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The History of Ulster
The Battle of Benburb


Owen Roe O'Neill's Army - He repairs to Leinster - Reconciliation effected by Rinuccini between Owen Roe and Sir Phelim O'Neill - The Papal Nuncio and Owen O'Neill - The Nuncio finances O'Neill, who collects a Large Army and marches north to surprise Armagh - Munro marches to meet him - The Opposing Armies meet at Benburb - Owen Roe's Speech to his Men - The Scots defeated and routed - Munro escapes to Lisburn.

Owen Roe O'Neill, as we have seen, was unable to give Castlehaven, during his invasion of Ulster, the support he had promised. His army was composed chiefly of creaghts, those wild nomadic herdsmen who were always willing and ready to assemble in times of turbulence, and who managed to escape the consequences of defeat by the ease with which they were able to disperse. There was no cohesion in an army composed of such free and independent units as these. O'Neill had much difficulty in maintaining anything like a standing army in Ulster with which to oppose the encroachments of Munro. His sources of supply were gradually cut off, and as a last resource he was driven to repair with his wood-kernes and creaghts to Leinster to seek the means of subsistence which were no longer to be found in Ulster. In the southern province O'Neill could not control his unruly followers, who, in lieu of pay, lived on plunder, and so greatly did their depredations harass the inhabitants that the Supreme Council at Kilkenny was obliged to follow an indignant remonstrance with a threat of expulsion by force of arms. O'Neill, who was still smarting under the affront he had received in Castlehaven's having been appointed to supreme command when the Confederates' army invaded Ulster, a position which he had never doubted would be first offered to himself, was highly incensed at what he considered this fresh insult; and it is possible that he would have thrown up his command and left the country in disgust if at this moment he had not been summoned to an audience by Rinuccini, who had resolved to bring about a reconciliation between Owen Roe and Sir Phelim O'Neill. The Nuncio was also determined to strike a vigorous blow in the north against the Scots, and, having cleared Ulster of the invaders, to restore to its ancient worship the cathedral of Armagh. For this he needed the help of Owen Roe, and to that end he assured O'Neill of his sympathy, and promised him practical support by devoting to his needs the subsidies he received from the Continent. The Nuncio had a peculiar satisfaction in thus securing O'Neill's services, for he was at variance with the Supreme Council with regard to Ormonde's peace, and he therefore set himself vigorously to secure the efficiency of O'Neill's army by supplying him with money from the Pope wherewith to pay his men, giving him at the same time generous grants of weapons from the stores he had established at Ardtully.

The Ulster men were now mobilized, and informed that they were employed by the Nuncio, who needed their services in the sacred cause of religion. They were, in addition, emboldened by the assurance that the Pope had placed them under the special protection of Heaven. Special efforts were made to enlist the sympathies of all by playing judiciously on the religious sentiments of an eminently religious and emotional race, and by the end of May O'Neill found himself at the head of a well-provisioned and well-equipped army of about 5000 foot and 500 horse.

The Confederacy during the early portion of 1646 was so weakened by internal dissensions that Munro thought it opportune to attack Kilkenny. In order to meet with as little opposition as possible when marching south, it was deemed expedient that Sir Robert Stewart should invade Con naught while Munro himself engaged O'Neill, who had marched north with the intention of surprising Armagh. Munro, however, had received timely notice of this movement, and determined to frustrate it. He therefore hastened from Carrickfergus with a portion of the Scottish army and some of the forces of the province to meet him, leaving Campbell of Auchinbreck in command.

The Scottish general's collective forces on this occasion are said to have amounted to 6000 foot and 800 horse. In setting out he had 3400 foot " effective under arms", with eleven troops of horse and six field-pieces. His army was thus superior to that of O'Neill, numerically as well as in equipment ; nevertheless he sent word to his nephew, Colonel George Munro, who commanded at Coleraine, to join him immediately with the troops in garrison there, some 240 musketeers and three troops of horse. He appointed Glaslough, in the north of Monaghan, as their rendezvous, and, leaving the neighbourhood of Belfast on the 2nd of June, 1646, he spent the night of the 3rd near Dromore.

