Chapter One: Conquest
The first King of England to dispatch troops to Ireland did so with the blessing of the Pope. The King was Henry II; the Pope was Adrian IV -- the only Englishman to sit on the throne of Saint Peter.
Adrian gave his assent in 1155, long before the Reformation, long before religious differences were introduced to Ireland as a means of distinguishing friend from foe. Henry II and Adrian considered themselves modernizers, and Ireland, they decided, required modernizing. The native people who populated the island, the Gaels, were descendants of Celtic tribes who had conquered Ireland and the rest of Europe centuries before the birth of Christ. The Romans never made it to Ireland, and so the Gaelic Irish developed a flourishing civilization and language that bore few traces of Roman influence. But the Irish had enthusiastically embraced the Church of Rome. Patrick, a native of Britain who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Ireland, converted the island to Christianity without a struggle in the fifth century.
Detached not only from the Continent but from the neighboring island to the east, the Gaels were different, different in their practice of Christianity, different in their law and customs. Religious irregularities such as divorce and the active leadership of women in religious life were permitted in Gaelic Christianity, while little heed was paid to the Papacy. Ireland had a vibrant, distinctive literature, filled with heroic tales of pagan warriors, when the rest of Europe was thrashing through the dark ages. The most famous of these legendary warriors was Cuchulain, a great champion who was slain in defense of his homeland.
In its political life, Ireland, unlike England, had yet to develop a strong, centralized monarchy, although there was no shortage of kings. Indeed, there were dozens, scores, of them scattered throughout the island, ruling over communities called rí túathe. While there was a High King, or ard rí, he did not rule as Henry ruled in England. The High King's position was mostly ceremonial, although one of them, Brian Boru, gained fame when he united the island's disparate communities and then defeated the Vikings at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014.
The island's customs certainly puzzled its powerful English neighbors, who saw in such cultural difference evidence of ignorance and barbarism. Gaelic Ireland was rural and socially mobile. Land was not enclosed, and property rights were unclear. The family, not the individual, was the basic unit of Gaelic society. When a king died, all male descendants were eligible to succeed him. The eventual successor was chosen in an election and given a Gaelic title -- for example, the head of one of Ireland's most prominent families, the O'Neills (or Ui Neills), held the title of The O'Neill. A hereditary class of lawgivers, called Brehons, presided over a complex regulatory system that baffled outsiders. People who considered themselves wronged fasted until their antagonist agreed to submit the dispute to arbitration. Poets were accorded special places in a king's court as well as in society, for they were regarded as the keepers of cultural memory, a unifying force in an island of many small and often fractious kingdoms. Harpers, too, were important members of society's elite -- the harp began appearing on Irish coats of arms in the thirteenth century, and it serves as modern Ireland's state emblem.
Pope Adrian made his view of the Gaels clear in giving his blessing to Henry's proposed incursion. "You have expressed to us your desire to enter the island of Ireland in order to subject its people to law and to root out from them the weeds of vice," Adrian wrote to Henry. "We, therefore...do hereby declare our will and pleasure that...you shall enter that island and execute whatever may tend to the honour of God and the welfare of the land."
These people thought to be trapped in the weeds of vice were, in fact, the keepers of Europe's cultural memory. Just as the Romans hadn't made it to Ireland -- a land they called Hibernia because of what seemed to them to be a cold, winterlike climate -- neither had the Vandals, Visigoths, and other warriors whose victories over Rome ushered in the dark ages. During the last centuries of the first millennium, Irish monks patiently copied the great works of Western literature, while scholars traveled to devastated Europe to reintroduce the very idea of civilization.
Still, Henry and Adrian believed that the Irish themselves required an introduction to civilization. But Henry didn't act immediately on the Pope's blessing. In the meantime, one of Ireland's many kings, Dermot MacMurrough, was looking for outside help to further his political ambitions on the island. So, in 1167, he invited troops from England -- they were French-speaking Normans who had settled in England after William the Conqueror's invasion -- to help him. Three years later, the Earl of Pembroke, also known as Strongbow, traveled from England to Ireland to fight alongside MacMurrough. He eventually married MacMurrough's daughter, and when MacMurrough died, Strongbow succeeded him as king of the region known as Leinster, one of Ireland's four provinces. The others became known as Ulster, Munster, and Connaught. Eventually, each province was subdivided into counties, for a total of thirty-two.
Henry II found Strongbow just a bit too ambitious, a possible threat to England's ambitions in Ireland. So, sixteen years after receiving Adrian's approval, he led an expedition to Ireland in 1171 to put Strongbow in his place. The cost of making his point was high: the troops he led into Ireland in 1171 have, in a sense, never left.
From the very beginning of the English presence in Ireland, the invaders regarded the natives as aliens and savages, and themselves as the keepers of civilization. "The Irish live like beasts," complained an English visitor, who insisted that the Irish were "more uncivil, more uncleanly, more barbarous...than in any part of the world that is known." Later visitors would complain about a variety of local customs, from drinking the blood of living cattle to the communal ownership of land. Indeed, the more the English saw of Ireland, the more they found reason to be appalled: they didn't like the Irish diet, the overt sexuality of many Irish women (and the fact that married Irish women kept their family names instead of adopting their husband's), even Irish hairstyles and clothing. (Or the lack thereof. One observer remarked that the poor rural Irish "show their shameful parts without any shame.") Pope Adrian's successor, Alexander III, shared this distaste for Gaelic ways. He wrote to Henry II of the "enormities of vice with which the people of Ireland are infected." Alexander said it was up to "the noble king of the English" to bring order to "this barbarous and uncouth race."
But many of the Normans who had marched with Strongbow and some who arrived later with Henry were of a different view. They remained in Ireland, formed settlement communities mostly along the island's east coast, intermarried with the native Gaels, and assimilated into Gaelic Ireland. They were considered, in the phrase of that day, hiberniores hibernis ipsos, or "more Irish than the Irish." Eventually, they would become known as Old English, as opposed to new English settlers who arrived in later centuries.
Henry II did not press his expedition in Ireland, and for centuries there was no systematic attempt to spread the small English settlement. Some Irish chieftains accepted Henry as their lord (but not their king), but some didn't. The Normans established an Irish Parliament in 1297 in an attempt to centralize administration around the old Viking city of Dublin, but its jurisdiction reached only a small portion of the east coast. That area, a few hundred square miles of some of Ireland's most fertile land, was known as the Pale. Outside its borders, Gaelic Ireland made its own laws, lived by its own customs. The people there were said to be "beyond the Pale."
