The nine years
his escape from Dublin castle, Red Hugh ODonnell made
his way back to Ulster. It was a perilous journey as he
was hemmed in by enemies on all sides. Crossing the Boyne,
he avoided both Drogheda and Dundalk and made his way to
the safety of ONeills castle in Kinnard (Caledon)
in Tyrone. From there he headed west, stopping for rest
with the McKennas of North Monaghan, before reaching his
good friend, Maguire of Fermanagh. From here he was in safe
keeping and soon reached the ODonnell castles in Ballyshannon
The English had occupied the monastery of Donegal, but in
fear of the young warrior prince they soon evacuated it
on his orders. ODonnell was then attended by his physicians
who were unable to save his feet until they had cut off
both big toes, thus causing him permanent lameness. But
this did not deter him and he was soon joined by his aging
father as well as by MacSweeneys, ODohertys and other
Gaelic chiefs of Tir Connaill. At Kilmacrennan on 3rd May
1592, the senior ODonnell resigned in favour of his
son, who was duly elected chieftain of his clan.
Meanwhile, Hugh ONeill was continuing with preparations
for the conflict that he now knew was inevitable. He also
realised that the continuous warfare between the ONeills
and the ODonnells was weakening Ulster and accordingly
made peace with the young Tir Connaill chieftain. Very soon
the province would come under the peaceful protection of
The Two Hughs. The Maguires and ORourkes
also joined forces to protect their territories against
the English, and were joined by the McMahons who captured
Monaghan. ONeill would fight his last battle on the
English side when they defeated Maguire near Belleek in
1593, a skirmish in which ONeill was wounded.
Maguire and ODonnell laid siege to Enniskillen castle
and a relieving force of English was totally defeated by
the Irish. So much booty was captured after this engagement
that the place was called The Ford of the Biscuits.
Enniskillen castle surrendered and The Nine Years
War had truly begun. ODonnell then advanced
into Connacht and captured many castles and towns before
bringing the entire northern part of that province under
ONeill now decided to show his hand and also needed
a chance to blood his troops. The opportunity
arose when the garrison of Monaghan, which had been re-captured
by the English, came under constant attack from the McMahons
and McKennas. A relieving force under Marshall Bagenal was
sent to their assistance and moved out from Newry in May
1595. ONeill was informed and had the English force
under constant observation for most of the journey, but
decided not to attack until it was making the return journey
to Newry. On 27th May this force left Monaghan on the return
journey but was lured into an excellently prepared ambush
by ONeill at Clontibret and the first major battle
of the war took place. It lasted for over eight hours and
ended in victory for the Irish. Unfortunately, the remnants
of the English force made their escape when a captain named
Segrave volunteered to lead a charge against ONeill.
In that charge both ONeills and Segraves lances
were broken and the two men fell to the ground. A deadly
struggle ensued between the two, culminating in the death
of the Englishman, but the Irish attack had stood still
in awe at the deadly duel and allowed the remaining English
force to make its escape.
The Four Masters wrote of this battle - Their
(English) chiefs were glad to escape with their lives to
Newry, leaving behind them many men, horses, arms and valuable
things. Sir John Norris later bore testimony to the
valour, discipline and military skill of ONeill and
his native Irish soldiers on this occasion and expressed
the wish that he had their assistance in his services abroad.
All Ulster was now in arms.
ODonnell became master of Connacht and inflicted a
defeat on the English in the Curlew Hills before returning
to Ballyshannon. In 1596 peace proposals by the English
were rejected by the Irish and, when this news reached the
Queen, she immediately dispatched an army of 20,000 soldiers
to Ireland, but ODonnell continued to hold sway. In
1597 Elizabeth also sent a supply of gun-powder to Dublin
but an explosion destroyed most of it when it was being
drawn to Winetavern Street on 13th March and a large area
of the city was destroyed and many were killed.
More soldiers and arms were dispatched to Ireland but in
an attack on Ballyshannon they were defeated at Assaroe
and also failed in their attempt to take the ODonnell
castle, in an engagement that lasted several days during
August. ONeill and ODonnell both enjoyed many
other minor successes and a temporary peace was observed
from Christmas 1597 to May 1598, but was later rejected
by the English, and hostilities were resumed.
