Gaelic primitivism? Give it a rest. The Nine Years War (1593-1603) and the zenith of native Irish military power.

The Nine Years War been focus of my study for some years now, in fact longer than the war lasted. I find it interesting as it is represents both the apogee of Gaelic military ability and the final destruction of the native military and political power. Therefore, after all these years it would be no understatement to say it drives me to apoplexy when I find articles and attitudes which view the war as a contest of the relatively backward and militarily weak Irish against the modern and comparatively sophisticated armies of Elizabeth I. The historian John Keegan noted that the way a people fought was an expression of native culture. Following on from this, the image of primitive and obsolete styles of warfare by the native Irish could imply a culture which was also archaic and resistant to change. The reality was quite the opposite.

The Nine Years War was not a clash of cultures, where the pike and shot forces of the English were initially bested by the noble but  primitive Irish, in a courageous but inevitably doomed effort to throw off English rule. On the contrary it pitted the modernised forces of Hugh O’Neill, second earl of Tyrone, against the armies of the English crown. At this time continental warfare was experiencing what some have called the ‘military revolution’. The key indicators of this revolution was the growth of army size, development of disciplined firepower-centric infantry and the construction of trace itallienne polygonal fortifications. Rather than sitting on the periphery of these changes, Ireland and the course of the Nine Years War was deeply affected by the transformations taking place in continental Europe. The stereotypical native hosts of armoured galloglass, kerne and Scottish redshanks had little part to play in a war where for the most part military pragmatism and innovation dominated.

Gaelic military-reality and myth

We should not be too harsh, as in many ways the iconic Irish primitive warrior has been maintained by Irish nationalist movements, which idealised pre-conquest Ireland. Celticisim created a cultural history which imagined an idealised identity. The image of the primitive Irish suited both nationalist and unionist interpretations of history. For one it fitted into the pure Celtic ideal, for the other it confirmed the backwardness of Ireland and the urgent need for outside interventions.

Derricke's Image of Irelande

Contemporary illustrations served to emphasise the backwardness of the Irish soldier. In his Image of Irelande (1581), John Derricke portrayed the Irish as medieval and nothing like the modern pike and shot equipped troops deployed by the crown. Edmund Spenser described how the Irish kerne ran into battle, with a terrible yell and hubbub; armed with sword, bow and shields. Native chroniclers did not help much. Their writing compounded the problem by harking back to a golden age of Irish warrior myth. This can be seen in the account of the English and Irish preparations before the battle of Yellow Ford (1598) as documented by Lughaidh Ó Clérigh in The life of Aodh Ruadh O’ Domhnaill; ‘For the Irish did not wear armour like them, except a few, and they were unarmed in comparison with the English, but they had sufficient wide-bladed spears and broad grey lances with strong handles of good ash. They had straight two-edged swords and slender flashing axes ... implements for shooting which they had were darts of carved wood and powerful bows, with sharp pointed arrows, and the English generally had quick-firing guns’. This was anything but true as at the Yellow Ford the Irish used firepower more than the English.

When did the changes appear?

Technology was available long before the 1590’s. Firearms had been readily available in Ireland throughout the Sixteenth century, but the transfer of technology was rarely enough to cause substantial changes in military methods; expertise was also required. Irish soldier received training in the English army and in continental wars, but this did not in itself start any broad revision of the Gaelic Irish military methods. Local chiefs took advantage of the windfall of arms and military experience with the landing of survivors of the Spanish Armada in September 1588. However, it was Hugh O’Neill who precipitated the most profound transformation in native forces.

O’Neill created developed infantry which utilised the fundamental precepts of the military revolution, by building pike and shot based formations which relied on firearms as the basis of their combat power. This made them more in keeping with continental practice than English, as the crown force’s willingness to enter melee with pikemen was inconsistent with accepted practice in Europe, which viewed firepower as superior to the pike. However, O’Neill did not slavishly copy European practice, but created a hybrid force which combined the advantages of modern firepower-oriented infantry with the flexible and highly mobile nature of Irish warfare. This was a feat which the English were unable to match for most of the war

Adoption of Firearms

At the start of the war in 1593 there were still significant contingents of old-style Irish soldiers present. At the battle of the Erne fords near Beleek in 1593, the Irish deployed galloglass and kerne. However, less than one year later the coordinated actions of Irish pike and shot destroyed Sir Henry Duke’s relief force at the Ford of the Biscuits. Cormac MacBaron O’Neill used close range gunfire to disrupt the English units then used his pikemen to rout the rear and main battle of the army, but it was at Clontibret in 1595 that the power of O’Neill’s modernised force was witnessed. Pike, shot and cavalry assailed the flanks of English army for 6 hours until mutual exhaustion of gunpowder allowed Bagenal and his men to escape. O’Neill’s troops were overwhelmingly equipped with firearms, specifically calivers which were lighter weapons than muskets and suited to ambushes and fighting in trenches, woods or generally constricted terrain, where manageability was more important than range or penetrating power. Whereas the ratio of shot to pike in the English armies was one-to-one or two-to-one, the Irish forces deployed four or five shot for every pikeman. Clearly, for the Irish firepower crucial to gaining battlefield success.

