We hear a lot about Hugh O’Neill’s revolutionary military reforms and his ability to outpace, outmanoeuvre and outfight his opponents, who were still under the mistaken opinion that the ‘primitive’ Irish were still going to fight them in their traditional old-fashioned ways. Confronted with kerne and galloglass the English had every reason to believe they would defeat them in the same predictable manner. The last time I graced these pages that was exactly what I was talking about, but it is time someone else got a go. Moreover, what with it being the 7 August and the 422nd anniversary of the Battle of the Ford of the Biscuits, it sort of demands it.
In 1594 the war had not long started, indeed for the English in Dublin they were not yet aware they were fighting one. Yes, Hugh Maguire, lord of Fermanagh and Cormac MacBaron O’Neill (Tyrone’s brother) had been causing somewhat of a stir in Connacht and the Ulster borderlands, but the hosting by Sir Henry Bagenal with Tyrone’s apparent assistance had put that to rest after the bloody English victory at the Battle of the Erne fords back in October. Hadn’t it?
The Battle of the Erne Fords, 10 October 1593. While this impressed Bagenal it had no real impact on Maguire's strength.
The riverine campaign by Captain John Dowdall during the winter of 1593-4 almost succeeded in killing Maguire, but his siege and capture of Enniskillen Castle during February 1594 had not only taken Maguire’s strongest position in Fermanagh, it allowed the crown troops to dominate the traffic between upper and lower Lough Erne. The fall of Enniskillen came as somewhat of a surprise to the authorities in Dublin, as Dowdall’s guns were not large enough to make any useful impression on the stout masonry walls. There was concern that a failure to capture the castle would only serve to encourage the Irish. However, an amphibious assault forced the defenders to capitulate – a decision they would soon regret as Dowdall put to the sword most, if not all of the men, women and children in Enniskillen. Surely now, with the strongest seat in Fermanagh taken, combined with the defeat on the Erne the previous year, Maguire and his allies (which now included Red Hugh O’Donnell) would seek reconciliation with the crown?
Not so much.
English hopes were misplaced as Bagenal’s victory at the Erne Fords fell most-heavily upon the MacSweeny galloglass, not Maguire and Cormac MacBaron’s modernised pike and shot. Indeed, they were largely untouched by Bagenal’s 1593 campaign in Fermanagh. Just over three months after Enniskillen had fallen, Maguire, MacBaron and O’Donnell blockaded the castle and cut the garrison’s lifeline along the Erne with a series of earthworks and wooden stakes driven into the riverbed. Within two months the garrison’s position was dire, as disease and a shortage of supplies took their toll. The garrison needed outside intervention If they were to be saved. A relief expedition was ordered by Sir William Fitzwilliam, the lord deputy. Sir Henry Duke and Sir Edward Herbert were given the job of breaking through to Enniskillen with 600 infantry and 46 horsemen. Joint commands are rarely a good idea, but the mission’s leaders were more concerned with their lack of men. They considered 1,000 men a minimum for the journey but their request for additional troops fell on deaf ears; they would fight with what they had.
The English set out from Cavan on 4 August with hopes to be in Enniskillen by 7 or 8 August. Maguire and Cormac MacBaron moved to intercept the relief force, but the English caught a break. Trouble with some Scots mercenaries at Derry forced O’Donnell to ride north, while leaving orders for his men around Enniskillen to remain in camp until he returned. Nevertheless, as the English approached the Arney River on 7 August, the Irish moved to stop them. The English column was split into three divisions, the van, battle and rear. The baggage and civilians (who regularly accompanied the armies) were placed in the intervals between the three divisions. Irish skirmishers pestered the flanks of the English column, but the English pikemen were protected by flanking ‘sleeves’ of shot (soldiers carrying firearms). However, their cavalry which had always proved dominant in Irish warfare, were unable to provide assistance as the boggy terrain had forced Duke to order them to dismount. The head of the column approached the Arney River ‘4 miles of Enniskillen at a great straight and ford’. Without warning a withering hail of fire from the northern bank stopped the English cold. Maguire and Cormac MacBaron assailed the rear and flanks of the column. Irish skirmishes engaged the English shot on both flanks, where Irish firepower soon got the better of the wings of English shot, forcing them to fall back to their pikes. Close-range gunfire and confusion sowed by the sudden attack caused the rear of the column to disrupt, losing its order and cohesion. MacBaron charged with his pikemen supported by Scots mercenaries, driving the panicking English onto their central division. Panic spread to the central division as the melange of soldiers and civilians from the rear desperately sought to escape the advancing Irish.
