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Murder of Shane “the Proud” O’Neill

shane-o-neillShane 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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Poisoning of James Butler, 9th Earl of Ormond

James Butler, 9th Earl of Ormond, is poisoned in London on October 28, 1546. He is the son of Piers Butler, 8th Earl of Ormond, and Margaret Fitzgerald, Countess of Ormond. In 1535 he is created Viscount Thurles, and is confirmed by Act of Parliament on November 6, 1541, in the Earldom of Ormond, as 9th Earl with the pre-eminence of the original earls.

About 1520 Butler joins the household of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who praises him as a young gentleman “both wise and discreet.” In early 1522, it is proposed by King Henry VIII that he marry his cousin Anne Boleyn, who is the great-granddaughter of Thomas Butler, 7th Earl of Ormond. This is to resolve a dispute her father Thomas Boleyn, 1st Earl of Wiltshire has with James’ father over the Ormond inheritance and title. Wolsey himself supports the proposal. The marriage negotiation, comes to a halt for unknown reasons. Butler subsequently marries Lady Joan Fitzgerald in December 1532. Lady Joan is the daughter and heiress of the other great Munster landholder, the James FitzGerald, 10th Earl of Desmond and his wife Amy O’Brien. Their marriage produces seven sons.

During the early 1540s Butler gradually restores the Butler dynasty to their former position of influence, leading to antagonism from the quarrelsome Lord Deputy of Ireland, Sir Anthony St. Leger. St. Leger gives Butler command of the Irish forces in the Anglo-Scottish War of 1544. On the face of it this is an honour, but allies of Butler accuse St. Leger of deliberately sending him into danger. Butler himself demands an inquiry into claims that St. Leger had planned his murder, and the matter is thought to merit a Privy Council investigation. The Council finds in favour of St. Leger and he and Butler are ordered to work together amicably. Key Government allies of Butler like John Alan and Walter Cowley are removed from office, and Butler is struggling to maintain his standing when he is poisoned.

On October 17, 1546, James goes to London with many of his household. They are invited to dine at Ely Place in Holborn. He is poisoned along with his steward, James Whyte, and sixteen of his household. He dies nine days later, on October 28, leaving Joan a widow in her thirties.

It is surprising, in view of Butler’s high social standing, that no proper investigation into his death is carried out. Who is behind the poisoning remains a mystery. His host at the dinner, John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland, though he could be notably ruthless, seems to have no motive for the crime, as he is not known to have had any quarrel with Butler. A recent historian remarks that it would be an extraordinary coincidence if St. Leger had no part in the sudden and convenient removal of his main Irish opponent.