Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone (2)

Eleanor Hull
Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone | start of chapter

This wreck of the Spanish vessels on the northern coast was one of the immediate causes of the rebellion of O’Neill. He was brought into direct contact for the first time with representatives of that power on which the Irish were beginning to depend to deliver them from the English yoke, a nation at open war with England. His natural sympathy for the unfortunate young nobles thus cast ashore was strengthened by the fact that they were his co-religionists, in arms against the “heretic queen.”

His enemies in his own family seized on his intercourse with the Spanish strangers to undermine his position with the Government, Hugh Gavelock being especially industrious in spreading about rumours of his disaffection. It was for this reason that O’Neill put him out of the way by strangling him. But for many years O’Neill was to play a waiting game, not daring, and probably not desiring, to come to an open breach with the Government. He fought beside FitzWilliam against O’Rorke and Maguire, and he made frequent submissions, “craving the Queen’s mercy on the knees of his heart.”

He had allowed his country to be shired, but it was only with the greatest reluctance that he admitted sheriffs into Tyrone to execute English law. He had seen too much of their overbearing conduct in his near neighbourhood to desire their interference in his own country. It was largely on account of the exactions and cruelties of the sheriffs that Maguire had been driven to rise. He so much disliked their presence in Fermanagh that he had given three hundred cows to free himself from their presence. Nevertheless, Captain Willis was made Sheriff of Fermanagh, and he moved about the country attended by a hundred men and a host of mixed followers who robbed and spoiled the land.[7] Maguire drove them all into a church and would have put them to the sword but for Tyrone’s interference. He made a composition for their lives and sent them out of the country. Whereupon the Lord Deputy sent an army into Fermanagh, proclaimed Maguire a traitor, and captured his castle of Enniskillen. This massive castle still stands, as it stood in Hugh Maguire’s day, on an island at the junction of the Upper and Lower Loughs Erne, and it was fortified by a double ditch.

A contemporary poet describes in lively language a day spent within its walls; he speaks of the crowded courtyard of gentlemen, the minstrels and poets in the great hall, the artisans and craftsmen rimming beakers, forging weapons, dyeing rugs, riveting spear-heads; the women in their apartments embroidering rare tissues. Fighting men are everywhere, wounded men are tended by the leech, hostages come in, and prisoners are released; the sounds of the chase and the barking of hounds is heard without. They lie down to sleep knowing that long before dawn they will be up and away to raid a neighbouring town, to drive away its cattle, “to leave many a wife husbandless,” and burning wastes behind their path.[8]

Together Bagenal and Tyrone besieged this stronghold, Tyrone, who commanded the royalist cavalry, receiving a severe wound in the thigh while forcing the ford and pursuing the flying followers of Maguire up the bank. In the end the castle was captured only by the treachery of one of the defenders, who was bought over to throw open the gates and admit the English troops. The English entered, put all the defenders to the sword, and flung into the river the old people and children who had fled there for refuge. Bagenal and Bingham then retreated, the latter having brought up his Connacht troops during the course of the siege; but they left a garrison in Enniskillen to defend the castle against the army of O’Donnell, which was gathering for its attack.

Tyrone, angry at the report to the Government sent by his old foe Bagenal, who took to himself the whole credit of the capture of the Castle and completely ignored Tyrone’s large share in it, departed, wounded as he was, to his house at Dungannon, to brood over yet another cause of discontent.

O’Donnell, meanwhile, had brought up his army, and as soon as he heard that Tyrone was safely out of the way he laid siege to Enniskillen and reduced it to a state of famine. The English, hearing of the distress of the garrison, hastily got together a contingent of 2500 English and Irish fighting men, and sent up large supplies of meat, cheese, and biscuits.

O’Donnell appealed to Tyrone for help, thus placing him in a difficult position, for he was already suspected by the English; yet if he refused O’Donnell’s request he would be accounted an enemy to the Catholic cause. He knew that O’Donnell was in correspondence with Spain, but that there was little immediate hope of fresh assistance from that quarter; and he thought O’Donnell’s hosting to Enniskillen hasty and unwise.

