'Let Your Manhood Be Seen By The Push of Your Pike,' Part 2 of 3 -- Victory at Benburb


By Liam Murphy / Heritage Editor

16th century engraving by Hans Holbein the Younger 
English and Swiss pikemen opposing each other. Click on image for a larger view.

Eoghan Ruadh O'Neill's Irish army of Ulster, though smaller in numbers than their enemy's ranks, would now be, not only more motivated, but also better trained and equipped. The pike was still the principal infantry weapon, and when your pike is two-feet longer than your opponent's, and with a more penetrating four-sided head, the result is usually that the other guy is dead before the point of his pike can reach you. Owen Roe's adversaries, however, didn't know this, because the Irish had never yet stood and fought a set-piece battle, nor were they ever expected to do so.

O'Neill's nemesis was Robert Monro, a very competent, brave and self-confident Scottish Covenanter general who commanded the "united British Protestant forces" in Ulster. His force consisted of Scottish and English (including Anglo-Irish) regiments of some 6,000 professional soldiers, many veterans of continental warfare, plus Ulster volunteers, recruited from among the Planter yeomanry, plus about 600 horse and six field guns. Both and O'Neill had led armies in battle on the continent. Unlike O'Neill, however, Monro had no scruples about waging war on civilians.

The plan and campaign

With the coming of summer in 1646, it was Monro's intention to coordinate the march of three forces south, into the midlands, and perhaps even to destroy the Confederate government in Kilkenny. In addition to his own force in Carrickfergus, there would be a second force of about 100 mounted men and 240 musketeers marching south from Coleraine, and a third force, known as the Lagan army, of some 2,000 planters coming from the Foyle. However, Monro also knew that he could not leave Ulster, especially Antrim and Down, undefended against O'Neill's wild Irish, and so determined to crush him before heading south.

Monro heard that O'Neill had left his base at the hill of Gallanagh, near Lough Sheelin, in Cavan, and was headed for Benburb. From Benburb, O'Neill could cross the Blackwater to the safety of the fort at Charlemont (across the river from The Moy). Monro resolved to get there first, trap O'Neill and finish him off in a stand-up fight.

'... in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, advance! And give not fire 'till you are within pike-length!'

O'Neill's intelligence network, however, was superb, and he was aware of his enemies' every move. G.A. Hayes-McCoy in "Irish Battles: A Military History of Ireland" (Belfast: Appletree Press, 1989 reprint) points out that it was O'Neill's plan to maneuver Monro into attacking him "precipitously and at a disadvantage."

On June 4th, some of Monro's mounted scouts encountered some of O'Neill's, and after a brief skirmish captured one. The prisoner told Monro that O'Neill had about 6,000 men and O'Neill's army was marching that day from Glaslough to Benburb and Charlemont, which was more or less true.

Monro, never realizing that O'Neill wanted him to pursue and attack, was excited at the prospect of bagging O'Neill and so many rebels at one time, and ordered forced marches to catch O'Neill on the move. However, the Scotsman guessed wrong as to which side of the river O'Neill's men marched. He learned that O'Neill had already reached Benburb, and discovered that the nearest undefended ford was upstream at Caledon, necessitating getting his troops up early, and again force marching circuitously to trap O'Neill.

Meanwhile, O'Neill sent most of his cavalry, under Lt. Colonel Con ("The Lame") Brien Roe O'Neill, with some infantry to intercept the British force coming from Coleraine. They knew exactly where and how to find them -- near Dungannon.

Painting by Andrew Carrick Gow (1848–1920) 
Cavalry unit from the English Civil War period. Click on the image for a larger view.

Monro, having eventually crossed to the north side of the Blackwater, encountered resistance from O'Neill's scouts and pickets, first at Ballaghkillgevill, then at Knocknacloy, then crossing the River Oona, a tributary of the Blackwater, being delayed at narrow passes in traditional Irish hit-and-run manner. After crossing the Oona, and passing beside Thistle Hill, there was a relatively easy advance up to a ridge at Derrycreevy, but during that advance that ridge hid what lay beyond.

Much to Monro's surprise, when he came over the ridge he was looking across a stream with irregular vegetation, "scroggie woods" and bushes (which he would later discover concealed some of O'Neill's musketeers) at the opposing ridge of Drumfluch. There O'Neill drew up his force, in good order of battle, with banners flying -- four infantry "brigades" or regiments in line, pikes in the center with muskets on the flanks, with spacing between, behind which spaces were three other brigades/regiments - able to advance into the gaps, Swedish style, without enlarging the front, with cavalry totaling six to nine regiments or "troops" (depending on the source) at the flanks.

O'Neill was noted for using a flag containing "the Irish harp in a field," now considered a traditional Irish flag. They had camped in Benburb the night before and were just resting in place, awaiting the arrival of their enemy, who had force-marched 15 miles and been fighting most of the day. Monro found that he had more men than O'Neill, but less good ground on which to stand, so his men were crowded in two very close formations, behind his guns, with cavalry to the rear. It was now noticeably after 6 p.m.

Battle is joined

Monro opened the engagement with his artillery, but to his surprise, the Irish didn't flinch. He then attempted to turn O'Neill's left flank, and, after some hard fighting, was turned back by the Irish cavalry (mostly lancers) and musketry.

