seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Death of Red Hugh O’Donnell

Hugh Roe O’Donnell (Aodh Rua ÓDomhnaill), sixteenth century Irish nobleman also known as Red Hugh O’Donnell, dies at Simancas Castle in Valladolid, Spain, on September 10, 1602. Evidence suggests he might have been poisoned by an English spy.

O’Donnell is born on October 30, 1572 in Lifford (which is in present-day County Donegal) and is the son of Hugh McManus O’Donnell, the Gaelic Lord of Tyrconnell, a territory which takes in most of the present-day county of Donegal except for the Inishowen peninsula. His mother, Aodh MacManus’ second wife, is the formidable and extremely well connected Scottish lady, Fionnuala Nic Dhomhnaill, known to history as the Iníon Dubh or The Dark Daughter. A daughter of James Mac Donald she had been raised at the Scottish court.

In 1587, at the age of fifteen, O’Donnell marries Rose O’Neill, the daughter of Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, a nephew of Turlough Luineach O’Neill who is recognised by the Irish as The O’Neill. He is, therefore, a bridge between two traditional enemies, the O’Donnell’s and the O’Neills.

The English Lord Deputy of Ireland, Sir John Perrot, recognises the importance of the young O’Donnell prince and decides to secure him as a hostage thus giving him power over the O’Donnell clan and preventing them from forming a treaty with the O’Neills. In 1587, when he is sixteen, O’Donnell and two friends, a MacSweeney and an O’Gallagher, are persuaded to board a ship at Rathmullan which has been disguised as a Spanish wine barque. Once onboard they are carried off to Dublin Castle as prisoners. The O’Donnell’s offer to pay a large ransom and the Iníon Dubh also gives up 25 Spaniards rescued from the Armada. The English agree to this but as soon as the Spaniards are handed over they are beheaded. The agreement is not kept.

Perrot has his hostage but a most reluctant one. The young man continuously seeks ways to escape. His first opportunity comes at Christmas in 1590 when a rope is smuggled in to the prince. He escapes and flees into the Wicklow Mountains. He seeks shelter with Phelim O’Toole who has him returned to the English as he fears the anger of the infamous Perrot.

A year later, at Christmas in 1591, O’Donnell makes his second attempt at escape, this time by crawling through the Dublin Castle sewers. With him are Henry and Art O’Neill, two sons of Shane O’Neill (Shane the Proud). This time the escapees make their way to the Glenmalure stronghold of Fiach McHugh O’Byrne. Unfortunately, the winter is very severe and Art O’ Neill dies from exposure just as the O’Byrne rescue party finds them. Both Red Hugh and Henry O’Neill suffer severe frostbite but are safely returned to Ulster.

While O’Donnell is held prisoner by the English, his father becomes senile. In 1592, when O’Donnell is sufficiently recovered, he is inaugurated as the O’Donnell and England, for her treachery, has an avowed and implacable enemy.

O’Donnell aids the Maguires of Fermanagh against the English and when his father-in-law, Hugh O’Neill, initiates the Nine Years’ War by leading his clan against the English at the Battle of Clontibret (1595) and Battle of the Yellow Ford (1598), O’Donnell is at his side.

In 1595 O’Donnell ambushes an English force in the Curlew Mountains, killing 500 of them including their commander. However, the tide is turning against the Irish now. England is flooding the country with armies and many of the leading Gaelic families are beginning to make deals with them.

In 1601 the Spanish land in Kinsale and the English besiege them. O’Neill and O’Donnell march south from Ulster and Ballymote Castle in Sligo in an attempt to break the siege. This turns into a debacle causing the Irish to scatter and the Spanish to surrender. O’Neill marches back north and O’Donnell is sent to Spain to ask for more troops from Phillip III. In Spain, he is treated like a royal. He petitions aid from the King who gives him a promise of another Spanish force.

As a year passes and O’Donnell does not receive any news from Philip III of Spain, he leaves again for Valladolid but he dies on September 10, 1602 while en route. He is attended on his death-bed by Archbishop of Tuam Fláithrí Ó Maolchonaire and two friars from Donegal named Father Muiris mac Donnchadh Ulltach Ó Duinnshléibhe and Father Muiris mac Seaán Ulltach Ó Duinnshléibhe. The Anglo-Irish double-agent, James “Spanish” Blake, is alleged to have poisoned O’Donnell.

