Essex in Ireland and the Ulster Campaign (2)

Eleanor Hull
Essex in Ireland and the Ulster Campaign | start of chapter
Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy

Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy
Engraved from the painting by Juan Pantoja de la Cruz

When Essex fell the Queen said that she would have none other than Mountjoy to finish the Irish wars, for she believed that he alone “would cut the thread of that fatal rebellion and bring her in peace to her grave.”

Years previously, when Charles Blount was still a young student in the Inner Temple, the tall figure and sweet face of the lad had caught the Queen’s eye as he stood, according to the manners of the time, watching the Court at dinner. “Fail not to come to Court, and I will bethink myself how to do you good,” was the encouraging message she sent to him.

But Blount was too shy to be a successful courtier. He would slip away to the wars in Flanders or the fighting in Brittany with Sir John Norris to escape from the weary intrigues of the Court or the jealousy of Essex, who was set on the ruin of both men.

Refined by nature, loving a good pipe and a good table, beautiful houses and gardens, study and country life, Blount looked upon wars as things to be “hotly embraced” in the hope of more quickly returning to a quieter life. Essex thought him “too bookish” to succeed in Ireland, and, indeed, he carried the little peculiarities of a bookish man into his Irish campaigns, going out on his long marches with two, “yea, sometimes three pairs of silk stockings, three waistcoats, and a ruff, besides a russet scarf about his neck, thrice folded under it,” into which was tucked away “the single lock of hair under his left ear” which bespoke the dandy. In his severest campaigns he would insist on a long sleep in the afternoon, and Tyrone used to say of him that “all occasions of doing service would be passed ere he could be ready to have his breakfast.”

Nevertheless, Mountjoy showed himself a man of great ability and the most formidable opponent that the Ulster prince had yet encountered. Unlike former generals, who fought only during the summer months, he was out all the winter long, allowing the enemy neither time to sow his seed nor to reap his harvest, and “breaking their hearts” by keeping them on the run when the woods would yield no shelter to their lightly clad bodies. Though he pursued the detestable policy, of which Carew was the supreme example, of admitting none to mercy but such as had “drawn blood upon” or betrayed their fellows, he gained the trust of the Irish by keeping his promise inviolably to those who submitted; his public word, once given, could always be relied upon.

When Mountjoy landed in Ireland on February 26, 1600, he found himself surrounded by difficulties. The Munster rebellion was at its height, and Carew, who had crossed over with him, was dispatched to quell the disturbance in that province. Leix was ‘out’ under the irrepressible Owny O’More, and the power of Tyrone extended southward to the borders of the Pale. The encouraging advice that Mountjoy received on landing was “to credit no intelligence, which was commonly false, and to expect, besides the known enemy and a confused war, to find a broken state, a dangerous council, and false-hearted subjects.”[6] He soon learned that the Queen had few subjects of any sort who had not some kind of intelligence with Tyrone, even Ormonde being distrusted. The old army was so depleted that out of one company only three men could be found, and the Government was calling for reductions in expenses at the same moment that the English of the Pale were refusing supplies.

Never had British power and British prestige sunk so low in Ireland. By a series of brilliant victories O’Neill had made himself master in the North and virtual King of Ireland. Both at home and abroad he was looked upon as the head of a Catholic League recognized by the Pope, who sent him in 1599 a crown of peacock’s feathers and the title of “the Magnanimous Prince O’Neill.”[7]

The promises of Spanish help once more grew loud, and the dreams of Elizabeth and Cecil were disturbed by the important problem as to where the Spaniards were likely to land. Tyrone’s armies were acknowledged to be better trained and more efficient than any that could be sent over. Mountjoy expected to find hosts of “naked people” in Tyrone’s armies; but in fact he discovered that they were, in general, “better armed than we, knew better the use of their weapons than our men, and even exceeded us in discipline.” “I received the charge on February 28,” he writes hotly to the Council in London, “at which time I found the rebels in number and arms grown to the very height of pride and confidence by a continual line of their successes and our misfortunes … the army much discouraged in themselves and (believe me, my Lords, for you will hardly believe) much contemned by the rebels.”