O'er the hills of Benburb, rose the red beam of day
Gleaming bright from our foemen in battle array

The principal effect of the cannon fire was to inform Brien Roe, who had defeated the Coleraine column "in detail," that the main engagement had begun, and give him the opportunity to ride to the sound of the guns.

O'Neill's men cried out to attack, but discipline held them in place. Brien Roe's horse took their place on the right of Eoghan Ruadh's formation. The Irish had concentrated on their own ground, and had prepared the battlefield; they were ready to engage Monro.

It was about 8 p.m., and the sun was more or less in their faces, with the southwest wind beginning to fall. The setting sun at that latitude in June takes its time and descends at a gentle angle, shifting the sun gradually, across the sky, out of the eyes of the Irish army. The matchlock musket, which was the principal infantry weapon of the day, works best with the wind either at your back, or, failing that, still. O'Neill did not rush as nature slowly gave him additional advantage over an exhausted enemy, crowded into what would soon become a killing ground. Father Boetius Mac Egan, the Franciscan, who had been appointed chaplain-general by the Papal Nuncio, gave general absolution.

O'Neill then reminded his men that their opponents were the men who had persecuted them for their religion and banished them from the homes of their fathers; he also reminded them that they were the nobility of Gaelic Ireland -- Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn had been no more inspiring than was O'Neill that day. Hayes-McCoy reports that O'Neill concluded by crying out, "Let your manhood be seen by the push of your pike. 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 pike-length!"

The Irish attack - 'An Barr Buadh'

The Irish advance was steady, and heavily resisted. They took the guns, and Eoghan Ruadh ordered Colonel Richard Farrell to close with his brigade and turn Monro's left flank. The wind was falling and the sun would then be at O'Neill's back, in the eyes of his enemies. Monro's cavalry attacked twice, but failed to break the Irish. The fight continued.

Wikimedia Commons 
Engish Civil War Era reenactors. Click on the image for a larger view.

Monro's too-tight formation did not permit the retirement of his first line through the second; the Irish delivered a Swedish salvo-style volley at close range, followed by the push of the pike, and the result was chaos. The British were forced back upon the river, and then overrun. Those who did not fall there to Irish swords or scian (Irish long knives), or drown in the river, fell as they ran back along the route they had come.

The British lost probably more than 3,000 killed, over half their force, and all their baggage, including flags, banners and weapons (including some 5,000 stand of arms). Irish sources report their own losses at 70 killed and 200 wounded. Monro was lucky to escape with his life, fleeing so precipitately, that he left his hat, sword, and cloak after him, and never halted until he reached Lisburn.

O'Neill, with the arms and equipment acquired as a result of his stunning victory, doubled the size of his army. The Nuncio celebrated in Saint Canice's Cathedral in Kilkenny (a church later desecrated by Cromwell in 1650), and the Pope celebrated in Rome, both believing that the deliverance of Ireland was at hand. Luke Wadding would later cause the captured enemy standards to be triumphantly displayed in Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome.

However, like his famous kinsmen Shane and Hugh, before him, Eoghan Ruadh did not use the opportunity of a military victory as a springboard to cleanse Ulster of all who could speak no Irish. The three have borne criticism for this, particularly by some in Ulster. However, the focus of Eoghan Ruadh was national. WGT

The Battle of Benburb
         -- by Robert Dwyer Joyce

O'er the hills of Benburb, rose the red beam of day
Gleaming bright from our foemen in battle array
But as brightly again, in the mid summer glow
It shone back from the troops of our brave Owen Roe

Munroe had his thousands arrayed at his back
With their puritan mantles, steel morion and Jack
And with him fierce Blayney and Conway had come
To crush Owen Roe at the roll of the drum

And who with O'Neill on that morn drew the band?
Brave hearts as e'er beat by the Blackwater strand
Sir Phelim, brave chief, with his bosom of fire
O'Donnell, McSweeney and gallant Maguire

From Derry's wild woodlands from Maine's sounding tide
From Leitrim and Longford came chiefs to our side
From Breffni's green hills, with his sabre in hand
Stood bold Myles the slasher, the pride of our land

We kept all that noontide, the foemen at play
Though we thought of their forays and burned for the fray;
For our chief bade us wait, till the eve had begun
Then rush on the foe with our backs to the sun

Hurrah for the red hand! And on to a man
Our columns poured down, like a storm on their van
Where a sermon was preaching to strengthen their zeal
'We'll give them a sermon' cried Owen Roe O'Neill

There was panic before us and panic beside
As their horsemen fled back in a wild broken tide;
And we swept them along by the Blackwater shore
'Till we reddened its tide with the Puritan's gore

A Kern by the river held something on high
'Saint Columb, is it thus that our enemies fly!
Perchance 'tis my coolun, they clipped long ago
Mile Gloria, the rough wig of flying Munroe!'

And we took from the foes e'er that calm twilight fall
Their horses and baggage and banners and all;
Then we sat by our camp-fires and drank in the glow
Good health to our leader, the brave Owen Roe 

1989 Shanachie release, Rolling Home by Tommy Makem (CD, 1992).


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Tags: Benburb, Carrickfergus, Charlemont, Coleraine, Eoghan, Foyle, Ireland, Liam, Monro, Moy, More…Murphy, O'Neill, Oona, Owen, Roe, Ruadh, The, Tudor, Ulster


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