From an early age I’ve always had a passionate love of history. As a child growing up I used to go fishing with my father and as we toured the local countryside in his car looking for rivers to fish I’d often see two crossed swords on a sign post indicating that a battle had occurred nearby and on one of these signposts I remember reading the words, “The Battle of Benburb.” I pleaded with my father to stop the car and to witness the battlefield but he never did, telling me that all there was to see was a field. But as a child my imagination would run away with itself conjuring up fantastical images of a battlefield littered with swords, muskets, and breastplates.
So to finally visit the site of the Battlefield filled me with a sense of awe, a place where on the 5th of June 1646 the legendary Uncle Owen Roe O Neill’s outnumbered Ulster forces delivered a crushing defeat to Robert Munros Anglo Scottish Army. As I stood on the spot where the slaughter took place I couldn’t help but imagine that what if the stones, trees, and waterways of Benburb could whisper their stories what tales of heroism and horror would they tell? Would they tell the story of how the Anglo Irish forces cried out in terror as Owen Roes triumphant Ulster Army systemically butchered 3,000 of Munroes men with muskets, swords, and then drowned the rest of them inside the murky depths of the Blackwater.
And as I stood on the battlefield and surveyed the terrain the dark thought occurred to me that over 400 years ago that this green, lush, and fertile ground must have hungrily drank up the blood of England’s finest soldiers. But this epic and brutal victory would not have been possible without the direction and command of Owen Roe O Neill a man who at a very young age had been exiled from Ireland during the ‘Flights of The Earls’. But the young O Neill had never forgotten his place of birth and so in July 1642 Owen Roe O Neill landed at Doe Castle, County Donegal with nearly 300 professional soldiers pledging to right the wrongs that had been inflicted on his forefathers.
O Neill came equipped with arms and ammunition that where enough to supply about 4,000 men. He brought many experienced battle hardened soldiers along with him including his nephew Hugh Dubh O Neill.
Upon seeing the native Irish that where to be at his disposal O Neill first opinions where non to complimentary. He referred to his new troops as, “Men who had behaved “nothing better than animals.” But in spite of his negative first impressions O Neill was determined to drill into his men “a more civill deportment, and to a prettie good understanding of military discipline.”
Once O Neill had received monetary funds that he was promised he set about training his new army and getting them fit for battle. The Commander disciplined and trained his force on a daily basis for seven weeks on the hill of Callanagh close to Lough Sheelin on the Cavan Westmeath border.
The Duke of Ormond had the overall Command of the confederate forces and before the Battle of Benburb Ormonde had promised to come to Owen Roe’s aid in the event of any major engagement, but like on so many other occasions Ormondes promised army failed to materialize. The repeated failure of Ormonde to come to the assistance of his comrades has led to many sources suggesting that he was a traitor in league with the enemy.
At the time Ormond was bitterly criticized “If he did but stand upon the Hill of Tara the enemy would not venture an assault against so strong a garrison and in the sight of so great an army; or if he marched with his army to Dublin now naked and deserted, he would easily desert the enemy, or else if he passed the north side of Drogheda, where was no enemy at all, he might relieve his party and defend the town in spite of all Cromwells Forces, for the very situation of his place was his bulwark………But nothing was done; all the hurely burly of armies mustered and brought to a body toward Ticroghan only were spectators of this bloody spectacle.” Whether Ormond was a traitor or not one thing was for sure, nothing was going to stop a man of Owen Roe O Neills calibre.
Facing Owen Roe was an Anglo Scottish Army that consisted of roughly 6,000 soldiers which where under the command of General Munroe. Munroe had a hatred of the Irish and this hatred led him to underestimate his enemy and when he was informed that he was up against a strong and well supplied Irish force his response was dismissive, he “Would not believe it, nor valued it.”
After much sparring and second guessing as to the location and motive of each army both forces started to square of against each other around the Tyrone Monaghan border region. At this stage Munroe and his troops where thriving with confidence and where determined to commit to battle in virtually any area. O Neill on the other hand was like a master chess player who pondered and thought out every move and after much manoeuvring the wily Owen Roe carefully picked the area of around Benburb as his place for battle. The Blackwater provided a natural defensive barrier and the areas defensive capabilities where further enhanced by boggy ground that made parts of the terrain virtually impossible to pass.
Munro seemed determined to once and for all to crush Owen Roe O Neill and his petulant Ulster Army. ‘ Not expecting they ( the ulster rebels) had hearts to face him, (he) marched at a great rate till they came to Rinardee (Kinnard).’
There are many estimates as to the actual size of the army that O Neill had at his disposal but many informed sources suggest that the army was roughly about 5,000 foot soldiers which where divided into seven regiments. Its also been estimated that around 400-500 Horses where part of the O Neill contingent. Owen Roe left many of his artillery pieces behind him and this would have had the effect of making his army more nimble and ready to move at a moments notice.
Munro by all accounts was determined to make his presence known and to make sure O Neill’s forces aware that he there to make battle. His men, as Munroe was, seemed cocksure of certain victory as they where filled with ‘much joy of Officer and Soldier, thinking they had them (rebels) for sure.’
