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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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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)


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Death of Owen Roe O’Neill, Member of the O’Neill Dynasty of Ulster

Owen Roe O’Neill, Gaelic Irish soldier and one of the most famous of the O’Neill dynasty of Ulster, dies on November 6, 1649 at the O’Reilly stronghold of Cloughoughter Castle located on an island in Lough Oughter in County Cavan.

O’Neill is the illegitimate son of Art MacBaron O’Neill, a younger brother of Hugh O’Neill, 2nd Earl of Tyrone, who holds lands in County Armagh. His mother is the daughter of Aodh Conallach O’Raghallaigh, the chief of Breifne O’Reilly in County Cavan.

As a young man O’Neill leaves Ireland, one of the ninety-nine involved in the Flight of the Earls escaping the English conquest of his native Ulster. He grows up in the Spanish Netherlands and spends 40 years serving in the Irish regiment of the Spanish army. He sees most of his combat in the Eighty Years’ War against the Dutch Republic in Flanders, notably at the Siege of Arras, where he commands the Spanish garrison. He also distinguishes himself in the Franco-Spanish War by holding out for 48 days with 2,000 men against a French army of 35,000.

O’Neill is, like many Gaelic Irish officers in the Spanish service, very hostile to the English Protestant presence in Ireland. In 1627, he is involved in petitioning the Spanish monarchy to invade Ireland using the Irish Spanish regiments. He proposes that Ireland be made a republic under Spanish protection to avoid in-fighting between Irish Catholic landed families over which of them would provide a prince or king of Ireland. This plot comes to nothing. However in 1642, He returns to Ireland with 300 veterans to aid the Irish Rebellion of 1641.

The subsequent war, known as the Irish Confederate Wars, is part of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, civil wars throughout Britain and Ireland. Because of his military experience, O’Neill is recognised on his return to Ireland in July 1642, at Doe Castle in County Donegal, as the leading representative of the O’Neills and head of the Ulster Irish. Sir Phelim O’Neill resigns the northern command of the Irish rebellion in his favour and escorts him from Lough Swilly to Charlemont.

Jealousy between the kinsmen is complicated by differences between O’Neill and the Catholic Confederation which meet at Kilkenny in October 1642. O’Neill professes to be acting in the interest of Charles I, but his real aim is the complete Independence of Ireland as a Roman Catholic country, while the Old English Catholics represented by the council desire to secure religious liberty and an Irish constitution under the crown of England. More concretely, O’Neill wants the Plantation of Ulster overturned and the recovery of the O’Neill clan’s ancestral lands. Moreover, he is unhappy that the majority of Confederate military resources are directed to Thomas Preston‘s Leinster army. Preston is also a Spanish veteran but he and O’Neill have an intense personal dislike of each other.

Although O’Neill is a competent general, he is outnumbered by the Scottish Covenanter army that lands in Ulster in 1642. Following a reverse at Clones, he has to abandon central Ulster and is followed by thousands of refugees, fleeing the retribution of the Scottish soldiers for some atrocities against Protestants in the rebellion of 1641. He does his best to stop the killings of Protestant civilians, for which he receives the gratitude of many Protestant settlers. From 1642–1646 a stalemate exists in Ulster, which he uses to train and discipline his Ulster Army. This poorly supplied force nevertheless gains a very bad reputation for plundering and robbing friendly civilians around its quarters in northern Leinster and southern Ulster.

In 1646 O’Neill, with substantial Gallowglass numbers and additionally furnished with supplies by the Papal Nuncio, Giovanni Battista Rinuccini, attacks the Scottish Covenanter army under Major-General Robert Monro, who had landed in Ireland in April 1642. On June 5, 1646 O’Neill utterly routs Monro at the Battle of Benburb, killing or capturing up to 3,000 Scots. However after being summoned to the south by Rinuccini, he fails to take advantage of the victory, and allows Monro to remain unmolested at Carrickfergus.

In March 1646 a treaty is signed between James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormond and the Catholics, which would have committed the Catholics to sending troops to aid the Royalist cause in the English Civil War. The peace terms however, are rejected by a majority of the Irish Catholic military leaders and the Catholic clergy including the Nuncio, Rinuccini. O’Neill leads his Ulster army, along with Thomas Preston’s Leinster army, in a failed attempt to take Dublin from Ormond. However, the Irish Confederates suffer heavy military defeats the following year at the hands of Parliamentarian forces in Ireland at Dungan’s Hill and Knocknanauss, leading to a moderation of their demands and a new peace deal with the Royalists. This time O’Neill is alone among the Irish generals in rejecting the peace deal and finds himself isolated by the departure of the papal nuncio from Ireland in February 1649.

So alienated is O’Neill by the terms of the peace the Confederates have made with Ormond that he refuses to join the Catholic/Royalist coalition and in 1648 his Ulster army fights with other Irish Catholic armies. He makes overtures for alliance to George Monck, 1st Duke of Albemarle, who is in command of the parliamentarians in the north, to obtain supplies for his forces, and at one stage even tries to make a separate treaty with the English Parliament against the Royalists in Ireland. Failing to obtain any better terms from them, he turns once more to Ormond and the Catholic confederates, with whom he prepares to co-operate more earnestly when Oliver Cromwell‘s arrival in Ireland in August 1649 brings the Catholic party face to face with serious danger.

