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


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The Battle of Benburb

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.”


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The Battle of Culloden

culloden-moor-memorialThe Battle of Culloden, the final confrontation of the Jacobite rising of 1745,  known in Scotland as simply “The ’45,” is fought on April 16, 1746. The Jacobite army of Charles Edward Stuart, also known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, is decisively defeated by a British government force under William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, on Drummossie Moor near Inverness in the Scottish Highlands. It is the last pitched battle fought on British soil.

Charles is the eldest son of James Francis Edward Stuart, the exiled Stuart claimant to the British throne. Believing there is support for a Stuart restoration in both Scotland and England, he lands in Scotland in July 1745. The Jacobite Army is often assumed to have been largely composed of Gaelic-speaking Catholic Highlanders. In reality nearly a quarter of the rank and file are recruited in Aberdeenshire, Forfarshire and Banffshire, with another 20% from Perthshire. Although the army is predominantly Scots it contains a few English recruits plus significant numbers of Irish, Scottish and French professionals in French service with the Irish Brigade and Garde Écossaise.

After amassing his army of Scots Jacobite supporters, Charles takes Edinburgh by September and defeats a British government force at Prestonpans. The government recalls 12,000 troops from the Continent to deal with the rising. A Jacobite invasion of England reaches as far as Derby before turning back, having attracted relatively few English recruits.

The Jacobites, with limited French military support, attempt to consolidate their control of Scotland, where by early 1746 they are opposed by a substantial government army. A scrambled Jacobite victory at Falkirk fails to change the strategic situation. With supplies and pay running short and with the government troops resupplied and reorganised under the Duke of Cumberland, son of British monarch George II, the Jacobite leadership has few options left other than to stand and fight. The two armies eventually meet at Culloden, on terrain that gives Cumberland’s larger, well-rested force the advantage.

The battle lasts only an hour, with the Jacobites suffering a bloody defeat with between 1,500 and 2,000 killed or wounded. Approximately 300 government soldiers are killed or wounded. While perhaps as many as 6,000 Jacobites remain in arms in Scotland, the leadership takes the decision to disperse, effectively ending the rising. The men of the combined Irish regiments, under the command of Brigadier Walter Stapleton, are the last off the field, covering the retreat of Prince Charles and the remnants of his army. The Irish had given their blood to the cause of a Stuart King for the last time. Most of the surviving Irish surrender at Inverness. The Prince himself eventually manages to make his escape to France.

Culloden and its aftermath continue to arouse strong feelings. The University of Glasgow awards the Duke of Cumberland an honorary doctorate, but many modern commentators allege that the aftermath of the battle and subsequent crackdown on Jacobite sympathisers were brutal, earning Cumberland the sobriquet “Butcher.” Efforts are subsequently made to further integrate the comparatively undeveloped Scottish Highlands into the Kingdom of Great Britain. Civil penalties are introduced to undermine the Scottish clan system, which had provided the Jacobites with the means to rapidly mobilise an army.

Today, a visitor centre is located near the site of the battle. This centre is first opened in December 2007, with the intention of preserving the battlefield in a condition similar to how it was on April 16, 1746. One difference is that it currently is covered in shrubs and heather. During the 18th century, however, the area was used as common grazing ground, mainly for tenants of the Culloden estate. Those visiting can walk the site by way of footpaths on the ground and can also enjoy a view from above on a raised platform. Possibly the most recognisable feature of the battlefield today is the 20-foot tall memorial cairn, erected by Duncan Forbes in 1881. In the same year Forbes also erects headstones to mark the mass graves of the clans.