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


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The Battle of the Ford of the Biscuits

The Battle of the Ford of the Biscuits takes place in County Fermanagh on August 7, 1594 when a force of English Army soldiers led by Sir Henry Duke is ambushed and defeated by an Irish force under Hugh Maguire and Cormac MacBaron O’Neill in the region of the fords of the Arney River on the approaches to Enniskillen.

The battle acquires its distinctive name due to the supplies of the Crown forces, largely hard biscuits, which are scattered and left floating in the river. The battle is an early exchange in the Nine Years’ War, and exposes the vulnerability of Crown forces to ambushes in the wilder parts of Ulster with its thick woods and bogs.

The relief force is under the joint command of Sir Henry Duke and Sir Edward Herbert, who have 600 infantrymen and 40 horses. Duke and Herbert believe this to be insufficient, and write to the Lord Deputy that “to go without a thousand men at the least or otherwise we shall dearly repent our going.” No reinforcements are forthcoming therefore the column sets north from Cavan on August 4. Burdened with supplies, the army is expected to take four days to march 29 miles north to Enniskillen. The night before the battle the English camp is pestered by Irish gunfire and incessant skirmishing which causes the English troops to be poorly rested when the set out on August 7 to relieve the beleaguered garrison. As the thin column starts to snake its way north, almost immediately it comes under attack on both flanks as Irish skirmishes hurl javelins, but this is not the main attack.

As the relief expedition approaches Enniskillen from the south, Maguire and Cormac MacBaron lay in wait for them on the Arney River. The Army’s cavalry scouts fail to detect the Irish laying in wait for them. The ground is boggy near the Arney ford, therefore they are forced to dismount. Consequently the infantry escorting the supply wagons for Enniskillen run straight into the ambush. Around eleven o’clock the head of the column approaches the ford. Without warning intense Irish gunfire tears into the lead English elements from concealed positions on the opposite bank. With the advance stalled, Maguire and MacBaron assail the rear of the column with the bulk of their forces. Wings of English shot deploy to skirmish with the Irish, but withering Irish fire pushes them back to their pike stands in the column.

The English rear falls into disorder causing the Irish pike and Scots mercenaries to charge, forcing them to flee pell mell onto the centre of the column. The English collapse continues as the column concertinaed towards the head of the army stalled at the ford. Fortunately the leading English pike has forced the crossing, pushing back the Irish shot, giving the English some room to reorder and regroup north of the river.

The English are engaged by Irish shot from the surrounding hills, but a counter-attack is stillborn when its leader, Captain Fuller, is killed. With most of the supplies abandoned at the river, Duke and Herbert decide their only option is to retreat. However, their retreat to the ford is met with renewed gunfire and the disintegrating army is compelled to cross on another ford an “arrow shot” upstream.

Luckily for Duke and Herbert’s men they are not pursued as most of the Irish have fallen to looting the baggage train which gives the battle its name, Béal-Átha-na-mBriosgadh or The Ford of the Biscuits.

The badly-mauled Crown forces retreat to Cavan. News of the defeats causes some alarm due to the small size of the peacetime Royal Irish Army, which is scattered in garrisons across the island. Although this can be supplemented by forces of loyal Gaelic chiefs, fresh troops need to be raised in England and sent across the Irish Sea to contain the developing northern rebellion. In addition a force of soldiers who have been serving in Brittany is brought to Ireland.

A second relief expedition, this time led by the Lord Deputy of Ireland William Russell, 1st Baron Russell of Thornhaugh, manages to reach Enniskillen and re-supply it. However Enniskillen does fall to the rebels in May of the following year and the garrison is massacred, despite having been promised their lives when they surrendered.

(Photo with permission by Dr.James O’Neill (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

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The Battle of the Yellow Ford

battle-of-the-yellow-fordThe Battle of the Yellow Ford is fought in western County Armagh, near the River Blackwater on August 14, 1598, during the Nine Years War. It is fought between the Gaelic native Irish army under Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, and Hugh Roe O’Donnell and a crown expeditionary force from Dublin under Henry Bagenal. The crown forces are marching from Armagh to resupply a besieged fort on the Blackwater when they fall into an ambush and are routed with heavy losses.

