Monro reached Poyntzpass on the 4th of June 1646 with his army of five thousand infantrymen and six hundred horsemen. They were a mix of Scots and settlers from Antrim and Down.
George Monro, the general’s nephew, led a second and smaller column southward from Coleraine to meet his uncle at Glaslough. A third converging column of two thousand settlers from the Laggan in County Donegal had reached Augher by the 4th of June.
The plan was that the Laggan men would burst into Connacht while Monro invaded Leinster, perhaps marching as far south as Kilkenny the Confederate Catholic capital.
On 1st of June Eoghan Rua O’Neill began a leisurely march from his winter camp near Lough Sheelin in County Longford to his summer base at Charlemont Fort. He had about five thousand men in seven regiments of foot and as many troops of horsemen.
On Thursday the 4th of June Monro captured an Irish scout near Poyntz Pass. The prisoner passed on electrifying news: Eoghan Rua was marching that very day from Glaslough to Benburb!Monro was desperate to catch O’Neill. He broke camp, marched ten more miles before pitching camp, roused the camp at four on Friday morning and concentrated his whole force at Armagh.
Riding forward, Monro reconnoitred the Blackwater River crossing at Benburb. He could see the Irish on the high ground by the ruins of an old O’Neill castle on the northern bank, blocking his passage over the Blackwater.
Historian G.A. Hayes-McCoy imagines ‘on the one side the buff-coated Scotsmen and ejected planters, standing at the beginning of their centuries of distrust; on the other, the dispossessed gentleman of Ulster…’
Monro could not risk crossing the river at Benburb nor could be cross downstream at Portmore. Upstream, the closest crossing place was a ford near Kinard, more than five miles away as the crow flies. Monro had men, not birds. The New Scots and the British foot would march nineteen miles downriver and upriver that day, their second day of long marching and little sleep.
O’Neill was kept well-informed about Monro’s long detour.
All O’Neill’s men had to do that afternoon was to march one mile west of Benburb to a hill named Drumflugh, the ‘wet ridge’, face south, and wait. O’Neill detached most of his cavalry and some of foot soldiers towards Dungannon to intercept George Monro’s column. Meanwhile O’Neill would delay Robert Monro’s main army to buy time for the detachment to do what it had to do and get back.
O’Neill sent some musketeers forward to shoot at the enemy and slow him down. The basket of eggs topography in which the drumlins are separated by small loughs or boggy wet ground favoured such delaying actions. The skirmishers hid in scrub on Knocknacloy, a hill overlooking Ballaghkillgevill, a bealach or pass one and a half miles forward of the main position. They shot at Monro’s vanguard for half an hour before cavalry came up, led by Monro’s son-in-law George Montgomery. The skirmishers pulled back. The hit-and-run action had delayed Monro’s advance, so it was not until about seven o’clock that his men reached Derrycreevy. Between Derrycreevy and O’Neill’s position lay a shallow valley and stream that emptied into the Blackwater. On Monro’s left lay boggy ground, on his right the Blackwater.
Monro sent Henry Blaney forward with six field guns. As the guns fired, Monro set about grouping his regiments into brigades and forming two battle lines. But his front was too narrow and his brigades so close together they would not be able to make a single unbroken line, if they had to. The ground was as it was. He had to make the best of it. On Monro’s right flank a party of his musketeers made to secure a ford between the hills. Next Montgomery, ‘a young warrior very desirous of honour’, plunged in with a hundred cavalrymen. O’Neill saw the threat and sent 600 musketeers under his own lieutenant colonel, Phelim Mac Tuathail O’Neill who drove back the attackers and may have taken Montgomery prisoner. If Montgomery was captured this early in the battle this loss must have caused some as he was nominally second-in-command of the whole army.
Monro was waiting for his nephew; O’Neill was waiting for his cavalry. At last on the horizon, they saw horsemen. Both armies set up a cheer. Monro thought it was his nephew. O’Neill was trapped! But the riders who galloped up all in sweat both horse and men were Irish who had raced back from Dungannon where they had stopped the Coleraine detachment. Monro must have begun to feel very alone.
O’Neill’s chaplain bade the soldiers kneel and he gave them general absolution.
