On October 2, 1600 a major confrontation took place in Ireland that revealed to the English that the Irish were no longer to be taken for granted as military opponents. Though Anglo Normans controlled the south of Ireland, the major clans of the north remained unconquered and Elizabeth was determined to resolve that issue. The English captured Enniskillen, Hugh Maguire’s fort at the Gap of the North – one of two main entries to Ulster. Hugh O’Donnell, Chieftain of Tyrconnell, answered his call for aid, and the two Hughs swept across Ulster driving the English before them; they broke through the Gap of the North, and recaptured Enniskillen, then routed the English at the Ford of the Biscuits. They next moved on Fort Monaghan, and the English sent reinforcements. They met at the Battle of Clontibert, where the English saw, for the first time, the Red Hand of O’Neill among the clan standards. Clan O’Neill had taken the field, and at their head was Hugh O’Neill, England’s trusted Earl of Tyrone. He had announced at last, destroying an English company in the bargain. The last remaining Irish War Chieftains, the three Hughs of Ulster were now a national force with O’Neill commanding; he had 1,000 horse-soldiers and 7,000 foot-soldiers at a time when the entire English force in Ireland was less than 2,000. In 1596, O’Neill swept through the north and each blow was echoed by O’Donnell and Maguire in the west. The Nine Years War had begun.
In September of 1600, Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy, was marching on Tyrone with 3,000 foot and 300 horse, a sizable army for those times in Ireland. There were a number of Scottish allies in the army of Hugh O’Donnell; known as ‘Redshanks’ for their practice of going barelegged. Hugh O’Neill had been brought up in England in their hope of grooming a loyal Irish leader, but the plan backfired. Now, he knew English battle tactics as well as having modern firearms in his army. He could fight the English on more even terms than earlier Irish armies. Englishmen of the time reported the Irish were good shots and Sir Walter Raleigh said the Irish had muskets, ‘good as England hath.’
Forty miles south of Dungannon, O’Neill headquarters in Tyrone, lay Moyry Pass – the second Gap of the North. It had impassable bogs on either side and here O’Neill would try to stop the advance of Montjoy’s army. Mountjoy was a formidable opponent, but this fight would be on ground of O’Neill’s choosing. On Sept. 20th Mountjoy’s army reached the hill of Faughart, half a mile south of Moyry pass. A small advance was sent out by the English and discovered that O’Neill’s army was not only in the pass, but that they had built fortifications across it. They obviously meant to stand and fight, rather than depend on the usual Irish hit and run tactics. Bad weather slowed English preparations and only light skirmishing was done.
Finally, on the 2nd of October, the two armies came to serious blows. Mountjoy was at first successful, driving O’Neill’s men from their first two lines of barricades. But Mountjoy could see that they would never breech the third one that day and rather than divide his force to hold his gains, he retreated to where he had started. The English suffered 160 casualties during the battle. Mountjoy had failed in frontal assaults on the strong Irish defenses so he tried a flank attack. On the 5th he sent 3 regiments of foot and 100 horse to try the right flank of the Irish defenses. They had to scale some high ground to get at the Irish line but did so and drove them back some distance before the Irish counterattacked and stopped their advance. All the English troops on the heights were soon driven back down join the retreating forces from a simultaneous frontal attack near the bottom of the heights which had also failed.
After two weeks in front of the pass, Mountjoy was no closer to getting through it than he was on Sept. 20th. On October 9th, Mountjoy retreated south to Dundalk for reinforcements. He sent Sir Samuel Bagenal’s regiment toward Carlingford, a position from which he might move around to O’Neill’s rear. But, on October 11th, O’Neill abandoned the pass and moved north to avoid being caught in a trap, satisfied that he had beaten a powerful foe.
Mountjoy’s men soon moved through the pass and after seeing the Irish defensive works, one said, ‘they could not have been won without the great hazard of the whole army.’ In spite of getting through the pass, Mountjoy found it was too late to mount an attack on O’Neill’s stronghold in Tyrone so he built a fort at Mount Norris, between Newry and Armagh, and withdrew to Dundalk with the bulk of his army to send for reinforcements. O’Neill did not let him do so unscathed, however; attacking him with a small force near Carlinford Lough in the usual hit and run manner of Irish armies and inflicting serious casualties on Mountjoy once again.
By holding of Moyry pass in a stand up fight and attacking Mountjoy again on his retreat, O’Neill had shown that the men of Ulster were able to resist all that England had to bring against them, and he retained full control of the north for another year. But the end was on the horizon for The Three Hughs. Little more than a year later, the disastrous battle of Kinsale broke the Irish resistance and led to the ‘Flight of the Earls,’ but that’s another story.