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


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Execution of Lord “Silken” Thomas FitzGerald

Thomas FitzGerald, 10th Earl of Kildare, also known as Silken Thomas, a leading figure in 16th-century Irish history, is executed along with his five uncles in Tyburn, England, on February 3, 1537.

FitzGerald is born in London in 1513, the son of Gerald FitzGerald, 9th Earl of Kildare, and his first wife Elizabeth Zouche, who is a distant cousin of Henry VII of England.

In February 1534, his father is summoned to London and appoints the 21-year-old FitzGerald, by then Lord Offaly, deputy governor of Ireland in his absence. In June 1534 he hears rumours that his father has been executed in the Tower of London and that the English government intends the same fate for him and his uncles.

FitzGerald summons the council to St. Mary’s Abbey, Dublin, and on June 11, accompanied by 140 armoured gallowglasses with silk fringes on their helmets (from which he gets his nickname), rides to the abbey and publicly renounces his allegiance to his cousin King Henry VIII, Lord of Ireland.

John Alen, Lord Chancellor of Ireland and Archbishop of Dublin, attempts to persuade FitzGerald not to commit himself to such a rash proceeding. But the young lord’s harper, understanding only Irish, and seeing signs of wavering in FitzGerald’s bearing, commences to recite a poem in praise of the deeds of his ancestors, telling him at the same time that he lingered there too long. Roused by this he throws down the sword of state and rushes from the hall, followed by his adherents. The council sends an order for his immediate arrest to the Lord Mayor of Dublin, who, however, has not sufficient force at his disposal.

The Earl of Desmond and many of FitzGerald’s father’s oldest and best friends reason with him, but he is not to be turned from his purpose. As Vice-Deputy, he has under his control most of the Pale‘s fortresses, and large government stores.

Dublin Castle alone holds out for the King of England. Lord Offaly calls the lords of the Pale to the siege of the Castle. Those who refuse to swear fidelity to him are sent as prisoners to his Maynooth Castle. Goods and chattels belonging to the King’s subjects are declared forfeited, and he announces his intention of exiling or putting to death all born in England. He sends messengers to his cousin and friend Lord Butler, son of the Earl of Ormond, offering to divide the kingdom with him if he would join his cause, but Butler refuses. Several children of the citizens of Dublin in different parts of the Pale are seized as hostages for the good behavior of the city.

In July, FitzGerald attacks Dublin Castle, but his army is routed. He is, rightly or wrongly, judged to be responsible for the execution at Artane of Archbishop Alen, who had tried to mediate. This loses him support from the clergy. According to a long-established tradition, the killers, John Teeling and Nicholas Wafer, misunderstand his order, given in Irish, to “take this fellow away” as an order to kill Alen. By this time his father has taken ill and died in London, and he succeeds him as 10th Earl of Kildare, but the Crown never confirms his title. He retreats to his stronghold at Maynooth Castle, but in March 1535 it is taken by an English force under Sir William Skeffington by bribing a guard, while FitzGerald is absent gathering reinforcements to relieve it. The surrendered garrison is put to death, which becomes known as the “Maynooth Pardon.” He has wrongly assumed that his cause would attract overwhelming support, in particular from Catholics opposed to Henry VIII’s English Reformation. But Henry’s new policy also outlaws Lutheranism, and so Henry is not finally excommunicated until 1538.

In July, Lord Leonard Grey arrives from England as Lord Deputy of Ireland. Fitzgerald, seeing his army melting away and his allies submitting one by one, asks for pardon for his offences. He is still a formidable opponent, and Grey, wishing to avoid a prolonged conflict, guarantees his personal safety and persuades him to submit unconditionally to the King’s mercy. According to the Tree Council of Ireland, legend has it that FitzGerald plays a lute under the boughs of the now oldest planted tree in Ireland, the Silken Thomas Yew, the night before he surrenders to King Henry VIII. In October 1535 he is sent as a prisoner to the Tower of London. Despite Grey’s guarantee, he is hanged, drawn, and quartered with his five uncles at Tyburn, London, on February 3, 1537.

The Attainder of the Earl of Kildare Act 1536 is passed to permit his execution and the confiscation of his property. The 1536 Act remains law until it is repealed by the Statute Law Revision (Pre-1922) Act 2005.

FitzGerald’s revolt causes Henry VIII to pay more attention to Irish matters, and is a factor in the creation of the Kingdom of Ireland in 1541. In particular the powers of the lords deputy are curbed, and policies such as surrender and regrant are introduced. To provide for greater security the Royal Irish Army is established as a standing army.


