The last great victory of a native Irish Army
The Scots landed an army at Carrickfergus in 1642 following the Irish rebellion of 1641. Their objectives were to protect the Scottish settlers, conquer the country, and destroy Catholicism in Ireland and impose Presbyterianism as the state religion and in doing so protect Scotland from a Catholic Irish invasion. After landing, they linked up with an army of settlers around Derry commanded by Robert Stewart(the Lagan army). They were also in contact with English garrisons at Lisnagarvey(Lisburn), Belfast and Newry.
Owen Roe O’Neill, son of Cormac Mac Barron O’Neill and nephew of the great Hugh, had an illustrious military career in the service of Spain in the Spanish Netherlands.
Following his superb defence of Arras whilst besieged by the full military might of France he had become one of the best known and admired professional soldiers in Europe. He landed at Doe castle in Donegal in 1642 and became General of the Irish Confederate Army of Ulster based at Charlemont fort on the border of Armagh and Tyrone and at Castle Oughter in County Cavan, the stronghold of his kinsmen the O’Reillys. The Scots and English had control of the area up to Charlemont, and the Irish prevented them from pushing south. Both sides constantly raided into the other’s territory in search of food and conducted a vicious scorched earth policy. O’Neill commented that Ulster looked “not only like a desert, but like hell.” A sort of status quo existed with one side or the other gaining very temporary marginal advantage until 1646.
In 1645, O’Neill at last obtained funding and a large consignment of weapons through the Vatican Papal Nuncio to Ireland, Giovanni Battista Rinuccini. This enabled Owen Roe to properly train,arm,and pay his men as professional soldiers and prepare for a full pitched battle which he had previously tried to avoid.
In the summer of 1646, the Scots commander Major General Robert Monroe, like O’Neill an experienced veteran of the continental wars under Gustavus Adolfus of Sweden decided to penetrate southwards with a force of some 6000 men well supplied and armed, including six pieces of light artillery. He had arranged to rendezvous with the Stewart’s Lagan army at Clones, the place of a previous victory over O’Neill and his army of Ulster. He had also arranged to meet his permanent Cavalry Commander, George Monroe with a settler army from Coleraine at Glaslough on the Tyrone/ Monaghan border. Monroe was supremely confident but he wanted to keep the Irish army in front of him. At the time of his departure they were in Co Cavan. He feared leaving his own bases unprotected and at the mercy of O’Neill whilst he conducted a campaign in the South. When he obtained intelligence that the Irish had mobilised and were advancing towards Charlemont, which had been previously impregnable, he began a series of forced marches to try and head off O’Neill before he crossed the Blackwater river. This strategy which failed, as O’Neill had camped at Benburb on the Tyrone side of the river at least a day before Monroe expected and he was then behind Monroe with Charlemont at his back. Furthermore, the period of forced marches had disrupted the planed rendezvous times and Monroe’s main army was now well ahead of the other supporting forces. The other critical factor was that Monroe’s men were fatigued from the forced marches which they were not prepared for. Monroe was surprised that the Irish army were standing their ground for a fight, as he had expected them to run and so he decided to delay his advance Southwards, to cross the Blackwater river and deal with the Irish immediately before he moved South.
Owen Roe had picked and prepared his battle site well. He was also a master of innovative military strategy and had set up on a hill with the impenetrable Blackwater to his right. Monroe fired on the Irish positions until he ran out of ammunition, doing little damage due to the topography of the ground. He then sent in the previously invincible Scottish cavalry but not under their regular commander, George Monroe, but under his adopted son-in-law Lord Ards, a young inexperienced hot head. They failed to break the now well trained musket and pike formation of the Irish and were hampered by well chosen unsuitable ground. On their retreat, because of the necessarily restricted area of the chosen battle site, they ran through their infantry causing confusion and chaos. With the arrival of the Irish cavalry the artillery was overrun and captured. The Irish then advanced and with “push of pike” and musket volleys turned the covenanters’ army with their backs to the river and proceeded to slaughter them. Monroe and his protective troop of cavalry fled followed by the English officers. The combined British force lost between 2000 and 3000 men killed or captured many drowned and many in the pursuit. They also lost a huge amount of stores and weapons including artillery. The Irish casualties were low, approximately 300. This was the first time that the Irish had won a major head-to-head battle against the British in the field and it was celebrated throughout Catholic Europe. The Scottish Covenanter army were no longer a threat but due to the political decisions made in Kilkenny, Owen Roe did not follow up his victory but was ordered to move South by Rinuccini and the Confederation and the greatest victory of the war was subsequently wasted.
To read more about The Battle of Benburb’ see Dúiche Neill No 6
Pamphlet, Map and Headstone Inscription published courtesy of Clive Hollick from his book ‘The Battle Of Benburb 1646’ ISBN: 978 185635 670 1