On the following morning Munro detached a troop of horse, under Daniel Munro, with orders to cross the Blackwater at Benburb and meet George Munro at Dungannon. O'Neill, on being informed of this, sent two of his officers, Colonels Bernard MacMahon and Patrick MacNeny, with their regiments, to intercept George Munro, but they did not effect anything. O'Neill's cavalry had reached some hilly ground commanding the Blackwater, and he now determined to concentrate his forces and take up his position at Benburb.

The night of the 4th Munro's army spent at Hamilton's Bawn, and in the morning the General himself went through Armagh to view the bridges and ford at Benburb. These are commanded by high rocks, and to attempt a passage in front of O'Neill's forces was not possible. Munro therefore marched to Kinnaird, and, crossing the river a long distance to the rear of the Irish, approached them in front by a circuitous route from the east and north, arriving late in the afternoon.

After this forced march Munro might possibly have halted until morning but that his men were eager for the fray. "All our army, foot and horse," the General declared, "did earnestly covet fighting, which it was impossible for me to gainstand without being reproached for cowardice, and never did I see a greater confidence than was amongst us." MacMahon and MacNeny now returned from their fruitless expe- dition in search of George Munro, whose uncle at first took them to be the reinforcement he was expecting, and, on learning his mistake, became alarmed and ordered a retreat. O'Neill, observing this momentary hesitation on the part of the Scots, ordered his men to advance, and the two armies met at Drumflugh, between the Oona brook and Benburb.

In Sir Phelim O'Neill's journal, and all contemporary accounts of the battle of Benburb, mention is made of Owen Roe's short speech to his army, a speech which, whether it was delivered in Irish or in English, evidently made a deep impression on the men. It is, however, variously reported. In the journal it is stated that O'Neill said: "Behold the army of the enemies of God, the enemies of your lives. Fight valiantly against them to-day, for it is they who have deprived you of your chiefs, of your children, of your means of sub- sistence, spiritual and temporal; who have torn from you your lands, and made you wandering fugitives." According to a British officer, "MacArt spoke in front of his own men these words, as I was told, or to that effect: "You have arms in your hands, you are as numerous as they are; and now try your valour and your strength on those that have banished you and now resolve to destroy you bud and branch. So let your manhood be seen by your push of pike; and I will engage, if you do so, by God's assistance and the intervention of His blessed mother and all the Holy Saints in Heaven, that the day will be your own. Your word is Sancta Maria; and so, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, advance, and give not fire till you are within picket-length."

It was now about six in the evening, and the sun, which had been in the eyes of the Irish, was now well in the eyes of the Scots, who also had the wind adverse, blowing dust and smoke in their faces. As the Scots advanced, their passage was disputed in a narrow defile by Colonel Richard O'Farrell; but this obstacle was soon removed by Munro's artillery, and the whole Scottish army advanced against O'Neill's position, which was admirably selected, being protected in the rear by a wood, with the Blackwater on his right and a bog on his left, the plain in front being full of bushes and scrubby timber. The ground thus selected made Munro's front too narrow, and overcrowding resulted in confusion, which was increased by a squadron of his own cavalry acting wildly.

O'Neill saw that the moment was decisive, and ordered his men to charge, and the Irish rushed upon the Scots and English with an impetus that was irresistible. The Scottish cavalry twice charged to break the advancing column of the Irish, but were themselves thrown into disorder by the impetuous charge of the Irish horse. The ranks of Munro's foot and horse were now broken, and, the Irish continuing to press on vigorously, the confusion was soon converted into a total rout, a result to which Munro's own cavalry contributed not a little, for he tells us one squadron, "consisting for the most part of Irish riders, although under the English command", "did not charge, but retreated disorderly through our foot, making the enemies' horse to follow them at least one squadron". This may possibly have been inspired by treachery.

