War of the Grand Alliance
Nine Years War
Nine Years War
The Nine Years War, which lasted nearly ten years, from April 1593 to March 1603, is also known as Tyrone's rebellion after its main protagonist, Hugh O'Neill, earl of Tyrone. Fought throughout the island and at enormous financial and human cost, it was the climactic phase of the Elizabethan conquest of Ireland.
The war broke out as a result of centralizing pressure on the autonomous lordships of Ulster from the colonial government in Dublin headed by Lord Deputy Fitzwilliam. His execution of Hugh MacMahon in 1590 and reorganization of the MacMahon lordship into the county of Monaghan was a warning to other Ulster lords. Furthermore, the ambitions of Sir Henry Bagenal, a soldier and landowner based at Newry, to be lord president of a reorganized Ulster threatened the traditional regional overlordship of the O'Neills.
The commanding genius on the Irish side was Hugh O'Neill. After the creation of Monaghan he had sprung his son-in-law Red Hugh O'Donnell from jail in Dublin Castle and through him opened channels of communication with Spain. When the war began in the Maguire lordship of Fermanagh in 1593 over an attempt to establish an English sheriff there, the wily O'Neill initially fought on the side of the Crown. In fact, he was the head of a secret, oath-bound confederacy of Ulster lords connected to him by blood, marriage, and fosterage that transcended the long-standing provincial rivalry between the O'Neills and O'Donnells. O'Neill alleged an inability to control the military activities of his relatives while they were actually waging proxy wars on his behalf. The Crown, eventually exasperated by his stance, proclaimed him a traitor in 1595 after his half-brother Art McBaron O'Neill captured the Blackwater fort on the route into central Ulster. The interpretation of these early stages of the war has been confused by Sean O'Faolain's popular biographical study The Great O'Neill (1942), which portrays the Ulster leader as vacillating between loyalty and insurrection. It was guile, not vacillation.
O'Neill had taken advantage of the Crown's procrastination to build up an effective army which, by the time of his proclamation, had already won battles at the Ford of the Biscuits (1594) and Clontibret (1595). O'Neill had increased the number of men under arms in Ulster and had them trained by veterans from English and Spanish service. A third of the infantrymen now had firearms—an added incentive for the Irish to use a modified variant of their traditional guerrilla tactics. The battles of Clontibret and later the Yellow Ford were in fact large-scale ambushes of English armies that were attempting the relief of isolated garrisons at Monaghan and on the Blackwater. On both occasions the Crown's commander was Sir Henry Bagenal, and on the second he and 2,000 others were killed in the greatest victory ever won by the Irish against England. The Yellow Ford victory in August 1598 facilitated the spread of the revolt to Leinster and Munster. Within a fortnight the Munster plantation was overthrown after Onie O'More and Captain Richard Tyrell led a confederate force into the southern province. Those settlers (including the poet Edmund Spenser) who survived the sudden onslaught fled to the towns and subsequently to England. Queen Elizabeth's response was to send over her favorite and England's leading soldier, the earl of Essex. He assembled the largest army yet seen in Ireland, but he dissipated his 19,000-strong force in fruitless marches and sieges in Leinster and Munster instead of confronting O'Neill in Ulster. Meanwhile, Red Hugh O'Donnell was achieving significant success in Connacht and Thomond. After the fall of Sligo in 1595 he ranged with impunity along the western seaboard and in 1599 scored a resounding victory of his own when Sir Conyers Clifford, the lord president of Connacht on another relief march, was defeated and killed at the battle of the Curlew Pass.
Essex manufactured his own downfall by foolishly negotiating alone with O'Neill at a river ford on the Ulster borders. Indeed, the confederates used negotiation as a tactic to confound the state and embarrass its officials, and the related ceasefires to delay or stymie its military operations. The contrasting personalities of the cautious O'Neill and the more belligerent O'Donnell were used to advantage in the frequent encounters with Crown commissioners that interspersed the bouts of fighting. In each negotiation O'Neill and O'Donnell would increase their demands by incorporating those of new allies in their geographically expanding confederacy or by raising the stakes from the local to the national. The Irish were increasingly demanding religious liberty and an overturning of the colonial land settlement throughout Ireland. In the negotiations of early 1596 the Crown, militarily weak and fearful of foreign intervention, offered a compromise to the Ulster lords. However, Spanish agents arrived soon afterward, and O'Neill and O'Donnell agreed to abandon the peace in return for the offer of Spanish military aid. Having secretly become Spanish allies, the confederates embarked on a series of tactics to frustrate the English peace, including O'Neill's turning over of the "king of Spain's letter" to mislead the state. Further ceasefires and negotiations in the winter of 1597 to 1598 and the autumn and winter of 1599 were intended to delay English military activity.
