In the USA the Battles of Saratoga were a vital step for the American cause. An army of mostly irregular colonists took on the professional British Army and defeated them. They did this through a combination of British arrogance, knowledge of the terrain and superior marksmanship. The US frontiersmen with their Kentucky rifles, using natural cover, were more than a match for the British regulars with their smoothbore brown bess muskets.
In Ireland in 1598 the Ulster Irish led by Hugh O’Neill and Hugh O’Donnell won a similar victory at the Battle of the Yellow Ford. The Elizabethan British Army of occupation built a fort on the Blackwater in Armagh to threaten Ulster. The Ulster forces quickly placed it under siege.
The British led a relief force under Sir Henry Bagenal, an experienced commander of veteran troops. The British were heavily armed and armoured. They had better cavalry than the Irish and carried a heavy arquebus or musket, which required a supporting pole to steady it for firing. The Musketeers supported by pikemen in the tradition of the day.
The Irish were actually better armed. O’Neill was famous for the tricks he used to circumvent restrictions on his ability to recruit and arm his men. He was permitted a personal bodyguard of only 600 men. So he rotated them every 6 months and trained them relentlessly to build an army of over 5,000. He imported lead to waterproof the roof of his castle, and turned it into shot. Most importantly he sourced the very latest and lightest arquebuses, called Claviers (a corruption of the word Caliber – because they were of standard bore)
Using terrain features and pre-constructed ditches and banks the Irish harried the British from cover very much as the Americans would do hundreds of years later. When the British came within sight of the Blackwater fort the defenders cheered and tossed their caps in the air in celebration. The British infantry moved strongly forward over the Yellow Ford.
Then the Irish struck at the rear of their formations, smashing the British from behind. The leading regiments were forced to retreat to protect themselves and the retreat turned into a desperate defence. In the panic that ensued a British Infantryman ran to refill his powder horn from a barrel of gunpowder. He was holding a lit match in his hand and set off the powder in a massive explosion.
The British were harassed all the way back to the River Callan, and there someone on the British side had made a smart decision to position some artillery pieces in a fallback position. They were able to hold the Irish and prevent a complete slaughter.
Of 4,000 British Soldiers only 2,000 made it back to the garrison of Armagh. After some negotionation they were permitted to return south only by leaving behind all their arms and ammunition.
It would be nice to say that the outcome of Yellow Ford was similar to the outcome of Saratoga, but it was not to be. The Americans had the French to support their revolutionary war. The Irish had the Spanish, who landed in Kinsale, the furthest possible point away from the Ulster strongholds of O’Neill and O’Donnell.
At the Battle of Kinsale the Irish & Spanish forces were defeated by the British and the result was the “Flight of the Earls” when O’Neill and O’Donnell departed Ireland with their retinue for exile in Spain. Their departure opened Ulster for Plantation by protestants loyal to the British Crown, a move that is reflected in the politics of the Island of Ireland to this day.
Yellow Ford was fought this day, August 14th 1598.
Sonnet 46; by William Shakespeare
Mine eye and heart are at a mortal war
how to divide the conquest of thy sight;
Mine eye my heart thy picture’s sight would bar,
my heart mine eye the freedom of that right.
My heart doth plead that thou in him dost lie
a closet never pierced with crystal eyes.
But the defendant doth that plea deny
and says in him thy fair appearance lies.
To ‘cide this title is impanneled
a quest of thoughts, all tenants to the heart,
and by their verdict is determined
the clear eye’s moiety and the dear heart’s part:
As thus; mine eye’s due is thy outward part,
and my heart’s right thy inward love of heart.