Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Hugh O'Neill - The First Irish Nationalist

by Arthur Russell

Hugh O'Neill, 2nd Earl of Tyrone
For many, Hugh O’Neill (1550-1616), popularly called the Great O’Neill, is regarded as the first to make a credible effort to develop a unified Gaelic alliance to achieve Irish independence. Most of his life coincided with the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the last of the Tudor monarchs who dominated 16th century English history, and who oversaw the transition of England from feudal kingdom to modern nation state.

It would take 3 centuries more for Ireland to arrive at its own sense of nationhood.

Since the 12th century Norman invasion of Ireland; Irish chieftains and local kings never quite grasped the potential of the incursion of this latest wave of foreigners into Ireland and Irish affairs. It never occurred to most that it would ultimately see an end to their own mastery of the island. Their failure to see the “big picture” was to cost them dearly. During most of the late medieval period, they resisted the invader only when he appeared to threaten the borders and integrity of their own territories. As often as not, they were happy to parley, even to form alliances with the interlopers to gain temporary advantage in their own localised squabbles with neighbouring chieftains. This meant that between the years of 1170 – 1600, there was an ever changing ebb and flow of the extent and reach of English power and influence against that of indigenous Gaelic chiefs and clans. From the English side, the conquest was not completed because English monarchs rarely had the resources to see it done. Several times during those centuries; a determined unified effort by Gaelic chieftains could have ended the occupation once and for all. Had this happened, it could have prompted the start of a process of nation state building, in line with what was evolving across Europe. There was no concept of an Irish nation or nationality except in the minds of Gaelic poets and bards. Much less was there any idea of developing strong centralised leadership to which all Irish/Gaelic people and chieftains could invest their allegiance.

As Sean O’Faolain, observed in his definitive work The Great O’Neill where he made reference to medieval Gaelic poets’ and bards’ vision of Ireland as a separate nation:
“Such men (poets & bards) were speaking in effect, to an audience of shadows, not to a solid national phalanx. There was a Gaelic people. There was not a Gaelic nation.”
The uneasy and constantly changing dynamic between English and Gaelic power in Ireland began to shift inexorably once the Tudor dynasty managed to finally establish themselves more firmly on the English throne. First under Henry VII and increasingly under his son Henry VIII during the early part of the 16th century, the English presence in Ireland became more pronounced. Gaelic chieftains found they had to find individual ways to accommodate to the reality of a strong unified political entity that England and the English presence in Ireland was becoming under the Tudors.

Henry VIII’s introduction of the policy of “Surrender and Regrant” fundamentally changed the relationship of Gaelic chieftains with the Crown. He had already declared himself King of Ireland and was more demanding and determined to command universal allegiance. He was also prepared to use force where diplomacy did not succeed in establishing his authority. What the O’Neills and most Irish chieftains failed to realise fully was that by acceding to Henry’s latest policy, they were declaring themselves subject to English rather than their own ancient Brehon laws. What many saw as a short term stratagem giving them security of lands and titles, carried serious risk that sooner or later would place them at odds with both the King’s authority as well as their own ancient tribal customs and laws. Increasingly many chieftains found themselves caught in an impossible legalistic trap that saw them facing the prospect of losing their newly granted royal titles and lands, at the same time losing support from their own clansmen who considered the clan, not any English King, to be the ultimate source of power in determining who should be chieftain. The consequence of disloyalty to the English Crown (treason) was that all lands and titles were automatically subject to confiscation and reassignment at the King’s pleasure.

The reality of this had already been demonstrated in the O’Moore lands in the midlands where the two counties of Laois and Offaly were confiscated and became subject of a newly devised policy of Plantation whereby lands were taken from the existing occupiers and assigned to colonists drafted in from England, Scotland and Wales. Some of the ejected native Irish were allowed to remain to work as servants and labourers (“drawers of water and hewers of wood”) for the newly endowed owners. The “surplus population” was simply forced out to make their own way in the world as best they could. These were the first land settlements (Plantations) that provided the template that came to be applied elsewhere in Ireland over following decades; first in Munster, later in Ulster, and finally in the comprehensive Cromwellian settlement of the mid 17th century; all of which effectively transferred the ownership of Irish land to non-Irish landholders. Colonisation was henceforth the follow-on solution ensuring the success of conquest, and would continue to be adopted elsewhere in the world as the British Empire expanded over following centuries.

To compound things, the 16th century witnessed religion entering the already complex dynamic between Ireland and its neighbour. The Reformation of the 16th century effectively split Continental Europe, and pulled England, Scotland and Wales, but not Ireland, away from the old faith and allegiance to Rome. It is tempting to speculate that had this vexed issue not intruded into Anglo-Irish relations, the evolution of a United Kingdom of the two North West European islands might well have progressed along a much different and possibly (?) more harmonious path. This was not to be and the two islands continue to live with the consequences of processes and events that originated during that troubled time.

Who was Hugh O’Neill?

It was into this paradigm of incomplete conquest, conflicted loyalties to opposing legal systems, and the more recent strains imposed by conflicted religious affiliation, that Hugh O’Neill was born in 1550. As an O'Neill, Hugh was a descendant of the ancient High Kings of Ireland who ruled at Tara during the previous millennium.

