- THE BATTLE OF THE PASS OF PLUMES ( 1,599 ) so called from the numbers of British helmets bedecked with plumes which covered the field of battle.





page 477


When the Earl of Essex landed in Ireland; on the 15th of April, 1599, as commander of Queen Elizabeth's forces, consisting of 13,000 horse and 16,000 foot - afterwards increased. to 20,000 - he resolved on an expedition to subdue the Munster Geraldines. He deemed it inexpedient or impracticable, at that time, to operate against the Ulster Irish, under the leadership of the chiefs O'Neill and O'Donnell. The Earl designed forcing his way through Leix, where Owny MacRory O'More had assembled his clansmen. About seven or eight thousand (p.478) 

English soldiers constituted the forces with which Essex marched southwards, according to O'Sullivan Beare, and the " Annals of the Four Masters. " Other divisions of his army served to garrison some towns north and south of Dublin. The fort of Maryborough, then held for the Queen, had been invested closely by the O'Mores, and all supplies had been cut off from the garrison. To relieve the besieged, and revictual the stronghold, was a matter of pressing importance.

On the 10th of May Essex left Dublin to join his forces, which had been encamped between the town and bridge of Kilcullen, County Kildare. Thence they were led to Tallacoury, where the Earl of Ormond joined them with 700 foot and nearly 200 Irish horse. Continuing their march, the vanguard took that part of Athy which lay on the south side of the River Barrow. A mile below the town the main body forded the river, in order to assault the castle on both sides at once. As soon as the passage of the river had been effected, James FitzPierce, who held the castle, delivered it and himself into the Queen's hands. Essex remained at Athy on the 13th and 14th to repair the bridge, and to await the provisions and ammunition coming from Naas. On the next day the Earl prepared to march into the country of the O'Mores to relieve the beleaguered fort of Mary-borough, where Francis Rush, the governor, and his men had been living on horseflesh for nearly twenty days.

Leaving 100 men to guard Athy, 350 soldiers were dispatched to Carlow, and 750, under the command of Sir Edward Herbert, to Offaly. Four days' provisions were issued, to be carried by each one on his back. On the 15th, Essex, with the main body, marched through the pass of Blackford, which had been entrenched by the O'Mores, but abandoned. That evening Essex arrived in Stradbally. Owny Mac Rory had retreated before him, in an orderly manner, closely observing every movement of the invading forces.

Early next morning the English line of march was resumed. On the way Essex must have passed the O'More's great stronghold, "the castled crag" of Dunamase. On the 16th, the Earl reached Mary-borough Fort, where he reinforced the garrison, and left a sufficient supply of provisions for the use of the defenders. Without making any unnecessary delay, he started forward in nearly a direct line for Ballyknockan and the "Park of Cashel," as it was called.

It would appear that Dunamase was deemed impregnable, or not deserving the delay a siege might require. OwnyMacRory, securely posted on the Dysart hills, hung menacingly on the flank or rere of Essex's army. From this vantage ground he was enabled to watch the movements of his opponent; and from his thorough knowledge of (p.479) the country fastnesses, on the anticipated route towards Kilkenny, he was able to post his small force in the most secure positions, while he had the choice of retreat or attack for a considerable distance along a line of road very inconvenient for a large and well-appointed army to traverse, and very suitable for the enterprise of a resolute and daring leader, with even an insignificant body of courageous and devoted clansmen. O'More's military genius was evinced by his prompt with-drawal from the hastily constructed defences at Blackford, where defeat and disaster were almost certain while his admirably planned surprise, and vigorous flank attack, in the dangerous defiles afterwards selected, covered his name with renown.

The Earl, having strengthened the fort of Maryborough, encamped "at the foote of a very highe hill called Croshy Duff," about three miles from Maryborough. This is called "the general Ratehill of the Province of Leinster." There Owny MacRory showed himself, it is said, " with 500 foote and about 40 horse, two myles from our campe ". Having viewed from the top of Croshy-duff - which affords a most extensive prospect - the country around, and particularly the line of that day's march, the Lord Lieutenant led his army through the modern townlands of Kilcolmanbane, Ballyknockan, Ballyheyland, and Pass, "towards a passage called Cashell," and then along the eastern slope of a ridge, on the western declivity of which may be seen at present the old ruined church of Kilcolmanbane. According to well authentificated local tradition, the line of march lay through almost impenetrable woods, which afforded a very secure cover for the Irish, while the trees and thickets screened their preparations for a surprise from the advancing English. The road wound through a natural depression in the ground. Leaving the ruined Castle of Ballyknockane to the right, the English heads of columns had probably reached the small stream, which now runs under a low arch of masonry, at Ballyknockane cross roads.

