Battle of Benburb

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Chapter XXIX

In the beginning of June, A.D. 1646, Owen Roe O'Neill marched against Monroe, with 5,000 foot and 500 horse. Monroe received notice of his approach; and although his force was far superior to O'Neill's, he sent for reinforcements of cavalry from his brother, Colonel George Monroe, who was stationed at Coleraine. But the Irish forces advanced more quickly than he expected; and on the 4th of June they had crossed the Blackwater, and encamped at Benburb. O'Neill selected his position admirably. He encamped between two small hills, with a wood in his rear. The river Blackwater protected him on the right, and an impassable bog on the left. Some brushwood in the front enabled him to conceal a party of musketeers; he was also well-informed of Monroe's movements, and took precautions to prevent the advance of his brother's forces. Monroe crossed the river at Kinard, at a considerable distance in the rear of his opponent, and then advanced, by a circuitous march, from the east and north. The approach was anticipated; and, on the 5th of June, 1646, the most magnificent victory ever recorded in the annals of Irish history was won.

The Irish army prepared for the great day with solemn religious observances. The whole army approached the sacraments of penance and holy communion, and thus were prepared alike for death or victory. The chaplain deputed by the Nuncio addressed them briefly, and appealed to their religious feelings; their General, Owen Roe, appealed to their nationality. How deeply outraged they had been, both in their religion and in their national feelings, has been already mentioned; how they fought for their altars and their domestic hearths will now be recorded.

O'Neill's skill as a military tactician is beyond all praise. For four long hours he engaged the attention of the enemy, until the glare of the burning summer sun had passed away, and until he had intercepted the reinforcements which Monroe expected. At last the decisive moment had arrived. Monroe thought he saw his brother's contingent in the distance; O'Neill knew that they were some of his own men who had beaten that very contingent. When the Scotch general was undeceived, he resolved to retire. O'Neill saw his advantage, and gave the command to charge. With one loud cry of vengeance for desecrated altars and desolated homes, the Irish soldiers dashed to the charge, and Monroe's ranks were broken, and his men driven to flight. Even the General himself fled so precipitately, that he left his hat, sword, and cloak after him, and never halted until he reached Lisburn. Lord Montgomery was taken prisoner, and 3,000 of the Scotch were left on the field. Of the Irish only seventy men were killed, and 200 wounded.

It was a great victory; and it was something more—it was a glorious victory; although Ireland remained, both as to political and religious freedom, much as it had been before. The standards captured on that bloody field were sent to the Nuncio at Limerick, and carried in procession to the Cathedral, where a solemn Te Deum was chanted—and that was all the result that came of it. Confusion thrice confounded followed in the rear. The King issued orders, under the compulsion of the Scotch, which Lord Digby declared to be just the contrary of what he really wished; and Ormonde proclaimed and ratified the treaty he had formerly declined to fulfil, while the "old Irish" everywhere indignantly rejected it. In Waterford, Clonmel, and Limerick, the people would not permit it even to be proclaimed. The Nuncio summoned a national synod in Waterford, at which it was condemned; and a decree was issued, on the 12th of August, declaring that all who adhered to such terms should be declared perjurers. Even Preston declared for the Nuncio; and the clergy and the nobles who led the unpopular cause, were obliged to ask Ormonde's assistance to help them out of their difficulty. The Earl arrived at Kilkenny with an armed force; but fled precipitately when he heard that O'Neill and Preston were advancing towards him.