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Death of Owen Roe O’Neill, Member of the O’Neill Dynasty of Ulster

Owen Roe O’Neill, Gaelic Irish soldier and one of the most famous of the O’Neill dynasty of Ulster, dies on November 6, 1649 at the O’Reilly stronghold of Cloughoughter Castle located on an island in Lough Oughter in County Cavan.

O’Neill is the illegitimate son of Art MacBaron O’Neill, a younger brother of Hugh O’Neill, 2nd Earl of Tyrone, who holds lands in County Armagh. His mother is the daughter of Aodh Conallach O’Raghallaigh, the chief of Breifne O’Reilly in County Cavan.

As a young man O’Neill leaves Ireland, one of the ninety-nine involved in the Flight of the Earls escaping the English conquest of his native Ulster. He grows up in the Spanish Netherlands and spends 40 years serving in the Irish regiment of the Spanish army. He sees most of his combat in the Eighty Years’ War against the Dutch Republic in Flanders, notably at the Siege of Arras, where he commands the Spanish garrison. He also distinguishes himself in the Franco-Spanish War by holding out for 48 days with 2,000 men against a French army of 35,000.

O’Neill is, like many Gaelic Irish officers in the Spanish service, very hostile to the English Protestant presence in Ireland. In 1627, he is involved in petitioning the Spanish monarchy to invade Ireland using the Irish Spanish regiments. He proposes that Ireland be made a republic under Spanish protection to avoid in-fighting between Irish Catholic landed families over which of them would provide a prince or king of Ireland. This plot comes to nothing. However in 1642, He returns to Ireland with 300 veterans to aid the Irish Rebellion of 1641.

The subsequent war, known as the Irish Confederate Wars, is part of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, civil wars throughout Britain and Ireland. Because of his military experience, O’Neill is recognised on his return to Ireland in July 1642, at Doe Castle in County Donegal, as the leading representative of the O’Neills and head of the Ulster Irish. Sir Phelim O’Neill resigns the northern command of the Irish rebellion in his favour and escorts him from Lough Swilly to Charlemont.

Jealousy between the kinsmen is complicated by differences between O’Neill and the Catholic Confederation which meet at Kilkenny in October 1642. O’Neill professes to be acting in the interest of Charles I, but his real aim is the complete Independence of Ireland as a Roman Catholic country, while the Old English Catholics represented by the council desire to secure religious liberty and an Irish constitution under the crown of England. More concretely, O’Neill wants the Plantation of Ulster overturned and the recovery of the O’Neill clan’s ancestral lands. Moreover, he is unhappy that the majority of Confederate military resources are directed to Thomas Preston‘s Leinster army. Preston is also a Spanish veteran but he and O’Neill have an intense personal dislike of each other.

Although O’Neill is a competent general, he is outnumbered by the Scottish Covenanter army that lands in Ulster in 1642. Following a reverse at Clones, he has to abandon central Ulster and is followed by thousands of refugees, fleeing the retribution of the Scottish soldiers for some atrocities against Protestants in the rebellion of 1641. He does his best to stop the killings of Protestant civilians, for which he receives the gratitude of many Protestant settlers. From 1642–1646 a stalemate exists in Ulster, which he uses to train and discipline his Ulster Army. This poorly supplied force nevertheless gains a very bad reputation for plundering and robbing friendly civilians around its quarters in northern Leinster and southern Ulster.

In 1646 O’Neill, with substantial Gallowglass numbers and additionally furnished with supplies by the Papal Nuncio, Giovanni Battista Rinuccini, attacks the Scottish Covenanter army under Major-General Robert Monro, who had landed in Ireland in April 1642. On June 5, 1646 O’Neill utterly routs Monro at the Battle of Benburb, killing or capturing up to 3,000 Scots. However after being summoned to the south by Rinuccini, he fails to take advantage of the victory, and allows Monro to remain unmolested at Carrickfergus.

In March 1646 a treaty is signed between James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormond and the Catholics, which would have committed the Catholics to sending troops to aid the Royalist cause in the English Civil War. The peace terms however, are rejected by a majority of the Irish Catholic military leaders and the Catholic clergy including the Nuncio, Rinuccini. O’Neill leads his Ulster army, along with Thomas Preston’s Leinster army, in a failed attempt to take Dublin from Ormond. However, the Irish Confederates suffer heavy military defeats the following year at the hands of Parliamentarian forces in Ireland at Dungan’s Hill and Knocknanauss, leading to a moderation of their demands and a new peace deal with the Royalists. This time O’Neill is alone among the Irish generals in rejecting the peace deal and finds himself isolated by the departure of the papal nuncio from Ireland in February 1649.