To make his way through the passage with security, Essex divided his army into three divisions. Before the vanguard marched the forlorn hope, consisting of "40 shott and 20 shorte weapons," as Sir John Harrington states. The musketeers received orders that they should not discharge their fire-arms until they presented these pieces to the rebels' breasts in their trenches. Then, suddenly, with the short weapons they were to enter the trenches pell-mell. Ranks of soldiers marched upon either side of the vanguard. Similar order was observed also in the middle division, and in the rearguard. Thus marched "wings of shott, enterlyned with pikes to which were sent secondes, with as much care and diligence as occasion required." Hence, it would seem, the English were threatened on both flanks. (p.480) The baggage and part of the horse, marched before the main division, while "the rest of the horse troopes fell in before the rearewarde, except 30, which in the head of the rearelorne hope, conducted by S. Hen. Danvers, made the retreit of the whole army." Then the vanguard "haveing by a provident order of march gayned" the end of the passage or road along the steep hill side, discovered "a large champion." This must have lain to the south-west of Ballyknockan Castle. In that place, until the horse, baggage, and whatever else was an incumbrance in upper hill roads had been advanced into "the playne", a halt had been commanded. We are then told by Harrington, that "order of march providently appoynted by the Lord Lieutenant" had not been "observed in all partes of the army with lyke dilligence." How far into the open plain Essex had advanced his forward columns does not appear, from what has been written; but the subsequent account seems to favour the supposition that his rearguard and flanks had been thrown into confusion by the O'Mores attacking them in the defile. Probably a running fight and a hurried march by the English to gain the open country would best describe the nature of this onset. Like hornets, the Irish bands galled their opponents from the woods and high embankments over the road. Here theEnglishwere unable to use their cannon or cavalry, while the light-armed kernes of Leix were found to be swift in retreat, as they were sudden and daring in attack.

Although three days afterwards Essex calls them "rogues and naked beggars," when writing to the English Council from Kilkenny, yet he candidly acknowledges " this people against whom we fight hath able bodies, good use of the arms they carry, boldness enough to attempt and quickness in apprehending any advantage they see offered them. " In reference, apparently,to this encounter, he complains that they fight in woods and bogs, where they have the advantage of lighter equipment, and where cavalry are utterly unserviceable, although these latter may " command all campaigns. " Essex found his "new and common sort of men" had "neither body, spirits, nor practice of arms," to match the Irish enemy: while he commends the superiority of the English discipline, and the extraordinary courage and spirit, of the men of quality in his army. The lords, and principal officers, showed great forwardness, and contempt of danger. These would have exposed themselves, and would have gone too far in attacking the Irish, had not their commander-in-chief " assigned them not only their places, but their very limits of going on "; or, to use another phrase of Essex, "tethered them in their allotted stations."

When the attack commenced, the English army must have been thrown into great confusion, and especially towards the east of the hill-road, where desultory skirmishing was maintained at various points along the flank. When, however, their superior numbers enabled the invading force to drive away the Irish in this quarter, it is likely their scattered bands rallied towards the high ridge, extending from a village near Ballyheyland townland, and towards the graveyard of Kilvahan. At the village, which was on the frontier northern line of the present Pass townland, trenches across the roadway and plashed (p.481) woods, had in all prohability been held by the O'Mores';and as those obstructions must have been removed before Essex could advance his army, "the forlorne hope" had a difficult and dangerous action to maintain. There, too, it seems likely, Owny MacRory and his bands made a desperate but unavailing effort to crush the heads of the English columns. Essex succeeded in beating back the Irish towards the upper grounds on the left of the road leading towards the Pass of Cashel. After sustaining considerable loss near the village, he cleared away the barriers. To this part of the battle-field probably applies the account given by Harrington, that "there was loste in the retreyte of the dexter winge of the forlorne hope, capten Boswell and lieutenant Gardner." Here, too, many of theEnglish soldiers must have been slain.

Before reaching this point, the downward road from Croshy Duff sinks into a small valley, and then ascends a rather steep elevation. Here, according to the country tradition, the engagement commenced. If, as we may suppose, the attack and surprise were first attempted at this spot, most who fell there belonged to the vanguard of the English army. O'Sullivan's account of this battle, however, would serve to convey the notion that the vanguard had been allowed to advance without much molestation; while Owny O'More chiefly directed his attack against the rear-guard. It seems probable the O'Moores had occupied in advance the ridges over the road which lay southwards, near Kilvahan, and that this was the post " where the rebell Ony MacRury O'More shewed himselfe with 500 foote and about 40 horse, two myles ", from the English camp. Yet the meaning of Sir John Harrington's statement may be, that Owny's position was on Croshy Duff the evening of May 16th, before Essex's forces occupied that commanding site. The intended movement of the Earl was now apparent to the wily Irish chieftain, who, with consummate judgment, selected the quarters for his men, and the places for a simultaneous onset, when the English battalions had advanced sufficiently on the road, leading in the direction of Ballyroan.