When new English influences began to replace the fading Normans, the Irish Parliament set out to make sure those within the Pale remained apart from those beyond. In 1366, Parliament passed a series of laws, called the Statutes of Kilkenny, designed to prevent the Norman-like assimilation of English settlers into Gaelic Irish society. Among other restrictions, the laws forbade the English living in Ireland from marrying the natives, speaking the Irish language, and playing native Irish sports such as hurling. In addition, Irish "babblers, rhymers [and] harpers" were barred from mixing with the English.
Still unvanquished, Gaelic Ireland remained a threat to the English settlement centered in and around Dublin. Small military engagements were common through the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, with the Irish often using their knowledge of the terrain to good advantage over the better-equipped English. English political disputes, too, were having an effect on Ireland, as they would for the remainder of the millennium. England's civil conflict, the Wars of the Roses, ended with the ascension of Henry VII, founder of the Tudor dynasty, but portions of the English settlement in Ireland remained loyal to the cause of the defeated Richard III. In an attempt to gain greater control over the country and to tighten England's loose administrative ties to Ireland, the Crown packed the Irish Parliament with Tudor supporters. And, in 1494, the Irish Parliament was persuaded to pass a law subordinating itself to the English Crown. The legislation was called Poyning's Law, named after England's top administrator in Ireland at the time, and it was a milestone in Anglo-Irish relations. Until Poyning's Law, the English settlement could claim to be a self-governing entity under the Crown. The new statute, however, rendered the Irish Parliament meaningless, and the legislature would become a symbol of Ireland's political degradation for nearly four hundred years. The Irish Parliament could pass bills only after the Crown had given its sanction, and could meet only with the monarch's approval. A viceroy, or Lord Lieutenant, was dispatched as the Crown's chief representative in Ireland. An administrative nerve center called Dublin Castle became the seat of English administration for Ireland, and it would continue to serve the Crown until 1922.
Still, the English in Ireland nervously watched as their influence, and indeed the Pale itself, shrank while Gaelic Ireland not only seemed to prosper, but became downright emboldened. The Gaelic leaders recruited well-armed mercenaries from Scotland called gallowglasses. Conflicts between settlers and natives continued to erupt, and the English colonists asked for help from the Pope, who, they hoped, would call for a crusade "against the...Irish enemies."
Henry VIII came to the English throne in 1509, and soon there would be no more appeals to the Pope. Rather, the Pope -- and those who remained loyal to him -- would be considered among the King's enemies. Henry's secession from Rome and his claim to be the spiritual head of the new, state-supported Church of England was a decisive moment in Irish history, changing forever the relationship between the two countries. The Gaelic Irish and the Old English did not abandon Catholicism and refused to accept the King's claim to be a spiritual as well as a political leader. The English already regarded the Gaelic Irish as backward aliens, and Ireland's refusal to disown the Pope was interpreted not only as evidence of Irish ignorance, but also as proof of their disloyalty to the Crown. The Gaelic Irish in turn defensively embraced their Catholicism as a badge of nationality. But it was England, not Ireland, that made political and even racial distinctions between Catholic and Protestant in Ireland, and those distinctions, brutally enforced, would define Irish society for the next five hundred years.
In 1534 -- the year after he annulled his marriage, married Anne Boleyn, and was excommunicated from the Catholic Church -- Henry put down a rebellion led by the son of one of Ireland's most powerful families, Thomas FitzGerald. Members of the FitzGerald family were descendants of Norman settlers and had served both Henry VII and Henry VIII as the Crown's top administrators in Ireland, holding the title of Earl of Kildare. The FitzGeralds moved in two worlds, for they had the respect of Gaelic Ireland even while they served the English Crown. Thomas FitzGerald held the formal, Crown-granted title of Lord Offaly and the informal nickname of Silken Thomas, for he and his allies wore silk fringes on their jackets. Silken Thomas cared little about the politics of religion. But he did care about his family's place as one of Ireland's leading families, and he feared that the FitzGeralds were losing their coveted influence with the King. Silken Thomas was determined to show that London could not take the family for granted. An armed challenge was a rather dramatic way of making his point, and an ineffective one. An English army attacked FitzGerald's forces in Maynooth, County Kildare. The rebels were forced to surrender, and they were promptly given what was called the "pardon of Maynooth." They were executed. Silken Thomas was hanged, and his family's lands confiscated.
Land, Henry decided, could make believers out of dissenters. He demanded that all privately held property in Ireland be surrendered to him so he could regrant the holdings. Landowners therefore would hold their property at the Crown's pleasure, subject to their continued loyalty. Control over the island was made even tighter in 1541, when the Irish Parliament declared Henry VIII to be the King of Ireland instead of merely being its lord. Ireland, Parliament said, was to be "knit forever to the imperial crown of the realm of England." This was a sign of England's new determination to Anglicize its neighbor, politically as well as culturally. Many of Ireland's chieftains and nobles swore their allegiance, with some of them promising to give up their Irish customs and clothes. Henry VIII also was proclaimed head of the new state religion in Ireland, the Church of England, later to become known as the Church of Ireland.
Queen Elizabeth, who succeeded to the throne in 1558, was determined to see that the process of Anglicizing Ireland continued. The Crown organized the provinces of Munster in the south and Connaught in the west, with each supervised by a Crown-appointed president, to bring local government in line with English law and customs. Elizabeth said she wished to direct "that rude and barbarous nation to civility" through "discreet handling rather than by force and the shedding of blood." If, however, force became necessary, she authorized her administrators to "oppose yourself and your forces to those whom reason cannot bridle."