By 1600 the Irish confederates controlled most of Ireland outside the towns, but lacking artillery and infrastructure generally, they required a Spanish expeditionary force to achieve military victory. In the meantime they tried to win over the English-speaking Catholic inhabitants of the towns and their hinterlands by political means. O'Neill launched an appeal on the basis of "faith and fatherland." In late 1599 he issued a proclamation to the Palesmen demanding their support as fellow Catholics and countrymen and threatening with destruction and damnation those who did not comply. Although a papal bull recognized him as Catholic commander in Ireland, O'Neill never managed to obtain permission from Rome to excommunicate those who refused to follow his banner. As an enticement to the hesitant, he put forward twenty-two articles which—if accepted—would have given Ireland political and religious independence under nominal English suzerainty. The Old English, who had spent three centuries fighting the Gaels, could not bring themselves to trust O'Neill, and the state glossed his demands as "Ewtopia" (i.e., utopian, or unrealistic). Far from winning over the Old English in Ireland, O'Neill's ideological démarche provoked the state in England into winning the war in Ireland conclusively.
Lord Deputy Mountjoy was dispatched to replace the disgraced Essex. The policy of parley and ceasefire, and of fruitless expeditions into the interior, was replaced by continuous warfare in which a network of small interconnected garrisons harried the Gaelic lords into submission by destroying their people through famine and slaughter. While Mountjoy cleared Leinster, he was ably seconded by Sir George Carew in Munster and Sir Henry Docwra in Ulster. The landing of an amphibious expedition under Docwra behind enemy lines at Derry was a critical development. The revolt in Ulster began to collapse as O'Neill and O'Donnell were deserted first by erstwhile allies and then by their own dependents. A Spanish force under Don Juan del Águila eventually landed at Kinsale in September 1601 but received no local support in Munster and soon found themselves beseiged by Mountjoy. O'Neill and O'Donnell marched their forces the length of Ireland to rendezvous outside Kinsale and effectively turned the tables on Mountjoy, who now found himself trapped between their army and that of the Spaniards. But at the urging of the Spaniards, the Irish committed themselves to a pitched battle on Christmas Eve 1601 and were completely routed. The Spaniards promptly sought a truce and agreed to withdraw. O'Donnell took ship for Spain to lobby for further aid, fruitlessly, and he died there in September 1602. O'Neill fled back to Ulster and went into hiding. Eventually, he surrendered to Mountjoy at Mellifont in March 1603.
For the first time since the Norman invasion English sovereignty was effective throughout Ireland. The end of the sovereignty of the Gaelic lords was symbolized by Mountjoy's destruction of the O'Neill inaugural stone at Tullaghoge in late 1602. The war had cost the English exchequer nearly two million pounds sterling. Sustaining the costly garrison strategy in the final phases was achieved only by the expedient of debasement of the coinage, which reduced the silver content of the Irish pound. After the war O'Neill's position in Ulster was protected at Court by Mountjoy. When the latter lost the favor of King James, O'Neill came under increasing pressure, and in 1607 he and the other Gaelic lords of Ulster fled to the continent in an event which has been immortalized as "the Flight of the Earls." Their lands were subsequently confiscated to make way for the plantation of Ulster.
SEE ALSO Desmond Rebellions; English Political and Religious Policies, Responses to (1534–1690); O'Neill, Hugh, Second Earl of Tyrone; Primary Documents: Ferocity of the Irish Wars (1580s–1590s); Tyrone's Demands (1599); Accounts of the Siege and Battle of Kinsale (1601)
Morgan, Hiram. "Hugh O'Neill and the Nine Years War in Tudor Ireland." Historical Journal 36 (March 1993): 21–37.
Morgan, Hiram. Tyrone's Rebellion: The Outbreak of the Nine Years War in Tudor Ireland. 1993.
Ó Riain, Pádraig, ed. Beatha Aodh Ruadh Uí Dhomnaill. 2002. (Irish Texts Society, subsidiary series, no. 12, London, 2002.)
Silke, J. J. Kinsale: Spanish Intervention in Ireland at the End of the Elizabethan Wars. 1970.
Nine Years War