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Nine Years War - An Overview

In the beginning of the century [the original text refers to the sixteenth rather than the seventeenth century] the Pale, or that Part of Ireland in which the writ of the king England ran, comprised  only half of the four counties lying near Dublin (1). Outside the Pale were ninety states of lordships ruled by lords, often called by the English captains, who, having despotic jurisdiction within the state, made peace or war as they chose. (2) These lordships have very appropriately been called the autonomous states by a modern Irish historian (3). About one-third of these autonomous states were ruled by lords of English origin who had in language, manners and customs become almost as Irish as the Irish themselves. Every state even the smallest has its armed forces.


The lordships were seldom at peace. A state ruled by an ambitious lord often tried, sometimes with the aid of allies, to make a neighbouring state subject to it. War was the only means by which this could be done, there being no such thing a voluntary submission, for each state regarded itself as independent.

(1) S.P. Hen. VIII, Ire., i. 9.
(2) Ibid., i.1.
(3) R.D. Edwards, Church and state in Tudor Ireland, p. xiii.

Warfare in Sixteenth-Century Ireland, Seán Ó Domhnaill in Irish Historical Studies, Vol. 5, No. 17 (Mar., 1946), pp. 29-54

Ireland suffered a long and violent sixteenth century. As the quote above makes clear, peace was difficult to achieve, a legacy of an incomplete conquest by the English, the failure of the Gaelic chieftains to combine into a single entity and clashing approaches to law, land tenure and succession that  made Ireland a patchwork of independent kingdoms some subject to English Common Law others to Gaelic Brehon.

Brehon Lordships were insecure and English government policy deliberately undermined it. The policy of surrender and regrant, begun under Henry VIII and continued through the reconquest by the Tudors, went to the heart of Brehon Law, set Gael against Gael and was a gem too rich for most Dynasts to ignore.

This complexity makes the nine Years War something of  a challenge. Tradition might like to picture plucky Irish rebels fighting English domination in the pursuit of an Irish independence only achieved 300 years later. The Truth might be something much different. Hugh O'Neill in particular is something of an enigma, either a sly dynast intent on building an inheritance and legacy for his family following a path that was almost impossible, at once in the camp of the English to ensure Primogeniture and in the culture of the Gael to ensure legitimacy and leverage against the centralising power of the English crown or a committed patriot as many would cast him. He seems at times the descendent of the resistant barons of a much earlier England or the predecessor of the pro-parlimanet peers of the Civil War era.

The question that needs to be asked is why the war occurred and where it sits in the chronology. The immediate and medium term cause of the conflict was the English attempt to subjugate and control the Gaelic lords of Ireland, to either eradicate or amalgamate them into regular English life and to create a single, un-complicated polity for them to extract revenue and service. As a counter point one might say the innate desire for sovereignty that is alluded to in the above quote drove the Irish Lords to resist. Accommodation was difficult because it entailed renouncing legitimacy in the eyes of their clans and septs, a hard burden to bear for many of them, even if they might have benefited. In the case of O'Neill it is clear that his distrust of the English officials, who he feared correctly plotted against him, also played  a role in his views regarding submission to the crown and from the events of the 1590s, it seems his fears were warranted.

In any case, following the savage and bloody suppression of the second Desmond Rebellion in Munster in the 1580s and the much maligned unseating and execution of the Chieftain of Oriel, MacMahon (more here: paywall) implied a renewed period of government activism:

A still more atrocious outrage increased the hostility of the Irish. Fitz-William, under pretence of settling some disputed claims to property, marched into Monaghan the territory of a chief named Mac Mahon and arrested that lord on a charge of treason. The accusation was that he had two years before employed a military force to collect his rents–an offence pronounced treasonable within the limits of the English jurisdiction, but which was no unusual practice in Monaghan and other districts beyond the Pale. For this pretended crime Mac Mahon was tried by a jury of common soldiers, found guilty, and, to his utter astonishment ordered to be immediately executed. This judicial murder was followed by the immediate forfeiture of the chieftain's lands which were shared between the unprincipled Fitz William and Sir Henry Bagnal, his worthy associate.

O'Neill viewed with just alarm this infamous transaction and began secretly to prepare for a struggle which he knew could not much longer be averted.

FROM Volume 1 – History of Ireland: From the Anglo-Norman Invasion Till the Union of the Country with Great Britain by William Cooke Taylor

When O'Neill's neighbouring chieftains the O'Donnell (to whom he was related by marriage) and the Maguires rose in arms attacking government sheriffs sent onto their lands, his hand was forced, he could play both sides no longer and pushed to the limit chose the Irish cause in 1595 after some efforts to maintain peace by way of truce and negotiation.

Despite a very fine effort in building a large support base it became clear over the course of a long campaign that the Irish, though they presented a real challange to the English power base in Ireland, could never truly defeat the castles and walled twons that the English occupiued because they lacked the wherewithal to design, build and employ siege engines and cannon. THus they were reliant on foreign aid and the Catholic iunity that they had since the reformation used oto their advantage. When the Spanish attempt to assist them through a landing at Kinsale resulted in a definite and climactic defeat, the brief but impressive revival of Gaelic Lorshsip was shattered. And :

O'Neill now stood merely on the defensive. The land was devastated by famine; Docwra, Governor of Derry, had planted garrisons at every available point; and Mountjoy plundered Ulster. In August he prepared to attack O'Neill with a large army, and, as he informs Cecil, "by the grace of God, as near as he could, utterly to waste the country of Tyrone." O'Neill had now retired to a fastness at the extremity of Lough Erne, attended by his brother, Cormac Art O'Neill, and MacMahon. Mountjoy followed him, but could not approach nearer than twelve miles; he therefore returned to Newry.

In describing this march to Cecil, he says: "O'Hagan protested to us, that between Tullaghoge and Toome there lay unburied 1,000 dead."
The news of O'Donnell's death had reached Ireland; and his brother submitted to the Deputy. In 1603 Sir Garret More entered into negotiations with O'Neill, which ended in his submitting also. The ceremony took place at Mellifont, on the 31st of March. Queen Elizabeth had expired, more miserably than many of the victims who had been executed in her reign, on the 24th of March; but the news was carefully concealed until O'Neill had made terms with the Viceroy.

FROM An Illustrated History of Ireland by Margaret Anne Cusack

IMAGE courtesy of Flickr user _SIBD_ and cc

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