Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Hugh O'Neill - The First Irish Nationalist, Part II

by Arthur Russell

Continued from yesterday's post: Hugh O'Neill - The First Irish Nationalist, Part I

The Nine Years War

O’Neill played a double game until 1595, but found he had to constantly answer to accusations from his enemies in Dublin. These were led by his brother-in-law Bagenal. The final straw coming when Bagenal intercepted letters addressed to the Queen proclaiming yet again, his loyalty. When he was declared a traitor by Dublin, an army was sent north to confront him. O’Neill defeated the English at Clontibret.  A year earlier O'Donnell of TirConnell had relieved Enniskillen the stronghold of the Maguires and was successfully campaigning to gain control of Connacht in the West.
O'Neill was finally confirmed with full traditional rites with the Gaelic title of “The O’Neill” at the ancient crowning stone at Tullyhogue in 1595. Having allied himself with O'Donnell it was a Rubicon moment for him. There was no going back, despite several peace overtures over the next 2 years to restore the status quo. From now on, neither side could trust the other.

The early years of the war demonstrated the value of O’Neill’s preparations. The Gaelic alliance defeated every English force sent against them. Their biggest success was the battle of the Yellow Ford in August 1598, where the Gaelic alliance defeated a large army under the leadership of O’Neill’s nemesis, Sir Harvey Bagenal who was determined to relieve the besieged English held fort at Portmore. O’Neill’s tactics were perfect while unfortunately for the English, Bagenal was killed when he was hit in the forehead by a stray bullet as he surveyed what was already total disaster for his army.

The Yellow Ford defeat was almost (but not quite) a fatal blow to the conquest project, and prompted a countrywide Gaelic revolt. The Munster plantation was overturned in a matter of days as the beneficiaries were forced to fly to Dublin and other walled towns, with many returning to England where they swore to have nothing more to do with Ireland and its “barbarous ways”. The victory “shaked the English Government in this kingdom, till it tottered and wanted little of fatal ruin”. The aging Queen Elizabeth was apoplectic with anger not only that she was continuously receiving “naught else but news of fresh losses and calamities”, but also at the ruinous cost of the campaign in terms of soldier lives and military materiel.

Elizabeth dispatched her current court favourite, Robert Devereaux, second Earl of Essex to Ireland with a clear mandate to engage and defeat the Ulster rebels. Essex left a cheering London with a huge well equipped army of 12,000 foot and 5,000 cavalry. On arrival in Dublin, instead of marching north to engage the Ulster rebels as directed, he marched South to try to save what was left of the failed plantation. His progress was beset with endless difficulties; the weather, terrain and most of all from harrying attacks of local Gaelic rulers who refused to engage in open battle but were content to make life miserable for the army passing through. Having achieved little or nothing and with much reduced numbers, he and his dispirited army arrived back in Dublin and set out northwards to meet O’Neill. His purpose was not to fight but to parley with O’Neill. The two met at a ford on the River Lurgan called Ballaclinth (now called Aclint) where a peace of sorts was concluded which neither saw as anything more than respite in the terminal struggle for the future of Ireland.

Essex returned to England to face the wrath of his Queen and immediately fomented a failed rebellion which saw him captured, convicted of treason and executed. One of the charges against him was conversing at length with the “arch traitor Tyrone”.

If ever there was a “right time” for strong unified action to end English domination in Ireland, the final years of the 16th century was surely that time. After all his victories, O’Neill launched a campaign for island wide support in his war for Ireland and the Catholic religion. He formed a Catholic Confederation to which he felt emboldened to invite even the Catholic Anglo Irish Lords of the Pale. To the embarrassment of the Queen, the Irish war was attracting much attention and support from Continental Europe. O’Neill and O’Donnell made urgent appeals to the Catholic monarchs for military support and were promised this would be forthcoming.

