‘Wonderfully altered from their Irish manner of arms’: the Battle of Clontibret, 27 May 1595.

Never one to let an anniversary pass unheralded (that time on our first wedding anniversary we both forgot…really, ask her), today's the day 421 years ago at the Battle of Clontibret, when the crown finally got the message that Irish, led by Hugh O’Neill, earl of Tyrone, were not going to play to the age-old script. I say finally because O’Neill’s modernised forces had been outclassing the queen’s soldier for two years, but only when the earl’s brother, Art MacBaron O’Neill, stormed and captured the Blackwater Fort on 16 February 1595, did the English realise that O’Neill was definitely not their man. Lord Deputy Russell was fairly sure O’Neill was no longer on their side and ordered reinforcements of 2,0000 troops in December the previous year, but the news that O’Neill watched as his men demolished the bridge and fort at the Blackwater eradicated any doubt.

Events moved quickly as Hugh Roe O’Donnell raided into Connacht in the spring, and the English garrison in Enniskillen fell in May. The vulnerable garrison in Monaghan had previously been attacked by Maguire, and the disaster at the Battle of the Ford of the Biscuits in August 1594 demonstrated what could happen to English supply columns, even with large escorts of foot and horse. Indeed, Russell had wanted to abandon both Enniskillen and Monaghan, but the arrival of new troops may have steeled his resolve to keep one of the few positions left to the crown in Ulster. However, English arrogance almost fatally compromised the operation. When questioned about the lack of ammunition issued to the troops, Russell commented that ‘captain you are deceived; you are not now in France or the Low Countries, for you shall not be put here to fight as there’; the large number of troops was only 'to give countenance to the service’.

Sir Henry Bagenal got the job of leading the relief force to Monaghan: 1,700 men in nineteen companies of foot and six troops of horse. To this was added sutlers, women, children and assorted hangers-on who followed the armies wherever they went. Marching from Newry of 25 May the English could see O’Neill shadowing them, but it was on 26 May that the Irish attacked four miles east of Monaghan at Crossdall.  O’Neill sent 7-800 of his shot to contest the passage, but was careful to ensure that this detached force was supported and ‘continually seconded from their battle’. Captain Richard Cuney, a veteran officer, took charge of the lead English units and held the Irish at bay as the rest of the column passed through. After four hours of desperate skirmishing, Cuney broke contact to re-join the the army as it approached Monaghan. The Irish forces blockading Monaghan quickly pulled back as the relief force approached. The action cost the English 12 killed and 30 wounded. This did not bode well for their return to Newry.

Bagenal relieved the garrison in Monaghan with fresh troops and supplies, and set out for Newry the next morning. According to Bagenal, he chose a more southerly route for the better safety of the women and children in the army, but likely he did not want a repeat of the previous days fighting at Crossdall. The army marched out at ten o clock in the morning on 27 May. The new route would take them past the old church at Clontibret, but O’Neill had managed to place troops on either sides of the English line of march. Fortunately for Bagenal, O’Neill had not been able to deploy his entire strength against him, as an amphibious raid by Sir George Bingham in Tirconnell caused O’Donnell to march north.

Bagenal was no fool and organised his men into three battle formations, the van, the main battle and the rear, with Bagenal commanding from the front in the van. The square or oblong formations of pike surrounded by shot (armed with firearms) moved slowly but steadily, but as the army approached a small area of open ground (possibly near Gallagh and Tonaghy bogs) O’Neill attacked. Cormac MacBaron held Crossaghy Hill while fire poured into both English flanks, as O’Neill assailed the rear of the column. The Irish shot were seconded by their horse and stands of pike. This kept the English cavalry at bay and pushed Bagenal’s skirmishers back, enabling the Irish to open fire from just 30 metres. The Irish 'loose wings of shot played on the [the English] and came on often with a countenance of much resolution but were most commonly beaten back, and many times would retire themselves when they had discharged their volleys of shot'. This was precisely how well-ordered shot were meant to conduct themselves while skirmishing. Normally the English horse could have swept aside the Irish skirmishers, but the discipline and co-ordination of O’Neill's infantry and horse meant English cavalry could go no more than 40 paces from their infantry, for fear of being ‘overtopped with double as many Irish’. Twice the head of the column tried to break through and twice they were thrown back.

Irish shot skirmishing in Wicklow, 1599.

Russell’s arrogance came back to haunt the beleaguered English troops, as English supplies of ammunition ran critically low and units of pike were forced to charge to force Tyrone’s shot to keep their distance.  The fighting was intense and in three hours Bagenal’s men only advanced a quarter of a mile. English morale began to waver. If the close order of the English pikes collapsed, O’Neill’s men would be on them and the English army would be lost. As O’Neill’s cavalry massed to exploit the gaps torn in the English ranks by Irish gunfire, 40 English horsemen made a heroic but doomed counter-attack.

A cornet from the Pale named Sedgrave led a troop of picked horsemen and charged directly at O’Neill. Sir Ralph Lane noted the attack ‘was so rude, that they both were unhorsed’. Sedgrave had the earl about the neck, but his frantic stabbing at O’Neill had no effect as his blade could not penetrate the earl’s armour. According to Lane, O'Neill wore a jack given to him by the Lord Chancellor, Sir Christopher Hatton. This was a heavy canvas doublet with overlapping plates of steel sown into it. Indeed a jack, also known as a jack of plate, bears a striking similarity to modern body armour.

 O'Neill's career may have been decidedly shorter without armour similar to this. 

(Royal Armoury, Leeds)

With O’Neill in peril, one of the O’Cahans struck off Sedgrave’s arm, allowing O’Neill to recover and finish the matter with his knife through the Palesman’s bladder. The cavalry were mauled but the attack gave the English the space they needed to break through the pass.

The battle lasted eight hours, but exhausted powder supplies made Tyrone draw back his attack, allowing Bagenal’s men to make camp for the night.  Munitions were short in the English camp, but a night march from Newry by Captain John Audley from Newry, brought enough ammunition to enable the army to reach Newry the next day.  Losses were put at 31 dead and 103 wounded by the muster master, Sir Ralph Lane, who later declared that there were many more killed and wounded than was ‘thought fit to be given forth upon the first advertisement’. The battered relief force was hemmed into Newry as the Irish held the passes south, but the danger passed when Tyrone retired north. Though the English army had survived, the Battle of Clontibret demonstrated the Irish under O’Neill were unlike anything they had ever faced in Ireland, or anywhere else for that matter.

Many thanks to the Irish Research Council for funding my continuing research.