14 August 1598 O.S./24 August 1598 N.S.- the Battle of the Yellow Ford (Cath Bhéal-an-Átha-Buí) was fought on this day.
It was fought between the forces of Aodh [Hugh] O’Neill the Earl of Tyrone [above] and those of Queen Elizabeth I of England under the direct command of Marshal Bagenal. The cause of the battle was the attempt by the English to relieve their garrison at the Portmore fort situated adjacent to the Black water river. This tiny outpost of about 150 men was nothing more really than an earthen structure in need of constant repair and revictualling. Situated some two miles north of the ancient settlement of Armagh it was meant to act as a toehold into Tyrone and thus a gateway into the heart of Ulster. However it was in fact a thorn in the side of the English who found it difficult to maintain but could not afford the loss of prestige of abandoning it to O’Neill who for some years had been in revolt against the English Queen.
In the year 1598 Ireland was a country divided in its allegiances. The most powerful man in the North, Aodh O’Neill & his allies were in revolt against the Crown under its English monarch Queen Elizabeth I. The Gaelic Catholic chieftains had been nominally loyal to her but resented the creeping English encroachment on Gaelic lands and on their way of life. O’Neill saw what was coming and rather than await events he had revolted, at first by proxy and then openly. But many others stood on the fence until things became clearer. Most of the Catholic ‘Old English’ who were descended from the original colonists of the 12th century were also still loyal to her albeit reluctantly, but they feared for their safety at the hands of the Gaelic Irish and gave lukewarm support to the war effort.. There was also a tiny but growing number of ‘New English’ who were protestant and very loyal but were fearful of their tenuous grasp on their new holdings in Ireland. Those in positions of power & who were Catholic, both English or Gaelic, were reluctant to accept her rule as currently dictated but bided their time to see what way the war then raging between the warring parties would fall out.
The conflict had intensified since 1593 and broken out into open warfare the following year. The most intense fighting & manoeuvring was in the province of Ulster where the Earl of Tyrone - Aodh O’Neill - led the most serious resistance to English Rule. His defiance was quite successful and his shrewd and determined stand was being carefully watched by the leading Catholics of Ireland - who at least retained a nominal allegiance to the Crown in the absence of any viable alternative. For they were caught on the horns of a dilemma. To do nothing was to await the ever advancing encroachment of English Rule and with that the loss of their lands and the enforcement of an alien Religion upon them and their people. On the other hand to rise in open revolt was a huge risk as failure in such an enterprise would mean not just loss of territory but loss of everything. The end result was probably either exile, a violent death in battle or in the back or their heads on the walls of Dublin Castle.
By the summer of 1598 the situation here had gained attention abroad, it was not just a drain on England’s manpower and thus a further complication in her conduct of international affairs but also sucked on the Crown’s finances that had to be met by the Exchequer. As in many wars a place that is of insignificance in and of itself became to assume an importance out of all proportion to its real value. This place was the English held fort of the Blackwater on the banks of the river called Portmore. This tiny outpost of about 150 men was nothing more really than an earthen structure in need of constant repair and revictualling. Situated some four miles north west of the ancient settlement of Armagh it was meant to act as a toehold into Tyrone and thus a gateway into the heart of Ulster. However it was in fact a thorn in the side of the English who found it difficult to maintain but could not afford the loss of prestige of abandoning it to Aodh O’Neill and thus increasing his prestige at the expense of their own.
The New Fort, of which we have before written an account, 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, O'Neill laid siege to the fort, so that the warders were in want of provisions in the last month of summer.
Annals of the Four Masters [AFM]
No less than an opponent than Lord Mountjoy, Tyrone’s eventual nemeses noted that ‘so far from being a naked people , as before times, were generally better armed than we....and even exceeded us in that discipline which was fittest for the advantage of the natural strength of the country, for that they, being very many, and expert shot, and excelling in footman ship all other nations, did by that means make better use of those strengths [that is their own wild terrain] both for offense and defense, than could have been made of any squadrons of pikes or artificial fortifications of towns’
The Yellow Ford, Irish Battles - G.A. Hayes McCoy
O’Neill of course knew that they were coming. His scouts, spies and informants kept a constant flow of information coming into him so he would not be caught unawares by any sudden moves upon him. This of course was a two way affair with the English also utilising the same methods to ascertain what was afoot. But given the more static nature of the Crown Forces in castles, keeps and towns it was easier for the Irish to spy their comings and goings than vice versa as the Irish kept to their lakes, bogs, woodlands and remote places to mask their locations & intentions. By the time Bagenal’s force arrived in Armagh he was in position to meet and repulse any attempt to relieve the beleaguered garrison.
When O'Neill had received intelligence that this great army was approaching him, he sent his messengers to 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.
The Day of Battle
The Marshal broke camp early on the 14 August and began to march north hoping to skirt O’Neill’s formidable defenses by avoiding the main route to the Blackwater fort. In this he was to be stymied as the Irish had extended their defenses over a stretch of ground approximately a mile or so whose primary obstacle was a huge waterlogged ditch topped with thorny hedges. The whole area was wet and boggy with only limited patches that were dry and suitable to cross in any cohesive way. The areas where any woodland existed had been ‘plashed’ that is the undergrowth had been interlaced to form impediments to passage.