bidders, was about this time much occupied in devising methods of reducing and governing Ireland for behoof of his friend and patron Essex. His thoughts on the subject are conveyed in the “Considerations touching the Queen’s Service in Ireland,” cited before, and in two or three letters to Essex himself. A passage from the “Considerations” will indicate the general nature of his plans:—”One of the principal pretences whereby the heads of the rebellion have prevailed both with the people and the foreigner hath been the defence of the Catholique religion: and it is that likewise hath made the foreigner reciprocally more plausible with the rebel. Therefore a toleration of religion for a time not definite, except it be in some principal towns and precincts after he manner of some French edicts, seemeth to me to be a matter warrantable by religion, and in policie, of absolute necessity. Neither if any English Papist or recusant shall for liberty of his conscience transfer his person, family, and fortunes thither, do I hold it a matter of danger, but expedient to draw on undertaking and to further population.” Upon which fraudulent and cruel suggestion the English government really acted; for in the last years of Elizabeth, and first of James, no interference was made with Catholic worship in Ireland; some monasteries were repaired, priests appeared without disguise, and the mass was celebrated openly. But the toleration was “for a time not definite;” and, in 1605, King James issued that famous proclamation commencing—”Whereas his majesty is informed that his subjects of Ireland have been deceived by a false report, that his majesty was disposed to allow them liberty of conscience, and the free choice of a religion : he hereby declares to his beloved subjects of Ireland, that he will not admit of any such liberty of conscience as they were made to expect by such report.” And upon that declaration he most strictly acted. The same Bacon, in one of his private letters to Essex (Scinia Sacra) suggests for Ireland what he calls the “princely pollcie,” weaken by division and disunion.” Oh, sage Sir Francis! Thou hast indeed found the true Organon of Irish government :—these golden rules of thine,—to deceive by treacherous conciliation,—to weaken by division,—are to be the soul and marrow of English policy in Ireland for ever:—and for this thou shalt sit, robed in purest ermine, on the highest judicial seat of thy country, and shalt keep the conscience of a king.”

[2]Besides the large army which had been prepared for him he demanded, when about to leave England, that two more regiments of old soldiers should be placed at his disposal; which was immediately complied with. — “He had an army assigned him,” says Moryson, “as great as himself required, and such for number and strength as Ireland had never yet seene.”




[6]O’Sullivan. The English chroniclers make no mention of this battle: they always suppress as far as possiblewhatever is unfavourable to her majesty’s arms: but the author of the Pacata Hibernia, as if incidentally, speaks of the ” unfortunate death of Sir Thomas Norris, lately slaine by the rebels;” and also tells us that, at this time, the same ” rebels” were “swollen with pride by reason of their manifest victories, which almost in all encounters they had lately obtained.”


[8]MS. Life of O’Donnell.

[9]Moryson; Mac Geoghegan. The latter states the numbers killed on the side of the English at 1,400, the former at 120. Moryson also excuses the flight of Jephson’s horse, for that their powder, he says, was spent.


[11]Generally misscalled “the Curlews.”


[13]Camden; Moryson.

[14]For this conference, see Camden, Moryson. It was one of the treasons afterwards charged against Essex that he had entertained these proposals, and engaged to support them.

[15]Harrington’s Nugae Antique, cited by Lingard.

[16]O’Sullivan; Moryson.

[17]Or rather Carew: – author of the Pacata Hibernia.

[18]Pacata Hibernia.

[19]Pacata Hibernia.

[20]Moryson. Before O’Neill’s wars we hear of no English force employed m Ireland amounting to more than two or three thousand men.