The crown forces are organized in six regiments — two forward, two centre, and two rear, and with cavalry at centre. As soon as they leave Armagh garrison, they are all harassed with gunfire from rebel forces concealed in the woods. As a result, the different regiments become separated from one another as they pause to deal with the hit and run attacks. The problem is accentuated when one of their ox-drawn artillery pieces becomes stuck in the bog with a damaged wheel and a rear regiment stays behind to guard it as it is slowly coaxed through the bog. The regiment at the front of the march encounters a mile-long trench, 4 feet wide and 5 feet deep. The regiment succeeds in crossing the trench but then comes under heavy attack from large forces and decides to retreat back across the trench, suffering significant losses during the retreat. This regiment then merges into the ranks of the other forward regiment.

At this point, Henry Bagenal is killed by a shot through the head. Command of the army is assumed by Thomas Maria Wingfield. Further demoralising the crown troops and causing chaos, their gunpowder store explodes, apparently ignited accidentally by the fuse of a matchlock musket. Daunted, Wingfield decides to retreat to Armagh. The commander of the forward part either doesn’t get the command or refuses to obey it, or is unable to execute an orderly retreat and judges it necessary to maintain his forward position. Seeing their enemy in confusion, the O’Neill cavalry rushes at the head of the forward part, followed by swordsmen on foot. Crown troops in this part of the field are cut to pieces and any wounded left on the field after the battle are slain as well. The rest of the crown forces have to struggle their way back to the Armagh garrison. They reach it largely intact, but are harried all the way by the Irish.

Crown forces lose approximately 1,500 men in the battle, including 18 “captains” or officers. Three hundred soldiers desert to the rebels including two English recruits. Out of 4,000 soldiers who set out from Armagh, just over 2,000 reach the town after the battle and become virtual prisoners inside. The cavalry breaks out and dashes south escaping the Irish.

After three days of negotiations, it is agreed that the crown troops can leave Armagh as long as they leave their arms and ammunition behind and that the garrison of the Blackwater Fort surrenders. O’Neill’s forces suffer perhaps 200 to 300 casualties in the battle, though sources for the number lost on O’Neill’s side are very scanty. In light of the battle’s outcome, the court at London greatly and rapidly increase its military forces in Ireland. Simultaneously, many in Ireland who have been neutral on the sidelines begin to support the rebellion. Thus the ultimate outcome of the battle is an escalation of the war.


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The Beginning of the Williamite War

battle-of-the-boyneThe Williamite War in Ireland begins on March 12, 1688. It is a conflict between Jacobites, who support the English Catholic King James II, and Williamites, who support the Dutch Protestant Prince William of Orange, over who would be King of England, Scotland, and Ireland.

The cause of the war is the deposition of James II as King of the Three Kingdoms in the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. James is supported by the mostly Catholic Jacobites in Ireland and hopes to use the country as a base to regain his Three Kingdoms. He is given military support by France. For this reason, the war becomes part of a wider European conflict known as the Nine Years’ War, or War of the Grand Alliance. Some Protestants of the established Church in Ireland also fight on the side of King James.

James is opposed in Ireland by the mostly Protestant Williamites, who are concentrated in the north of the country. William lands a multi-national force in Ireland, composed of English, Scottish, Dutch, Danish, and other troops, to put down Jacobite resistance. James leaves Ireland after a reverse at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 and the Irish Jacobites are finally defeated after the Battle of Aughrim in 1691.

The Treaty of Limerick, signed on October 3, 1691, offers favourable terms to Jacobites willing to stay in Ireland and give an oath of loyalty to William III. Peace is concluded on these terms between Patrick Sarsfield and Godert de Ginkell, giving toleration to Catholicism and full legal rights to Catholics that swear an oath of loyalty to William and Mary. Part of the treaty agreed to Sarsfield’s demand that the Jacobite army be allowed to leave Ireland as a body and go to France. This event is popularly known in Ireland as the “Flight of the Wild Geese.” Around 14,000 men with around 10,000 women and children leave Ireland with Patrick Sarsfield in 1691.

