The nine years war

Following his escape from Dublin castle, Red Hugh O’Donnell 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 O’Neill’s 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 O’Donnell castles in Ballyshannon and Donegal.

The English had occupied the monastery of Donegal, but in fear of the young warrior prince they soon evacuated it on his orders. O’Donnell 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, O’Dohertys and other Gaelic chiefs of Tir Connaill. At Kilmacrennan on 3rd May 1592, the senior O’Donnell resigned in favour of his son, who was duly elected chieftain of his clan.

Meanwhile, Hugh O’Neill was continuing with preparations for the conflict that he now knew was inevitable. He also realised that the continuous warfare between the O’Neills and the O’Donnells 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 O’Rourkes also joined forces to protect their territories against the English, and were joined by the McMahons who captured Monaghan. O’Neill would fight his last battle on the English side when they defeated Maguire near Belleek in 1593, a skirmish in which O’Neill was wounded.

Maguire and O’Donnell 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. O’Donnell then advanced into Connacht and captured many castles and towns before bringing the entire northern part of that province under his jurisdiction.

O’Neill 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. O’Neill 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 O’Neill 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 O’Neill. In that charge both O’Neills and Segrave’s 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 O’Neill 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.

O’Donnell 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 O’Donnell 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 O’Donnell castle, in an engagement that lasted several days during August. O’Neill and O’Donnell 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. O’Neill got news of the expedition and immediately summoned all the Ulster chieftains, including O’Donnell 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. O’Neill 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 Queen’s 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 O’Moores of Laois and the Desmond Geraldines joined in the rebellion, O’Neill’s sway extended over practically the entire country. Even the Butlers of Ormond joined in and O’Donnell, 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 O’Donnell. 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 O’Donnell over the English in the Curlew Hills in Sligo on 15th August.

O’Neill 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.

O’Neill 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 O’Neill. After his return to Ulster, the English captured the castle of Glin and the power of the Munster chieftains gradually began to wain. O’Moore 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 distress.

O’Donnell 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 O’Donnell and O’Neill.

Mountjoy made an incursion into O’Neill’s territory but was repulsed. One of the Burkes, allies of O’Donnell, was killed by Ormond in June 1601, but O’Donnell 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 England’s favour.