The moment was a critical one. In January 1600 a month before Mountjoy’s arrival, Tyrone had carried out, almost without the cognizance of the Government, his rapid march into Munster to effect a junction with Desmond and incidentally “to set as great combustion as he could” in that province. His avowed object was to visit the Church of the Holy Cross in Tipperary, but the force of nearly three thousand foot and horse with which he arrived in Munster hardly supported the idea of a purely religious pilgrimage. He had come, in fact, to discuss with Desmond and the Southern insurgents a plan of united action for a general attempt to throw off the British yoke. He was joined at Cashel by James FitzThomas FitzGerald, the sougaun (‘Straw-rope’) Earl of Desmond, whose claims he had decided to support. He agreed to the election of Fineen (Florence) MacCarthy as the MacCarthy Mór, and the recognition by these two of O’Neill’s paramount position had the result of gathering to him every man of note in the new national party which was now formed under his leadership For a few months, from March to December 1600, the dream of a united Ireland seemed to be realized, with O’Neill at its head.

Once before, at the date of the battle of Down, had such a combination been brought about, also by the genius of an O’Neill, but, on that occasion, the hopes raised were destined to be shattered by the results of one fatal battle.

Hugh O’Neill’s struggle was a longer one. His objects accomplished and the South brought into close correspondence with the North, he retraced his steps to Ulster by one of those rapid marches which only Irish troops could accomplish. He completely baffled the watchfulness of the English, and reached his own country in eight days, having conducted a considerable part of his army all through Ireland from Munster to Tyrone.

One incident during this short stay in Munster made a deep impression alike on the English and the Irish. Young Hugh Maguire, Lord of Fermanagh, had accompanied Tyrone to the South with his band of followers. He was a great favourite with his people, and during his absence his family bard O’Hosey, at Enniskillen, was composing in his honour an exceptionally beautiful lay, lamenting that in the icy cold of winter the young chief should be exposed to the impetuous fury of the heavens in some wet and grass-clad ditch in a stranger’s land. The poet comforts himself by reflecting that Maguire surely will, according to his custom, warm his fingers by setting the whole country ablaze before his return home.[8]

But Maguire was destined to no more such feats of war. While in the South, he was riding out one morning close to the gates of Cork to exercise himself and his troop when, either by accident or design, Sir Wareham St Leger and Sir Henry Power, also with a guard of horse, passed across their path. They were acting as commissioners for the province until Carew’s arrival. St Leger and Maguire stopped short and fell into dispute. Sir Wareham raised his pistol and took aim at Maguire, while the latter, in order to ward off the shot, struck out at St Leger with his staff. Both fell, Maguire being killed on the spot and the commissioner dying shortly afterward from the wound in his head.

News of O’Neill’s movements having been brought to the new Viceroy, he determined, without a moment’s delay, to cut off his adversary’s retreat. He sent hasty messages to the Earls of Thomond and Clanricarde and to the Mayors of Galway and Limerick to hinder his passage. There were only two ways by which the army of Tyrone could return, either eastward by the borders of the Pale or west over the Shannon, and the Earl of Ormonde advised Mountjoy that the latter route would certainly be chosen. But it soon transpired that Tyrone had broken up his forces, leaving a thousand men to assist Desmond and eight hundred with Richard Butler, under Captain Tyrrell, whom he appointed to command in Leinster.

With his remaining forces Tyrone had, by what Mountjoy, when he heard of it, thought “an unreasonable day’s march,” slipped back into Ulster, only a few of his men being picked off by the Viceroy’s half-prepared scouts. The intelligence of this extraordinary forced march only reached Mountjoy when he had arrived to begin his campaign in Ulster, and the annoyance was increased by the news which he received at the same time of Sir Wareham St Leger’s death. Nor was he likely to have been cheered by the tidings of Ormonde’s capture by the the O’Mores and of Carew’s narrow escape on their journey into Munster.

