The running ambush of the English relief column at Clontibret in 1595 and the rout three years later at Yellow Ford (probably named for the color of the water of a marshy stream that ran into the Blackwater River) are almost textbook examples of the advantages of a native guerrilla army over a traditional occupying force. The former took place between Monaghan and Newry, the latter—not far away—near the present village of Blackwater, a few miles north of Armagh.

In this selection, the Four Masters provide a somewhat cryptic account of the surrender of Sligo to the rebels, which gives some suggestion of the precarious balance maintained by the government army. The officers may have been English, but many of the men were Irish more in sympathy with their enemy than with their commanders.

There seems to be some disagreement over the size of the New Fort (which the Irish called Fortmore or Fortuna) on the Blackwater. Fynes Moryson, an Englishman, called it an “Eye-sore” which was “only a deep trench or wall of earth to lodge some one hundred soldiers,” while Cuegory O’Cleary, an Irishman, described it as a strong earthen fort with “fighting towers” and loophole windows to fire through, garrisoned by three hundred men.

The Four Masters’ account of the battle at Yellow Ford includes a rare but brief glimpse of an ordinary soldier—unnamed, of course—who discovers the dangers of gunpowder.


For some time [in 1595] the English did not dare to bring any army into Ulster, except one hosting which was made by Sir John Norris and his brother, Sir Thomas Norris, the President of the two provinces of Munster, with the forces of Munster and Meath, to proceed into Ulster. They marched to Newry, and passed from thence towards Armagh. When they had proceeded near halfway, they were met by the Irish, who proceeded to annoy, shoot, pierce, and spear them, so that they did not suffer them either to sleep or rest quietly for the space of twenty-four hours. They were not permitted to advance forward one foot further; and their chiefs were glad to escape with their lives to Newry, leaving behind them many men, horses, arms, and valuable things. The General, Sir John Norris, and his brother, Sir Thomas, were wounded on this occasion. It was no [ordinary] gap of danger for them to go into the province after this.

[Bingham, an English commander] returned to Sligo, after having plundered the monastery of the Blessed Virgin at Rath-Maelain, and the church of St. Columbkille on Torach; but God did not permit him to remain for a long time without revenging them upon him, for there was in his company a gentleman of the Burkes, who had twelve warriors along with him, namely, Ulick Burke [an Irish ally]. Upon one occasion he was offered insult and indignity by [Bingham] and the English in general, at which he felt hurt and angry; and he resolved in his mind to revenge the insult, if he could, and afterwards to get into the friendship of [Hugh] O’Donnell, for he felt certain of being secure with him. He afterwards got an advantage of the aforesaid [Bingham], one day as he was in an apartment with few attendants; he went up to him, and upbraided him with his lawlessness and injustice towards him, and as he did not receive a satisfactory answer, he drew his sword, and struck at him till he severed his head from his neck. He then took the castle, and sent messengers to Ballyshannon, where O’Donnell’s people then were; and these dispatched messengers to Tyrone, where O’Donnell himself was. They relate the news to him, and he then went to the Earl O’Neill; and both were much rejoiced at that killing. On the following day O’Donnell bade the Earl farewell, and, setting out with his army, did not halt, except by night, until he arrived at Sligo. He was welcomed; and Ulick Burke delivered up the town to him, which made him very happy in his mind. This happened in the month of June ….


The New Fort [on the Blackwater River near Armagh] was defended during the time of peace and war by the Queen’s people; but when the English and Irish did not make peace [as had been expected] in the beginning of summer, [Hugh] O’Neill laid siege to the fort, so that the warders were in want of provisions in the last month of summer [of 1598]. After this news arrived in Dublin, the Council resolved to assemble together the most loyal and best tried in war of the Queen’s soldiers in Ireland, [who were those] in the neighbourhood of Dublin and Athlone; and when these [soldiers] were asembled together, four thousand foot and six hundred horse were selected from among them, and these were sent to convey provisions to the New Fort. A sufficient supply of meat and drink, beef, lead, powder, and all other necessaries, were sent with them. They marched to Drogheda, from thence to Dundalk, from thence to Newry, and from thence to Armagh, where they remained at night. Sir Henry Beging [Bagenal], Marshal of Newry, was their General.

When O’Neill had received intelligence that this great army was approaching him, he sent his messengers to [Hugh] O’Donnell, requesting of him to come to his assistance against this overwhelming force of foreigners who were coming to his country. O’Donnell proceeded immediately, with all his warriors, both infantry and cavalry, and a strong body of forces from Connaught, to assist his ally against those who were marching upon him. The Irish of all the province of Ulster also joined the same army, so that they were all prepared to meet the English before they arrived at Armagh. They then dug deep trenches against the English in the common road, by which they thought they [the English] would come to them.

