(Extract from Ó Dómhnaill Abú No.26 published Spring '98)
January of 1598 caused some discontent among the northern clans when Brian Óg O Ruairc made an alliance with the English. O’Donnell, in particular was annoyed as Brian was closely related to him and had been of great assistance in the past. Red Hugh could not afford to loose any of his allies and though he didn’t wish to attack O‘Rourke, yet he would have to change the latter’s mind in some way. At first he pleaded with him and when that seemed to fail, he used threats. Eventually, realising that O’Donnell was stronger than the English, O’Rourke returned to the Irish confederacy.
Nothing much else is recounted in the records for that year until mid-August when one of the greatest battles in Irish history took place – the Battle of the Yellow Ford, Cath Bhéal an Atha Buí.
The English, during a time of ‘peace and amity’ had built a strong fortress north of Armagh, on the Blackwater. The three hundred choice soldiers garrisoning it often preyed on the locals for food. Finally, Hugh O’Neill with the help of Red Hugh O’Donnell decided to attack it and raze it to the ground. But being unsuccessful they abandoned their attack and returned to their homes. Later, O’Neill lay siege to it. The English, on learning of the plight of the garrison, assembled five thousand, both infantry and cavalry, well-armed troops to relieve the fort. O’Neill, on learning of their plans, invited O’Donnell to his aid. Red Hugh with his assembled troops, about 2,000 along with the same number of Connacht men and some Scots joined O’Neill before the English got there. The English marched from Dublin to Drogheda, from there to Dundalk, then to Newry and finally to Armagh. The Irish camped on the route they would take from Armagh to the fortress.
Finally, on the morning of the 10th of August(some records give the 14th) the English got up at dawn and "proceeded to clothe themselves with strange tunics of iron, and high-crested, shining helmets, and foreign shields of well-tempered, refined iron. They seized their wide-edged axes, smooth and bright, and their straight two-edged swords, and their long, singled-edged blades, and their loud-voiced shot-firing guns, so that it would be very hard for their leaders to recognise them if they were not known by
their speech, owing to the array of shields, helmets and armour on them outside, hiding and covering their faces and their features, and to the quantity of arms also concealing them." Their captains under the supreme command of Henry Bagenal proceeded to arrange them in battle order and at last they marched to meet the Irish.
The Irish, according to Beatha Aodha Ruaidh Uí Dhomhnaill, marched to meet them. "Their weapons and dress were different, for the Irish did not wear armour like them, except a few, and they were unarmed in comparison with the English, but yet they had sufficient wide-bladed spears and broad-grey lances with strong handles of good ash. They had straight two-edged swords and slender flashing axes for hewing down champions. There were neither rings nor plates on them, as there were on the axes of the English. The implements for shooting which they had were darts of carved wood and powerful bows, with sharp-pointed arrows, and the English generally had quick-firing guns."
From these descriptions we see that the English were superior in arms. However, they were inferior in numbers. O’Neill had chosen the field well and had made some preparations. It was a narrow strip of ground with the River Callan to their(Irish) right and a bog and wood to the left. O’Neill had trenches dug and covered over with branches and heather in front of the Irish line. He and the Irish chiefs then proceed to exhort and instruct their men in preparation. "…be not feared or frightened by the English on account of their strange engines, their unusual armour and arms, and the thundering sound of their trumpets and tabours and war-cries, and of their own great numbers, for it is absolutely certain that they shall be routed in this day’s fight." One of O’Donnell’s bards who had accompanied them, recounted a prophecy made by an Irish saint which promised victory to an O’Neill fighting at a place called ‘Béal an Átha Buí.’
All this had its affect. By the time the English arrived the Irish were really roused and ready for battle. Their spirits were further raised on seeing the English cavalry charging towards them and suddenly disappearing into the ground. Realising their greatest danger was from the English guns, the Irish, quickly closed in on the English leaving no room to use their muskets. The English right flank was attacked by O’Donnell and Maguire who had been hiding in the wood. Thus the English were pushed together so tightly that only those on the outside could fight. Furthermore, the English suffered two strokes of bad luck. Firstly, all their gunpowder exploded killing many and throwing the whole centre of the army into confusion. According to Lughaidh Ó Clérigh, "… all round was one mass of dark, black fog for a while after, so that it was not easy for any one to recognise a man of his own people from one of his enemies." Secondly, several of the English leaders, including Henry Bagenal, were killed and this added to the confusion. Henry’s sister, Mabel, had sometime previously been married to Hugh O’Neill much against Henry’s wishes. Though the English fought gallantly, nothing seemed to be in their favour and finally they fled towards Armagh having sustained the greatest defeat that had befallen them since the first Norman set foot on Irish soil in 1169 AD
The Irish pursued them all the way to the city and then returned to the battlefield where they beheaded those severely wounded and collected the booty. The Irish then lay siege to Armagh. After three days the English asked to parley. Finally it was agreed that all English could go free provided those in the fortress departed leaving all their possessions behind. It is estimated that the English lost between 2,500 and 3,000 men including some of their best officers and nobles while the Irish losses are put at something around 500.
News of the battle infuriated Queen Elizabeth so much she complained that, "naught but news of fresh losses and calamities," from Ireland reached her ears. Morale was now at an all-time high among the Irish and many more joined the Irish confederacy while much of Munster rose in rebellion.
O’Donnell, after resting his men, turned his attention to Connacht once again. For thirteen years the English held Ballymote Castle. This was a strong fortress with an English garrison which had withstood many unsuccessful attacks from the Irish. Then, one day by some stroke of luck, the local Clann Donncha of Corran took it and held it. It was a great embarrassment to Sir Conyers Clifford, Governor of Connacht, that this strong strategic fortress should slip away so easily from the English. He offered a handsome reward for its return. On hearing of these developments, Red Hugh, immediately, set off and on arrival there besieged the castle. He tried all means to gain possession of the castle, force, threats, begging, pleading, promises etc. He finally ended up buying it for four hundred pounds and three hundred cows. The three hundred cows he rounded up in the next few days from those in the neighbourhood not loyal to him. It is possible, though not stated in the records, that he acquired some of the money in like manner. The records do state that "nine score pounds of that money" came from Seán Óg O Doherty. "The town was given over to O Domhnaill then, and he remained there afterwards." Red Hugh seems to have established Ballymote Castle as his military base from then on.
This all happened in the month of September and from then till the end of the year O’Donnell kept his men busy attacking and taking cattle and booty from all those on the English side, "and his army took the prey with them without strife or skirmish till they came by slow marches to Ballymote. Never before was the spoil of enemy’s cattle collected the like or equal to it in that place since it was first built. Thereafter O Domhnaill’s army go to their homes."
And thus ended 1598.
Beatha Aodh Ruaidh Uí Dhomhnaill by Lughaidh O’Clery
Translated by Paul Walsh
Annals of the Four Masters
A Short History of the Irish People by Hayden and Moonan
The Broken Sword of Ulster by Richard Cuninghame
A History of Ireland by Edmund Curtis
Ireland under Elizabeth by Don Philip O’Sullivan Bear