Reason, at least Elizabeth's interpretation of it, indeed was having a hard time in Ireland. As the Queen pushed, the Gaelic Irish pushed back, aware that a struggle for land and power was taking shape. Sporadic but strictly local rebellions were constant and costly, beginning with an uprising in 1559 in Ulster, the northern province and the least penetrated by English influence. Other rebellions broke out in the late 1560s and again ten years later. Gaelic chieftains attempted to link up with England's rivals in Europe, specifically Catholic Spain, and Spanish and Italian troops landed in 1580 -- eight years before the Spanish Armada set sail -- to help foment rebellion. Elizabeth was forced to garrison Ireland with thousands of troops, an expense that left her nearly bankrupt. The native Irish in the province of Munster found themselves pushed aside to make way for Protestant settlers from England. It was the beginning of the plantation system of colonization, a model that would be followed in other parts of Ireland and in America. If the Irish insisted on disloyalty, then Ireland would have loyalty imposed upon it.
Hugh O'Neill was the Elizabethan ideal of what the Irish ought to become. He was born in 1550 in Dungannon, County Tyrone, the scion of a family that ruled large portions of Ulster. Henry VIII had given Hugh's grandfather Conn Bacach O'Neill the royal title of Earl of Tyrone, and when succession to the earldom was in question, Queen Elizabeth stepped in to bestow young, redheaded Hugh with the title of Baron of Dungannon, heir to Conn Bacach O'Neill. Patronage, it was thought, would keep this promising young man in check.
Hugh was educated in Ireland in the style of a young English nobleman. He became a ward of the Crown when his father was murdered by a half-brother, Shane O'Neill, during a feud over control of the family's titles and power. Elizabeth's representatives watched over him closely. One of the Crown's most important advisers, Sir Henry Sidney, invited Hugh to live with him in his castle in Kent. There, Hugh met members of England's most powerful families and lived the life of a sophisticated Elizabethan, dining with diplomats and conversing with literary figures. He was becoming very much the civilized Englishman.
Elizabeth would not say the same of young Hugh's Uncle Shane, an ambitious and unpredictable man who claimed the ancient Gaelic title of The O'Neill, thus asserting leadership of the O'Neill family. He was a drinker who treated his frequent hangovers by burying himself from the neck down in moist sand. There is no record indicating the effectiveness of this remedy, but it is worth noting that Shane kept drinking throughout his short and violent life.
Shane O'Neill resented stepped-up incursions of English administration in Ulster and the military strongholds that were being built to keep people like himself in check. He organized a rebellion in 1559, a year after Elizabeth's coronation, but soon threw himself at the Queen's mercy, prostrating himself in court in 1562 and bemoaning his lack of education and civility. After pledging his loyalty, he was allowed to return to Ulster in peace.
But Shane was soon back on the march, attempting to assert his authority and, at the same time, undermining his nephew Hugh's position as heir to the title of Earl of Tyrone. "My ancestors were Kings of Ulster, Ulster was theirs, and shall be mine," he wrote. He would fight anyone, English or Irish, who threatened his domain.
He rampaged through counties Fermanagh and Armagh in Ulster, but his army finally was defeated not by the Queen's forces, but by his Irish enemies -- the O'Donnells, another prominent Ulster family. He was killed after fleeing from the O'Donnells, and his head dispatched to Dublin, where it was mounted on a pike and put on display for four years.
By the the time of Shane's death, Hugh O'Neill was an assimilated, Anglicized Irishman. He spoke English at a time when his countrymen spoke Irish, he was well mannered, and he looked the part of a leader, with his red beard, broad shoulders, and fine dress. He complained of Ireland's refusal to adopt English ways, sentiments that further endeared him to the Crown and inspired hope that here, at last, was an Irish leader who might quell the island's rebelliousness. He returned to his family's castle in Tyrone, joined the Queen's army, and helped put down one of the several rebellions that broke out as Elizabeth attempted to extend her control in Ulster. He served in the Irish Parliament and supported a plan to bring more English colonists into Ireland. And later in life, he married (it was his third wedding) Mabel Bagenal, the young daughter of a former marshal of the English army and the sister of the incumbent marshal.
But the English polish did nothing to diminish O'Neill's interest in family politics. He regarded Shane O'Neill's sons as rivals, and one of them was found in chains, hanging from a tree, after telling the English that Hugh was secretly negotiating with archrival Spain. There was no doubt who committed the murder. Hugh O'Neill was summoned to London to explain himself to Elizabeth's Privy Council. He delivered a long, dissembling treatise on "the ancient form of government among us in Ulster," and got off with a warning.
O'Neill's loyalty was rewarded in 1587, when the Crown gave him the coveted title of Earl of Tyrone, which gave him control over a vast region of Ulster, covering much of what would become the six counties of Northern Ireland. He traveled again to London, and while there he visited local shops in search of furniture and other accessories. He also ordered a supply of lead. It was for the roof of his castle, he explained.
On Christmas Day 1591, a young man escaped from his cell in Dublin Castle after more than three years of harsh imprisonment. He was known as Red Hugh O'Donnell, the eighteen-year-old son of a family whose anti-English sentiments had caused his imprisonment. The government had held Red Hugh in chains to guarantee the family would be peaceful.
The O'Donnells had made peace with their rivals the O'Neills, and Red Hugh himself was Hugh O'Neill's son-in-law. With help from his father-in-law's allies, Red Hugh made his way through bitter cold to his home in Ulster. He suffered terribly from frostbite, and when he finally arrived both big toes had to be amputated. He was determined to exact revenge, but Hugh O'Neill told the English that they needn't worry. In a letter to the Queen, O'Neill promised to "do my best to persuade" Red Hugh to remain loyal to the Crown. "And if he shall not be directed by my counsel...I will be as ready to serve against him and scourge him as any man shall be in this kingdom."
Hugh O'Neill served Her Majesty's forces yet again in 1593, when he rode with his brother-in-law Sir Henry Bagenal to oppose a small rebellion led by another of his sons-in-law, Hugh Maguire, who feared losing his lands in County Fermanagh to the English. O'Neill was wounded in one engagement, and complained that Bagenal didn't appreciate his efforts. Meanwhile, Maguire enlisted the help of Red Hugh, who eagerly joined the fledgling rebellion. Two of O'Neill's sons-in-law were on the rebel side.
O'Neill found himself caught between his English training and his Gaelic blood, between loyalty and ambition, between the old order, which still might be preserved, and the new, which threatened everything. In the meantime, he was invested with the title of The O'Neill in a traditional Gaelic ceremony in the town of Tullaghoge. He now held two titles -- he was the royal Earl of Tyrone and the Gaelic The O'Neill. England and Ireland waited to see which he held dearer.
