The Battle of Benburb takes place on June 5, 1646 during the Irish Confederate Wars, the Irish theatre of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. It is fought between the Irish Confederation under Owen Roe O’Neill, and a Scottish Covenanter and Anglo-Irish army under Robert Monro. The battle ends in a decisive victory for the Irish Confederates and ends Scottish hopes of conquering Ireland and imposing their own religious settlement there.
The Scots Covenanters land an army in Ulster in 1642 to protect the Scottish settlers there from the massacres that follow the Irish Rebellion of 1641. They land at Carrickfergus and link up with Sir Robert Stewart and the Laggan Army of Protestant settlers from County Donegal in northwest Ulster. The Covenanters clear northeastern Ulster of Irish rebels by 1643 but are unable to advance south of mid-Ulster, which is held by Owen Roe O’Neill, the general of the Irish Confederate Ulster army.
In 1646, Monro leads a force composed of Scottish Covenanter regiments and Ulster settlers armies into Confederate-held territory. According to some accounts, this is the first step in a drive to take the Confederates’ capital at Kilkenny. Other sources say it is only a major raid. The combined force is about 6,000 strong. Monro has ten regiments of infantry, of whom six are Scottish and four are English or Anglo-Irish, and 600 Ulster Protestant cavalry. Stewart and the Laggan Army are slated to join Monro’s force in the attack, however, on the day of the battle the Laggan Army is in Clogher, nearly 30 kilometres away. O’Neill, who is a very cautious general, had previously avoided fighting pitched battles. However, he has just been supplied by the Papal Nuncio to Ireland, Giovanni Battista Rinuccini, with muskets, ammunition and money with which to pay his soldiers’ wages. This allows him to put over 5,000 men into the field, an army slightly smaller than his enemy’s. The Covenanters have six cannon, whereas the Confederates have none.
Monro assumes that O’Neill will try to avoid his army and has his soldiers march 24 kilometres to intercept the Irish force at Benburb, in modern south County Tyrone. Gerard Hayes-McCoy writes, “many of them must have been close to exhaustion before the battle began.” Monro’s men draw up with their backs to the River Blackwater, facing O’Neill’s troops who are positioned on a rise.
The battle begins with Monro’s artillery firing on the Irish position, but without causing many casualties. Monro’s cavalry then charges the Irish infantry, but are unable to break the Confederates’ pike and musket formation. When this attack fails, O’Neill orders his infantry to advance, pushing the Monro’s forces back into a loop of the river by the push of pike. It is noted that the Irish pikes have longer shafts and narrower heads than those of their opponents, meaning that they outreach them and are “better to pierce.” At this point, the fatigue of Monro’s troops is apparent as they are gradually pushed back until their formation collapses in on itself. The Confederate infantry then breaks Monro’s disordered formation with a musket volley at point-blank range and falls in amongst them with swords and scians (Irish long knives). Monro and his cavalry flee the scene, as, shortly after, does his infantry. A great many of them are cut down or drowned in the ensuing pursuit. Monro’s losses are estimated to be between 2,000 and 3,000 men, killed or wounded. The Irish casualties are estimated to be 300.
O’Neill’s victory means that the Covenanters are no longer a threat to the Confederates, but they remain encamped around Carrickfergus for the rest of the war. O’Neill does not follow up his victory but takes his army south to intervene in the politics of the Irish Confederation. In particular, he wants to make sure that the treaty the Supreme Council of the Confederates has signed with the English Royalists will not be ratified.
The battle is commemorated in the ballad “The Battle of Benburb.”