O’Neill had no illusions about the inherent weakness of the support he was getting from his Irish allies, much of which was of the “fair weather” kind. Nor did he underestimate the resources that the English could muster in spite of all the reverses they had sustained in the war. Well he knew that Protestant England could hardly allow an independent Catholic nation to develop to the west. It worried him that King Philip while offering moral encouragement and little else to the Irish, his Catholic Majesty was infuriatingly slow to commit Spanish resources to the prosecution of the war. The loss of the Armada, both militarily and economically was a much too recent and painful memory; prompting Philip to exercise extreme caution in embarking on further adventures. Spanish procrastination had become one of the biggest problems facing the Irish Alliance.

Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy
The new century began with the Alliance at the height of its power. During 1600 and 1601 a different strategy was employed by the English. After the failures of Essex, the Queen handed responsibility for the prosecution of the Irish war to the resourceful and much less flamboyant Charles Blount Lord Mountjoy who had seen enough of O’Neill’s military prowess to engage in conventional military engagement. He determined to wear him down through a scorched earth policy. In tandem, he managed to establish forts behind enemy lines which seriously impacted on the ability of O’Neill’s people to sow and harvest.

The Kinsale Disaster

Spanish aid finally arrived in the form of ships, men and arms under the leadership of Don Juan Del’Aquila which sailed into and invested the southern port of Kinsale in the Autumn of 1601. Mountjoy immediately marched south to surround them. This necessitated O’Neill and O’Donnell to march all the way from Ulster in the dead of Winter to assist the long awaited Spanish aid. Kinsale was set to be the key battle which would finally decide the future of Ireland. If the English lost, it would arguably put an end to English power; so much was at stake.

O’Neill’s instinct was to tighten the siege on the English and to starve them into submission. O’Donnell and De’Aquila both wanted a quick conclusion and succeeded in persuading O’Neill to attack Mountjoy. Unfortunately for the Irish, the plans for the attack was made known to Mountjoy who was well prepared when the joint Irish and Spanish attack came. The attack failed and the English were able to break out from the stranglehold. The dispirited Irish retreated back to Ulster to plan the next phase of the war. Del’Aquila made his own peace with Mountjoy and was allowed to return to Spain with his ships and arms intact.

In the months after the Kinsale disaster, O’Donnell travelled to Spain to try to persuade King Philip to mobilise another expedition. Within months he was dead, reputedly having been poisoned by an English agent named Blake. 

Treaty of Mellifont

O’Neill carried on the campaign for another 2 years, but with many of his allies deserting him to make their own peace with the English, and without credible prospect of foreign aid; the outcome of the war was never in doubt. Finally in 1603, Mountjoy was instructed by the Queen to initiate peace talks to end the costly war in return for a full pardon and restoration of O’Neill’s title. It was the best terms that O’Neill could hope for, but it was not the victory hoped for just 2 years before. The Treaty of Mellifont was signed at the Cistercian monastery at Mellifont, County Louth. As he signed the Treaty document, O’Neill was totally unaware that Queen Elizabeth had died 6 days earlier and that he was submitting to a new monarch, James Stuart of Scotland who was on his way to London to succeed to the crown.

Under the terms of the treaty, O’Neill resumed the earldom of Tyrone. Life should have continued with a now compliant Gaelic aristocracy who would henceforth acknowledge the primacy of the English Crown. It was not to be, as the same enemies who had helped to force O’Neill into insurgency in 1595, were still determined to destroy him. 

Flight of the Earls - the end of Gaelic Ireland

Hugh O'Neill's grave in Monteiro, Rome
After several years of incessant intrigue and counter intrigue, O’Neill could see no hope of ever being left in peace in his earldom. Along with the O’Donnell successors of neighbouring TirConnell, a party of 99 of Gaelic nobility fled from Ireland in an event since called “The Flight of the Earls” in September 1607. O’Neill planned an invasion of Ireland with the help of European allies to resume the war he had just lost. While the fugitives were well received in European courts, including a meeting with Pope Paul V in Rome; Europe had more pressing issues than Ireland to worry about. O’Neill was given a home in Rome where despite unceasing efforts to enlist help to return to Ireland, he was destined to live the rest of his life. Sick and blind, he died in July 1616 and is buried in the Franciscan church of San Pietro in Montorio, Rome.