On May 5 the Lord Deputy with a large army started for the North. At Drogheda, or “Tredagh” as the English called it, he was joined by the troops returning from victualling Philipstown, and on Whitsunday morning he passed Moira and occupied Newry. He had with him some of the most experienced officers of his day: among others Sir Richard Wingfield, Sir Oliver Lambert, Sir Richard Moryson, Captains Williams and Blany, etc.

Mountjoy’s instructions were much the same as those given to Essex, but disobeyed by him; forts were to be built on Lough Foyle and at Ballyshannon to control Tyrone and O’Donnell from behind, and considerable garrisons were to be permanently placed in them. It was held that these could be victualled and reinforced by sea, and that they could keep in touch with Carrickfergus, the only fort in Ulster farther north than Drogheda, Newry, and Trim, held by the English.

The considerable number of gentlemen’s houses existing in the counties of Meath and Westmeath capable of entertaining large parties of officers such as Mountjoy brought with him made progress easy. In the midst of the terrors of the time it is curious to read such an account as that of Captain Josiah Bodley, brother of the founder of the Bodleian Library at Oxford, who arrived on Christmas Day 1602, after a cold ride over the mountains, at Sir Richard Moryson’s house at Lecale. There, having consumed “plenty of tobacco in nice pipes, and Spanish wine flavoured with burnt sugar, nutmeg, and ginger,” they sat over a large fire and “conversed profoundly about things political, economical, philosophical, and much else” after the manner of the much travelled and widely read courtier-soldiers of the day.[9]

On a later journey from Trim to Athlone Mountjoy slept every night at some large house, probably many of them fortified, for the insurgents occupied most of the open country. He mentions the Baron of Tremblestown’s house near the town of Mullingar, Sir Francis Shane’s house at Ballymore, Sir Tibbot Dillon’s and the Lord of Delvin’s houses, and Bryan MacGeoghegan’s castle at Danoar, all about ten or twelve miles apart from each other.

We also hear of a ruined house of Sir Edward Herbert in a pleasant valley of Westmeath, of Sir Edward FitzGerald’s house in a pleasant and fruitful district in Meath, of Sir James Dillon’s “very pleasant house” at Moymeere, besides Ardbraccan, the dwelling of the Bishops of Meath.

The most gracious and charming of all the gentlemen’s mansions must have been Sir Garrett Moore’s spacious dwelling at Drogheda, formed out of the ruins of the Cistercian abbey of Mellifont on the Boyne. He was a man of taste and culture, and his gardens were famous for their beauty. Sir Garrett, though an English planter, was a friend to Tyrone, and his hospitable house was always open when there was a chance of reconciliation between the ‘rebel,’ who had at times to remind his English foes that he was also a nobleman, and the Government.

Mountjoy’s march to the Blackwater was designed to attract the attention of Tyrone and draw him southward while the main project he had in view was being carried out. This was the expedition fitted out under Sir Henry Docwra, who was meanwhile sent round by sea with 4000 foot and 200 horse to land at Lough Foyle and begin the erection of the fort of Culmore. Sir Henry, who had seen service in Connacht and was familiar with Irish conditions, succeeded in landing his men not far from Derry, then in an abandoned condition, containing the ruins of the old abbey and bishop’s house, and of two churches and a castle.[10] They decided to make this the site of their settlement “as being somewhat high and therefore dry,” and they built two forts, one near the castle and one beside the cathedral, for which they used the old stones along with those they dug out of a new quarry close at hand.

They cut down trees in O’Kane’s country, “but not a stick of it but was first well fought for,” and they managed to establish themselves sufficiently to resist the attacks that were constantly made upon their fort.

As soon as he heard of their success Mountjoy prepared to return to Dublin, but not until he had re-established a fort on the Blackwater, close to Tyrone’s late home, which he had burned down with his own hands when he first got news of the English advance into his country. This fort Mountjoy looked upon as opening a permanent way into the interior of Ulster. He had had a sharp brush with Tyrone near Four Mile Water, and constant skirmishing went on, but he carried his point, and kept Tyrone engaged till the purpose for which he had come north was accomplished. He named his Blackwater fort after Sir John Norris, who had first projected such a fort at this spot.