Finally, in February 1595, he committed himself. His Gaelic blood prevailed over his English training. He joined forces with Red Hugh O'Donnell and united the often divided factions of Ulster under his command, putting together a well-trained, well-equipped army of some six thousand men. In June, he ambushed forces under the command of his brother-in-law Bagenal. The Irish won a spectacular victory in Clontibret, County Monaghan, fighting not only with ferocity but with skill and discipline, attributes that were not always associated with Irish insurgents. The Queen was warned of the consequences of O'Neill's decision: "He is worthily reputed the best man of war of his nation," a report noted. "Many of his followers are well-trained soldiers...and he is the greatest man of territory and revenue within that kingdom."
The Queen proclaimed him a traitor to the Crown. Privately, she spoke bitterly of O'Neill as "my monster of the North." O'Neill ordered his own castle in Dungannon destroyed, expecting that the English might do it themselves. Its contents, including the lead he had bought in London but never used for the castle's roof, were shipped to safer locations.
After the Battle of Clontibret, the rebellion became more an exercise in shadow boxing than outright war. O'Neill and O'Donnell agreed to a short truce, enabling them to buy time and to appeal to Catholic Spain for support. In a letter to the son of Spain's King Philip II, O'Neill and O'Donnell stated that they were intent upon "freeing the country from the rod of tyrannical evil." Philip, who had seen his great armada broken up and defeated in 1588, dispatched a new fleet to Ireland in 1596. Bad weather, however, prevented a landing. Philip, a persistent man, was undeterred. A 136-ship fleet with nearly thirteen thousand men aboard was dispatched in 1597. Yet again storms intervened, and the fleet was broken up.
Both sides were preparing for war in earnest when O'Neill agreed to a conference with the lord general of the English army in Ireland, the Earl of Ormond. Speaking to each other from opposite banks of a stream, O'Neill urged the Englishman to withdraw his troops from Ulster, suggesting that if he did so, the rebellion would cease. A member of Ormond's party demanded that O'Neill offer two of his sons, who were standing beside him, as hostages to guarantee the peace. O'Neill refused: "You do not know the North as I know it," he shouted across the stream. "If my sons were out of this country the people would despise them. And if they were not here in Ulster how would you treat them?" When his listeners reminded him of Elizabeth's generosity, he sneered: "Her Majesty never gave me anything but what belonged to me."
No one had ever heard Hugh O'Neill speak this way.
Sir Henry Bagenal was determined to put an end to the rebellion and to his hated brother-in-law. The early death of his sister Mabel, O'Neill's third wife, after just four years of marriage, only inflamed his desire for revenge. Mabel Bagenal had died in Sir Henry's home, having walked out on her philandering husband. So when O'Neill beseiged an English garrison at Blackwater Fort near a place called Yellow Ford in County Tyrone, Bagenal seized the opportunity. He insisted on leading a massive relief column of four thousand men to attack the rebels.
O'Neill had five thousand men under his command, and he was ready for the attack when it came on August 14, 1598. His troops were supplied with ammunition made from the supply of lead that had never found its way to the roof of Dungannon Castle.
Bagenal's men marched in a mile-long column across open ground, skirting bogs and woods. O'Neill placed skirmishers out of sight, beyond the trees on either side of Bagenal's column. The Irish attacked in guerrilla-like fashion, harassing and then disappearing into the countryside. Bagenal's cavalry couldn't give pursuit through the woods and bogs. Through it all, Bagenal kept marching toward O'Neill's main force, even as his column began to fall apart. O'Neill had had plenty of time to reinforce his position, setting traps for enemy cavalry and building a long trench filled with water and other obstacles. O'Neill's trench was so long, perhaps a mile, that Bagenal couldn't outflank him.
The Irish opened fire on the already exhausted English as they approached the rebel fortress from the surrounding hills. O'Neill's pikemen then advanced, and O'Donnell attacked from the flank. The English were stunned and confused. Bagenal, wearing a helmet as he moved closer to the fighting, tried to regroup for a new advance. A bullet struck him in his face as he raised his visor. He was killed instantly.
The battle became a rout, and when it was over, more than half of Bagenal's four thousand men were dead, wounded, or missing. It was the worst defeat the English ever suffered in Ireland. The Battle of Yellow Ford made Hugh O'Neill famous throughout Europe. Both King Philip and the Pope wrote to congratulate him. Despite England's efforts and expenditures, Hugh O'Neill, and not Queen Elizabeth, was in command in Ireland.
The war spread from Ulster to Munster. Elizabeth's advisers in Dublin put out a peace feeler to O'Neill, but when she heard of it, the Queen noted icily that there would be no compromise with a traitor. She informed her administrators in Dublin that they ought to be "ashamed" of their "absurdities." Elizabeth put out a call for the thousands of reinforcements it would take to keep Ireland and Hugh O'Neill from humiliating the Crown and establishing a hostile kingdom on England's western flank. A new commander was dispatched to Ireland -- Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy, a determined and clever man who was one of Elizabeth's top soldiers. The urgency of the moment was not lost on the Queen. Hugh O'Neill wrote to the King of Spain yet again, saying that with the help of some six thousand or seven thousand Spanish soldiers, "we shall be masters of this kingdom."
During one of several truces that interrupted the fighting, O'Neill put into writing a declaration of principles for which he and his troops were fighting. O'Neill demanded that the Catholic religion be allowed to be "openly preached and taught," that all top administrators be Irish rather than English, that lands taken from rebellious Gaelic chieftains be returned, and that the Irish be allowed to travel and trade with all the same rights as Englishmen. When one of Elizabeth's advisers saw O'Neill's demands, he told her: "He means to be head and monarch of Ireland." Those closer to the situation saw it a bit differently; they understood that he was creating something Ireland had not seen before: a well-trained, disciplined army organized around a set of national principles. "This island of Ireland shall be at our direction and counsel as Irishmen," O'Neill said. He was, in effect, making an argument for what later generations would call Home Rule -- an Ireland that ruled its own affairs but was loyal to the Crown of England.
