Retreat of O'Sullivan Beare to Aherlow

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900
CHAPTER L. (continued)

Pushing on for Aherlow—-the unwounded of the soldiers carrying between them the wounded of the past three days' conflict—after a march of thirty miles they reached at length that "vast. solitude," as Don Philip calls it. They were so worn out by travel and hunger, toil and suffering, that the night sentinels posted around the little camp could scarcely perform their duty.[5] The prospect of recruiting , strength by a few days' repose here had to be abandoned, lest the foes now gathering around them might bar all way to the Shannon. So next morning, at dawn, having refreshed themselves with the only food available, herbs and water, [6] they set out northward. On this day one of their severest battles. had to be fought—a conflict of eight hours' duration. O'Sullivan says that, though the enemy exceeded greatly in numbers, they were deficient in military skill, otherwise the men of Bear must have been overpowered. From this forward the march grew every day more painful. Nature itself could not continue to endure such suffering. The fugitives dropped on the road from utter exhaustion, or strayed away in the wild, delirious search for food. In many instances the sentries at night died at their posts from sheer privation.

Arriving at Dunnohill, the starving soldiery at once occupied the place. The first who arrived ravenously devoured all the food; those who came next greedily ate everything in the way of corn, etc. On by Ballynakill, Sleive Felim, and Lateragh; each day a prolonged strife with foes on all sides. "It was not only," says Don Philip, "that they had to fight against superior numbers; but every day O'Sullivan had fresh enemies, while his soldiers were being worn out by cold, hunger, and incessant fighting." Still they guarded faithfully the women and children, and such of the aged as could walk without assistance; and maintained, though only by the utmost exertion, that strict discipline and precaution to which O'Sullivan largely owed his safety on this march. A vanguard of forty men always went in front; next came the sick and wounded, the women and children; next, the baggage and the ammunition; and, last of all, protecting the rear, Donal himself with the bulk of his little force. On the 6th of January, they reached the wood of Brosna (now Portland, in the parish of Lorha); and here Donal orders the little force to intrench themselves.

Their greatest peril is now at hand. The "lordly Shannon," wide and deep, is in their front; they have no boats; and the foe is crowding behind and around them. Donal's resort in this extremity was one worthy of his reputation as a skillful captain. Of the few horses now remaining in his cavalcade, he directed eleven to be killed. The skins he strained upon a firmly bound boat-frame which he had his soldiers to construct in the wood close by; the flesh was cooked as a luxury for the sick and wounded. In this boat, on the morning of the 8th of January, he commenced to transport his little force across the Shannon, from Redwood. As he was in the act of so doing, there arrived on the southern bank, where the women and children, and only a portion of the rearguard remained, the queen's sheriff of Tipperary and a strong force, who instantly "began to plunder the baggage, slaughter the camp followers, and throw the women and children into the river."[7] One of O'Sullivan's lieutenants, in charge of the small guard which, however, yet remained, fell upon them with such vehemence, that they retired, and the last of the fugitives crossed to the Connaught shore.

But there was still no rest for that hapless company. "The soldiers pressed by hunger divide themseves into two bands, and alternately sustain the attacks of the enemy, and collect provisions." Arriving at Aughrim-Hy-Maine a powerful and well ordered army under Sir Thomas Burke, Lord Clanricarde's brother, and Colonel Henry Malby, lay across their route. Even Carew himself informs us that the English force vastly exceeded the gaunt and famished band of O'Sullivan; though he does not venture into particulars. In truth Donal found himself compelled to face a pitched battle against a force of some eight hundred men with his wasted party, now reduced to less than three hundred. Carew briefly tells the story, so bitter for him to tell. "Nevertheless, when they saw that either they must make their way by the sword or perish, they gave a brave charge upon our men, in which Captain Malby was slaine; upon whose fall Sir Thomas and his troops fainting, with the loss of many men, studied their safety by flight."[8]

The quaint record in the "Annals of the Four Masters" is as follows: "O'Sullivan, O'Conor-Kerry, and William Burke, with their small party, were obliged to remain at Aughrim-Hy-Many to engage, fight, and sustain a battlefield, and test their true valor against the many hundreds oppressing and pursuing them. O'Sullivan, with rage, heroism, fury, and ferocity, rushed to the place where he saw the English, for it was against them that he cherished most animosity and hatred; and made no delay until he reached the spot where he saw their chief; so that he quickly and dexterously beheaded that noble Englishman, the son of Captain Malby. The forces there collected were then routed and a countless number of them slain,"[9] Beside Malby and Burke there were left on the field by the English "three standard bearers and several officers." It was a decisive victory for the Prince of Bear; but it only purchased for him a day's respite. That night, for the first time—terrible affliction—he had to march forward, unable to bring with him his sick or wounded! Next day the English (who could not win the fight) came up and butchered these helpless ones in cold blood! I summarize from the "Historiae Catholicae" the following narrative of the last days of this memorable retreat:

"Next day at dawn he crossed Slieve Muire (Mount Mary) and came down on some villages where he hoped to procure provisions. But he found all the cattle and provisions carried away, and the people of the district arrayed against him, under the command of Mac David, the lord of the place. He withdrew at dusk to some thick woods at Sliebh Iphlinn. But in the night he received information that the people intended to surround him and cut him off. Large fires were lighted to deceive his enemies, and he at once set off on a night march. The soldiers suffered exceedingly. They fell into deep snowdrifts, whence they dragged each other out with great difficulty.