At the tender age of 12 years he was given the title Baron of Dungannon with the possibility of succeeding to the earldom of Tyrone in succession to his kinsman, Con Bacach (= the Lame) O’Neill who had been given the title First Earl of Tyrone by King Henry VIII in 1542 under the terms of “Surrender and Re-grant”. Under this, Con had surrendered the O’Neill lands to the English King and had immediately received them back with his new title, on condition that he recognise the Henry as his rightful King. The young Hugh was destined, and with English support; to become Con’s successor to the title of Second Earl of Tyrone. To prepare for this, teenager Hugh was sent first to the Hovenden family in North Co Dublin and then to several aristocratic houses in England where he learned English mores and manners with a view to becoming thoroughly Anglesized. Ulster had for centuries been the most difficult region for English influence to penetrate, so it was hoped young Hugh would change this in due time. English policy followed a “divide and conquer” approach in favouring or opposing claimants to Gaelic titles, thereby keeping them weak, divided and (if possible) dependent on their support.

While Hugh was supported by the English to succeed to the title, and was duly inaugurated Second Earl of Tyrone, it was not until 1595 that he was recognised as “The O’Neill” under ancient Brehon law. Meantime, he had to walk a precarious line between two opposing legal systems, in turn favouring one over the other, with a view to keep both satisfied. He joined the English in their suppression of the Desmond rebellions in Munster during the 1580’s, and helped the Lord Deputy supress the neighbouring Maguire chieftain of Fermanagh. He visited the Elizabethan court in 1587 to declare his continuing loyalty to the Queen and was a regular attendee at the Dublin Parliament. His contacts afforded valuable insights of the machinations and capriciousness of Tudor policy in relation to all Gaelic chieftains, making him wary and increasingly nervous of the ultimate objectives of English policy in Ireland.

O’Neill had many enemies in the Dublin government, who looked at Ulster in a most acquisitive way, and who continually accused him of playing a double game in contravention of his responsibilities to the Crown in spite of his declarations of enduring loyalty. He had acquired the undying enmity of Sir Harvey Bagenal after he eloped and married Mabel Bagenal, a lady of 20 years, who became 40 year old Hugh’s third wife after the death of his second wife, Ineen Dubh O’Donnell. Bagenal objected to his sister’s liaison with a member of “a rebellious race which he and his father had spilled their blood in repressing”. He had recently been appointed President of Ulster in just the latest measure imposed by the English to contain O’Neill’s power. His antipathy was fuelled with Mabel’s desertion of O’Neill to return to him with loud complaints about the “barbarous” Dungannon court. She died one year later.

The brutal suppression of the Desmond rebellion in Munster, followed by the wholesale settlement and plantation of Desmond lands, was a stark warning of the dangers that lay in resisting English authority. Hugh’s sense of security was further assailed by the massacre of 500 MacDonnell clanspeople on Rathlin Island by the Lord Deputy. Other incidents included the treacherous slaughter of the O’Byrnes of Wicklow after they had responded to an invitation to parley at Mullaghmast in Kildare. In 1593, Lord Lieutenant Sir John Norris attacked the Ulster territory of the McMahons in Monaghan and hung Hugh McMahon who had gone to Dublin to seek support for his claim to the McMahon territories. The supplicant was treacherously hung in front of his own house.

All such events made O’Neill realise that a net was progressively being tightened around him, making him determined to make some preparations for an eventual, final and largely unlooked for break with the English. He rebuilt his castle at Dungannon and procured lead for this purpose which included a surplus for casting into bullets for firearms he also procured from the Continent, notably King Philip II of Spain, the Pope and many Scottish allies. He trained O’Neill clansmen and subsidiary clans in modern warfare, creating a large reserve force that could be fielded at short notice.

Crucially he formed a friendship and alliance with the young Red Hugh O’Donnell in nearby Tir Connell (Donegal). The O’Donnells and O’Neills were traditional enemies, so the English authorities in Dublin worried what this might portend for the future. O’Donnell was a man who had his own recent negative experience of English rule after he was abducted and lodged in Dublin Castle as a hostage to ensure the good behaviour of the O’Donnells. After several unsuccessful attempts, he had managed to escape, but the experience reinforced Red Hugh’s undying enmity towards England and English policy in Ireland. On assuming the chieftainship of TirConnell (Donegal) he approached O’Neill to form an alliance, but initially O’Neill prevaricated, hoping to stay true to his oath of fealty to the Queen.

This post will continue tomorrow with The Nine Years War.

Further Reading:

The Great O’Neill by Sean O’Faolain
A History of Ireland (Volume 1) by Eleanor Hull


Arthur Russell is the author of Morgallion, a novel set in medieval Ireland during the Invasion of Ireland in 1314 by the Scottish army led by Edward deBruce, the last crowned King of Ireland (an earlier “what if moment” in Irish history). It tells the story of Cormac MacLochlainn, a young man from the Gaelic crannóg community of Moynagh and how he and his family endured and survived that turbulent period of history. Morgallion has been awarded the indieBRAG Medallion.


  1. An excellent article and very informative of Irish politics. Thanks for sharing!!

  2. Thank you ... I've been wondering about what went wrong for The Great O'Neill for a while. I had not appreciated that the people of Ireland did not function as a country also. Great insight.

    1. O'Neill's time was a critical point in Irish history that still resonates today - a "what if" moment.

  3. Some more research needed, O'Neill was never married to Inion Dubh O'Donnell (who was Hugh O'Donnell's mother) he was married to O'Donnell's sister and O'Donnell married O'Neill's daughter who he repudiated (she didnt die) he was never raised in England (thats Sean O’Faolain's mistake)O'Neill facilitated O'Donnell's escape from Dublin. O'Neill didn't rebuild Dungannon Castle he built a new great hall beside it and the 6 tons of lead never made it to the roof, all was converted to shot for Irish guns.Sir John Norreys was in France during 1593.Sir William Fitzwilliam was Lord Deputy during 1593.


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