When you absolutely positively gotta kill almost half of Mountjoy's army … the Moyry Pass, 1600, accept no substitute.

OK, I’m past the point justifying my unhealthy attention paid to Hugh O’Neill’s battles against the English crown, that’s just how this scrivener rolls. Also, they have loads of drama and people love drama so here we go.

The Moyry Pass sits just over four miles north of Dundalk (Co. Louth). Actually what we are talking about is the southern entrance to the pass, which actually encompasses as large tract of countryside, all the way to Newry. There are two particular choke points. The northern bottleneck is just north of Jonesborough whereas the southern one runs between Slievenabolea and Claret Rock, 1.7 miles south of Jonesborough. People often mistake the route taken by the Dublin-Belfast railway line as the entrance to the pass but it is actually the small saddle of ground to its west.

The distinctive topography of the south Ulster borderlands, with its drumlins and lakelands, limited access into Ulster by large armies to Ballyshannon in the west and the Moyry Pass in the east. These facts of geography ensured that this was not the first or last time armies would clash on this particular piece of ground. Edward Bruce, brother of Robert, fought local Irish chiefs here as he moved south in 1315. William of Orange’s advance guard received a bloody nose here as they marched south to the Boyne. Indeed, Marshal Frederick Schomberg believed James II could have easily blocked their route south if he had placed substantial rear-guard in the pass. But lest whizz back 90 years to the Nine Years War.

Lord Deputy Mountjoy had marched into Ulster during May 1600 as a feint to draw Irish forces away from the English landings on the River Foyle, a plan which worked splendidly as Tyrone had little option but to check Mountjoy’s advance towards Armagh just south of modern-day Markethill.  There was a small action near Jonesborough on the Four Mile Water as O’Neill skirmished with forces under the earl of Southampton, but O’Neill withdrew when English reinforcements from Newry arrived.

Mountjoy was no fool and was the first English deputy of the war (he was the fifth since 1593) to fully appreciate the strength and ability of O’Neill’s modernised Irish army. He carefully rebuilt the crown’s army after the disastrous lieutenancy of the earl of Essex the previous year (it ended badly for Essex, he literally got the chop in February 1601), copying many of O’Neill’s reforms. However, this took time and many in court in England questioned his progress and ability to tackle O’Neill in Ulster. After a series of negative letters from England Mountjoy flipped his lid, writing to Sir Robert Cecil (possibly the most powerful man in England at that time);

Under pressure? Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy

‘'Neither in the whole course of my life hitherto … I deserve so little belief or reputation as to find myself believed in nothing concerning this estate or my own particular while I am here, and every idle projector, or poor false discontented informer, to prevail  in your judgements against me'

He added with no small level or sarcasm;

‘Now to be tied by your expectations to a journey, which in itself is most miserable and dangerous. And to have neither money nor victuals to go forward with it. Notwithstanding, should I not, I am sure you will not lay the fault upon yourselves’.

 This was strong stuff, but unable to resist the pressure Mountjoy set north from Dundalk on 20 September with around 3,500 foot and 375 horse. The plan was to establish a new English fort in Armagh, but O’Neill was not going to give Mountjoy the free ride into Armagh he had got back in May. The English made camp on Faughart Hill, but it took two hours of skirmishing with O’Neill’s men to secure the position. Mountjoy’s camp was around a half a mile from the mouth of the pass, but the weather proved more of a hindrance than the Irish. There were regular small-scale skirmishing around the cam but for five days the rain poured. Mountjoy’s men were scarcely able to light their fires never mind take on O’Neill.

On 25 September the rain abated giving Mountjoy his first chance to enter the pass. Heavy mist cut visibility down to ‘a butts length’, allowing three regiments of foot to approach the mouth of the pass. Captain Thomas Williams (remember the hard-case who held the Blackwater Fort against O’Neill and only surrendered after the relief army was routed … same guy) took command to 100 picked men to reconnoitre whatever lay ahead. O’Neill had placed his defences on a reverse-slope. From the south, O’Neill’s defences were hidden from view meaning the English could not bring artillery to bear, nor could they view them without coming into range of the defender’s firearms.

Richard Bartlett's illustration of O'Neill's 'baricadoes'.

Williams’ men found a barricade blocking the route, but this was quickly overrun as the Irish sentries pulled back. Pushing on he discovered a much larger and more elaborately defended rampart 120-40 yards beyond the first, built of earth and stone, reinforced with palisades and flanking sconces. On the high ground to left and right the Irish had cut supporting trenches behind wattled undergrowth called plashing. This formed a near impenetrable breastwork of wood and thorns, described as ‘not easy for swine to pass, much less men’. Another barricade similar to the second lay another 120 yards further north. Caught napping, the Irish now gathered, pouring fire upon the English from both flanks and front, forcing them to fight their way out. Leaving the pass, Williams’ small party discovered two of Murphy’s laws of combat; Friendly fire isn’t; the only thing more accurate than incoming enemy fire is incoming friendly fire. Stumbling out of the mist, their supporting infantry mistook them for Irish and opened fire, inflicting more casualties than the Irish. Of 100 men going into the pass, Williams had 12 soldiers killed and 30 wounded.

The rain returned as one officer wrote ‘'the weather ... fell so extreme, as that I never saw the like this [3] 6 or 37 years.  For I will protest that in twenty days I could never say that all the clothes on my back were dry'. The stormy weather wrecked the English camp, tearing and ripping down the soldiers tents wherein the lord deputy’s ‘being higher and broader than others, led the first dance’. In such miserable conditions sickness claimed far more men than Irish guns. The weather finally abated on 2 October. A troop of O’Neill’s horse approached the camp to mock the English for their cowardly manner of sneaking into the pass under cover of the mist, and asked that when the English soldiers had finished their dinner would ‘churls’ (a low-status peasant, meant as an insult) meet them at the trenches. Not one to take such a slight lightly, Mountjoy readied his men for the attack.