In late September 1601, a fleet of twenty-four Spanish warships sailed unopposed into the harbor of Kinsale, a port town thirteen miles south of the major city of Cork. The commander had nearly four thousand soldiers at his disposal. Hugh O'Neill, however, was three hundred miles to the north, in his home province of Ulster. The English commander, Mountjoy, was in Kilkenny when he heard the news, and he immediately went to Cork to prepare a march against the invaders.
parO'Neill, who always preferred patient waiting to rash fighting, tried to assess the risk to his army. He and O'Donnell knew they had a worthy foe in Mountjoy, and it long ago had become clear that they couldn't win without the support of Spain. But now the Spanish had landed in Munster.
Mountjoy redeployed troops from other parts of the country, building a force of more than six thousand to face the Spaniards. He understood just how close he, and the English, were to the brink: "If the Spaniards should prevail at first, all Ireland will follow," he wrote. Finally, O'Neill began his long march from Dungannon in early November. Red Hugh O'Donnell already was marching south to join the Spanish. Irish rebels had made common cause with England's most formidable enemy, and now were fighting not just an Irish battle, but a European war.
With admirable skill and discipline, O'Neill evaded the English attempt to intercept and destroy him. He and O'Donnell took up positions outside Kinsale; the combined strength of the Ulster army was about 6,500, not counting the Spanish. The English had about 7,500 battle-ready troops. The two sides faced each other for three weeks, waiting.
O'Neill ordered an attack in the predawn hours of a stormy Christmas eve. It seemed an uncharacteristically bold move, leading to speculation afterward that Red Hugh O'Donnell, still burning to avenge his years in prison, persuaded him to abandon his usual caution. Whatever the case, three Irish divisions moved forward toward the English line as thunder rattled overhead and streaks of lightning traced a brightening sky. Men armed with muskets opened fire. An English officer ordered a cavalry charge at the center of the Irish attack. O'Neill's disciplined army, which had made war on the Queen for six years, suddenly, inexplicably, broke down. Infantrymen fled, and were chased down and hacked to death. What had figured to be a hotly contested battle turned into a lopsided rout. One of Mountjoy's subordinates marveled: "No man can yield reasons for this miraculous victory."
The Battle of Kinsale was over in an hour. Hugh O'Neill took the shattered remainder of his army back to Ulster. Red Hugh O'Donnell, who had lost his way before the attack began but then tried valiantly to halt the chaotic retreat, was dispatched to Spain to plead for reinforcements. The Spanish invaders withdrew and returned home. In a letter to the new Spanish King, Philip III, O'Neill tried to engender a case of royal guilt. He noted that "the help which Your Majesty sent us...came to land in the province of Munster, so far from our own lands that we had to march one hundred leagues in the depth of winter, through enemy country." This time, however, there would be no more help from Spain. And Red Hugh O'Donnell was dead before the year was out, very likely poisoned by an English agent in Spain.
Hugh O'Neill believed he would fight again, but with O'Donnell's death he realized that all was lost. His army was shattered, and, in a gesture that symbolized the new order, Lord Mountjoy's men invaded Ulster and destroyed the ancient stone chair where generations of O'Neills had been inaugurated as The O'Neill. Gaelic Ireland was shattered, too.
Hugh O'Neill surrendered, and submitted to the authority of the Crown in March 1603. Elizabeth pardoned O'Neill and offered a generous settlement just before she died. When O'Neill learned of Elizabeth's death, he burst into tears.
Ulster was a defeated and famished land, and O'Neill was exhausted and broken. He could no longer bear to live in the province where his ancestors had once been kings. And so, on September 14, 1607, Hugh O'Neill, the Earl of Tyrone, joined Red Hugh O'Donnell's brother, the Earl of Tyrconnell, and along with family members, they set sail for France, never to return to Ireland. The "flight of the earls" marked the end of old Gaelic Ireland. Hugh O'Neill died ten years later in Italy, after trying vainly to interest Spain in another invasion.
By sailing to exile, O'Neill and his allies inadvertently handed England an opportunity to change the course of history in Ulster and indeed all of Ireland. The consequences of their decision would last for hundreds of years. The English confiscated the O'Neill and O'Donnell holdings, and Ulster would be transformed from the most stubbornly Gaelic province to the most devoutly loyal. Colonists were transported from Scotland and England to stock Ulster with dependable Protestants whose devotion to the Crown was unquestioned.
The colonizing of Ulster was more systematic than what had been attempted in Munster decades before. In 1600, about 2 percent of Ireland's one million people were descended from English or Scots settlers, some of them already settled in Ulster. Over the next one hundred years, that percentage would increase to nearly 30. The gentry who were granted parcels of land in Ulster were required to bring over ten Protestant families for each one thousand acres of land they received. About half these settlers would be Scots, whose native shores were just thirteen miles from Ulster's northeast corner. The Scots were not members of the Church of England, they were Dissenters -- Presbyterians. Although they were subject to some forms of legal discrimination, the Scots Presbyterians at least were Protestant, and they could be expected to be loyal to English rule. In fact the new King of England, James I, was a Scot -- James Stuart, formerly James VI of Scotland.
The new settlers were expected to improve the land they lived on, generally for low rents. And so, remote Gaelic Ulster began to be transformed into an English outpost. The settlers built towns, developed trades, and founded new industries, such as timber export.
The native Irish were supposed to be segregated from the settler population, but that notion never worked. The remnants of Gaelic Ulster instead remained, working lands that had once belonged to them -- if not individually, then collectively. The newcomers knew that they were living on and improving property that had been taken from the native Irish. One English official wrote to London that many settlers feared that the native Irish would rise up and cut the throats of the "poore dispersed Brittish." The Irish, however, remained quiet for the time being.
By 1622, some thirteen thousand settlers were living in Ulster, and by 1640, about 100,000 English and Scots natives had crossed the Irish Sea to new homes on confiscated lands. They dominated trade in the new towns springing up in the plantations. Merchants in London undertook the responsibility of rebuilding the city of Derry, which was renamed Londonderry. (The native Irish, however, continued to call the city Derry.) Ireland was becoming a country of two separate societies, suspicious of and hostile toward one another. The Irish would not accept the settlers, the authority they represented, or the privileges they were accorded based on their religion and their loyalty to England.
