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The Battle of Scarrifholis

The Battle of Scarrifholis takes place on June 21, 1650, near Letterkenny, County Donegal, during the Irish Confederate Wars. A force loyal to the Commonwealth of England commanded by Charles Coote defeats the Catholic Ulster Army, commanded by Heber MacMahon, Roman Catholic Bishop of Clogher.

Although slightly smaller than their opponents, Coote’s troops consist largely of veterans from the New Model Army and have three times the number of cavalry. After an hour of fighting, the Ulster army collapses and flees, losing most of its men, officers, weapons, and supplies. The battle secures the north of Ireland for the Commonwealth and clears the way to complete the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland.

The Irish Confederate Wars, sparked by the Irish Rebellion of 1641, are initially fought between the predominantly Catholic Confederation, and a largely Protestant Irish Royal Army, led by James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormond. Both claim to be loyal to Charles I, while there is a three sided war in Ulster. The latter involves Royalists, Gaelic Catholic leader Eoghan Ruadh Ó Néill, and Presbyterian militia, known as the Laggan Army, supported by Scots Covenanters under Robert Munro.

In September 1643, Ormond agrees a truce, or ‘Cessation’, with the Confederation, freeing his troops for use in England against Parliament in the First English Civil War. Some Irish Protestants object, and switch sides, including Sir Charles Coote, who becomes Parliamentarian commander in Connacht. Charles surrenders in 1646, while a Covenanter/Royalist uprising is quickly suppressed in the 1648 Second English Civil War. On January 17, 1649, the Confederation allies with Ormond’s Royalists. Following the execution of Charles on January 30, they are joined by the Laggan Army, and remaining Scots troops in Ulster.

There are various reasons for this. The Covenanter government, who provide support for Scottish settlers in Ulster, consider Oliver Cromwell and other leaders of the new Commonwealth of England dangerous political and religious radicals. As Scots, they object to the execution of their king by the English. As Presbyterians, they view monarchy as divinely ordained, making regicide also sacrilegious, and they transfer their allegiance to his son, Charles II of England.

However, this is offset by a split within the Confederation, between Catholic landowners who want to preserve the position prevailing in 1641, and those like Ó Néill, whose estates had been confiscated in 1607. As a result, he agrees a truce with Coote, and refuses to join the Alliance, depriving them of their most effective fighting force in the north. Despite this, by late July, Ormond’s combined Royalist/Confederate army control most of Ireland.

Ormond’s defeat at the Battle of Rathmines on August 2 allows Cromwell and an army of 12,000 to land in Dublin unopposed. After capturing Drogheda on September 11, his main force heads south towards Wexford. Colonel Robert Venables is sent north with three regiments, or around 2,500 men, to take control of Ulster. Munro’s garrisons surrender with minimal resistance, and by the end of September, Venables has occupied Dundalk, Carlingford, Newry, and Belfast. These are accompanied by the mass expulsion of Scots settlers, as punishment for their defection. When Coote captures Coleraine on September 15, he massacres the largely Scottish garrison.

Ó Néill’s death in November 1649 and Coote’s defeat of a combined Royalist/Covenanter force at Lisnagarvey in December leaves the Catholic Ulster army as the only remaining opposition to the Commonwealth in the north. At a meeting at Belturbet on March 18, 1650, Heber MacMahon, Catholic Bishop of Clogher, is appointed in his place. Although a leading figure in the Confederation, MacMahon has no military experience and opposes the alliance with Ormond’s Royalists. His election is essentially a compromise between supporters of Henry, Ó Néill’s son, and his cousin, Felim Ó Néill.

By May 20, MacMahon and his deputy Richard O’Farrell have assembled an army near Loughgall, with 5,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry. They lack both arms and artillery but after Ormond promises to send these from Connacht, they march north, intending to divide Coote’s troops at Derry from those commanded by Venables at Carrickfergus in the east. To do this, MacMahon establishes a line of garrisons with its northern end at Ballycastle, then moves south, intending to cross the River Foyle just below Lifford and maintain contact with Ormond through Ballyshannon.

At this point, Coote has only 1,400 men and seems vulnerable. The Irish cross the river on June 2, beating off an attack by the Commonwealth cavalry and occupy Lifford, where they spend the next two weeks and Coote withdraws to Derry. However, the supplies promised by Ormond fail to arrive, leaving MacMahon short of provisions, while on June 18 Coote is joined by an additional 1,000 infantry under Colonel Roger Fenwick sent from Belfast. At the same time, detaching men for the new garrisons leave MacMahon with around 4,000 infantry and 400 cavalry.

MacMahon now relocates to the Doonglebe/Tullygay Hill overlooking the pass at Scariffhollis, a strong defensive position two miles west of Letterkenny on the River Swilly. When Myles MacSweeney takes his regiment off to recapture his ancestral home at Doe Castle, it leaves the two armies roughly equal in number. However, Coote’s men are well equipped veterans and he has three times the number of cavalry. When he appears at Scariffhollis on June 21, MacMahon’s subordinates advise him not to risk battle. They argue Coote will soon be forced to retreat due to lack of provisions, allowing the Irish to withdraw into Connaught in good order.

For reasons that are still debated, MacMahon ignores this advice and on the morning of June 21, 1650 orders his troops down from their mountain camp to give battle. Coote later reports that although the ground is still “excessive bad,” it allows him to use his cavalry, although the initial fighting is conducted by the opposing infantry.

The Irish army is drawn up in a large mass formation with 200–300 musketeers in front, which may have been due to their shortage of ammunition. The battle begins when Colonel Fenwick leads a detachment of 150 men against the advance guard. After an exchange of fire, during which Fenwick is mortally wounded, it turns into a hand-to-hand struggle. As Coote feeds in reinforcements, the Irish musketeers fall back on their main force, which has no room to manoeuvre and is now subjected to devastating volleys at close range. After an hour of bitter conflict, the Irish are out of ammunition and at this point the Parliamentarian cavalry charges their flank. Thrown into disarray, the Irish break and run.

In most battles, flight is the point at which the defeated suffer the heaviest casualties, exacerbated by the lack of Irish cavalry and the brutal nature of the war. Most of the infantry dies on the battlefield or in the pursuit that follows, including Henry Ó Néill and many officers, some of whom are killed after surrendering. Estimates of the Irish dead range from 2,000 – 3,000, while Coote loses around 100 killed or wounded.

MacMahon escapes with 200 horse but is captured a week later and executed. Phelim Ó Néill and O’Farrell make it to Charlemont, which is besieged by Coote and surrenders on August 14. With the exception of a few scattered garrisons, this ends fighting in the north. Limerick is taken by Hardress Waller in October 1651 and the war ends when Galway surrenders to Coote in May 1652.

(Pictured: A view of the mouth of River Swilly at Lough Swilly, Letterkenny, County Donegal)