Before, however, anything is accomplished by this combination, O’Neill dies on November 6, 1649 at the O’Reilly stronghold of Cloughoughter Castle located on an island in Lough Oughter in County Cavan. There is no clear evidence of the cause of death, with one belief being that he was poisoned by a priest, while others think it is more likely that he died from an illness resulting from an old wound. Under cover of night he is reputed to have been brought to the Franciscan abbey in Cavan town for burial. However some local tradition still suggests that it may have been at Trinity abbey located upon an island in Lough Oughter, which may be more likely given the logistics of his removal. His death is a major blow to the Irish of Ulster and is kept secret for some time.

The Catholic nobles and gentry meet in Ulster in March 1650 to appoint a commander to succeed O’Neill, and their choice is Heber MacMahon, Roman Catholic Bishop of Clogher, the chief organiser of the recent Clonmacnoise meeting. O’Neill’s Ulster army is unable to prevent the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland, despite a successful defence of Clonmel by O’Neill’s nephew Hugh Dubh O’Neill and is destroyed at the Battle of Scarrifholis in County Donegal in 1650. Its remnants continue guerrilla warfare until 1653, when they surrender at Cloughoughter Castle in County Cavan. Most of the survivors are transported to serve in the Spanish Army.

In the nineteenth century, O’Neill is celebrated by the Irish nationalist revolutionaries, the Young Irelanders, who see him as an Irish patriot. Thomas Davis writes a famous song about O’Neill, titled “The Lament for Owen Roe” which is popularised in their newspaper, The Nation.

O’Neill has been commemorated in the names of several Gaelic Athletic Association clubs, including Middletown Eoghan Rua Gaelic Athletic Club in County Armagh; CLG Eoghan Rua in Coleraine; St. Oliver Plunketts/Eoghan Ruadh GAA in Dublin, and Brackaville Owen Roes GFC; Owen Roe O’Neill’s GAC in County Tyrone; and the defunct Benburb Eoghan Ruadh GAC.


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Ulster Rebels Take Dundalk During the Irish Rebellion of 1641

Ulster rebels take Dundalk on October 31, 1641 during the Irish Rebellion of 1641. The rebellion is an uprising by Irish Catholics in the Kingdom of Ireland, who want an end to anti-Catholic discrimination, greater Irish self-governance, and to partially or fully reverse the plantations of Ireland. They also want to prevent a possible invasion or takeover by anti-Catholic English Parliamentarians and Scottish Covenanters, who are defying the king, Charles I.

The rebellion begins on October 23, 1641 as an attempted coup d’état by Catholic gentry and military officers, who try to seize control of the English administration in Ireland. However, it develops into a widespread rebellion and ethnic conflict with English and Scottish Protestant settlers, leading to Scottish military intervention. The rebels eventually found the Irish Catholic Confederacy.

The plan to seize Dublin Castle is foiled, but the rebels swiftly capture numerous towns (including Dundalk), forts and fortified houses in the northern province of Ulster. Within days they hold most of the province. Rebel leader Felim O’Neill of Kinard issues a forged proclamation, the Proclamation of Dungannon, claiming he has the king’s blessing to secure Ireland against the king’s opponents. The uprising spreads southward and soon most of Ireland is in rebellion. In November, rebels besiege Drogheda and defeat an English relief force at Julianstown. The following month, many Anglo-Irish Catholic lords join the rebellion. In these first months, especially in Ulster, some Catholic rebels drive out or kill thousands of Protestant settlers (most notably the Portadown massacre), and settlers respond in kind. Reports of rebel massacres outrage Protestants in Britain, and leave a lasting impact on the Ulster Protestant community.

King Charles and the English parliament both seek to quell the rebellion, but parliament does not trust the king with command of any army raised to do so. This is one of the issues that lead to the English Civil War. Charles orders forces to be raised in Ireland, and the English parliament drafts a bill to give itself the power to raise armed forces. Eventually, in April 1642, following negotiations between the English and Scottish parliaments, the Scots send a Covenanter army to Ireland. It swiftly captures most of eastern Ulster, while a Protestant settler army holds northwestern Ulster. Government forces meanwhile recapture much of the Pale, and hold the region around Cork. Most of the rest of Ireland is under rebel control.

In May 1642, Ireland’s Catholic bishops meet at Kilkenny, declare the rebellion to be a just war and take steps to control it. With representatives of the Catholic nobility in attendance, they agree to set up an alternative government known as the Irish Catholic Confederacy and draw up the Confederate Oath of Association. The rebels, now known as Confederates, hold most of Ireland against the Protestant Royalists, Scottish Covenanters and English Parliamentarians. The rebellion is thus the first stage of the Irish Confederate Wars and part of the wider Wars of the Three Kingdoms, which lasts for the next ten years.

(Pictured: Depiction of the massacre of Ulster Protestants during the 1641 rebellion, the LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)