Battle of Benburb, 1646
The red-haired O'Neill was in truth a greater, because a better trained, soldier than his clansmen Hugh and Shane. His Benburb was the revenge for Kinsale. But while Kinsale decided a war, Benburb was only a battle. Yet it was a classic battle, a textbook military operation, brilliantly conceived and executed. Neither the proud Shane nor the intuitively clever Hugh could have fought Benburb.
The time was May, 1646. Ulster was seething with evicted Irish rebels, and Protestant planters evicted in turn by the rebels. The Confederation in Kilkenny, under the direction of the Papal Nuncio, had subsidised Eoghan Ruadh O'Neill, and given him the task of preventing the Scots armies in the North from marching on Kilkenny. The continental-trained and experienced O'Neill had spent the winter training more than five thousand men near Lough Sheelin in Co. Cavan. In May, three armies from the North began to move Southward with the intention of converging at Glaslough in North Monaghan, destroying O'Neill on the way, and then marching on Kilkenny. One of these armies came from the valley of the Foyle, a second came from the Coleraine area, and the third and strongest
came from Antrim and was under the command of the competent General Monroe.
Toward the end of May, O'Neill moved into an offensive that seemed to trap him. He opted for Charlemont, across the river from the present town of Moy, the one fort -in the North held by the Confederation. Monroe had already gone South as far as Poyntzpass, near Newry, but he was far too wise a soldier to leave so large a force about as large as his own in his rear, although he did underestimate O'Neill's strength.
Monroe, it should be added, despised the Irish and could not bring himself to believe that they would fight a pitched battle. He marched quickly from Poyntzpass, with the intention of cutting off O'Neill before the latter reached Charlemont. He arrived at Armagh on June 4th and discovered that he was too late. And now we see the genius of O'Neill : he did not underestimate his opponent, but relied on the proven courage and shrewdness of Monroe to draw the latter into a battle that suited himself.
On the evening of June 4th O'Neill moved up the Northern bank of the river, but without going too far from Charlemont in case things went against him. Next morning Monroe moved Northward from Armagh, but he wisely decided not to attempt a crossing over the sharp slopes of the Benburb section of the Blackwater. He drew back to Armagh and then went Westward to the nearest ford, Caledon. The move was intelligent. It was correct military procedure, and for that reason O'Neill had been able to anticipate it. But O'Neill waited on; while Monroe forced his marches, O'Neill rested his forces.
The delay had another advantage for O'Neill, although Monroe saw it at the time as an advantage for himself. The Coleraine force, under Monroe's son-in-law, was coming from the North via Dungannon. This could mean a trap for O'Neill. But he knew, as well as Monroe did, the proximity of the men of Derry. And while Monroe was making his Caledon detour, O'Neill sent most of his cavalry to Dungannon where they intercepted and defeated the army from Coleraine.
In the afternoon Monroe crossed the river and moved down the left bank, i.e. on the same side as Eoghan Ruadh. The latter watched the manoeuvre, and sent one or two small detachments to harass and delay the Scots-English opponents. About six in the evening Monroe crossed the Oona, which joins the Blackwater just above the present Battleford bridge. Having climbed Thistle Hill, Monroe continued Eastward, and a mile further on arrived at the elevation known as Derrycreevy. And there, across the valley in Drumfluch, and much to his astonishment, he saw the Irish drawn up for battle.
Much has been written on the tactics of the battle which ensued. It should suffice here to say that the Irish columns were widely spaced, thus leaving room for retreat. The Scots-English, on the other hand, were packed in a manner that made orderly retreat impossible. This was the one strictly military mistake that Monroe made. His cannons which were placed on top of the hill, were virtually ineffective. Yet it was their booming which recalled the victorious Irish contingent from Dungannon. Seeing the Irish horses coming over the hill on the Irish right, the enemy must have presumed that the Coleraine reinforcement was at hand. At any rate, Monroe first tried a sally close to the river with the apparent intention of breaking through the Irish flank so as to cut off retreat to Charlemont. This was repulsed.
The sun was still shining in the eyes of the Irish, but toward eight o'clock Eoghan Ruadh, having addressed his troops, pressed his right flank against Monroe's left, forcing the enemy to swing, as on an axis, till his back was toward the river, with the last rays of the setting sun in his eyes. The wind also, it is believed, was blowing the cannon smoke down toward the river. The tactics and strategy were extremely successful. The enemy was tired, out-manoeuvred and trapped. The battle itself was won before it began. To escape the attack on their left, the Scots turned to the right, and of course were drowned in the Blackwater. There was almost a bridge of bodies floating in the water.
Of those who fled back the way they had come, many were lost in the Oona, the marshes, or Tultygiven Lake and the other lakes around Knocknacloy.
No other Irish victory had ever resulted in so complete an annihilation. Very few of the enemy got back to Poyntzpass. Caesar, one feels, would have been proud of such a victory as Benburb.
Na Fianna Éireann Fíor inár gCroíthe Neart inár Láimhe Comhsheasmhacht inár dTeanga.