Munroe knew that his army was chomping at the bit when he observed that, ‘All our Army both foot and Horse did earnestly covet fighting, which was impossible for mee to gainstand, without being reproached for cowardice.’
Some sources even suggest that Munroes men believed that the sheer sight of their army would be cause for the Irish to flee in a panic, ‘That at the bare sight of their advance guard or at least at the first encounter our men ( native irish would fly at once into the neighbouring mountains.
Its quite clear that the invader army was teeming with confidence and expected to bowl over the Irish with relative ease but Owen Roe O Neill and his forces had different ideas. Owen Roes battleplan was to force Munroe to attack him on unfavourable ground and then to continue attacking him in any retreat that ensued. But as the battle neared some observers felt Munroes earlier confidence was beginning to drain from him.
“But on drawing nearer….…he(Munroe) became sorely perplexed and could not make up his mind whether he ought to engage in battle or not………….they where confronted by a most cunning fox at the head of the papist army, and that there was need for caution and circumspection. But eventually influenced by Montgormery and the leading officers of the army he gave order for battle.
After some initial skirmishes and exchanges of gunfire the stage was now set for an epic encounter that was to decide the future of Ulster for the coming decades. Owen Roe gave a rousing speech to his men reminding them that that their opponents had persecuted them for their religion and driven them from their lands. O Neill ended his inspirational speech with the words, “Let your manhoood be seen by the push of your pike. Your word is Sancta Maria, and so in the Name of the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost advance!- and give not fire until you are within pike-length.”
The rebels inspired by O Neills inspirational speech began to psyche themselves for the titanic battle that was about to ensue, ‘A universal cheer rose from the army, and the colonels all dismounting to cut off their return, the whole body rushed forward with incredible ferocity, with their horse following up….’
What a sight it must have been as the two opposing armys lined up against each other and readied for combat. The battle began with a huge burst of cannon from Munros heavy guns. The roar of the cannons would have been heard for miles around announcing to civilians far and wide that hostilities had commenced.
The Irish advanced slow and steady and met some fierce English resistance. At this stage Owen Roe ordered Colonel Richard Farrell to close in with his brigade and to try and turn Munroe’s flank. O Neill was determined to use every last crumb to his advantage and he hoped that the falling sun would shine into the eyes of the English and blind them. Munroe ordered a fierce counter attack with his cavalry charging at the Irish in the hope of breaking their lines. Twice his cavalry charged and twice they failed to break the Irish lines. The battle waged on with the sounds of muskets and cannons filling the Benburb air.
The Irish forces began to push up against Munroes army using their pikes to slowly edge the English forces back towards the river. As the sun began to shine into the eyes of the Anglo Scot forces O Neills men delivered a ferocious volley of shots at close range and the result was absolute carnage within the English ranks. As the fighting continued the Anglo Scots where forced back down down towards the river with little or no chance of escape. Munroes forces had effectively been caught in a pincer move between O Neills army and the river Blackwater. As the The Irish closed in they then began to systemically cut down their enemies with Scians (Irish long knives). The hunter had truly become the hunted.
Munroes Army tried to flee for their lives across the Blackwater but many of them drowned and others where caught up in a torrent of Irish fury. Years of disfranchisement and pent up rage was released in a wrathful vengeance. Those that weren’t stabbed and sliced to death where drowned in the Backwater’s cold and murky depths. At one stage there was so many dead men in the river that a dam of bodies began to form which clogged the flow of the water.
The Blackwater ran red with the blood of Anglo Scots and as the evening turned into night, Owen Roes O Neill stood victorious having secured the one of the great field victories against an English Army ever to have been won in Ireland. It was an almost unbelievable achievement having been secured against a better trained, better supplied, and better equipped opponent.
In the immediate aftermath of the battle mercy was a quality that was in short supply as Owen Roes Cavalry Commander Sir Phelim O Neill ordered his men to pursue the enemy and ‘kill them all without distinction.’ and afterwards it was claimed that he ‘swore that his regiment had not one prisoner.’
Once Munroes forces began to flee nearly all semblance of control would have been lost as O Neills army hunted and killed Munroes Forces wherever and whenever they could find them. The blood letting didn’t cease for over two days as the rebels scoured the countryside looking for any English stragglers they could put to the sword. Pursuing and destroying an enemy army would have been a standard military tactic of the era but perhaps not conducted with the same unrestrained ferocity that happened at Benburb.
Munroe was lucky to escape with his life fleeing the scene on horseback and not stopping until he reached the town of Lisburn. Against all odds, Owen Roe O Neill had secured an astonishing victory . One of the main reasons for his victory was Munroes ridiculous overconfidence. Munroe felt that all he and his army had to do was to show up and that the Irish Army would simply capitulate upon sight of the English. And whilst history might have been littered with carcasses of many an Irish Force, what Munroe failed to fully appreciate was that this particular army was a different beast altogether, not least because it was led by a wily and shrewd Commander who had the ability to mix it with the best of them. Owen Roe O Neill hadn’t assembled his army at Benburb to simply make up the numbers, he had went there to win and win he did.
In the years to come Benburb would become a source of inspiration against whatever trails or tribulations these soldiers would meet. The men had tasted victory and they knew that they had what it took to beat one of the mightiest and well organised armies in the world.