Hugh O’Neill (Irish: Aodh Mór Ó Néill), the 3rd Baron Dungannon and 2nd Earl of Tyrone, dies in Rome on July 20, 1616. His career is played out against the background of the Tudor conquest of Ireland and he is best known for leading the resistance during the Nine Years’ War, the strongest threat to Tudor authority in Ireland since the revolt of Silken Thomas. The defeat of O’Neill and the conquest of his province of Ulster is the final step in the subjugation of Ireland by the English.
Although born into the powerful O’Neill dynasty of Ulster, O’Neill is fostered as a ward of the Crown in County Dublin after the assassination of his father, Matthew, in 1558. His wardship ends in 1567 and, after a visit to the court in London, he returns to Ireland in 1568 and assumes his grandfather’s title of Earl of Tyrone. By initially cooperating with the government of Queen Elizabeth I, he establishes his base of power, and in 1593 he replaces Turlough Luineach O’Neill as chieftain of the O’Neills. But his dominance in Ulster leads to a deterioration in his relations with the Crown, and skirmishes between his forces and the English in 1595 are followed by three years of fruitless negotiations between the two sides.
In 1598 O’Neill reopens hostilities. His victory over the English on August 14 in the Battle of the Yellow Ford on the River Blackwater, Ulster, the most serious defeat sustained by the English in the Irish wars, sparks a general revolt throughout the country. Pope Clement VIII lends moral support to his cause and, in September 1601, four thousand Spanish troops arrive at Kinsale, Munster, to assist the insurrection. But those reinforcements are quickly surrounded at Kinsale, and O’Neill suffers a staggering defeat in December 1601 while attempting to break the siege. He continues to resist until forced to surrender on March 30, 1603, six days after the death of Queen Elizabeth.
Elizabeth’s successor, King James I, allows O’Neill to keep most of his lands, but the chieftain soon finds that he cannot bear the loss of his former independence and prestige. In September 1607 he, with Rory O’Donnell, 1st Earl of Tyrconnell, and their followers, secretly embark on a ship bound for Spain. The vessel is blown off course and lands in Normandy. From there the refugees make their way via the Spanish Netherlands to Rome, where they are acclaimed by Pope Paul V. This “Flight of the Earls” signals the end of Gaelic Ulster and thereafter the province is rapidly Anglicized. Outlawed by the English, O’Neill lives in Rome the rest of his life. He dies there at the age of 66 on July 20, 1616. He is interred in the Spanish church of San Pietro in Montorio.