The plantation of Ulster seemed to the English to be such a success that London contemplated another, this one in the westernmost province of Connaught. Accordingly, a quarter century after Hugh O'Neill's flight, the government began confiscating lands held by Catholics, and this time, no distinction was made between Gaelic Catholics and Old English Catholics. The Old English, descendants of Norman settlers, were outraged, for many of them had tried mightily to prove that they could be loyal to the Crown of England as well as to the Church of Rome. Their rage turned to fear as they saw their influence in the Irish Parliament begin to fade when Protestant members from Ulster and elsewhere took control of the legislature with the blessing of England's Lord Lieutenant, Thomas Wentworth. And in London, an increasingly aggressive and rabidly anti-Catholic Parliament began taking steps that would lead to the English Civil War.
In 1641, the Puritan-dominated Parliament passed legislation calling for the suppression of Catholicism in Ireland, declaring that all Catholics were to be considered "recusants," which meant that they were subject to civil penalties because they did not believe in the English monarch's religious authority. England began to govern Ireland on the principle that to be Catholic was to be of suspect loyalty. In doing so, the English alienated Gaelic Irish and Old English alike.
Though divided by class -- the Old English generally were members of the gentry -- Ireland's Catholics were united as recusants. Their hold on two thirds of Ireland's land suddenly seemed weak. So the Gaelic Irish and Old English formed an alliance that would become known as the Confederation of Kilkenny, named for the city in which the alliance was founded.
With the English distracted by conflict between the Puritan Parliament and King Charles I, James's successor, the Irish saw an opportunity to head off further persecution and to reverse the Anglicization of their country. Confederate leaders developed a plan to seize Dublin Castle and present the King and Parliament with a fait accompli. A drunken conspirator, however, betrayed what might have been a stunning Irish victory. Despite the setback, the Irish in Ulster rose again on October 23, 1641, doing so in the name of "God, King, and Ireland." Gentry and peasant alike joined forces; the gentry striking what they hoped would be a preemptive move against further confiscation, the peasants responding to past grievances. The rebels did not have the disciplined army of Hugh O'Neill (although one of the rebellion's leaders was Sir Phelim O'Neill, a relative of Hugh's), but they surely had Red Hugh O'Donnell's passion for vengeance. They turned on the settlers, particularly those in the Ulster plantation. In the town of Portadown, County Armagh, about one thousand Protestant men, women, and children were rounded up, led to a bridge, and thrown into the water below. Those who didn't drown were killed after swimming to shore. One woman said the insurgents took her five children from her and threw them off the bridge. A Protestant clergyman said that "the rebels buried many of the British Protestants alive."
Horrific as the slaughter was, it was exaggerated in supposed eyewitness accounts given to a government commission. Some Protestants gave casualty figures that exceeded the Protestant population of Ireland at the time. But it is impossible to exaggerate the significance of the 1641 massacre in the Irish Protestant mind. In parts of modern Northern Ireland, the murders in Portadown are remembered as if they took place a generation ago. Though Catholics would suffer an even worse slaughter at the hands of Scots settlers in Ulster several months later -- Catholic children were murdered with special zeal -- Portadown came to represent Protestant conviction of Irish barbarism, and confirmed fears of Catholic Irish skulking through the night to retrieve what had once been theirs.
In early 1642, the rebel army came under the command of yet another O'Neill, Owen Roe O'Neill, a nephew of Hugh O'Neill. The rebels continued to insist that they were loyal to the English Crown, but, ironically enough, their assurances meant little to those who controlled England. King Charles I would be executed in 1649 and for more than a decade, the English Crown would cease to exist.
The aristocratic Owen Roe O'Neill had just returned to Ireland after an absence of four decades. He was about sixty years old -- his year of birth is uncertain, but he was probably born about 1580 -- and had spent thirty-five years in the service of Spain. Like his uncle Hugh, Owen Roe never gave up hope that Spain would once again come to the assistance of an Irish rebellion.
The rebel Irish army was unlike the troops he had commanded on the Continent. They were poorly armed and virtually untrained. "I am killing myself bringing them to some order and discipline, so as to be able to withstand the enemy," he wrote. Complicating his assignment was the division within his confederation. The Old English and Gaelic Irish may have had their Catholicism in common, but not a great deal more. The Old English landowners were reluctant to press the rebellion, for they had much to lose, and they hoped for a pardon. The Gaelic Irish, with nothing to lose, pressed for continued conflict. O'Neill agreed with the Gaels, but he would have to fight without the full support of the Old English.
Owen Roe O'Neill won a measure of revenge for his uncle's defeat at Kinsale with a startling victory in 1646 at Bunburb in the heart of the old O'Neill country, County Tyrone. He inflicted enemy losses comparable to those at Yellow Ford, but he could not follow up on the victory, and he died under mysterious circumstances in 1649, when the man who had won the English Civil War came to Ireland to subdue the rebels.
Oliver Cromwell was a fanatic Protestant who was determined to avenge the Catholic atrocities of 1641, and to put down (ironically enough) Irish loyalty to the deposed and beheaded Charles I. Parliament commissioned Cromwell to settle Ireland's Catholic problem and to quell permanently Ireland's rebellion. He surely was the man for the job, believing as he did that the Irish Catholics were "barbarous wretches."
Cromwell went straight to what he saw as God's work. He believed the Irish, aside from practicing a despised and corrupt religion, were a race of savages. "You, unprovoked, put the English to the most unheard of and most barbarous massacre...that ever the sun beheld," he wrote of the Irish. The Irish, he said, were better off for the English presence, in part because of "the example of English industry [and] commerce." He landed in Dublin on August 15, 1649, and with an army of more than twenty thousand infantry and cavalry, he beseiged the town of Drogheda in County Louth on September 10. The town was an outpost of English soldiers still loyal to King Charles, but the citizenry was mostly Catholic. Cromwell's first attempt to breach the town's walls ended in failure, which did nothing for the already impassioned temperament of his Puritan army. He attacked again, and this time, "being in the heat of the action, I forbade [the soldiers] to spare any that were in arms in the town." That order was interpreted broadly, and the soldiers slaughtered anybody they found. About 3,500 people were killed. Those who tried to surrender were executed. In an unmistakable sign of what Cromwell's expedition sought to achieve, every Catholic priest in the town was murdered.
Cromwell was modest about his achievement in Drogheda; he would accept no credit for the slaughter: "It is right that God alone should have all the glory," he wrote.
