The Battle of the Curlews

(Extract from Ó Dómhnaill Abú No.27 published Dec. '98)


(The following account of the Battle of the Curlews is closely based on that of Colonel Cyril M. Mattimoe, retired from the Irish Army.)

After the victory at the Yellow Ford in Aug. 1598, Red Hugh moved to Ballymote Castle which he had bought from the McDonagh for £400 and 300 cows. In May 1599 the most powerful and most expensive army yet seen in Ireland had begun to land in Dublin under the command of the man who bears the ultimate responsibility for the Battle of the Curlews – Robert Devereaux Earl of Essex – Lord Lieutenant, soldier, courtier and great favourite of the Queen.

Elizabeth’s orders to Essex were brief and clear: he was to move against Ulster and destroy O’Neill and O’Donnell. Instead he turned south and in a useless campaign almost destroyed his fine army with nothing to show for it. While resting in Limerick he held discussions with Sir Conyers Clifford, Governor of Connacht, who had been summoned there to meet him. One decision made was to have very serious repercussions for all concerned. O’Connor Sligo who belonged to Essex’s entourage was to return to his castle at Collooney and endeavour to rouse the people in that area against O’Donnell. The plan was most unwise. It had no hope whatever of succeeding but Essex in his burning desire for success did not see things in this light. Clifford returned to Athlone. O’Connor Sligo got safely back to Collooney Castle. The Lord Lieutenant Essex, having had his fill of misfortune in Munster, arrived back in Dublin just as disastrous news was coming in from Connacht. O’Connor Sligo had no sooner reached Collooney Castle than he was besieged by O’Donnell. Essex was in a dilemma. He was in no condition now to tackle O’Donnell; yet he could not remain idle in Dublin. He summoned Clifford and spent two days working out a new plan for Connacht. Clifford, with some reinforcements supplied by Essex, would return to Athlone and begin preparations for an advance to Collooney via Roscommon - Tulsk – Boyle – Curlews. Having raised the siege of Collooney he would continue to Sligo and there erect a new fortification which would replace the one burned down by O’Donnell, and serve as a base for further operations against West Ulster. Building materials would be shipped from Galway to Sligo by Tiobóid na Long(Theobald of the Ships) who had inherited his mother’s(Grace O’Malley) fleet.

It was now nearing the end of July. Clifford returned to Athlone and in three weeks was ready for the advance to Collooney. Before departure Essex warned him not to move unless he was fully satisfied he had everything he needed. But Clifford felt confident and wished to meet O’Donnell before O’Neill could come to his aid. On the 14th of August he set out from Athlone. Among Clifford’s army were some Irish clans submissive to the Queen namely ‘O’Connor Don with his assembly, MacSuibhne na dTuath who was in rebellion against O’Donnell and in league with the Governor.’

O’Donnell, having organised the siege of Collooney Castle(mid-June), left his cousin Niall Garbh with 300 men to continue while he, with the rest, moved to Dunavaragh a secure location high in the hills above the Curlew Pass. His strength is given as 2000 but shortly before the battle he dispatched 600 to Sligo to prevent Theobald of the Ships unloading his cargo there. Some of O’Donnell's advisers felt it was unwise of him to split his army so, but Hugh was determined to keep these three elements apart.

Furthermore he reminded his army that ‘it is not by the number of soldiers the battle is broken but by the power of God.’

We are told that O’Donnell’s men spent several weeks at Dunaveeragh waiting for the Governor to pass that way. During that time they were exercising themselves and preparing their weapons for the fight. ‘They were cleaning, polishing and adjusting their guns, and warming and sunning their grain powder and filling their pouches and casting their leaden bullets and heavy round balls, socketing and riveting their stout round javelins and war-halberds, polishing their long broad-swords and their bright-shining axes, and preparing their arms and armour and implements of war also.’

In Beatha Aodha Ruaidh Uí Dhomhnaill (Life of Red Hugh) by Lughaidh Ó Clérigh, almost a page is given to the religious preparations of O’Donnell and his men. It was customary for Red Hugh to fast for three days, confess his sins and receive Holy Communion before a battle or whenever there was danger. On this occasion he requested his army to fast on the day before the Feast of the Assumption(of Mary into Heaven). On the morning of the Feast day, Sunday 15th August, all attended Mass. Afterwards they went to their tents to take a meal before encountering the enemy. When finally assembled, Red Hugh addressed them and, even those who were not near him could hear, ‘on account of the loudness of his voice and speech.’ A poetic version of that address was published in ODA No. 18.

Lughaidh Ó Clérigh then gives an account of how O’Donnell positioned his men. ‘He placed his swift energetic youths and his nimble athletic men and his marksmen, with their loud sounding sharp-aiming guns and their strong smooth-curved bows and their cruel, whetted javelins, and their throwing darts also.’ It goes on for a whole page in great detail about how the battle was planned by O’Donnell. Trees were cut to make barriers at intervals along the rout through which the English were expected, musketeers and archers placed in the woods along the pass while Red Hugh with most of his men waited out of sight over the ridge. The plan, of course, was for the snipers to harass the enemy all the way up the Pass so that exhausted they would come face to face with O’Donnell’s well-rested men at the top.