Yet another minor Irish victory was recorded at Tyrrellspass
in Westmeath and a further force of 600 soldiers was dispatched
from England, but was defeated as it passed from Dungarvan
up through Leinster. A huge army of 4000 foot and 600 horse
was then sent northwards from Dublin, through Drogheda,
Dundalk and Newry to Armagh, under Sir Henry Bagnall. ONeill
got news of the expedition and immediately summoned all
the Ulster chieftains, including ODonnell and his
Connacht allies, to come to his assistance.
The English marched to a place called the Yellow Ford
on the Ulster Blackwater, where they were met by the Irish
forces. ONeill had prepared the ground well, however,
and in an English attack many of them fell into prepared
concealed trenches and were slaughtered. Marshall Bagnall
was slain. An explosion also destroyed much of the English
store of gun-powder and many of them were killed. The remainder
were totally routed and fled in disorder to Armagh which
surrendered shortly afterwards.
The Four Masters later recorded: There
were found to be 2,500 slain, among them was the General,
with eighteen captains, and a great number of gentlemen
whose names are not given. The Queens people were
dispirited and depressed and the Irish joyous and exulting
after this conflict. The battle of Athbuidhe (Yellow Ford)
was fought on the 10th day of August. The chiefs of Ulster
returned to their respective homes in joyous triumph and
exultation, although they had lost many men.
All Ireland was now in arms and when the OMoores of
Laois and the Desmond Geraldines joined in the rebellion,
ONeills sway extended over practically the entire
country. Even the Butlers of Ormond joined in and ODonnell,
now based at Ballymote, overran all Galway and extended
his sway into Clare. Sir Richard Bingham was dispatched
to Ireland with 8,000 troops, whom he garrisoned in the
towns of the east, from Carrickfergus to Waterford.
Despite all these successes, there was still much dissension
among the Irish clans and many of them resented the incursions
of the Ulster earls, especially those of ODonnell.
The Earl of Essex arrived in May 1599 with a huge force
and marched westwards. He was joined by Ormond, who had
gone back to the English side, but he was repeatedly attacked
and defeated by Desmond in Limerick and returned to Dublin
in dissarray. A further great victory was won by ODonnell
over the English in the Curlew Hills in Sligo on 15th August.
ONeill met Essex on the Monaghan-Louth border late
in the year with a view to making peace but Essex got little
satisfaction from the Great Earl. Essex then returned to
England in November but, unfortunately for him, the Queen
thought little of his efforts and he was imprisoned in the
tower of London. He was replaced in Ireland by Lord Mountjoy
as Lord Justice and Sir George Carew as President of Munster.
These were accompanied in March 1600, by a large army as
well as a fleet, with orders to move to Ulster.
ONeill made an incursion southwards as far as Cashel
where he was joined by Desmond. Crossing the Lee, he was
joined by McCarthy and other Munster chieftains, but Maguire,
who had accompanied him, was killed in an engagement with
the English of Cork and this truly grieved ONeill.
After his return to Ulster, the English captured the castle
of Glin and the power of the Munster chieftains gradually
began to wain. OMoore of Laois was slain in August
and the English slowly regained control with Mountjoy initiating
a scorched earth policy that had the native Irish in dire
ODonnell made two further incursions into Thomond,
but was angered when one of his own kinsmen went over to
the English, resulting in a set-back when he attacked the
castle of Lifford. A Spanish ship with money and arms arrived
in Killybegs and these were divided between ODonnell
Mountjoy made an incursion into ONeills territory
but was repulsed. One of the Burkes, allies of ODonnell,
was killed by Ormond in June 1601, but ODonnell continued
to harass the English in the monastery of Donegal until
October, when news reached him that a Spanish expedition
had arrived in the South. Meanwhile Mountjoy made yet another
incursion through Moyry Pass into Ulster as far as Portmore.
Leaving garrisons in several towns he then returned to Dublin,
with the war now swinging in Englands favour.