There was more "glory" to come. Cromwell's men marched south and rampaged through the port town of Wexford, slaughtering two thousand people, including at least 250 women. Terrified Irish towns began surrendering as soon as Cromwell's men drew near. The rebellion that had begun in 1641 was put down in a matter of months. Thousands of Catholics, even those who played no part in the rebellion, were rounded up under Cromwell's orders and transported to the West Indies as slaves. Priests were targeted for murder, and a £5 reward was offered for their capture. The celebration of Catholic Mass was prohibited.
Cromwell was now free to impose his solution to England's Irish problem, which was summed up in a phrase: "Hell or Connaught." Catholic landowners in Ulster, Munster, and Leinster were stripped of their property and dispatched to Ireland's fourth province, the remote, stony land of Connaught west of the River Shannon. Among the nearly fifty thousand people sent to what amounted to internal exile were the Sarsfields, who held large tracts of land in County Kildare. Patrick Sarsfield had been a member of the Irish Parliament and the descendant of soldiers who had come to Ireland with Henry II. He was a member of the small Catholic gentry -- English-speaking, loyal to the Crown, and well assimilated into Anglo-Irish culture. Nevertheless, he was a Catholic, and he and his wife and their five children were forced to leave behind their manor house for the famished west. Sarsfield estimated that the land he was given in Connaught was worth about one-twentieth the value of his confiscated holdings.
Before Cromwell, Catholics owned about 60 percent of the country's land; by the time Cromwell redistributed land to his soldiers, allies, and other reliable Protestants, Catholics owned just about 20 percent. Connaught became, in essence, a reservation populated by Catholic gentry. Catholics who were not landowners were allowed to remain where they were. The new Protestant landowners, after all, would require laborers, farmers, and other workers.
Cromwell's campaign lasted nine months and left Ireland dazed and embittered. He returned to England in May 1650. An English administrator, Colonel Richard Lawrence, noted that "plague and famine had so swept away whole counties that a man might travel twenty or thirty miles and not see a living creature, either man, beast or bird."
For centuries afterward, the Irish would speak of the curse of Cromwell.
The Crown was restored in 1660 with Charles II. Hostage to England's religious-based politics, Ireland's Catholics saw reason for hope in 1685 when a Catholic, James II, became King. The Irish expected the appointment of Catholic administrators in Ireland and even the election of a Catholic-dominated Parliament in Dublin. Although still subordinate to the Crown, the Irish Parliament could, with the Crown's cooperation, pass legislation rescinding Cromwell's confiscation of Catholic land. The Protestant settlers from England and Scotland, never secure as a minority on the island, always bearing in mind the massacre of 1641, feared a legal reversal of decades of English policy. But James II's Queen, Mary of Modena, bore a son, ensuring the unthinkable -- that a Catholic would succeed James and reestablish a Catholic dynasty in Protestant England. In the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, England's nobility invited Prince William of Orange, a Dutch Protestant, to assume the Crown with his wife, Mary, who was the daughter of James II. With no popular support, James II could do nothing to resist his son-in-law's usurpation. He fled to France and prepared to fight for his crown on more hospitable terrain -- Ireland. With him was Patrick Sarsfield, the son of the Member of Parliament whose lands Cromwell had confiscated forty years earlier.
Like Owen Roe O'Neill and others before him, Patrick Sarsfield had left Ireland to become a soldier on the Continent. In 1675, when he was about twenty, the tall, powerful, and hotheaded young man joined an English brigade attached to the French army -- in that way he would not have to take an oath required of English officers renouncing Catholic doctrine. He left his posting in France in 1678 and traveled to England at the very moment when the country was in the thrall of what was called the Popish plot, which consisted of rumors that Jesuits were planning to overthrow the King. When a judge who was taking evidence, such as it was, about the reports was found beaten to death, authorities were panic-stricken. Catholics were prohibited from London and its outskirts, and Patrick Sarsfield was arrested because of his religion. Authorities were outraged when they learned that a Catholic was serving as an officer in the King's army. Sarsfield eventually was released, but others arrested in the Popish plot panic were executed, including, in Ireland, the Archbishop of Armagh, Oliver Plunkett.
Sarsfield's family successfully petitioned the Crown to get some of its land back, although it took years of legal action to rid the property of the Protestant who had taken it over. When the Catholic James II ascended to the throne in 1685, he almost immediately faced a minor internal rebellion. Sarsfield volunteered to serve in His Majesty's army. He was given a commission and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. When the English nobility invited William of Orange to take the throne of England, Sarsfield fought for James's lost cause, and accompanied him to exile in France.
Now, the battle for the Crown of England would be fought in Ireland.
On March 12, 1689, James landed in Kinsale, the scene of Hugh O'Neill's defeat. Sarsfield joined him and was given the challenging assignment of whipping the Irish army into shape. Some troops had no shoes, no weapons, and hardly any food. Because of its geography, Ulster once again loomed as a flashpoint. Its proximity to Scotland suggested a route by which James might return to London. Shortly after James and Sarsfield landed in Kinsale, Irish troops loyal to James besieged the Protestant stronghold of Derry, which was supporting William. The city's thirty thousand civilians were reduced to eating rats, but when the city's commander, Robert Lundy, seemed ready to surrender, the populace turned on him. The cry of the besieged city was "No surrender!" It would become the Protestant motto.
Once again, war in Ireland took on an international dimension when France landed six thousand troops to fight alongside James. It was a circular strategy: the English occupied Ireland because they feared it would be a staging area for England's enemies; the Irish, in seeking to throw off English rule, invited England's enemies to assist their rebellions; the English saw their fears realized and became even more determined to crush the Irish. The siege of Derry was lifted in July 1689, and Prince William of Orange, now King William III of England, landed in Ireland the following June to take personal command of the army. Two kings, then, were in the field in Ireland, fighting over the throne of England. History would record the coming battle as a fight between the orange (for William) and the green (the national color of Ireland).
The two armies met on a field outside Drogheda, along the banks of the River Boyne. Patrick Sarsfield already had shown himself to be the Irish army's boldest commander, having won a series of significant victories in the west that cleared William's troops out of Connaught. He gained a reputation for moving quickly -- while marching toward Sligo in the fall of 1689, his cavalry had covered thirty-four miles in a single day -- and for seizing the opportunities given him. He also had won a reputation as a humane commander. After capturing Sligo and discovering that the town's garrison was starving, he invited his opponent's officers to dine with him.
