Battle of the Blackwater

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

The proceedings of the next two years—1596 and 1597—during which the struggle was varied by several efforts at negotiation, occupy too large a portion of history to be traced at length in these pages. The English forces were being steadily though slowly driven in upon the Pale from nearly all sides, and strenuous efforts were made to induce O'Neill to accept terms. He invariably professed the utmost readiness to do so; deplored the stern necessity that had driven him to claim his rights in the field, and debated conditions of peace; but, either mistrusting the designs of the English in treating with him, or because he had hopes far beyond anything they were likely to concede, he managed so that the negotiations somehow fell through at all times. On one occasion royal commissioners actually followed and chased him through the country with a royal "pardon" and treaty, which they were beseeching him to accept, but O'Neill continued to "miss" all appointments with them.

More than once the English bitterly felt that their quondam pupil was feathering his keenest arrows against them with plumes plucked from their own wing! But it was not in what they called "diplomacy" alone Hugh showed them to their cost that he had not forgotten his lessons. He could enliven the tedium of a siege—and, indeed, terminate it—by a ruse worthy of an humorist as of a strategist. On the expiration of one of the truces, we are told, he attacked Norrey's encampment with great fury, "and drove the English before him with heavy loss till they found shelter within the walls of Armagh." He sat down before the town and began a regular siege; "but the troops of Ulster were unused to a war of posts, and little skilled in reducing fortified places by mines, blockades, or artillery. They better loved a rushing charge in the open field, or the guerrilla warfare of the woods and mountains, and soon tired of sitting idly before battlements of stone.

O'Neill tried a stratagem. General Norreys had sent a quantity of provisions to relieve Armagh under a convoy of three companies of foot and a body of cavalry, and the Irish had surprised these troops by night, captured the stores, and made prisoners of all the convoy. O'Neill caused the English soldiers to be stripped of their uniform, and an equal number of his own men to be dressed in it, whom he ordered to appear by daybreak as if marching to relieve Armagh. Then, having stationed an ambuscade before morning in the walls of a ruined monastery lying on the eastern side of the city, he sent another body of troops to meet the red-coated gallow-glasses, so that when day dawned the defenders of Armagh beheld what they imagined to be a strong body of their countrymen in full march to relieve them with supplies of provisions, then they saw O'Neill's troops rush to attack these, and a furious conflict seemed to proceed, but apparently the English were overmatched, many of them fell, and the Irish were pressing forward, pouring in their shot and brandishing their battle-axes with all the tumult of a deadly fight. The hungry garrison could not endure this sight. A strong sallying party issued from the city and:rushed to support their friends; but when they came to the field of battle all the combatants on both sides turned their weapons against them alone.

"The English saw the snare that had been laid for them, and made for the walls again; but Con O'Neill and his party issued from the monastery and barred their retreat. They defended themselves gallantly, but were all cut to pieces, and the Irish entered Armagh in triumph. Stafford and the remnant of his garrison were allowed to retire to Dundalk, and O'Neill, who wanted no strong places, dismantled the fortifications and then abandoned the town."

Over several of the subsequent engagements in 1596 and 1597 I must pass rapidly, to reach the more important events in which the career of O'Neill culminated and closed.. My young readers can trace for themselves on the page of Irish history the episodes of valor and patriotism that memorize "Tyrrell's Pass" and "Portmore." The ignis fatuus of "aid from Spain" was still in O'Neill's eyes. He was waiting—but striking betimes, parleying with royal commissioners, and corresponding with King Philip, when he was not engaging Bagnal or Norreys; Red Hugh meanwhile echoing in Connaught every blow struck by O'Neill in Ulster. At length, in the summer of 1598, he seems to have thrown aside all reliance upon foreign aid, and to have organized his countrymen for a still more resolute stand than any they yet had made against the national enemy.

"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 detached fifteen hundred men and sent them to assist his ally, O'More, who was then besieging Porteloise, a fort of the English in Leix. Then he made a sudden stoop upon the castle of Portmore, which, says Moryson, 'was a great eyesore to him lying upon the chiefe passage into his country,' hoping to carry it by assault.

"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 Mullaghbane, 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 of the fortress. 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 Tyrconnell, consisted of four thousand five hundred foot and six hundred horse, and Bagnal's army amounted to an equal number of infantry and five hundred veteran horsemen, sheathed in corslets and headpieces, together with some field artillery, in which O'Neill was wholly wanting.

"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 Tyrconnell. They drew up their main body about a mile from Portmore, on the way to Armagh, where the plain was narrowed to a pass, inclosed 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 discolored stream from the bogs, and hence the pass was called Beal-an-atha-buie,"the mouth of the yellow ford.' 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.

"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 those bards' songs, like the Dorian flute of Greece, breathed a passionate valor 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 rebel,' 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 valor 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."

To Mr. Mitchel, whose vivid narrative I have so far been quoting, we are indebted for the following stirring description of O'Neill's greatest battle—ever memorable Beal-an-atha-buie:

"The tenth morning of August rose bright and serene upon the towers of Armagh and the silver waters of Avonmore. Before day dawned the English army left the city in three divisions, and at sunrise 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, 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 backward into the plain. The center division under Cosby and Wingfield and the rearguard led by Cuin and Billing, supported in flank by the cavalry under Brooke, Montacute, and Fleming, 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.' 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 intrenchments, 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 intrenchment 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 amid the throng of battle, 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 amid the English ranks and blew many of their men to atoms. And now the cavalry of Tyrconnell and Tyrowen 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 'Batail-lah-aboo!' the swords and axes of the heavy armed gallowglasses were raging among 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 Tyrowen."

Twelve thousand gold pieces, thirty-four standards, and all the artillery of the vanquished army were taken. Nearly three thousand dead were left by the English on the field. The splendid army of the Pale was, in fact, annihilated.