The little-known Rival to the River Boyne
‘Flow gently, sweet Callan, flow gently along,
And down by your green banks I’ll sing a sweet song’
Not many Ulster people are aware that in their own province there flows along ‘unhonoured and unsung’ a river with a past, which, if not just as glorious as that of the more famous Boyne, is at least worthy of ‘immortal memory’.
Rising close to the Monaghan border in the rugged mountains near Keady in South Armagh, the River Callan wend its twisty course through the fertile land and wooded dells of County Armagh until near the border of County Tyrone it joins the wide Blackwater and the River Bann, and eventually it empties itself into Lough Neagh. In parts it is little more than a stream and on its journey it passes through some of the most historic places in the North. Dotted along the river’s bank from Aughnagurgan and Darkley to Tassagh are the remains of old beetling mills. At Tassagh where the signpost says Armagh 7 miles, the river forms into miniature foam-whipped falls, and then plunges among the tall trees towards Girvan’s Bridge and the village of Milford.
The river now meanders through the valley of the Callan with some of the richest pasture lands in the county. As the river sweeps on towards the City it passes close to the historic Navan Fort and the fearless Red Branch Knights of old. The huge mound on which the fort was built was eminently chosen, for from its summit you can see miles and miles of the countryside. Beyond Armagh, the Callan passes by Allistragh, flanked on one side by Tullyard Hill, Carn, and in a field at Cabra is the ‘Thorn Tree’, known as Bagenal’s Bush, the legendary spot where a musket ball ended the life of Marshall Bagenal at the Battle of the Yellow Ford. Here over 400 years ago the river was wider and deeper and it formed the background of a bloody massacre unequalled in the long and turbulent history of our Province.
In August 1598, the Irish chieftains, Red Hugh O’Neill and O’Donnell laid siege to an English fort near Armagh. The position of the English troops holding the fort was desperate when Marshall Bagenal, acting on the instructions of Queen Elizabeth, marched out from Dundalk to their relief. Bagenal commanded in all 4,000 foot and 320 horse. Armagh was reached without incident and as Bagenal approached the enemy could be seen encamped in the marshy district between the town and the River Callan. The Battle of the Yellow Ford, which followed when the two armies met, is best told by the following extract from Bagwell’s ‘Ireland under the Tudors’.
‘The River Callan was passed at a point where there is now a bridge and a beetling mill but which was then a ford with a yellow bottom and yellow banks. From this point the English column was fully exposed, the O’Donnels drawing round their right flank while the O’Neills pressed on the left. The Irish army outnumbered the English two to one, and their loose formation gave them an advantage over the closely packed English battalions. The vanguard, nevertheless struggled through the bog until they came to a five feet deep ditch a mile long. This they carried with a rush, but not being properly supported they were beaten back and the Marshall coming himself to the rescue, was shot through the brain. The usual confusion, which follows the death of their leader, was increased by the explosion of two barrels of gunpowder, from which a private soldier was rashly replenishing his horn. Colonel Crosby, who commanded the third battalion, hurried to the front, but it was then too late.
He was taken prisoner and his regiment shared the fate of the other two. The rear half of the English army had enough to do to maintain itself against O’Donnell, Maguire and McSorley but preserved its formation and covered by Captain Montague’s horse, made an orderly retreat to Armagh. Between killed, wounded and missing the losses did not fall far short of 2,000. A mound close by the ‘Thorn Tree’ it is said to cover the remains of the General and as historians agree that the fiercest fighting took place in the district lying between Grange Church and the River Callan. It is said that at the height of the battle the narrow lane leading to Grange Rectory was choked with a struggling mass of fugitives in the last stages of exhaustion. The lane is known to this day as the ‘Bloody Loaning’ The Irish at that time showed absolutely no quarter to the enemy, and although it savours rather much of uncivilised brutality there may be some truth in the story that many of the English prisoners were placed in barrels, and when long nails had been driven into the wood, the unfortunate victims were rolled down the steep hill which leads past Grange Church. Close by the Bloody Loaning is The Hangman’s Tree. Tradition has it that many of the prisoners were hanged from this tree and even to-day, after a lapse of four centuries, holes are still visible in the tree, said to be caused by cannon balls during the battle. In the town land of Allistragh, the site of the Yellow Ford may still be seen the landmarks of 4 centuries ago which historians in their works have enumerated. The beetling mill mentioned by Bagwell still stands a picturesque overlooking the river, which continues its placid course past the scene of Ulster’s most momentous battle.
Curiously enough the success of the Irish marked the beginning of the end of native chieftain rule in Ulster. Only three years later at the Battle of Kinsale, Lord Mounjoy routed the combined forces of O’Neill and O’Donnell and a Spanish contingent on a cold winter’s night, Christmas Eve, 1601. It was all-downhill for the Irish chieftains after this. Six years later in 1607, the two chieftains were accused of taking part in a conspiracy against the English, and although the accusation was groundless things became so dangerous for them that they decided to go into exile. On September 14th they embarked with their faithful followers from the shores of Lough Swilly. This sad period in Irish history is forever known as The Flight of the Earls. The following year the English Crown was supreme in Ireland. From The Yellow Ford the river heads west towards Blackwatertown, formerly called Portmore, and the garrison stronghold of Red Hugh. On the road from Tullygoonigan to Blackwatertown is Bagenal’s Bridge another reminder of the “would-b” conqueror who fell before the might and cunning of O’Neill.
At Benburb the Callan joins up with the wider Blackwater here in Tyrone of the sweeping hills and green verdant valleys. Here, too was hallowed ground in Irish history the site of another famous victory for the Royalist and Irish forces under Red Hugh’s nephew Own Roe O’Neill, hero of the Battle of Benburb 1646. The Boyne may have earned its immortality, but its Ulster rival was famous in an earlier period of history. All students of history knows the revolutionary transformation which followed upon The Battle of the Boyne but The Battle of the Yellow Ford was primarily responsible for changes which though perhaps less sweeping, were without doubt just as important. In short the defeat of Bagenal in 1598 resulted in the establishment of Ulster as an integral part of the U.K.