The Battle of Benburb took place during the Irish Confederate Wars, the Irish theatre of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, between the Irish Confederate Ulster army under Owen Roe O’Neill, and the Scottish Covenanter army in Ulster, commanded by Colonel Robert Monro.
After a period of inactivity, O’Neill, who was a very cautious general, had previously avoided fighting pitched battles. However, he was supplied by the Papal Nuncio to Ireland, Giovanni Battista Rinuccini, with muskets, ammunition and money with which to pay his soldiers’ wages. This allowed him to put over 5,000 men into the field – an army slightly smaller than his enemy’s. The Covenanters had six cannon, whereas the Confederates had none.
At the same time, Monro, whose army was very short of supplies, had decided to sortie from Belfast to raid for supplies.
The two armies came together at Benburb, and Monro decided to fight. The Battle started late in the afternoon, and for the first two hours, O’Neill, an experienced soldier, managed to hold his army together under severe Scottish fire. However, at sunset he ordered his infantry on to the attack, and the Scottish cavalry retreated. What started as an orderly retreat rapidly became a rout as the Scottish cavalry and infantry tangled in the increasing darkness, and the Scottish army fled the field, abandoning the six cannons and almost all of their muskets, a godsend for the under-equipped Irish. While both the Nuncio and the Pope celebrated a victory that they expected to lead to the freeing of Catholic Ireland, Parliament and the Scots were reminded of the danger they faced from Ireland, and began to prepare for what became the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland (1649-52).
The memory of Owen Roe O’Neill inspired the Irish nationalist poet, Thomas Davis, to write the first of his laments: “Lament for the Death of Eoghan Ruadh O’Neill.” The 20th century “Bard of Armagh,” Tommy Makem, gave us: “The Battle of Benburb.”
Photo: Benburb Castle, Co Tyrone – In 1641 Benburb Castle was taken by Phelim O’Neill who had all the occupants slaughtered. In 1646 it was occupied by Owen Roe O’Neill before he decisively defeated the English army, led by General Monro, at the Battle of Benburb nearby. The castle was dismantled soon afterwards and has remained a ruin ever since.