Lord Blaney's regiment first met the brunt of the Irish onset, and, after a stubborn resistance, was cut to pieces, all the guns being taken and the commander slain. Colonel Conway had two horses killed under him, but escaped on a third to Newry, accompanied by Captain Burke and about forty horsemen. The regiment of Sir James Montgomery was the only one that retreated in tolerable order. Lord Montgomery of Ardes, who led the cavalry during the battle, was taken prisoner with about twenty other officers. The infantry fought on bravely till sunset, when they broke and fled, the majority seeking the ford of the Blackwater; but Sir Phelim O'Neill held possession of the ford, and the slaughter there was grim and great, for he specially charged the horse whom he commanded to take no prisoners and to give no quarter. Of those who crossed the river, many were killed in passing through the county of Armagh. Others fled towards Caledon, and many were drowned in Knocknacloy lake. George Munro got back to Coleraine without the loss of a single man.

Munro himself escaped to Lisburn, and with him most of his cavalry. He fled so precipitately that his wig, hat, cloak, and sword were found among the spoils. All the Scottish artillery, tents, and provisions, with a great quantity of arms and ammunition and thirty-two colours, fell into the hands of the Irish. Munro acknowledges a loss of 500 or 600 men; but the Irish accounts state that from 3000 to 4000 dead were counted. The Irish loss was 70 men killed and 200 wounded.

Sir James Turner maintained that Munro's greatest fault as a general was a tendency to underrate his enemy. Munro himself said of the Benburb disaster: "The Lord of Hosts had a controversy with us to rub shame on our faces, as on other armies, till once we shall be humbled; for a greater confidence did I never see". The British officer whose account of O'Neill's speech as given in History of the Wars in Ireland has been quoted, attributes the defeat of the Scots primarily to over-confidence, and also to the fact that the soldiers were wearied by their long march from Lisburn, having had but little rest or refreshment on the way, and having had to stand to their arms for at least five hours. To these he adds another reason, the shortness of the Scottish pike. "The Irish pikes", he says, "were longer by a foot or two, and far better to pierce, being four square and small, and the other pikes broad-headed, which are the worst in the world."

Owen Roe, having won a victory, Irish -like did not follow it up. In this he followed the example of his great namesakes, Shane O'Neill and Hugh, Earl of Tyrone. Had he continued to advance, the consequence might have been still more disastrous to the Parliamentarians in the north; but, not being his own master, being servant to Rinuccini, he was peremptorily ordered to return as soon as possible to the south. O'Neill did not return immediately, but started raising new regiments, which he armed with the weapons taken from the Scots. Four days after the battle he sent Bartholomew MacEgan, definitor of the order of St. Francis, to Limerick with a letter to the Nuncio, who, in recognition of the services of O'Neill's army, sent to Ulster Dean Mazzari, with instructions to give three rialls (about one-and- sixpence) to each soldier and larger sums to the officers a fact which increased the belief of the rank and file that they were indeed the army of the Nuncio.

Munro, in the panic of the moment, burned Dundrum, abandoned several strong posts, and called all the English and Scots of Ulster to arms; but the Irish made no further attempt to molest him, and he awaited at Carrickfergus the arrival of fresh supplies of men and money from the Parliament. The fame of O'Neill's victory made many flock to his standard, and his effective force was soon increased to 10,000 men. These he designated "The Catholic Army of Ulster", and thereby excited fresh jealousies, for it identified him as being in alliance with the Nuncio, and thus increased the hatred of Preston and the Ormondists. Another cause of unpleasantness was due to the fact that the victorious Ulster troops plundered the adjacent borders of Leinster, O'Neill being unable to control them. Ormonde, however, recognized this fact, and rightly attributed the unruly behaviour of the Irish "to the necessities imposed on General O'Neill for want of means to go on or to keep his men in better order where he is".

Thus want of money and ill-feeling between the native and Anglo-Irish leaders prevented the greatest of Irish victories from having any permanent results.


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