Mouth of the pass viewed from the camp at Faughart, high ground on flanks marked A-A

Mountjoy formed five foot regiments in a chevron (an inverted v) supported by all the English cavalry. Sir Thomas Burke’s regiment took the lead on the assault on the trenches, enduring volleys of fire from O’Neill’s shot. Their morale began to waver ‘falling down on their knees for fear’, but Burke threw his colours over the barricade and launched himself after them. The English forced their way forward and managed to take the second barricade, but still the Irish fired upon them from the third line of defence and from the trenches on the high ground on the left and right. Mountjoy watched this unfold from the top of Claret Rock on the right, where a voluntary officer, John St. John was shot dead at his side. O’Neill was seen observing the action from a position north of the Three Mile Water. The action was bloody and confusing, as English officer complained that they had to endure gunfire in the open whereas all they could see were the Irish defender’s heads. We can get some idea of the close-range carnage when we hear of Sir William Godolphin’s near miss. Leading the horse on the left to support a wavering foot regiment his horse was ‘stricken under him stark dead with a blow [gunshot] on the forehead, that the blood sparkled into his face and some of the powder of the shot’. You know you are too close when you get unburned gunpowder mingled with horse brains all over your face. The fight lasted four hours, but Mountjoy’s men could not breach the last Irish defences. The English retreated followed by the Irish who harried them out of the pass. English losses were 55 killed and 145 wounded. Mountjoy claimed many more Irish dead (as English officers, and Irish for that matter, often did), but given the Irish were fighting from prepared defences in elevated positions this was highly unlikely.

The main combat area as it is today seen from Mountjoy's position on the rocky heights to the right of the pass. A: marks the site of the flank attack on 5 October 1600

Mountjoy decided to change the plan and opted for a flank attack three days later. On the 5 October five regiments moved against O’Neill. Three drew Irish defence to the first barricade, but the main effort was an assault by two regiments against the high ground on Slievnabolea on the left. If the English could take this they could enfilade the Irish barricades in the pass making them untenable for the Irish, enabling the other three regiments to sweep over them with little resistance. The two regiments under Sir Charles Percy and Sir Oliver St. John pushed onto the heights, but St. John’s men were held up by the rough ground, leaving Percy temporarily isolated. O’Neill engaged the regiment with 300 troops who attacked the English in front and flank. Percy’s men charged on all side to hold O’Neill’s men back until shot sent forward by St. John came up in support. Nevertheless, the attack stalled and was forced to pull back, but this time there was no characteristic pursuit by the Irish.

By this stage the English army on Faughart was in a sorry condition. Combat casualties were around 130 killed and 360 wounded, but disease had accounted for more and desertion was greater still.  By 6 October Mountjoy’s army was possibly only 50% effective, which would explain his urgent call for reinforcements and 300 calivers to arm the pikemen; the burden of the fighting fell upon the English shot. On the 6 October the English marched to the mouth of the pass but made no effort to force the defences. Three days later Mountjoy struck camp and returned to Dundalk; his army was in no condition to continue without refitting and reinforcement.

On 14 September news reached Mountjoy that O’Neill had withdrawn from the pass. The English army mustered on 17 October and entered the Moyry to find the Irish works abandoned. Sir Francis Stafford noted ‘I vow unto God I did never see a more villainous piece of work; and an impossible thing for an army to pass without an intolerable loss’. Mountjoy slighted the defences and by 22 October was in Newry. Moutjoy called this his greatest defeat of O’Neill but this was really face-saving bluster. He established a new fort at Mountnorris, but this was no further than he had managed to advance back in May.  After leaving a garrison Mountjoy retreated, but O’Neill had refortified the pass forcing the English to escape via Carlingford. O’Neill perused them with just 400 men and attacked just north of Carlingford on 13 November. From newly cut trenches O’Neill’s men poured fire into the right flank of the English army as it marched along the beach, killing possibly 90 men, but Mountjoy pressed on to the safety of Carlingford. You can imagine the condition of the English army if O’Neill confidently attacked with just 400 men. Despite Mountjoy’s later bombast, his plan to establish a new fort at Armagh had failed and the English field army was grievously pummelled.

Moyry Castle: built by Mountjoy in 1601 to secure the pass.

Why did O’Neill withdraw from Moyry? Possibly the earl was wary that Mountjoy may try a wide flanking march via the narrow pass at Carlingford and opted to fall back to a more secure position. O’Neill had successfully held Mountjoy at a line of defences south of Markethill during May 1600, so it was entirely possible O’Neill was withdrawing to be closer his supply base at Moyrourkan and Marlacoo Loughs. We must also remember that O’Neill’s men are human too. Weather is neutral and it inflicts its miseries on both sides. The Irish were exposed to the same rain, wind and storms as their English enemies. Moreover, in the few Irish sources there is little talk of a great overthrow of the English at the Moyry. Rather than the glory and élan of the victory at the Yellow Ford in 1598, the confines of the Moyry Pass left little room for tactical finesse. This was a battle of attrition.

Post script

I don't normally come back and add new material to the blogs but rummaging through my photos I came across this one from 2005. As can be seen, even as late as 11 years ago English troops were still watching the pass;  plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose......

In am indebted to the Irish Research Council who fund my continuing research on aspects of the Nine Years War.