"Next day they were overtaken by Mac David. But their determined attitude made their foes retire; and so they were allowed to betake themselves to another wood called Diamhbhrach, or the Solitude. Upon entering this refuge, the men, overpowered with fatigue, lay down and fell asleep. When O'Sullivan halted, finding only twelve companions with himself, he ordered fires to be lighted, in order that his scattered followers might know whither to turn upon waking.

"At dawn of next day numbers of the inhabitants flocked to O'Sullivan's bivouac, attracted by the unprecedented spectacle of so many fires in such a lonely solitude. They furnished him gratuitously with food, and subsequently informed Oliver Lombard, the governor of Connaught, that the fires had been kindled by the herdsmen. Many of the Catholics were found to suffer very much in their feet, by reason of the severity of the weather and the length of the march. O'Connor, especially, suffered grievously. To give as long a rest as possible, they remained all this day in the wood; but a night march was necessary for all. This was especially severe on O'Connor, as it was not possible that he could proceed on horseback. For, since the enemy occupied all the public routes and the paths practicable for a horse, they were obliged to creep along by out-of-the-way paths, and frequently to help each other in places where alone they could not move.

"A guide was wanted; but God provided one. A stranger presented himself, clad in a linen garment, with bare feet, having his head bound with a white cloth, and bearing a long pole shod with iron, and presenting an appearance well calculated to strike terror into the beholders. Having saluted O'Sullivan and the others, he thus addressed them: 'I know that you Catholics have been overwhelmed by various calamities, that you are fleeing from the tyranny of heretics, that at the hill of Aughrim you routed the queen's troops, and that you are now going to O'Ruarke, who is only fifteen miles off; but you want a guide. Therefore, a strong desire has come upon me of leading you thither.' After some hesitation O'Sullivan accepted his offer, and ordered him to receive two hundred gold pieces. These he took, 'not as a reward, but as a mark of our mutually grateful feelings for each other.' The darkness of the night, their ignorance of the country, and their unavoidable suspicion of their guide multiplied their fears. The slippery condition of the rocks over which they had to climb, the snow piled up by the wind, their fatigue and weakness, the swelling of their feet, tormented the unfortunate walkers. But O'Connor suffered most of all. His feet and legs were inflamed, and rapidly broke into ulcers. He suffered excruciating pain; but he bore it patiently for Jesus Christ. In the dead of the night they reached a hamlet, Knock Vicar (Mons Vicarii), where they refreshed themselves with fire and food. But when they were again about to proceed, O'Connor could not stand, much less walk. Then his fellow soldiers carried him in their arms in alternate batches of four, until they found a wretched horse, upon the back of which they placed him. At length, when they had passed Cor Sliebh, the sun having risen, their guide pointed out O'Ruarke's castle in the distance, and having assured them that all danger was now passed, he bade them farewell."

Not unlike the survivors of the Greek Ten Thousand, to whom they have been so often compared, who, when they first described the sea, broke from the ranks and rushed forward wildly shouting "Thalatta! Thalatta!" that group of mangled and bleeding fugitives—for now, alas! they were no more—when they saw through the trees in the distance the towers of Leitrim Castle, sank upon the earth, and for the first time since they had quitted Bear, gave way to passionate weeping, overpowered by strange paroxysms of joy, grief, suffering, and exultation. At last—at last!—they were safe! No more days of bloody combat, and nights of terror and unrest! No more of hunger's maddening pangs! No more of flight for life, with bleeding feet, over rugged roads, with murderous foes behind! Relief is at hand! They can sleep—they can rest. They are saved—they are saved! Then, kneeling on the sward, from their bursting hearts they cried aloud to the God of their fathers, who through an ordeal so awful had brought them, few as they were, at last to a haven of refuge!

They pushed forward, and about eleven o'clock in the forenoon reached O'Rorke's castle. Here they were gazed upon as if they were objects of miraculous wonder. All that generous kindness and tender sympathy could devise, was quickly called to their aid. Their wounds and bruises were tended by a hundred eager hands. Their every want was anticipated. Alas! how few of them now remained to claim these kindly offices. Of the thousand souls who had set out from Glengarriffe, not one hundred entered the friendly portals of Brefny Hall. Only thirty-five came in with O'Sullivan that morning. Of these, but one was a woman—the aged mother of Don Philip, the historian; eighteen were attendants or camp-followers, and only sixteen were armed men! About fifty more came in next day, in twos and threes, or were found by searching parties sent out by O'Rorke. All the rest, except some three hundred in all, who had strayed, perished on the way, by the sword, or by the terrible privations of the journey. This retreat was the last military achievement of Donal O'Sullivan. Some of the greatest commanders in history might be proud to claim an enterprise so heroic as their best title to the immortality of fame.


[5] " Historiae Catholicae Iberniae.

[6] Ibid.

[7] "Historiae Catholicae."

[8] "Pacata Hibernia." In the next following sentence Carew gives with horrid candor and equanimity, a picture, hardly to be paralleled in the records of savagery: "Next morning Sir Charles (Wilmot) coming to seeke the enemy in their campe, hee entered into their quarter without resistance, where he found nothing but hurt and sick men, whose pains and lives by the soldiers were both determined."

[9] "Annals of the Four Masters," page 2319.