So alienated is O’Neill by the terms of the peace the Confederates have made with Ormond that he refuses to join the Catholic/Royalist coalition and in 1648 his Ulster army fights with other Irish Catholic armies. He makes overtures for alliance to George Monck, 1st Duke of Albemarle, who is in command of the parliamentarians in the north, to obtain supplies for his forces, and at one stage even tries to make a separate treaty with the English Parliament against the Royalists in Ireland. Failing to obtain any better terms from them, he turns once more to Ormond and the Catholic confederates, with whom he prepares to co-operate more earnestly when Oliver Cromwell‘s arrival in Ireland in August 1649 brings the Catholic party face to face with serious danger.

Before, however, anything is accomplished by this combination, O’Neill dies on November 6, 1649 at the O’Reilly stronghold of Cloughoughter Castle located on an island in Lough Oughter in County Cavan. There is no clear evidence of the cause of death, with one belief being that he was poisoned by a priest, while others think it is more likely that he died from an illness resulting from an old wound. Under cover of night he is reputed to have been brought to the Franciscan abbey in Cavan town for burial. However some local tradition still suggests that it may have been at Trinity abbey located upon an island in Lough Oughter, which may be more likely given the logistics of his removal. His death is a major blow to the Irish of Ulster and is kept secret for some time.

The Catholic nobles and gentry meet in Ulster in March 1650 to appoint a commander to succeed O’Neill, and their choice is Heber MacMahon, Roman Catholic Bishop of Clogher, the chief organiser of the recent Clonmacnoise meeting. O’Neill’s Ulster army is unable to prevent the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland, despite a successful defence of Clonmel by O’Neill’s nephew Hugh Dubh O’Neill and is destroyed at the Battle of Scarrifholis in County Donegal in 1650. Its remnants continue guerrilla warfare until 1653, when they surrender at Cloughoughter Castle in County Cavan. Most of the survivors are transported to serve in the Spanish Army.

In the nineteenth century, O’Neill is celebrated by the Irish nationalist revolutionaries, the Young Irelanders, who see him as an Irish patriot. Thomas Davis writes a famous song about O’Neill, titled “The Lament for Owen Roe” which is popularised in their newspaper, The Nation.

O’Neill has been commemorated in the names of several Gaelic Athletic Association clubs, including Middletown Eoghan Rua Gaelic Athletic Club in County Armagh; CLG Eoghan Rua in Coleraine; St. Oliver Plunketts/Eoghan Ruadh GAA in Dublin, and Brackaville Owen Roes GFC; Owen Roe O’Neill’s GAC in County Tyrone; and the defunct Benburb Eoghan Ruadh GAC.


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Murder of Shane “the Proud” O’Neill

Shane O’Neill, Irish patriot known by the nickname “Shane the Proud,” is murdered in what is now Cushendum, County Antrim, Northern Ireland on June 2, 1567. He is among the most famous of all the O’Neills.

O’Neill, the eldest legitimate son of Conn O’Neill, 1st Earl of Tyrone, is a chieftain whose support the English consider worth gaining. However, he rejects overtures from Thomas Radclyffe, 3rd Earl of Sussex, the Lord Deputy of Ireland, and refuses to help the English against the Scottish settlers on the coast of Antrim. He allies himself instead with the MacDonnells, the most powerful of these immigrants. Nevertheless, Queen Elizabeth I of England is disposed to come to terms with O’Neill who, after his father’s death, is de facto chief of the O’Neill clan. She recognizes his claims to the chieftainship, thus throwing over a kinsman, Brian O’Neill. O’Neill, however, refuses to put himself in the power of Sussex without a guarantee for his safety and his claims are so exacting that Elizabeth determines to restore Brian. An attempt to incite the O’Donnells against him, however, is frustrated.

Elizabeth, who is not prepared to undertake the subjugation of the Irish chieftain, urgently desires peace with O’Neill, especially when the devastation of his territory by Sussex brings him no nearer to submission. Sussex is not supported by the queen, who sends Gerald FitzGerald,  11th Earl of Kildare to arrange terms with O’Neill. The latter agrees to present himself before Elizabeth. Accompanied by Thomas Butler, 10th Earl of Ormonde and Kildare, he reaches London on January 4, 1562. Elizabeth temporizes but, finding that O’Neill is in danger of becoming a tool in the hands of Spanish intriguers, permits him to return to Ireland, recognizing him as “the O’Neill,” and chieftain of Tyrone.