It was perhaps by his intervention that his brother, Cormac, came up to O’Donnell with a body of well-armed troops just as the English forces arrived, and as evening fell they poured into them a close and heavy fire of leaden bullets which continued all through the night. The next morning, as the English troops were endeavouring to get their provisions for the castle across the ford of Farney, they were resisted in a series of well-planned and brilliantly executed attacks, and completely routed; the troops, with their commanders, fled terror-stricken before the Irish, leaving behind their horses, arms, and baggage. Numbers sank in the river, and others stuck fast in the marshy ground on its banks. So great was the quantity of biscuits scattered in the ford that it became known as the Ford of the Biscuits (Beal atha na m-brisghi).

The castle surrendered, and Maguire was restored. Then O’Donnell marched into Connacht, and slew every English settler he could find between the ages of fifteen and sixty who could not speak Irish, in revenge for the barbarities shown to the old people at Enniskillen. He left not an Englishman behind him outside the towns, for those that escaped his sword fled the country, railing with bitter curses against those who had brought them over into Ireland.[9]

An incident which made a deep impression on Tyrone’s mind, and which was undoubtedly one of the contributory causes of his rebellion, was the seizure of a brother of MacMahon, chief of Monaghan, who had surrendered his lands to the Queen and received them back by letters patent entitling him to hold under English law. He died without direct heirs, and his brother came up to Dublin to advocate his claims to the inheritance. He found that a bribe of six hundred cows was required of him before he could even get admittance to the authorities, and he was soon after clapped into prison. When he was released the Lord Deputy FitzWilliam promised to go himself and reinstate him in his property in Monaghan. They travelled north together, but hardly had they arrived when the unfortunate claimant was put into bolts, indicted, tried, and executed at his own house within two days, the jury being composed partly of soldiers and partly of his Irish tenants, who were kept close and starved until they brought in a verdict of guilty.

The country he claimed was divided between the Marshal, Sir Henry Bagenal, and Captain Henslow, who was made seneschal of the country and got MacMahon’s house and home-lands; “and the Irish spared not to say that these men were all the contrivers of his death, and that every one paid something for his share.” The Irish were no doubt right; and it was such high-handed acts of treachery as these that lay at the root of the rebellions of Tyrone’s day and more remotely, but not less certainly, of the great outbreak of 1641.[10]

There was slowly forming in Tyrone’s mind the project which was to occupy the whole of his future life—that of uniting the country in a Catholic League for the defence of their religion and lands, of which league he was to be the head and leader. He may already have consciously seen himself as the future king of a united Catholic Ireland, yet for the moment his “profound dissembling heart” managed to elude the suspicions that were rising in the minds of the officials both in Dublin and London.

In London his address and courtierlike bearing so won their way that he always returned with fresh assurances of the royal favour; in Dublin he attended the Protestant service at St Patrick’s with the Deputy, though the nobles of the Pale, when they had accompanied the Deputy to the church doors as they were in duty bound to do, were in the habit of “departing as if they were wild cats.”[11]

But actions of Tyrone that did not bear out these good signs of submission were constantly heard of. It was known that he was drilling soldiers on a plan of his own and that his whole population was rapidly being transformed into a disciplined army. By an arrangement with the State he had obtained the services of six experienced captains, ostensibly to train the six hundred men he was permitted to support to keep old Turlogh O’Neill in order.

By constantly changing the men in these companies and putting in raw recruits as fast as the men were trained, he rapidly succeeded in making the whole male population into drilled men-at-arms. Another of Tyrone’s activities that aroused suspicion was the erection of his new house at Dungannon.

The Government, fully approving of such an advance in “civility,” gave him permission to transport to Dungannon a great quantity of lead ostensibly to roof in the battlements; but ere long the rumour reached their ears that this lead was being used for making bullets. Bagenal seized the opportunity of representing the matter in the worst light to the Government, but Tyrone’s explanations seemed so satisfactory that his offer to go into England to clear himself was not taken advantage of, and a sharp rebuke was administered from London to the Deputy and the Marshal for having used the Earl “against law and equity.”

