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Battle of Moyry Pass (September and October 1600)

The Battle of Moyry Pass was fought during September and October 1600 in counties Armagh and Louth, in the north of Ireland, during the Nine Years' War. It was the first significant engagement of forces following the cessation of arms agreed in the previous year between the Irish leader Hugh O'Neill and the English Crown commander, the Earl of Essex.

The battle was fought by the armies of O'Neill and the new English commander, Lord Mountjoy, a former follower of the late Earl of Essex. Mountjoy had determined to penetrate O'Neill's heartlands in central and western Ulster. To do this, he needed to penetrate Moyry pass. In the course of a two-week assault on O'Neill's defences at the pass, Mountjoy's troops eventually got through the pass and established a garrison near Armagh, but took heavy casualties in the process. Mountjoy's main English force then retired with difficulty back to friendly territory in Dundalk.


Mountjoy's strategy for putting down O'Neill's rebellion was to gradually constrict his territory in Ulster by establishing a ring of fortified garrisons on the borders of O'Neill and his allies. To this end, he had landed seaborne forces at Derry in the north of the province and at Carrickfergus in the east of Ulster. In September 1600, Mountjoy moved north from Dublin and concentrated at Dundalk, in order to mount an expedition further into Ulster and re-establish a garrison at Armagh, which position had been evacuated by the English Crown forces after O'Neill's victory at the Battle of the Yellow Ford in 1598.

On 17 September 1600, Mountjoy set out from Dundalk, intending to march to Newry and then on to Armagh. The Moyry Pass (or "Gap of the North") was his feasible only point of entry into Ulster (much of the terrain being wooded and mountainous), and it had been well fortified by O'Neill with trenches and barricades. The Irish had constructed three lines of trenches, backed up with barricades of earth and stone. On the flanks, the Irish had made further earth and stone works and 'plashed' (twisted) the branches of low-growing trees in order to provide cover for themselves and prevent the English occupying the heights on either side of the Pass. In these positions, they awaited the English assault.

The battle

The English force reached the pass on 20 September and set up camp just outside it, to the south, on Faughart Hill. Taking advantage of a misty day on the 25th, an officer named Thomas Williams (who had commanded the Blackwater Fort during the Battle of the Yellow Ford) made a sortie into the pass. After heavy fighting, he identified the Irish defence works and returned to the English camp with 12 dead and 30 wounded. For the next six days, heavy rain held up the fighting, until the weather cleared on 2 October. The weather was important because the matchlock muskets of the day would not work in wet conditions. On 2 October, Sir Samuel Bagnall led his regiment of infantry into the Pass at the head of four other regiments. The English breached the first barricade and Thomas Bourke's regiment then led the way to the second and third lines of defence. The English took the second line only to find they were in a trap being fired on from three sides. They tried to dislodge the Irish from their remaining positions for three more hours before finally retreating, barely getting out with the Irish in close pursuit. The English admitted 46 killed and 120 wounded, but it is thought that they understated their losses throughout the campaign.

On 5 October, Mountjoy tried to bypass the heavily defended Pass by sending two regiments on a flanking march over the hill to the west of the Pass, with one further regiment supported by horsemen advancing up the centre of the Pass. No English regiment made significant gains and, with stiff Irish resistance, the force was forced to turn back. The English reported 50 dead and 200 wounded.

By 9 October, an English officer named Geoffrey Fenton complained, "we are now but where we were in the beginning". Mountjoy, giving up on trying to storm the Pass retired to Dundalk on either the 8th or 9th of October. However, on the 14th, word reached the English camp that O'Neill had abandoned the Pass and retreated to a crannog stronghold at Lough Lurcan. At the time, Mountjoy could not understand why O'Neill would voluntarily leave such a strong defensive position. The most likely explanation for O'Neill's withdrawal is that he was both short of ammunition and food and feared a flanking attack on his rear from Newry. Moreover, most of his forces were composed of temporary, clan-based levies, who could not be kept together for long.

Mountjoy accordingly occupied Moyry Pass on the 17th of October and dismantled the Irish earthworks there. He then marched on to Carrickban, just outside Newry. After a stay at Carrickban, Mountjoy marched to Mountnorris (halfway between Newry and Armagh) by Sunday 2 November. There he built an earthwork fort and left a garrison of nominally 400 men in it, under the command of Captain Edward Blaney. Returning to Newry from Mountnorris, the English marched back to Dundalk via Carlingford. On 13 November, during this return march they were again opposed by O'Neill, close to the Fathom Pass, and suffered 15–20 killed and 60–80 wounded.


The battle of Moyry Pass was basically a stalemate. Mountjoy could not take the Pass, but O'Neill could not keep his force together long enough to hold it. Mountjoy did establish a garrison at Mountnorris, but still had to retire to Dundalk after taking substantial casualties. Mountjoy claimed his force lost only 200 men killed and 400 wounded in the fighting from 20 September to 13 November, though this may be a considerable underestimate. More, he said, died of disease. The Irish casualties were given by the English as an incredible 900–1200 killed and wounded, but this is most unlikely given the fact that the Irish were in a strong defensive position of their own choosing, behind the protection of fieldworks and had lured the English into an ambush which they barely escaped from. These figures probably say more about what Mountjoy wanted the Queen to hear than about the actual casualty figures.