Afterwards, O’Neill harangued them:
‘Gentlemen and Fellow Soldiers! Know that those who stand before you ready to fight are those that banished you, your Wives and Children from your lands and Houses, and made you seek Bread and Livelihood in strange places’. A chaplain wrote down O’Neill’s actual opening words:
‘Agsúd cugaibh escairde Dé, agus naimhde bhur n-anma; agus dénaidh calmacht ‘na n-aghaidh aniú; ór isiad do bhen díbh bhur dtighernaibh, bhur gclann and bhur mbeatha spiradálta agus temporálta, agus do bhen bhur ndúthaigh díbh, ‘sdo chuir ar deoruighacht sibh’ – Spoken by Keith
So as now is the time to consider your distressed and slavish condition; you have Arms in your Hands, you are as numerous as they are; and now try your Valour and your Strength on those that have banished you and now resolve to destroy you Bud and Branch. So let your Manhood be seen by your push of Pike; and I will engage, if you do so, by God’s assistance and the Intervention of His Blessed Mother and all the Holy Saints in Heaven, that the day will be your own. 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.
Monro’s men would have fired their muskets by successive ranks to maintain a continuous rolling fire. In the last two sentences of his pre-battle oration, O’Neill warned his musketeers not to fire until they came within a pike’s length, or about sixteen feet, of the enemy and looked forward to ‘push of pike’. Clearly, what he intended was for his men to march forward, his musketeers to fire a volley at close range, and his blocks of pikemen to push forward while Monro’s men were still reeling from the shock.
O’Neill’s men over ran the guns and finished off Blayney whose thigh had been broken by a shot. Monro’s horsemen charged forward through the gaps in the front line to try to break up the Irish battalions. But the horses must have been worn out. The Irish ground on, the wind blowing gunsmoke in their faces and eyes. Monro’s officers ‘stood to it manfully’ and ‘ left not the ground till they were beaten down by push of pike’ but their men ‘did not back them’.
Monro’s men were exhausted. It’s said, moreover, that the Scots and British had lopped a foot or two of the staff of their pikes which was a disadvantage when pikemen stood ‘breast to breast pointing at each other’.
Monro tried to pull his first line back into the second line but the intervals between the brigades were too narrow and his troops piled up. By now the Irish had neatly slotted their second line units into the intervals of their first line to make a complete unbroken line of battle. Again, Monro sent forward the horsemen. No use Eoghan Rua ordered colonel Richard O’Farrell, on the extreme right of what was now a continuous Irish line, to bend the line inwards and attack Monro’s flank. This caused Monro’s army to ‘stagger’.
Seeing the rout, Monro’s cavalry rode off. So did he, without his wig and cassock. O’Neill’s line pivoted so that much of it faced south and overlapped what was left of Munro’s left wing. Only Sir James Montgomery’s regiment which stood nearest the riverbank on Monro’s right escaped in a body. From Derrycreevy to the nearby ford on the Blackwater, and beyond, O’Neill lost 300 men, Monro 3,000. Such asymmetrical losses were the usual outcome of battles when most of the killing happened in the pursuit, rather than the engagement proper. A river laid an obstacle across the path of retreat where fleeing and panicked men would pile up in a human traffic jam.
Nor was the massacre confined to Battle ford. An area just south-east of the ford on the route to Armagh is known as Cabhán na Fola or ‘Bloody Hollow’. The Irish army won the tokens of battle: colours, cannon, drums, muskets, and pikes. The Irish soldiers robbed the dead and dying.
Monro interpreted the disaster as God’s punishment for over confidence: ‘the Lord of Hosts had a controversy with us to rub shame on our faces’.We speak of a battle being decisive, but in practice battles are increments in a process of attrition whereby wars are won or lost. The criticism has often been made that O’Neill should have pursued Monro’s army vigorously and overrun the Scots settlement there. One can raise several objections to this criticism. The first objection is that Monro was not the most pressing threat. O’Neill turned west to hit the Laggan army camped at Augher but found it abandoned. O’Neill next marched to Tandragee from where he sent out two strong raiding parties. Could he have done more? Many of his men had gone home to stash their booty. Monro still had up to nine thousand men, Scots and British. Above all the papal nuncio Rinuccini, his paymaster, wanted O’Neill and his army in Kilkenny to forestall what he saw as a shameful treaty with Ormond, the king’s man in Dublin. He answered Rinuccini’s call, added military muscle to the nuncio’s moral suasion, and wrecked the Ormond Peace.
Good or bad, that was Benburb’s legacy.
Script and historical expert Dr Pádraig Lenihan, NUIG; Tomás Ó Brógáin, Oireas living history actors and film producer Cathal Hegarty, Benburb Productions.
Battle of Benburb Credits