Plantation of Ulster

Meanwhile back in Ireland, the fugitive earls were declared traitors and their lands confiscated to be reassigned at the pleasure of King James I, who ordered what was once the most enduring of Gaelic provinces to be planted by people from southern Scotland and Northern England.

The rest (as is often said) is history.

Quoting the Ulster historian Jonathan Bardon: "The flight (of the Earls) in 1607 sent shock waves reverberating down the centuries, stoking the fires of a conflict which convulsed Northern Ireland for more than 300 years."

It still does, but hopefully not with the same deadly intensity as before the conclusion of the Good Friday Agreement.

To give a final word to Sean O’Faolain from his masterly book The Great O’Neill: “He (O’Neill) was the first step that his people (the Irish) made towards some sort of intellectual self criticism as to their place and their responsibilities in the European system”.

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. Masses of factual inaccuracies, Henry Bagenal, Ford of the Biscuits was in 1594 and was a separate battle. O'Donnell did not fight at Clontibret. O'Neill should never be called a nationalist, he used faith and fatherland as an expedient to garner support but he was not nationalist, all he sought was to assure elite rights and privileges not create a nation. Happy to swap one sovereign, Philip II for another, Elizabeth. As for O'Neill being forced out by the same people who forced him in to war, Elizabeth was dead, as was Bagenal. His main post war antagonists were Sir Arthur Chichester and sir John Davies who were not even in the country in 1593

    1. Reply on behalf of Arthur Russell:

      While there may be some (masses?) factual inaccuracies in a relatively short article covering such a huge subject about a crucial period of history, the question of O’Neill’s motivation for his insurgency is not quite as simple as being of total self interest. Had the Gaelic alliance won at Kinsale and arguably removed the English military presence from Ireland, is it not conceivable, as O’Faolain explores in his book; that evolution would have been possible in a post war scenario as happened elsewhere in Europe (the Netherlands after expelling Spain, Switzerland after expelling Austria)? While the old Gaelic model, may not have been fit for purpose in the context of nation-states evolving at varying speeds across Europe; could something similar not have happened in Ireland 3 centuries before it achieved the freedom to develop its own version of a nation state? Under this circumstance, Hugh O’Neill could well have been seen as a catalyst propelling Ireland forward. His preparation for and experience during years of war had shown him the benefits of forging a unified Gaelic/Anglo-Irish front against a stronger resource rich enemy. The major issue of his day, religion; was a useful aid to him not just with the Catholic Anglo Irish aristocracy, but helped identify potential allies across Europe which he knew would be needed to ultimately win the war. Should he be blamed for using this reality of European politics ti his and his alliance advantage? More than anybody else of his day, O’Neill worked for a unified Irish resistance as the war progressed. This in due time would lead to the growth of national consciousness. Victory in the war would have been the ultimate catalyst either under an O’Neill High Kingship or something less authoritarian.
      After all, at the beginning of the 17th century, the English Royal model was still half a century away from undergoing its own violent (r)evolution from authoritarian to constitutional monarchy, with the accompanying rise of parliamentary representation, however basic that would be under Oliver Cromwell. The demise of authoritarian monarchy would not happen (violently) in France for a further century or more, in Germany and Russia (due to war loss/tedium) not until 1917-18. Another authoritarian monarchy (initially King Hugh O’Neill) in 17th century Ireland would not have been out of step with its neighbours?
      Nor is it possible to know how O’Neill would address being under a compliment to the Catholic rulers of Europe for whatever requested support they were prepared to give Ireland during and after the war. In the aftermath of their recent Dutch disaster, would Spain have welcomed another Northern European venture in annexation?
      O’Neill was if nothing else, a pragmatist who knew something of local and European affairs. He would hardly have been happy with anything less than he (or Ireland) had at the beginning of the struggle.
      We can never really know the answers to these imponderables.
      Messrs Chichester and Davies may not have been in Ireland for the duration of the war (the post does not say they were). Their policies was a continuum of long established English policy in Ireland which never favoured the idea of sharing authority in Ireland with Gaelic leaders and saw them as eternal enemies. That policy was a major cause for the War. Ultimately the Crown’s Dublin Government was glad to see the back of the Earls in September 1607; so that Chichester, Davies and others could progress towards what was about to happen in the abandoned Ulster earldoms over subsequent years.