Uncouth Irish in traditional dress?

Irish units had come to resemble English both in equipment and formation on the march. This should not be surprising as there were regular references to Irish troops being trained in English ranks only to defect. Hugh Maguire almost fell into an ambush by Captain Dowdall in late 1593 because he though Dowdall’s men were his own. In1600 an experienced English officer in Offaly mistook Irish troops for his own He joined a column of marching troops and only recognised his mistake when he realised he didn’t have that many men. The myth of Irish primitiveness was perpetrated even during the war with the reality surprising newcomers to the war. In 1599 an English officer reported that ‘In England they say they be but naked rogues, but we find them as good men as those which are sent us, and better’.

Fighting in defiles, constricted terrain.

This is commonly associated with engagements during the Nine Years War. True, many engagements were fought at river crossings, at the edge of woods or on ground which restricted mobility, as seen at Ford of the Biscuits (1594), Crossdall and Clontibret (1595) Mullaghbrack (1595) even Yellow Ford (1598); all saw Irish forces engage in constricted terrain. Generally this has been interpreted as evidence of relative weakness on the part of the Irish forces, or an inability of the Irish to fight the English on open ground. While it is true that O’Neill and his allies use terrain to neutralise the English cavalry, the Irish ability to deploy and fight near woods and bogs was not a sign of weakness but evidence of their superior training and discipline. Limited lines of sight restricted a commander’s ability to control troops therefore engagements in these situations required forces which could be relied upon to function without close supervision of senior officers. This was referred to by the Italian general Raimondo Montecuccoli. He wrote that for a general to protect his army from the possibility of rout he could order his army to a location which offered refuge nearby such as swamps, mountains or forests. But he cautioned that this tactic could only be used if one had a well-trained army as ‘the proximity of refuge destroys the will to resist.’ Throughout the war O’Neill’s forces were able to function close to obvious lines of retreat, without any effect on his men’s ability to engage the enemy.


Again, this is a feature commonly attributed to warfare in Ireland. In many instances the term has been used pejoratively to suggest something less than ‘regular war’. On the contrary skirmishing was more taxing on the individual soldier and required a higher degree of training and motivation than soldiers in tight formations. Fighting in line and battle required order, drill and discipline under fire whereas skirmishing demanded flexibility, independence and good individual weapon skills.

The earl of Essex described the war in Ireland as a ‘miserable and beggarly...war’, but a direct parallel with contemporary European experience can be identified. War at the end of the sixteenth century was dominated by small-scale actions and skirmishing. Aside from sieges, which were the most high-profile military actions in the Low Countries, contemporary commentators noted that their service was marked by persistent skirmishing and petty actions. Small, irregular war was ascendant over large regular battle was articulated by Blaise de Monluc, who summarised war as a series of ‘fights, encounters, skirmishes, ambushes, an occasional battle, minor sieges, assaults, escalades, captures and surprises of towns’. Into the seventeenth century, small actions were far more common than large encounters.

Avoiding battles?

O’Neill’s Fabian strategy of refusing to meet the crown army in a pitched battle has been interpreted as evidence of an inability to fight on open ground. It is true that direct engagements in the open were rare during the war, and that O’Neill avoided battle in the open, preferring to use conventional troops to suit his prevailing operational needs. References to O’Neill’s avoidance of battle implied that this tactic was different to the European norm, but examination of campaigns in Europe indicated that battle avoidance was the preferred option for waging war. Warfare in Europe in the sixteenth century saw decline in set piece battles. For many contemporary authors, avoiding battle and its inherent risks in favour of waiting out enemies or exhausting them with constant movement and frequent skirmishing, was preferable, and indeed a characteristic, of a good and prudent commander..

While Irish warfare mirrored many aspects of the military modernisation process in other parts of Europe, the adoption by the Irish of military reforms and the accompanying change in equipment, arms and methodology was exceptionally rapid in Ireland. Prior to 1588, native Irish infantry were generally composed of galloglass and kerne. Following the Spanish Armada in 1588, unarmored pike men and shot infantry started to take the field  against the crown. The transformation of the Irish infantry was rapid, whereby pike, shot and supporting swordsmen became the primary infantry force deployed by the Irish by the end of the war in 1603. The speed of this change which was noted as exceptional by contemporary English commentators.

Yes, the confederation under O’Neill was finally defeated by the crown but it was nothing to do with Irish backwardness nor technological superiority of the English. The causes of Irish defeat (and English success) were much more complex; I’ll leave than discussion for another time. However, for now the iconic image of the sturdy muscular warrior with a stout spear, broad axe and grim countenance, while romantic has nothing to do with this war. This war was fought using modern technology and techniques altered to suit the physical realities of the Irish landscape. It was a war where modern Irish forces, not English, set the standard for operational and tactical skill and ingenuity.

In am indebted to the Irish Research Council who fund my continuing research on aspects of the Nine Years War.