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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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Death of Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone

hugh-o-neillHugh 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.


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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.