After passing the sloped ridge, the road sunk into a level plain, which yet shows marshy ground - although partially reclaimed - on either side of the highway. Towards the close of the sixteenth century, the place must have been almost in a state of nature, and very impracticable for the movements of cavalry or baggage. Yet being covered probably with trees or copsewood, it afforded very safe coverts for the lightly armed and nimble footed Leix Kerne. Attack in the mode of skirmishing on their part, and defence, in a confused and irregular array on the English side, give us the most correct idea of the nature of the action.

The rear-guard of the English suffered very considerable loss. The very old peasantry of this neighbourhood state it has been constantly handed down to them in tradition from their forefathers, that after the battle commenced, it continued over the road nearly half a mile in extent. It ended afterwards in the marshy ground a little towards the east. Here great numbers fell on both sides, so that to the present day the spot is known by no other name than Moneen na fullagh, or.the "little bloody bog." On a higher slope from the old Dublin road, and leading in the direction of Cherry Hill, numbers of skulls and human remains have from time to time been exhumed. (p.482) According to the statement of Sir John Harrington, "His Lordship was this daye in all places, fiyinge lyke lightninge from one parte of the army to another, leadinge, directinge, and followinge in the vanguarde batle and reareguarde." This was the first rude shock he had experienced in conducting his disastrous southern expedition. It appears to have impressed him with a great respect for the bravery of his opponents, and a dread of their tactics, as developed in this attack. It is evident from his letter, dated Kilkenny, 20th May,1599, he had sinister forebodings regarding his future success. He there writes :-" All that I can comment upon this plain narration is, that this war is like to exercise both our faculties that do manage it, and Her Majesty's patience that must maintain it."

The Irish accounts of this engagement are exceedingly meagre. The Four Masters merely state that Owney O'More and his allies made fierce and desperate assaults, and furious, irresistible onsets on Essex in intricate ways and narrow passes. "Both parties came in collision with each other, so that great numbers of the Earl's people were cut off by them." Philip O'Sullivan Beare tells us only that while passing through a defile in Leinster, Huon Omorra with 500 footmen set on the Earl of Essex, and put his rere-guard in great disorder, killing some of his captains and soldiers.

Most of the English historians, such as Fynes Moryson, Camden, Luigard, and the author of Pacata Hibernia, are silent on the subject; but local tradition is eloquent on the Battle of the "Pass of Plumes "- so called from the numbers of British helmets bedecked with plumes which covered the field of battle.

The O'Moores, meantime, after Essex had marched by Ballyroan, Rosconnell, Ballyragget, and Kilkenny, into Munster,had been enabled to send a strong force into Wicklow. These men assisted at the memorable defeat given to Sir Henry Harrington and his command, near Wicklow town. Essex was very unsuccessful during the prosecu-tion of his southern campaign. Returning from Munster, towards the close of June, on approaching Arklow - for he avoided the men of Leix in their native fastnesses - the Earl had a sharp brush with the O'Moores, O'Byrnes, O'Tooles, and Kavanaghs. He then returned to Dublin, after the army under his command had sustained various reverses.




 At the time of Essex's arrival in Ireland, Fynes Moryson states :- " In the County of Leax, called the Queen' s County, lately all Englih, now usurped by the Rebel Owny Mac Rowry ô Moore, and all the sept of ô Moores, and the chief of the Gallowglasses in that county, of the sept of Mac Donnel, the sept of o' Dempsies (except Sir Terence ôDempsy), the sept of o' Doynes (except Teague Oge o' Doyne), were all in rebel-lion, and a base son of the Earl of Kîldare, a Geraldine, lately came in upon Protection ; the Rebels were in number five hundred seventy Foot, and thirty Horse; Mr. Hartpole, Mr. Bowen, and Mr. Pygot, were the only English Inhabitants by whom, and some others, certain Castles xere kept for the Queen, besides the Fort of Maryborough kept by the Queen's Garrison.-" History of Ireland, from the year 1599 to 1603." Dub. 1735, vol. i., p. 72. See also "Calendar of the Carew Manuscripts . 1589-I600," p. 298.



According to O'Sullivan Beare, this well contested road, by reason of the quantity of helmet-feathers taken from the English cavalry by the Irish, was afterwards called Bearna na cleité, or "transitus plumarum." It was denominated Barnaglitty, or "the Pass of Plumes," according to Cox and l'Abbé Mac Geoghegan. See " Hibernia Anglicana," Part i, Reign of Queen Elizabeth; and "Histoire de l'Irlande," Tome ii., chap. xxviii., P. 532.


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