On the bright, warm morning of July 1, 1690, Sarsfield commanded a cavalry brigade more accustomed to irregular tactics than open-field battles. But here, along the banks of the Boyne, there would be little opportunity for maneuver.
The fighting began at about eight o'clock, when some six thousand Williamites attacked not the main body of Irish troops, but its poorly manned left flank. James mistakenly concluded that William was attempting to outflank him, and he hurriedly split his army, dispatching Sarsfield's cavalry, among other units, to the west. In effect, Sarsfield was taken out of action, for the battle did not take place on the flank. William sent fifteen thousand troops, double what was left of the main Irish army after James split it, in a direct frontal assault. After hours of hotly contested fighting, with William prominent at the head of the English columns, a defeated James left the field in the company of Sarsfield's cavalry. He retreated all the way to Dublin, and from there sailed to France, never to return to Ireland or England.
Although it did not seem so at the time, the Battle of the Boyne was one of the pivotal events in Irish history. Protestant Ireland, particularly in Ulster, adopted the orange of King William as their counter to the green of Irish nationalists, and King William himself was deified as a Protestant hero. Every year on July 12 (the change in the calendar about fifty years later moved the anniversary by eleven days) Protestants parade through the cities and towns of Northern Ireland to celebrate the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne.
Banners carry such mottos as: "Remember 1690!" and "No Surrender!" When possible, the parades are routed through Catholic neighborhoods, to remind residents which side won on that hot July day.
For Patrick Sarsfield and thousands of his soldiers, the war went on. After the Battle of the Boyne, Sarsfield was at his most audacious, moving quickly when least expected, striking hard with his cavalry and then disappearing into the countryside. His most famous victory came in August, about a month after the Irish army had retreated to the walled city of Limerick, with William following quickly -- too quickly, as Sarsfield learned. William's ammunition and heavy artillery, the guns he would need if he were to besiege the Irish in Limerick, were lumbering well behind his main force.
Sarsfield ordered five hundred cavalry into action, then rode hard for two days through enemy territory, just barely evading enemy patrols, before reaching the English artillery encampment. As the Irish closed in, they managed to discover the enemy's password: "Sarsfield." The man himself moved toward the camp and was challenged by an English sentry, who asked him for the password.
He replied: "Sarsfield is the word. And Sarsfield is the man!" With that, the Irish swarmed into the camp, overpowering it and then disabling the powerful guns. When William later tried to storm Limerick's walls without the guns and extra ammunition, he suffered an appalling defeat, losing five thousand men. One of William's aides noted that "the ill success at Limerick was well known to be owing to the want of ammunition occasioned by Sarsfield falling upon the artillery." Sarsfield's ride became the stuff of legend and not a little myth, a dashing tale of heroism at a time of despair. Before the war was over, some of Sarsfield's men were calling him "the father of his country."
The war's last pitched battle came at Aughrim, County Galway, in July 1691. There Sarsfield found himself under heavy attack early in the fighting as he protected the army's vulnerable right wing. The battle appeared to be tilting in favor of the Irish until the army's French commander, the Marquis de Saint-Ruth, ordered what he thought would be a climactic cavalry charge. "They are beaten," he shouted to his men, just before an English cannonball took off his head. Leaderless, the Irish collapsed in a heap. Sarsfield, paralyzed by Saint-Ruth's order to protect the right wing, watched as the tide of battle turned. He could no longer affect the outcome; the battle was lost. From his position, however, he saw that the rout would become a slaughter unless somebody stood and fought. He ordered his cavalry to charge the onrushing English in hopes of keeping the enemy cavalry at bay while the Irish infantry retreated. An English observer noted that Sarsfield had "performed miracles, and if he was not killed or taken it was not for any fault of his." The Irish had entered the battle with about twenty thousand men, about the size of the Williamite army they opposed. Estimates of Irish killed in action at Aughrim range from three thousand to seven thousand.
The Irish again retreated to the walled city of Limerick, but this time there would be no dashing raid behind enemy lines, no disciplined defense. Sarsfield was in command now, and he surprised friend and foe alike when he decided to sue for peace. The war in Ireland, he decided, was over, but the war against William and England would be carried on elsewhere. He understood that the battle for Ireland was part of a larger great power rivalry between England and its continental enemies. If he could no longer fight for Ireland on Irish soil, he would negotiate a peace, flee, and resume the fight in France. Ever the optimist, he thought he would be crossing the English Channel to invade England within a year.
Negotiations soon were underway, and during the course of the talks, Sarsfield asked the English officers on hand if they had changed their opinion of the Irish after such a long and difficult war. They conceded nothing. Sarsfield, however, acknowledged one difference between the two armies: the quality of their leaders. William won admiration for his bravery in battle, while James skulked away to France after the Boyne. "As low as we now are," he told the English, "change but kings with us and we will fight it over again with you."
The document Sarsfield signed in 1691, the Treaty of Limerick, was generous. Sarsfield and his men and their families, some twelve thousand people, were allowed to leave Ireland for France. They would become known to Irish history as "the Wild Geese" who flew from Ireland to join the armies of Europe. Sarsfield immediately joined the French army, which was fighting the English on the Continent. Two years after leaving Ireland, and just three months after the birth of his son, Patrick Sarsfield found himself once again battling forces under the command of King William, this time near Flanders. A bullet hit him in the chest; he lingered for days as the wound grew worse. "Would it were for Ireland!" he said. And then he died.
The Treaty of Limerick was loosely worded, but it hardly seemed punitive. The English confiscated the lands of those who accompanied Sarsfield to France, further reducing Catholic ownership, from about 20 percent of the country to 15 percent. But Catholics were granted limited freedom of worship, and rebels who swore allegiance to King William were allowed to keep their property and their professions, a startling contrast to the terms imposed by Cromwell. The Protestants in the Irish Parliament, however, did not share William's generosity. They had had enough of Catholic Ireland's rebellions. They wanted revenge. The spirit if not the vague letter of the Treaty of Limerick was soon dispensed with as the Irish Parliament passed highly punitive legislation designed to further oppress Catholics in a country they still dominated in numbers.
parPopulation figures would no longer mean anything. Ireland was to be ruled by and for its Protestant minority.
Copyright © 2000 by Terry Golway