There are at this time three powerful contemporary members of the O’Neill family in Ireland — O’Neill, Turlough Luineach O’Neill, and Matthew Ó Néill, 1st Baron Dungannon. Turlough had schemed to supplant O’Neill during his absence in London. The feud does not long survive O’Neill’s return to Ireland, where he reestablishes his authority and renews his turbulent tribal warfare. Elizabeth at last authorizes Sussex to take the field against O’Neill, but two expeditions fail. O’Neill then lays the entire blame for his lawless conduct on the lord deputy’s repeated alleged attempts on his life. Elizabeth consents to negotiate, and practically all of O’Neill’s demands are conceded.

O’Neill then turns his hand against the MacDonnells, claiming that he is serving the Queen of England in harrying the Scots. He fights an indecisive battle with Sorley Boy MacDonnell near Coleraine in 1564, and in 1565 he routs the MacDonnells and takes Sorley Boy prisoner near Ballycastle. This victory strengthens O’Neill’s position, but the English make preparations for his subjugation.

Failing in an attempt to arrange terms, and also in obtaining the help which he solicited from France, O’Neill is utterly routed by the O’Donnells at the Battle of Farsetmore near Letterkenny and, seeking safety in flight, throws himself on the mercy of his enemies, the MacDonnells. Attended by a small body of gallowglass, and taking his prisoner Sorley Boy with him, he presents himself among the MacDonnells near Cushendun, on the Antrim coast, hoping to propose an alliance. Here, on June 2, 1567, he is killed by the MacDonnells and his headless body is buried at Crosskern Church at Ballyterrim above Cushendun. His body is possibly later moved to Glenarm Abbey. Unbeknownst to O’Neill, The Scots had already come to an agreement with Henry Sidney and William Piers, Seneschal of Clandeboye, commander of the English garrison at Carrickfergus. The English Government tries to pass this off as a “drunken brawl” turned savage. Piers travels to Cushendun to take O’Neill’s head and send it to Dublin Castle.


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The Battle of Knockdoe

battle-of-knockdoeThe Battle of Knockdoe, a battle between the forces of two Anglo-Irish lords — Gerald FitzGerald, Earl of Kildare, the Lord Deputy of Ireland, and Ulick Fionn Burke, lord of Clanricarde, takes place on August 19, 1504 at Knockdoe, County Galway.

Gerald FitzGerald becomes concerned that Ulick Burke’s attempt to gain supremacy in Connacht could simultaneously threaten the Crown’s interests in that province and his claim to be the paramount magnate in Ireland. He tries to persuade Ulick to acknowledge his authority by giving him his daughter Estacia in marriage. Ulick Burke, however, resists all attempts to have his power subordinated by the Earl of Kildare, forming an alliance with O’Brien of Thomond and the magnates of Munster. The Burkes of Mayo, on the other hand, join forces with Kildare with the aim of suppressing their dangerous neighbour.

In 1503, Ulick Burke attacks and destroys the castles of O’Kelly, Lord of Hymany, at Monivea, Garbally, and Castleblakeney. O’Kelly complains of this to the Lord Deputy.

For political and possibly for personal reasons, the Lord Deputy is eager to help O’Kelly weaken the prestige of Clanrickarde. Both sides gather a large contingent of lesser magnates and their armies. The Lord Deputy’s forces include contingents from Leinster, Ulster, and Connacht, among which are the armies of Red Hugh O’Donnell and Art Óg Ó Néill, the McDermotts and Morrisroes of Connacht, and a contingent provided by O’Kelly. Facing them are the forces of Burke and his allies – the O’Briens of Thomond, the McNamaras, the O’Kennedys, and the O’Carrolls.

The armies meet on the slopes of Knockdoe, almost a mile to the north of Lackagh Parish Church, with heavily armed Gallowglass playing a large part on both sides. It is said that firearms are employed in the course of the battle, an early instance of their use in Ireland. The battle apparently lasts all day, with the heaviest fighting taking place along the River Clare in the townland of Ballybrone. The precise number of casualties is unknown, though contemporary observers are impressed by the extent of the slaughter. Around the summit of Knockdoe are many cairns where the dead are said to have been buried, with one in particular being pointed out as the resting place of the two sons of O’Brien of Thomond.

The Lord Deputy, though victorious, has many among the slain. His army remains the night on the field as a token of victory, then marches to Galway, looting Claregalway castle en route and taking as prisoners the two sons and daughter of Ulick Burke. They remain in Galway for a few days and then travel to Athenry.

The Clanrickarde Burkes fade into obscurity for some decades, with their rivals, the Mayo Burkes, gaining influence as a consequence.