During the following year Chichester, the governor of Carrickfergus, erected two other forts, Mountjoy Fort and Charlemont on the Blackwater, a few miles farther north. By that time it was believed that the neck of the rebellion was as good as thoroughly broken.

Before his return to Dublin Mountjoy made a demonstration as far north as Carrickfergus. On his return journey he found the Irish forces posted strongly on the narrow passage at the foot of the Mourne Mountains which lies along Carlingford Lough. The thick woods which clothe the slopes of the hills down to the water were filled with Tyrone’s men, fighting with all the advantage of the ground, and to get the guns through was a matter of great difficulty.

Fynes Moryson, walking in his brother’s garden six miles distant, “sensibly heard by reverberation of the wall the sound of the volleys of shot.” The man next to Tyrone was killed, and, on the English side, many of the officers were sorely hurt. The Lord Deputy’s secretary was killed, which brought Moryson, whose memoirs are our chief guide to these events, into Mountjoy’s service. Captain Trevor, endeavouring to bring up the guns, fell, and the spot has ever since borne his name, as Rosstrevor.[11]

The building of the fort at Ballyshannon on Donegal Bay did not progress so well. It was in the heart of O’Donnell’s country, and Sir Henry Docwra, a capable officer and honest man, well thought of by both sides, had his hands already full in retaining his hold on his two forts near Derry, with the O’Kanes (O’Cahain) on one side and the MacSweeneys on the other. He was sorely wounded by the slash of a forked javelin or staff in the head, and Chamberlayn, his second in command, had been killed in a skirmish. Food came irregularly, and his small companies were melting away.

It was the policy of the English, in such circumstances, to try to win over some member of the leading families by promise of reward. They offered Sir Arthur O’Neill, Turlogh’s son, the title of Earl of Tyrone instead of Hugh “if the other that maintained the rebellion could be dispossessed of the country”; to Hugh Garbh or “the Rough” O’Donnell they offered the title of Earl of Tyrconnel instead of Hugh Roe, his cousin. Both came in, and brought acceptable accessions of strength, as well as provisions, to Docwra.

Hugh Garbh, though he possessed the full confidence of Hugh Roe, had long coveted his place and power, and the seizure of his castle of Lifford by his cousin decided him to go over to the English. He was not a very stable acquisition and gave both sides plenty of trouble. Docwra found him “like a quince requiring great cost ere it be good to eat; proud, valiant, tyrannous, unmeasurably covetous, without any knowledge of God or almost any civility.”[12]

Unmeasurably covetous he undoubtedly was, claiming not only Tyrconnel, but Tyrone, Fermanagh, and all parts of Connacht over which the O’Donnells had ever had authority. “And he would have the people swear allegiance to him and not to the Queen.” The English used him and then threw him aside, and even his own people did not regret his fate. O’Donnell found him a thorn in his side, “prying about to see whether they might get a chance of a prey for the English.”

A great blow was given to O’Donnell’s hopes when, instead of the Spanish armada he expected, a single vessel with quite inadequate supplies arrived in Donegal Bay, under the command of a Franciscan who came as joint envoy of Pope Clement VIII and of Philip III of Spain, but who brought little except the usual ample promises of support. His correspondence shows that the Viceroy was making great efforts for peace, “to all which they reply most honourably that they will hold out so long as they have one soldier or there remains one cow to eat,”[13]

It was on one of Niall Garbh’s raids that Donegal monastery was destroyed by an explosion of gunpowder on August 10, 1601; hundreds of the besieged were blown to pieces, and others, including Niall’s brother, were crushed under the falling masonry.[14]

Later the few remaining friars crept back and rebuilt their cells; and it was within these ruinous walls that between January 1632 and August 1636 Friar Michael O’Clery and his fellow-workers compiled the Annals of Donegal, better known as the Annals of the Four Masters, bringing them down to their own date.

The news that the Spaniards had landed in Kinsale caused O’Donnell to break up his camp and march south. On the day that this news reached Docwra, the English commander set out for Donegal and captured Ballyshannon. Thus the main purpose of his journey to Ulster was at last accomplished.