The Williamite victory in the war in Ireland has two main long-term results. The first is that it ensures James II will not regain his thrones in England, Ireland, and Scotland by military means. The second is that it ensures closer British and Protestant dominance over Ireland. Until the 19th century, Ireland is ruled by what becomes known as the “Protestant Ascendancy,” the mostly Protestant ruling class. The majority of the Irish Catholic community and the Ulster-Scots Presbyterian community are systematically excluded from power, which is based on land ownership.

For over a century after the war, Irish Catholics maintain a sentimental attachment to the Jacobite cause, portraying James and the Stuarts as the rightful monarchs who would have given a just settlement to Ireland, including self-government, restoration of confiscated lands and tolerance for Catholicism. Thousands of Irish soldiers leave the country to serve the Stuart monarchs in the Irish Brigade (Spanish) and Irish Brigade of the French Army. Until 1766, France and the Papacy remain committed to restoring the Stuarts to their British Kingdoms. At least one composite Irish battalion drawn from Irish soldiers in the French service fight on the Jacobite side in the Scottish Jacobite uprisings leading up to the Battle of Culloden in 1746.

Protestants, on the other hand, portray the Williamite victory as a triumph for religious and civil liberty where triumphant murals of King William still controversially adorn the gable walls in Ulster. The defeat of the Catholics in the Williamite war is still commemorated by Protestant Unionists in Ulster on the Twelfth of July by the Orange Order.


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Creation of The Honourable The Irish Society

irish-society-coat-of-armsOn January 28, 1613, The Honourable The Irish Society, a consortium of livery companies of the City of London, is created by Royal Charter of James I of England to undertake the Plantation in the North West of Ulster that is then being driven by the English Crown.

Following the Gaelic defeat in the Nine Years’ War in 1603 and the Flight of the Earls in 1607, northwest Ulster is left open to colonisation. James I sets out to defend against a future attack from within or without. He finds that the town of Derry can become either a great asset as a control over the River Foyle and Lough Swilly, or it can become an inviting back door should the people of the area turn against him. He pressures the guilds of the City of London to fund the resettlement of the area, including the building of a new walled city. This results in the creation of the Society.

The city of Derry is renamed Londonderry in recognition of the London origin of the Irish Society. County Coleraine is enlarged and renamed County Londonderry after its new county town. The rural area of the county is subdivided between the Great Twelve livery companies, while the towns and environs of Londonderry and Coleraine are retained by the Irish Society.

In January 1635, the Irish Society, as well as the City of London, are found guilty of mismanagement and neglect of Derry plantation. They are sentenced to a fine of £70,000 and forfeiture of Derry property. The Society is suppressed in 1637 but is revived by Oliver Cromwell in 1650 and again after the Restoration by Londonderry’s 1662 royal charter.

The Society is involved in several controversies over the years including a dispute over fishing rights with the Church of Ireland and Bishop of Derry and a lawsuit brought by The Skinners’ Company in 1832 over the distribution of profits. The Society also has some disputes with the corporations over ownership and development of property. During the 17th and 18th centuries, four of the twelve livery companies sell their estates, with the Irish Society requiring a bond of indemnity in each case. Leases to middlemen granted by the remaining companies expire at various times during the nineteenth century, after which the companies “enormously increased the rental.”

The Society finances the building of the Guildhall in Derry. Construction begins in 1887 and it is opened in July 1890, at a cost of £19,000.

The Society remains in existence today as a relatively small grant-giving charitable body. Its educational grants are funded by its remaining property, including the Walls of Derry, a tourist attraction and heritage site, and fisheries on the River Bann. The Society is based in London, but maintains a “representative” resident in County Londonderry.