As for the English, after remaining a night at Armagh, they rose next morning early; and the resolution they adopted was, to leave their victuals, drink, their women and young persons, their horses, baggage, servants, and rabble, in that town of Armagh. Orders were then given that every one able to bear arms, both horse and foot, should proceed wherever the Marshal and other officers of the army should order them to march against their enemies. They then formed into order and array, as well as they were able, and proceeded straightforward through each rood before them, in close and solid bodies, and in compact, impenetrable squadrons, till they came to the hill which overlooks the ford of Beal-an-atha-bhuidhe. After arriving there they perceived O’Neill and O’Donnell, the Ui Eathach Uladh, and the Oirghialla, having, together with the chieftains, warriors, heroes, and champions of the North, drawn up one terrible mass before them, placed and arranged on the particular passages where they thought the others would march on them.

When the chiefs of the North observed the very great danger that now threatened them, they began to harangue and incite their people to acts of valour, saying that unless the victory was their’s on that day, no prospect remained for them after it but that of being [some] killed and slaughtered without mercy, and others cast into prisons and wrapped in chains, as the Irish had been often before, and that such as should escape from that battle would be expelled and banished into distant foreign countries: and they told them, moreover, that it was easier for them to defend their patrimony against this foreign people [now] than to take the patrimony of others by force, after having been expelled from their own native country. This exciting exhortation of the chiefs made [the desired] impression upon their people; and the soldiers declared that they were ready to suffer death sooner than submit to what they feared would happen to them.

As for the Marshal and his English [forces], when they saw the Irish awaiting them, they did not shew any symptom whatever of fear, but advanced vigorously forwards, until they sallied across the first broad [and] deep trench that lay in their way; and some of them were killed in crossing it. The Irish army then poured upon them vehemently and boldly, furiously and impetuously, shouting in the rear and in the van, and on either side of them. The van was obliged to await the onset, bide the brunt of the conflict, and withstand the firing, so that their close lines were thinned, their gentlemen gapped, and their heroes subdued. But, to sum up in brief, the [English] General, i.e. the Marshal of Newry, was slain; and as an army, deprived of its leader and adviser, does not usually maintain the battle-field, the General’s people were finally routed, by dint of conflict and fighting, across the earthen pits, and broad, deep trenches, over which they had [previously] passed. They were being slaughtered, mangled, mutilated, and cut to pieces by those who pursued them bravely and vigorously.

At this time God allowed, and the Lord permitted, that one of the Queen’s soldiers, who had exhausted all the powder he had about him, by the great number of shots he had discharged, should go to the nearest barrel of powder to quickly replenish his measure and his pouch; and [when he began to fill it] a spark fell from his match into the powder in the barrel, which exploded aloft overhead into the air, as did every barrel nearest, and also a great gun which they had with them. A great number of the men who were around the powder were blown up in like manner. The surrounding hilly ground was enveloped in a dense, black, gloomy mass of smoke for a considerable part of the day afterwards. That part of the Queen’s army which escaped from being slaughtered [by the Irish], or burned or destroyed [by the explosion], went back to Armagh, and were eagerly pursued [by the Irish, who] continued to subdue, surround, slay, and slaughter them, by pairs, threes, scores, and thirties, until they passed inside the walls of Armagh.

The Irish then proceeded to besiege the town, and surrounded it on every side; and they [of both parties] continued to shoot and fire at each other for three days and three nights, at the expiration of which time the English ceased, and sent messengers to the Irish to tell them that they would surrender the fort [at the Blackwater], if the warders who were [stationed] in it were suffered to come to them unmolested to Armagh, and [to add] that, on arriving there, they would leave Armagh itself, if they should be granted quarter and protection, and escorted in safety out of that country into a secure territory. When these messages were communicated to the Irish, their chiefs held a council, to consider what they should do respecting this treaty. Some of them said that the English should not be permitted to come out of their straitened position until they should all be killed or starved together; but they finally agreed to give them liberty to pass out of the places in which they were, on condition, however, that they should not carry out of the fort meat or drink, armour, arms, or ordnance, powder or lead [or, in fine, any thing], excepting only the captain’s trunk and arms, which he was at liberty to take with him. They consented on both sides to abide by those conditions; and they sent some of their gentlemen of both sides to the fort, to converse with the warders; and when these were told how the case stood, they surrendered the fort to O’Neill, as they were ordered. The Captain and the warders came to Armagh, to join that part of his people who had survived. They were all then escorted from Armagh to Newry, and from thence to the English territory. After their departure from Tyrone, O’Neill gave orders to certain persons to reckon and bury the gentlemen and common people slain. After they had been reckoned, there were found to be two thousand five hundred slain, among whom was the General, with eighteen captains, and a great number of gentlemen whose names are not given.

The Queen’s people were dispirited and depressed, and the Irish joyous and exulting, after this conflict. This battle of Athbuidhe [Yellow Ford] was fought on the 10th day of August. The chiefs of Ulster returned to their respective homes in joyous triumph and exultation, although they had lost many men ….

When it was told to the Queen of England and the Council that the Irish had risen up against her in the manner already described, and the vast numbers of her people who had been slain in this year, the resolution adopted by the Sovereign and the Council was, to send over Sir Richard Bingham with eight thousand soldiers, to sustain and carry on the war here, until the Earl of Essex should [be prepared] to come, who was then ordered to go to Ireland after the festival of St. Bridget with attire and expense, and an army, such as had not been attempted to be sent to Ireland, since the English had first undertaken to invade it, till that time.

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