    2. These are basic things the author is getting wrong. I did not even get into the issue that O'Neill was already directing the war in 1593, so there was no final straw to tip him into rebellion in 1595. He only openly broke with the crown as 1: Lord Deputy Russell had sent for reinforcements of English troops from the Continent 2: He had secured Ulster from 1593-4 while the crown was misdirected with the conflict in Fermanagh 3: Taking the Blackwater Fort in Feb. 1595 was a successful ploy to draw English troops out of Wicklow where they were very close to defeating Feagh MacHugh O'Byrne.
      The post said that O’Neill was forced to flee by ‘the same enemies who had helped to force O’Neill into insurgency in 1595 (it wasn’t an insurgency and he was at war from 1593). What same enemies unless it is just a broad stroke for English. The enemies he had in 1593 was all dead or gone (Fitzwilliam, Bagenal, Elizabeth I, Bingham).
      Philip II (then Philip III) repeatedly sent shipments of arms, munitions and money before 1601, not just ‘moral encouragement’.
      The queen never offered O’Neill restoration of his lands and title: that was devised by Robert Cecil who assured Mountjoy that if he made the deal he would convince the queen of its efficacy. As it turned out he didn’t have to as the queen died before the deal was signed (lucky Cecil).
      Don’t believe for a second religion motivated this at the outbreak of the war. When convincing Irish lords of Ulster and Connacht to join his confederation he used issues over patrimony and infringements of traditional rights by the English, religion was never an issues until he was trying to convince the Catholic Old English to join him. Essex was correct when he said to O’Neill (to his face) that he (O’Neill) cared for religion as much as his (Essex’s) horse.
      O’Neill was never a contender for kingship nor did he ever want it as to suggest it would have fractured the alliance as he was only first among equals (the O’Donnell’s would have been very quick to call foul). The crown, if the Irish had won) had already been offered to the Cardinal Archduke Albert, Philip II’s nephew. In short, O’Neill could never be king, his political and social equals would never stand for it. O’Neill was more concerned with getting a type of palatine status for Ulster, that was his concern, but to get it he needed to English gone and this required them gone from Ireland not just the north.
      It mentions that ‘O’Neill could see no hope of being left in peace in his earldom’. Perhaps he should have thought twice about engaging with the Old English League of Irish Catholics, who pledges themselves to take up arms if another Spanish force was sent. Moreover while O’Neill was on his way to meet James I and VI in 1603 after the Treaty of Mellifont, he sent a letter to Philip III promising to restart the war if he was sent Spanish support. O’Neill was not interested in livening out a peaceful life in Dungannon.
      Leaning too much on O’Faolain, whose book has become an historical artefact in itself, not a source. His sources were limited and he had no access to original manuscripts, never mind his failure to use citations.
      A single is take on the basics I can understand but a series of fundamental mistakes like who was Lord Deputy (not Lord Lieutenant) but repeated mistakes on things that are not hard to get right undermines the historical credibility of the work.

      BTW on part 1 of this blog, among the errors it was noted that O'Neill's second wife was Inion Dubh, it was not, she was O'Donnell's mother. O'Neill married O'Donnell's half-sister Siobhán, who he later repudiated. Basic stuff.

    3. Thanks for comprehensive clarifications and corrections which are well noted. No point disputing with someone who displays so much knowledge about the man O’Neill and his times (the basic stuff).
      The main purpose of the post was to explore O’Neill’s contribution to the future development of his native land and its subsequent history. It is perfectly understandable to feel O’Neill’s “legend” tends to over-statement, but that is always the problem with legends - they develop a dynamic of their own which can give credit where it might not be entirely due, and may continue to grow long after the subject has left the scene. There is no doubt O’Neill has value as a figure to build legend around, especially for Irish nationalists. O’Faolain applied his considerable intellect to the question and added his own propositions which adds to the ongoing debate, without necessarily settling the issue.
      Thanks again

  2. Thank you so much for the article! I used to live and breath Hugh O'Neill. I have all his biographies.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.