Published in Issue 6 (November/December 2022), News, Volume 30

By John Gibney

Given the ongoing behemoth that is the ‘decade of centenaries’, one could be forgiven for thinking that Ireland had no history beyond the second decade of the twentieth century. While it is good to see resources being lavished on history at all, the decade seems to have become the centre of gravity for research on modern Irish history. Inevitably this draws attention away from other periods, so it is good to see a publicly funded project touch on an aspect of a more distant and no less significant past.

Above: The re-enactments and overall production values are very impressive. (Frank O’Deorain)

‘Ancient Clans’ is a cross-border community forum established in 2018 between Donegal County Council and the Mid-Ulster Council, with additional funding from the EU, ‘to develop linkages through the shared heritage of the O’Neill and other ancient clans’. Their website ( contains a great deal of information and associated resources on heritage sites in mid- and west Ulster, on both sides of the border, and is an ongoing project. Now, with funding from the Mid-Ulster Council, they have produced a short (twelve-minute) on-line documentary about the Battle of Benburb on 5 June 1646.

Whatever about the current ‘decade of centenaries’, if one was to seek a decade with a truly existential impact on the course of Irish history one need look no further than the 1640s. The 1641 rebellion, the war that dominated the remainder of that decade and the eventual Cromwellian conquest collectively form the pivot upon which much of Ireland’s subsequent history rested, which means that any attempt to explore it is very welcome.

The Battle of Benburb saw the Catholic Confederate Ulster army of Owen Roe O’Neill confront and defeat a combination of Robert Monro’s Scottish Covenanter army, based in east Ulster, and the so-called ‘Laggan Army’, drawn from among the settler population of Donegal and west Ulster, both of which posed an imminent threat to Confederate ambitions of maintaining control over Connacht and north Leinster at the very least. O’Neill’s forces confronted them at Benburb, in east Tyrone, and defeated them, inflicting perhaps 3,000 casualties on their opponents while losing perhaps 300 men themselves. It is usually seen as the high point of O’Neill’s military career in Ireland (he had fought in the service of Spain on the Continent in the 1630s). He did not press home his advantage by pursuing his opponents back into their Ulster heartlands, in large part as he lacked the means to do so. But as his stock was now high in the aftermath of the battle, and as he had become broadly aligned with the papal nuncio, GianBattista Rinucinni, O’Neill aided the latter’s successful attempt to take control of the Confederate supreme council in Kilkenny and to undermine any attempt at brokering a treaty with the royalist viceroy James Butler, Earl of Ormond. This was, as the documentary concludes, Benburb’s legacy, though the broader politics of the 1640s remain largely outside its scope.

Introduced with authority by Padraig Lenihan of the recently renamed University of Galway, who also served as a historical adviser, this is a solid, brisk and very well-produced presentation, leaning on narration rather than overt dramatisation. Directed and produced by Tomás Ó Brogáin, with Cathal Hegarty (Benburb Productions) on camera, it naturally leans towards military history, and the re-enactments (often filmed in relevant locations) and overall production values are very impressive. At twelve minutes it may seem short, but this demonstrates the advantages of on-line production. How many TV documentaries are padded out with bad, slow-motion re-enactments and portentous music to extend them into a running length that works for a broadcast schedule but can’t quite be justified by the subject-matter? Dissemination on-line ensures not only that a documentary can be viewed at will but also that there is no need to drag things out. This short documentary does not overstay its welcome, but neither does it leave the viewer short-changed (the narration would even work as a short podcast). It is an impressive initiative that hopefully will form the basis of a series here, and which could easily be replicated by other local authorities and institutions across the island to explore events in particular localities. Many are already creating videos and podcasts for heritage purposes, but this account of the Battle of Benburb is a very good example and is well worth a look.

John Gibney is Assistant Editor with the Royal Irish Academy’s Documents on Irish Foreign Policy project.


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