The Battle of Yellow Ford

By Aengus O Snodaigh

By the late 16th Century little of Ireland remained outside of English domination. The century saw the English attempt to gradually achieving their goal of total conquest of Ireland through the surrender and re-grant policy, through a series of plantations in Queen's (Offaly) and King's (Laois) counties, in parts of Munster and Ulster, and through extending the Pale. Not all areas submitted easily and outbreaks of revolt against the English crown by Irish chieftains occurred sporadically.

      This was especially true of those living in Ulster and when Aodh O Neill, earl of Tyrone declared against the English in 1594 he was joined by several other Ulster chieftains and their armies. Aodh had become leader of his people and the ruler of the Irish lordship of Tyrone on the retirement of Trulough Luineach in 1593.


      Aodh O Neill was at home in both the Irish and English worlds following his earlier upbringing as a protégé of the English administration. He was a subtle politician, a genius at organising, and an outstanding soldier, being courageous, resolute and also inspiring great loyalty.


      One of the main reasons for his challenge to Queen Elizabeth's authority in Ireland was her administration's continued attempts to destroy the old Irish order, and the creeping acquisitions of territory closer and closer to the O'Neill lordship.


      O'Neill's first overt act of war against the English was destruction of an English-built bridge and frontier post on the highway between Dublin and Tyrone in February 1595. Thereafter, although with intermittent cessations during periods of truce or negotiations, the united Ulster army organised itself ceaselessly for war and hoped for Spanish aid. From 1599 until Queen Elizabeth's death it was open war to a finish in 1603, with no respite allowed on either side.


      The attitude of the English to the rebellious Ulstermen is starkly illustrated in a quote from one of their negotiators, Captain William Mostyn. He believed that the only way to pacify Ulster was not by sword or reform alone but must ``come by the cruelty of famine which must be by the taking away of their cattle in each part where the traitors inhabit... (so that) those not cut off by fire and sword will in a short time be despatched by famine.''


      There were several spectacular victories in the face of an ever-growing English army by O Neill's army, which added to his reputation as a first class military tactician. He used his professionally-trained soldiers in the guerrilla tactics of hit and withdraw, recording many victories against what would have been regarded as a superior army. One such victory was the rout of a relief convoy under Marshal Sir Henry Bagenal (O Neill's brother-in-law) and Sir John Chichester returning from Monaghan to Dublin through Clontibret in May 1595.


      Following on his success at Clontibret, O Neill moved to consolidate his position and the English rarely moved out of the relative safety of the Pale without a whole field force. The next major engagement of note was the battle three years later, in 1598, at Béal Atha Buí (the Yellow Ford) outside Armagh city.


      O Neill's army, fully equipped with the most modern weaponry, again challenged Bagenal who had been sent to reinforce an outpost near an important ford on the Blackwater River.


      On the morning of 14 August a large force of soldiers set out from Armagh to march the five miles to Blackwater Fort. The column of nearly 5,000 extended over a mile with its carriages, cannons and supply vehicles as it moved over open ground through the wooded and hilly terrain. They were fully expecting to be ambushed, but believed that they had military superiority.


      O Neill though had prepared the ground well (his intelligence network had supplied him with the planned route well before the English set off); digging trenches and pits full of thorns or water to impede the English cavalry, wheeled artillery or supply wagons. He placed his infantry at strategic locations along the route, putting them within attacking range, yet with ground or tree cover to withdraw to.


      The battle began about half a mile out when O Neill nephew Brian MacArt attacked the vanguard under Colonel Sir Richard Percy, and Randal McSorley Mac Donald of Antrim picked them off as they marched forward, away from MacArt. Then shifting from their places in concealment behind the trees and skipping at will out of range in the bogs, O Neill's musketeers subjected the column to continuous attack. The column became ragged as it tried to continue to march, but at the same time defend itself. Forcing his way through with many lost, Percy's section got furthest - about three and a half miles - before being halted by the trench and a bog.


      By this stage the column was in several sections, each being harried by the surrounding Irish soldiers. As one moved forward to relieve the other they became cut off totally from the rest of the column as the Irish moved between them and picked them off. They ``were driven in great disorder over the trenches'', ``stifled, tumbling one over another'' to get away from the Irish who ``came on amain with full cry after their manner''.


      Charges by the English cavalry were broken by the superior Irish one and a massive explosion of cannon powder in their midst contributed to the confusion which now reigned among the English. With gunpowder running low and on hearing that Blackwater Fort had fallen to Irish hands the orders to regroup, followed by the order to retreat caused more consternation and resulted in a scramble for the safety of the Armagh garrison. Half of what remained of their cavalry did not stop till they reached Dublin.


      O Neill was victor in one of the greatest victories ever achieved by an Irish force over an English one in open battle. The English lost 25 officers and close on 1,000 soldiers, with another 500 wounded. Over 300 soldiers deserted to O Neill, many were Irish soldiers in the service of the queen. The victory paralysed the English administration for a number of years.