It is, however, unlikely that O’Donnell is poisoned. A more probable cause of death is the tapeworm that Simancas documents of the time state to be the cause of his demise. His Last Will and Testament, written in his dying moments with his loyal retinue, is an extremely evocative and moving document. One original is preserved in Simancas and the other in the Chancellery archive in Valladolid.

O’Donnell is buried in the chapter of the Franciscan monastery in Valladolid. Though the building is demolished in 1837, the exact location of the tomb may have been discovered following a Spanish archaeological dig in May 2020.

O’Donnell is succeeded as chieftain of his clan and prince of Tyrconnell by his brother Rory.

(Pictured: Statue of Gaelic Chieftain Red Hugh O’Donnell in County Donegal)


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The Battle of Clontibret

The Battle of Clontibret is fought in County Monaghan in May 1595 during the Nine Years’ War, between the crown forces of England‘s Queen Elizabeth I and the Irish army of Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone. It ends in victory for Tyrone on May 27, 1595, and is the first severe setback suffered by the English during the war.

The Nine Years War begins with a conflict over English efforts to maintain a string of garrisons along the southern border of Tyrone’s territory in Ulster. The Irish leader promptly besieges the English garrison at Monaghan Castle, and Sir Henry Bagenal, commander of the English forces, marches out to its relief on May 25 from Dundalk, via Newry. His army is made up of 1,750 troops, including some veterans and certain companies newly arrived from the Spanish campaign in Brittany, but there are many recruits in the ranks. Bagenal’s men are predominantly infantry, armed with muskets and pikes. There is also a small number of horsemen raised in the Pale.

The Battle of Clontibret is essentially a two day running battle, as Bagenal’s column is ambushed on its way to and from the castle at Monaghan town. The Irish fight sharply along the roads about Crossdall, around 4 miles from Monaghan, firing on the English column with calivers from the surrounding woodland. With the loss of 12 dead and 30 wounded the English reach the castle, which is re-supplied and reinforced with one company. Bagenal has misgivings about his supply of powder and lead, much of which had been used on the way, and can afford little for the garrison before he starts back.

Two days later, on May 27, Bagenal sets out for Newry in a column, but by another route, past the townland of Clontibret. The route lay through drumlin country, which abounds with hills, bogs and woods, making it ideal for an ambush. The column comes under fire from the outset, and then falls into a major ambush at a pass near Clontibret. Tyrone’s army, about 4,000 strong, consists of contingents from the O’Neill, MacMahon and Maguire clans, as well as Scottish mercenaries. The Irish also deploy a greatly enlarged force of cavalry and caliver-men. To Bagenal’s puzzlement, the caliver-men are turned out in red coats and acquitted themselves with expertise. Fire from the flanks is heavy, and many English troops are killed or wounded while the Irish cavalry plays around the fringes. Tyrone himself is almost killed in hand-to-hand combat with a Palesman named Seagrave, who leads a cavalry charge on the Irish position. Seagrave has his arm chopped off by Tyrone’s standard bearer O’Cahan, and is killed by Tyrone with a dagger thrust to the groin. Bagenal’s column is slowed to a crawl and, as night falls in the wilderness, the commander calls his men to a halt and camps at the hilltop of Ballymacowen. It seems that hundreds are missing, and there is fear that the Irish will renew the attack under cover of darkness. There is no further attack and, a little after first light, reinforcements from Newry arrive to relieve the column.

According to intelligence received in the days following, Tyrone’s failure to follow up is caused by a lack of powder, ironic given the state of Bagenal’s own supplies. The overall sense in government is of disquiet, and a bad job is made of hushing up the casualty figures. This gives fuel to the rumours of a severe defeat, and many people set greater store on the numbers put about by confederate supporters.

Sir Ralph Lane, the muster-master-general, informs the queen’s principal secretary, William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, that “more men were hurt and killed in that late service than was convenient to declare.” The casualty figures for both sides vary depending on sources. Bagenal admits only 31 killed and 109 wounded on the second day of fighting, but his losses are almost certainly higher. The Irish annals claimed up to 700 English killed. Estimates of the confederate losses vary between 100 to 400 killed. Three years later, Bagenal leads an army into another ambush by Tyrone, at the Battle of the Yellow Ford. The English general is killed and his troops are routed with heavy losses.

(From: “Battle of Clontibret,” wikia.org, https://military.wikia.org | Pictured: The marker stone on the northern edge of the battlefield commemorating the Irish victory at Clontibret, 1595)