The Battle of the Yellow Ford, 1597-1598

Patrick Weston Joyce

444. Portmore was now—1597—occupied by captain Williams and his garrison of three hundred. No sooner had lord deputy Borough turned southward after his defeat at Drumflugh than O'Neill laid siege to it; and watching it night and day, tried every stratagem; but the vigilance and determination of Williams completely baffled him. At last he attempted a storm by means of scaling ladders; but the ladders turned out too short, and the storming party were met by such a fierce onslaught that they had to retire discomfited, leaving thirty-four of their men dead in the fosse. After this O'Neill tried no more active operations, but sat down, determined to starve the garrison into surrender.

445. When this had continued for some time, Williams and his men began to suffer sorely; and they would have been driven to surrender by mere starvation but for the good fortune of having seized and brought into the fort a number of O'Neill's horses, on which they now chiefly subsisted. Even with this supply they were so pressed by hunger that they ate every weed and every blade of grass they could pick up in the enclosure: but still the brave captain resolutely held out.

446. When tidings of these events reached Dublin, the council sat in long and anxious deliberations; but at last Marshal Bagenal persuaded them to entrust him with the perilous task of relieving the fort.

447. The marshal arrived at Armagh with an army of 4,000 foot and 350 horse. The five miles highway between the city and Portmore was a narrow strip of uneven ground, with bogs and woods at both sides; and right in the way, at Bellanaboy or the Yellow Ford, on the little river Callan, two miles north of Armagh, O'Neill had marshalled his forces, and determined to dispute the passage. His army was perhaps a little more numerous than that of his adversary, well trained and disciplined, armed and equipped after the English fashion, though not so well as Bagenal's army—they had no armour for instance, while many of the English had; and he had the advantage of an excellent position selected by himself. He had with him Hugh Roe O'Donnell, Maguire, and Mac Donnell of the Glens, all leaders of ability and experience. At intervals along the way he had dug deep holes and trenches, and had otherwise encumbered the line of march with felled trees and brushwood; and right in front of his main body extended a trench a mile long, five feet deep, and four feet across, with a thick hedge of thorns on top. Over these tremendous obstacles, in face of the whole strength of the Irish army, Bagenal must force his way if he is ever to reach the starving little band cooped up in Portmore.

448. But Bagenal was not a man easily daunted; and on the morning of the 14th August 1598 he began his march with music and drum. The army advanced in six regiments forming three divisions. The first division—two regiments—was commanded by colonel Percy, the marshal himself, as commander-in-chief, riding in the second regiment. The second division, consisting of the third and fourth regiments, was commanded by colonel Cosby and Sir Thomas Wingfield, and the third division by captains Coneys and Billings. The horse formed two divisions, one on each wing, under Sir Calisthenes Brooke, with captains Montague and Fleming. The regiments marched one behind another at intervals of 600 or 700 paces.

449. On the night before, O'Neill had sent forward 500 light-armed kern, who concealed themselves till morning in the woods and thickets along the way, and the English had not advanced far when these opened fire from both sides which they kept up during the whole march past. Through all obstacles—fire, bog, and pitfalls—the army struggled and fought resolutely, till the first regiment reached the great trench. A determined rush across, a brief and fierce hand to hand struggle, and in spite of all opposition they got to the other side. Instantly reforming, they pushed on, but had got only a little way when they were charged by a solid body of Irish and utterly overwhelmed.

450. It now appeared that a fatal mistake in tactics had been made by Bagenal. The several regiments were too far asunder, and the men of the vanguard were almost all killed before the second regiment could come up. When at last this second line appeared, O'Neill with a body of horse, knowing that Bagenal was at their head, spurred forward to seek him out and settle wrong and quarrel hand to hand. But they were not fated to meet. The brave marshal, fatigued with fighting, lifted his visor for a moment to look about him and take breath; but hardly had he done so when a musket ball pierced his brain and he fell lifeless.

451. Even after this catastrophe the second regiment passed the trench, and were augmented by those of the first who survived. These soon found themselves hard pressed; which Cosby becoming aware of, pushed on with his third regiment to their relief; but they were cut to pieces before he had come up. A cannon had got bogged in Cosby's rear, straight in the line of march, and the oxen that drew it having been killed, the men of the fourth regiment made frantic efforts to free it, fighting for their lives all the time, for the Irish were swarming all round them. Meantime during this delay Cosby's regiment was attacked and destroyed, and he himself was taken prisoner.

452. While all this was taking place in the English front, there was hard fighting in the rear. For O'Neill, who with a small party of horse had kept his place near the trench, fighting and issuing orders, had, at the beginning of the battle, sent towards the enemy's rear O'Donnell, Maguire, and Mac Donnell of the Glens, who passing by the flank of the second division, hotly engaged as they were, fell on the last two regiments, which after a prolonged struggle to get forward, "being hard sett to, retyred foully [in disorder] to Armagh."

453. The fourth regiment, at last leaving their cannon, made a dash for the trench; but scarcely had they started when a waggon of gunpowder exploded in their midst, by which they were "disrancked and rowted" and great numbers were killed, "wherewith the traitors were encouraged and our men dismayed." O'Neill, observing the confusion, seized the moment for a furious charge. The main body of the English had been already wavering after the explosion, and now there was a general rout of both middle and rear. Fighting on the side of the English was an Irish chief, Mailmora or Myles O'Reilly, who was known as Mailmora the Handsome, and who called himself the queen's O'Reilly. He made two or three desperate attempts to rally the flying squadrons, but all in vain; and at last he himself fell slain among the others.

454. The multitude fled back towards Armagh, protected by the cavalry under captain Montague, an able and intrepid officer, for Sir Calisthenes Brooke had been wounded; and the Irish pursued them—as the old Irish chronicler expresses it—"by pairs, threes, scores, and thirties." Two thousand of the English were killed, together with their general and nearly all the officers; and the victors became masters of the artillery, ammunition, and stores of the royal army. On the Irish side the loss is variously estimated from 200 to 700. This was the greatest overthrow the English ever suffered since they had set foot in Ireland.

455. The fugitives to the number of 1,500 shut themselves up in Armagh, where they were closely invested by the Irish. But Montague, with a body of horse, most courageously forced his way out and brought the evil tidings to Dublin. In a few days the garrisons of Armagh and Portmore capitulated—the valiant captain Williams yielding only after a most pressing message from Armagh—and were permitted to retire to Dundalk, leaving colours, drums, and ammunition behind.

456. When the southern chiefs heard of O'Neill's great victory, the Munster rebellion broke out like lightning. The confederates attacked the settlements to regain the lands that had been taken from them a dozen years before (414); they expelled the settlers; and before long they had recovered all Desmond's castles. The lord lieutenant and Sir Thomas Norris president of Munster were quite unable to cope with the rebellion, and left Munster to the rebels.

457. O'Neill, who now exercised almost as much authority as if he were king of Ireland, conferred the title of earl of Desmond on James Fitzgerald, who is known in history as the Sugan earl: he was nephew of the late (or rebel) earl.