The Battle of the Ford of the Biscuits, 7 Aug. 1594: 1: Irish shot engage and halt the head of the column but are eventually forced to give ground due to a determined English pike charge. 2: Irish shot force in the English loose shot and disorder the pikemen. 3: Irish pikemen and Scots charge into the disordered rear forcing it onto the main battle and then the van. 4: English army makes it to low ground. Under fire from the surrounding heights, the English attack south but are forced to cross further upstream. 5: Incongruously the Irish horse played no part in the battle (if you like this map you can find a copy on the Wikipedia page under free license CC-BY-SA 4.0., just don't forget to mention who made it)
Duke played his one last strong card; the pikemen of the leading division. They charged across the river, pushing the Irish shot back, enabling the van to lead the way across the Arney to an area of temporary respite just to the north. The fragmenting central and rear division followed the van as the Irish blocking the ford withdrew, but the English abandoned their baggage and supplies to hasten their escape. The English officers attempted to restore order in their now thoroughly demoralised army. To buy time they ordered their shot to skirmish with the surrounding Irish, but this soon faltered as the officer in command, Captain Fuller was killed. Duke and Herbert had little option but to abandon their mission and extricate their men (if they could). Falling back on the ford the English were met with renewed gunfire, forcing them to find another crossing ‘an arrow shot’ upstream. The English caught their second major break of the day when the Irish failed to pursue to shattered army as it withdrew towards Leitrim and Sligo. The abandoned baggage littering the battlefield proved too much of a temptation, as the belongings of hundreds of soldiers and civilians lay for the taking. It was the huge cache of supplies and provisions left along the trail and in the river which gave rise to the battle’s name unique sobriquet, Béal Átha na mBriosgadh or ‘The Ford of the Biscuits’. Duke and Herbert were well aware of their good fortune. Though they had lost (according to them) 56 killed and 69 wounded, they gave ‘the Lord hearty thanks for preserving the rest considering the odds and the great overmatch which the traitors had against us’. However, they said little about the many civilians caught up in the disaster.
Joan Kelly had grown up in Dungannon and later married an English soldier. She accompanied her husband on the expedition and was shot in the arm. However, Kelly rescued by one of Tyrone’s Scots mercenaries. She was later released and in her testimony to Duke two months later, she provided detailed description of the aftermath of the battle, including Tyrone's arrival at Liscallaghan (modern Fivemiletown) to receive his share of the spoils, ’15 of their [the English] horses and hackneys … and three graven armours and two black armours’. Kelly noted that many of the troops at the battle wore Tyrone’s distinctive red livery. Furthermore, she gave the names and ranks of many of those involved.
Turlough Boy O’Hagan, son to the now O’Hagan servant unto the earl, and one of [his] chief leaders of shot.
Patrick Peynneye, Donogh McKygan, Edmund O’Cahan and Owen Corr (a leader of 10 of the earls’ shot: These four were brought up attending on the earl in his chamber as his pages and were that day of the fight all in red cassocks being the earl’s livery.
Henry O’Hagan and Donell O’Hagan: Chief leaders of the earl’s shot and brothers to the seneschall, O’Hagan, and both hurt that day.
Patrick Moddro O’Molan and Donell McArt bane O’Neale: both leaders of the earls shot
Brian McArt McBarron: That day a leader of seven score shot.
Donell McHugh McEnostall O’Hagan
Teage McGillegrome O’Hagan: brother to Arte Bradage O’Hagan
Turlough Oge O’Quynes’s two sons
Owen O’Neale McArte
Peirce O’Mallon: This Peirce dwelleth in the town of Dungannon and was there cured of his hurt he received that day.
Owen McAvghin bane and Gyllandryas McHavghin [possibly MacGowan or McGavin] These two are the leaders of the earl’s Scotts all which were against us that day.
This Gillandryas is the earl’s only chiefest and trustiest messenger for Scottish causes.
As you can see Kelly’s account was detailed and specific but still the crown prevaricated in dealing with Tyrone.
Clontibret may have been the first time that Tyrone took to the field and demonstrated the full ability of his new army, but it was at the Arney where the crown’s army got the first taste of what was in store and a real idea of the military skill of Tyrone’s officers and allied lords.
Many thanks to the Irish Research Council who fund my continuing research on aspects of the Nine Years War.