Also present at the Curlews were Conor McDermot and Brian Óg O’Rourke. O’Rourke and O’Donnell were not on friendly terms. Apart from centuries-old rivalries O’Rourke resented many actions taken by O’Donnell recently and so on this day Brian Óg with his clansmen refused to place himself under Red Hugh’s command but instead took up position east of the Curlews. From this spot his sentries could detect an enemy force moving out of the town of Boyle and he could have his men at the Pass within half an hour.

McDermot with his 300 men positioned themselves in the woods on both sides up along the Pass through which the English would march. As this was McDermot territory it was their privilege to strike the first blow.

Clifford, as we have seen, was in a hurry when leaving Athlone and so pressed his men very hard covering 30 miles the first day over rough roads with little food. Next day they covered 15 miles to Boyle arriving there exhausted and hungry. Here they had planned to eat and rest but Clifford receiving intelligence that the Pass was undefended and that his army was not yet expected, decided to resume the advance. His men and senior commanders complained but Sir Conyers would not change his mind. He promised food and rest when they were through the Pass and so the tired and weary soldiers struggled to their feet and took their place in the ranks for the long climb to the top of the Curlews.

Clifford’s army amounted to 1496 Foot and 205 Horse: a small force considering the task in hand. Two thirds were armed with Arquebus; the rest used Pike. The Arquebus was a crude forerunner of the musket, only accurate at close range. Re-loading was slow and cumbersome. Clifford increased the strength of the Vanguard to enable it to force its way through the Pass if needs be.

In those days the way over the Curlews was a rough narrow track. It was known as the Red Earl’s Road(Bóthar an Iarla Rua) after De Burgo, a Norman Lord, who passed that way in the 13th century. Traces of this ancient track can still be seen. This same track left much to be desired, parts of it were so rough that they were impassable by wheeled vehicles while other stretches were bog.

The English had only gone a few hundred yards when they encountered the first barricade and came under fire from the woods on both sides. They instantly attacked but the Irish fled with little or no resistance. This pattern continued well up the Pass. After about an hour the vanguard were running out of powder and ball. New supplies should have been sent up from the rear but conditions were making this difficult and so the vanguard became very vulnerable. Worse was to follow. Sir Alex Ratcliff, commander of the Vanguard, already suffering from two wounds was hit a third time and died.

The situation in the vanguard now called for urgent action by Clifford himself but non was taken. At this point Brian Óg O’Rourke with a company of men(some sources say 140: others 500 men) came rushing to the fray. To the vanguard, already leaderless, ammunitionless and with tactics that were achieving little, this new arrival did much to undermine their confidence. Confusion began to develop; followed shortly by panic. Men began throwing away their weapons and running back down the hill through the main body who hadn’t yet encountered the enemy. The latter seeing the vanguard fleeing decided to follow suit. The rearguard did likewise.

Clifford and his officers did everything in their power to halt the flight, even killing a few to make an example, but all to no avail. Sir Conyers shouting, roaring and fuming at such cowardice, and declaring he would not ‘outlive the dishonour of the day’, rushed to meet an on-coming party of Irish. He died from a pike-stroke.

Back at Boyle, the Horse having waited about an hour and a half were ready to move forward, thinking of course, that the Pass had been secured. Suddenly, noticing signs of confusion in the distance, they decided to move forward to investigate. As they drew closer to the Pass they realised that something unusual was happening and galloped up the hill by a different rout. Seeing some of the Foot about half a mile away fighting for their lives they galloped to their rescue. Their sudden arrival seemed to surprise the Irish and caused them temporarily to check their pursuit. But soon many of the horses came to grief in the soft bog and O’Rourke, seizing the advantage, counter-attacked. The Horse withdrew but not before they managed to cover the retreat of many of the Foot. Sir Griffin Markham, commanding the Horse, had his right arm broken while Brian Óg O’Rourke was wounded in the hand and right thigh.

The Irish continued the pursuit to the foot of the mountain. Shattered remnants of Clifford’s force continued it’s flight and found refuge inside the walls of Boyle Abbey.

The Battle of the Curlews was over. It had lasted about two hours.

Moving around the battlefield Brian Óg O’Rourke came upon the dead body of Sir Conyers Clifford and recognised it. O’Rourke ordered the body to be decapitated and the head sent back to Red Hugh who in turn dispatched it to Collooney Castle. On receiving this grisly proof of Irish victory, O’Connor Sligo surrendered. Tiobóid na Long, on hearing the news, returned with his cargo to Galway.

Clifford’s body was sent for respectful burial to Trinity Island on Loch Key and word of this action was relayed to Boyle in a letter written in Latin by McDermot.

English losses were great while the Irish lost very few. The Irish afterwards collected the spoils of war, killed all the wounded enemy, gave medical attention to their own wounded and buried the dead. The glory of this victory is claimed by three. Most would say O’Donnell was the hero. It was he who planned to meet the enemy there and orchestrated the battle; but there are those who say Red Hugh didn’t even see the battle and that it was the McDermots who did most of the fighting; and of course the O’Rourkes maintain if it hadn’t been for their intervention at the right time the English may not have been beaten so early. Let’s not forget that several decisions and errors by the English contributed to their downfall.

The Battle of the Curlews, in my opinion, was the last great battle fought and won by Irish clans fighting against their archenemy, the Sassanach. V.O’Donnell.

Sources: Along with those mentioned in the article, Annals of the Four Masters.