It was during this period of uncertainty, when Tyrone seemed to the officials at one time the most loyal of subjects and at another the author of all the disturbances in the North “however he dissembled to the contrary,” that Sir William FitzWilliam was recalled, and Sir William Russell took his place. Things had been moving rapidly, and by 1593 Hugh had made himself master of all Tyrone. He had drilled and armed large bodies of troops, and he was in communication both with the rebels in the South and with enemy powers abroad.

With the close of the year 1594 friendly relations between Tyrone and the Government were broken off, and though attempts at agreement were renewed the tidings of the Earl’s dealings with Spain, and the reports of his alliances and warlike preparations, were too well substantiated to be ignored. Shortly afterward he was proclaimed traitor in his own country. Coupled with him in this inclusive accusation were the names of O’Donnell, O’Rorke, Maguire, MacMahon, Sir Arthur and Henry Oge O’Neill, with several other of Tyrone’s near relations.

The accusations of treason were untried and unproven, and in many particulars the wrong done had been entirely on the Government side. But rumours of sympathetic risings in Leinster by the O’Byrnes and O’Kavanaghs and by the O’Connors of Offaly began to be heard of.

To be ready for all occasions three thousand troops were sent over, many of them seasoned men who had served under General Norris in the desolating wars in Brittany, and garrisons were planned for Ballyshannon and Lough Erne, to hold the interior of the country. Norris himself, an able commander who had made his name famous in the wars in France and the Low Countries, was sent at the Deputy’s urgent request to lead his old troops and was given the title of Lord General, a title which excited some jealousy in the Lord Deputy as giving Norris a higher position than himself in the organization of the war. But Norris was most unwilling to come to grips with Tyrone, alleging that he had been too sharply dealt with; and it was clear that Tyrone himself was going into rebellion with the greatest reluctance.

It was the intentional intercepting of letters which he had written to the Lord Deputy and Sir John Norris offering submission and appealing for milder treatment, “so that he might not be forced to a headlong breach of his loyalty,” that finally decided him to take up arms. This fatal act was the work of his old foe, Bagenal, who was bent upon his utter destruction and held back the letters which might have brought about a fresh reconciliation with the Government.

The winter campaign of 1595 proved the efficiency of the training given to Tyrone’s troops. The army at his command, though small in numbers and armed with inferior ordnance, inflicted on the seasoned soldiers of Norris and Mountjoy a series of severe defeats. Troops which had met and defeated the best armies of France and Spain on the plains of Flanders under the most renowned commanders of the day found themselves beaten in Ulster by troops that they had been taught to despise.

Essex “unwillingly confesses” that the rebels have better bodies and more perfect use of their arms than the men sent over by her Majesty and regrets that their reduction is so costly in time, industry, and money. The conditions under which the English troops fought were different from those to which they had been accustomed in Flanders. Instead of trench warfare, mining and countermining “like moles,” and long sieges, they now fought their way through a difficult country of wood and bog, every inch of which was known to their enemies, who blocked the gaps and passes, and barricaded the ways with solid barriers of timber, rushing down upon them from the heights and woods while they were entangled in the plains below.

For whole days the Irish forces would skirmish on the borders of the dense forests, not marching or fighting in order, as Essex complains, but “only by the benefit of their footmanship coming on and going off at their pleasure.”

With an army increased to four thousand men Norris marched north to relieve Monaghan, which the MacMahons were endeavouring to recover from the English garrison which held it. He first came in sight of O’Neill’s army at Clontibret, holding the ford which Norris must pass in order to reach Monaghan. A sharp skirmish followed, in which the Queen’s musketeers were twice worsted by the Irish, and Norris, who was leading them, had his horse shot under him.

In Norris’s army was a Meathman of great size and strength, who begged for a small body of cavalry that he might attack O’Neill hand to hand. They gripped each other with such force that both were dragged out of the saddle, but O’Neill slew Sedgreve as they fell, captured the royalist colours, and forced the troops to retreat. Monaghan had to surrender, and the fort of Portmore on the Blackwater was captured. Thus inauspiciously opened for Norris his first campaign in the North; he himself and his brother were both severely wounded in these wars.