The Battle of Scariffhollis, 1650

The death of Owen Roe O'Neill in November 1649 left a vacancy for the leadership of the Irish army of Ulster. The Ulster army had been the most successful of the regional Confederate armies but O'Neill had been reluctant to join the Marquis of Ormond's coalition against the English Parliamentarians and only did so two weeks before his death. Consequently, the Ulster army remained inactive and did nothing to intervene during the Parliamentarian conquest of Ulster by Sir Charles Coote and Colonel Venables in the autumn and winter of 1649. By the spring of 1650, with Oliver Cromwell's forces storming through southern Leinster and Munster, the Marquis of Ormond urgently needed the Ulster army to create a diversion in the north.

Ormond was struggling to keep his volatile coalition intact. Many Protestants had already gone over to the Parliamentarians. The Catholic clergy undermined Ormond's authority and demanded the right of veto over military appointments. Against this background, the clergy and nobility of Ulster met at Belturbet in County Cavan on 18 March 1650 to choose a successor to Owen Roe O'Neill. Several officers of the Ulster army were considered as candidates and the Marquis of Antrim was suggested as being most likely to reconcile the interests of the Ulster Scots with the Irish Catholics. However, the clergy secured the election of Heber MacMahon, the Bishop of Clogher. Although he was an energetic and capable cleric, Bishop MacMahon had no military experience. The clergy argued that his appointment would cause less division than any of the other candidates. Ormond despaired at the decision and considered leaving Ireland. He was persuaded to stay by the Earl of Castlehaven and reluctantly signed Bishop MacMahon's commission on 1 April 1650.

The Ulster Offensive, May-June 1650

Around 20 May 1650, Bishop MacMahon mustered 4,000 foot and 600 horse of the Ulster army at Loughall near Charlemont. After issuing a proclamation calling upon the Ulster Scots to rally against the Parliamentarians, he advanced into northern Ulster to destroy crops in the English-held territories and to drive a wedge between the forces of Sir Charles Coote and Colonel Venables in order to defeat them separately. Venables had marched to the Ulster-Leinster border to fight marauding tories while Coote's forces were dispersed in garrisons across the province. Coote could muster only 800 infantry and 600 cavalry in response to the Irish advance.

Advance of the Ulster army, May-June 1650
Bishop MacMahon's advance into Ulster

Meeting no opposition from the English, Bishop MacMahon's army stormed and captured Dungiven in County Londonderry. The Protestant garrison was massacred and its commander Colonel Beresford was sent as a hostage to Charlemont. MacMahon then marched north-east into County Antrim and captured Ballycastle without opposition. However, the Ulster Scots did not rise up against the English as MacMahon expected. Finding himself deep in enemy territory without an adequate supply base, MacMahon decided to march westwards against Coote's heavily outnumbered force, which was stationed at Lifford about fifteen miles south of Londonderry. MacMahon hoped to defeat Coote before Venables could arrive to reinforce him.

The Irish arrived near Coote's camp on 2 June. After a four-hour standoff, the Irish began to withdraw over a ford across the River Foyle. Two hundred English cavalry advanced to attack the rear of the retreating Irish column but were themselves thrown back in disarray when the Irish cavalry counterattacked. MacMahon failed to follow up his advantage with an attack on the outnumbered English army and continued to withdraw across the Foyle. Recognising his precarious situation, Sir Charles Coote withdrew his army into Londonderry to await the arrival of Colonel Venables with reinforcements. Orders were issued to British settlers to move their families and livestock into fortified towns in the area out of the reach of the Irish army, which had no artillery to threaten them.

Scarriffhollis, 21 June 1650

By 18 June, Sir Charles Coote's army at Londonderry had been reinforced with Colonel Venables' infantry brigade and marched out in pursuit of Bishop MacMahon's Ulster army. The Irish had moved westwards into County Donegal and were encamped on a hillside at Scarriffhollis near Letterkenny when Coote approached on 21 June. The Irish army outnumbered the English but was short of ammunition and had fewer cavalry. MacMahon's officers advised him to stay in the strong defensive position on the hillside but MacMahon berated them for cowardice and ordered his troops down to give battle.

Once down from the hillside, MacMahon drew up his forces in a large mass formation with an advance guard of musketeers in front facing the English. Although Coote had fewer men, he deployed his troops in smaller, more mobile formations. The battle began when Colonel Fenwick led an English detachment of 150 men against the Irish advance guard. After exchanges of musket fire at close range, the two sides fought hand-to-hand with pikes and musket butts. Colonel Fenwick was killed but the Irish began to give ground. As other English units joined the struggle, the Irish advance guard was driven back into the front of the mass formation, which had no room to manoeuvre. English musketeers poured volleys of shot into the crowded ranks then, at a critical moment in the battle, Coote ordered a devastating attack on the Irish flank. The Irish army was thrown into disarray and began to flee the battlefield.

English cavalry pursued the routed Irish for ten miles. Protestant settlers joined in the chase and slaughter to avenge the massacres of 1641-2. Over 3,000 Irish soldiers were killed in the battle and pursuit for the loss of around 100 of the English army. Sir Charles Coote ordered the execution of all officers and men taken prisoner, including Henry O'Neill, son of Owen Roe. Bishop MacMahon was captured at Enniskillen a week after the battle and hanged.

The battle of Scarriffhollis marked the final destruction of the Ulster Confederate army. Most of its senior officers were killed in the battle or its aftermath and nearly all its weapons and equipment were lost. The Irish garrisons at Dungiven and Ballycastle fled before they were attacked. In combination with the Irish defeat at Tecroghan, the disaster at Scarriffhollis opened the northern approaches to Athlone and the province of Connacht to the English.

The only senior Irish commander to escape Scarriffhollis was Sir Phelim O'Neill who fled to Charlemont Fort, the last remaining Irish stronghold in Ulster. Charlemont was a modern fortification built by Lord Mountjoy in 1602 during the Nine Years War. It had been held by the Irish since its capture during the early stages of the Uprising of 1641. All attempts to recapture it had failed. In late July 1650, Coote and Venables brought heavy artillery to begin a determined assault on Charlemont. The walls were breached during the first week of August and an attempt was made to storm the breach on 8 August. O'Neill rallied the entire garrison to defend the breach and succeeded in driving back the English, who suffered up to 800 casualties. However, the Irish had used most of their supply of ammunition and gunpowder and were unable to continue the defence. O'Neill surrendered under terms on 14 August. Having suffered heavy losses in the assault, Coote granted uncharacteristically lenient terms, allowing O'Neill and the Irish garrison to march away with all their weapons and baggage.

The fall of Charlemont completed the English conquest of Ulster and left Sir Charles Coote free to advance on Athlone and the province of Connacht.


S.R. Gardiner, History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate vols. i and ii, (London 1903)

James Scott Wheeler, Cromwell in Ireland, (New York 1999)


Charlemont Fort