Ancestors I: The Return of the O’Neill!

June 12, 2016

At the end of this month my home town will be at the very centre of a special programme of historic events to mark the death of one man: Hugh O’Neill.

Hundreds are expected to invade Mid Ulster, the heartland of O’Neill power from the mid-tenth until the early seventeenth century, to mark the 400th anniversary of the death of the last Gaelic chieftain and Tudor-era rebel.

The Gathering of the Clan will start on June 18th and will see a series of events, historical tours, heritage talks, and dramatic re-enactments, take place based around two of the sites most closely associated with the family: Tullaghoge Fort on the outskirts of Cookstown and the nearby town of Dungannon.

As a descendant of Hugh O’Neill through his daughter Margaret’s marriage to Richard Butler, I hope to attend a number of events, but I am especially excited to see Owen O’Neill’s play, The Rebel Crown, in the Burnavon Arts Centre in Cookstown on Wednesday next.


Early O’Neill history cuts across the mythical and the historical, but for those who don’t know, the various branches of the family were High Kings of Ireland from the late fifth until the rise of Brian Boru (the father of the O’Brien clan) in the late tenth century. By that time two main branches had emerged. They were based in Ulster (modern Counties Derry and Tyrone) with the Northern O’Neill and in Leinster (Counties Meath, Westmeath and Longford) under the Southern O’Neill.

By the arrival of the Normans a hundred and fifty years after Brian Boru’s time, the Southern O’Neill lands were under significant pressure from both the MacMurrough family from south Leinster and the O’Rourkes from north Connacht. The Northern O’Neill had divided into two rival branches with the MacLochlainns in County Derry and the O’Neill Mór in what is now east Tyrone. While the Southern O’Neill lands were quickly overrun by the Norman Lord of Meath, Hugh de Lacy, the north-west corner of the island remained beyond the greedy grasp of the invaders. The civil war between the two Northern branches was finally decided in 1241 when the O’Neill Mór finally became the supreme family in the Kingdom of Tyrone. Other branches of the family expanded into modern Counties Antrim and Armagh following the fall of the Earldom of Ulster in the early fourteenth century.

The main branch of the family remained Kings of Tyrone until the ascension of King Henry VIII. His efforts to bring Ireland under his direct control, end Tainistry (a form of inheritance), and reduce the independence of the Irish kings and Norman barons, led to a number of uprisings. In 1542, the last King of Tyrone, Conn O’Neill, surrendered his royal title to the new King of Ireland, Henry VIII, and was “granted” his tribal lands back as Earl of Tyrone. This led to a war between two of Conn’s sons, Shane the Proud and Matthew the Dark Man, with Matthew, whose parentage was disputed, declared heir under English law. Shane, the elder, was disinherited. Needless to say, Shane did not take this very well and in 1558 his forces ambushed and killed Matthew. A year later, upon his father’s death, Shane was crowned King of Tyrone (or The O’Neill) at the family’s hereditary inauguration site at Tullaghoge.



Matthew’s sons continued to fight for supremacy but, despite government support, it seemed to be a losing war, especially after Shane defeated a government invasion in 1561 and the eldest of Matthew’s sons, Brian O’Neill, was murdered a year later. His younger brother, Hugh O’Neill, who was perhaps fifteen years old, became head of his sept, but was forced to flee Ulster to be brought up in the English colonial outpost of Dublin. He remained there until 1567 when Shane was assassinated by the Scottish MacDonnell family while once again in rebellion against the government. Shane had been succeeded as King of Tyrone by the head of another branch of the family, Turlough O’Neill, and it was largely with the assistance of the government in Dublin that Hugh fought to claim power within Tyrone. In return Hugh fought alongside crown forces against the Desmond rebels between 1580 and 1583.


Already recognised as Baron Dungannon in 1585, two years later he was summoned to Parliament in Dublin as Earl of Tyrone. In 1591, Hugh ignited the ire of the President of Ulster, Sir Henry Bagenal of Newry, by eloping with his sister, Mabel, but he later displayed his loyalty to the crown by supporting Bagenal’s invasion of Fermanagh in 1593. This seemingly sincere allegiance soon drifted into the realm of nominal fidelity as he saw continued encroachment by planters in the east as well as high-handed government interference in his territory. His constant disputes against Turlough O’Neill culminated in the older man’s recognition of him as his Tainist (heir) in 1593 and two years later, upon Turlough’s death, Hugh, the most English of the O’Neills, was inaugurated at Tullaghoge in the style of a Gaelic King of Tyrone.

There is little doubt that Hugh’s ambitions grew greatly from this moment. Hugh O’Donnell’s victory at the Battle of the Biscuits as well as Mabel’s death soon afterwards saw him struggle to conceal his opposition to governmental meddling. By this time it would seem that he was already intriguing with the Spanish. His victory over Sir Henry Bagenal at the Battle of Clontibert in March 1595 was the first real engagement of the Nine Years’ War.


In the 1590s, the single most powerful man in Ireland was the Leinster dynast, Black Tom Butler, 10th Earl of Ormond. Ormond had led the government response to the Desmond rebellion and, as a cousin of the queen, was also one of the most influential noblemen at court. When Ormond journeyed north to parley with the turbulent O’Neill in late 1595, his cousin, Viscount Mountgarret, and two of his nephews, rose in rebellion in Kilkenny alongside the powerful Kavanagh, O’Byrne and O’More families. Ormond first relieved the Blackwater Fort to curb O’Neill’s menace before turning on the rebels in Leinster, executing his Butler nephews and imprisoning most of the other leaders.

In September of 1597, Ormond was created Lieutenant-General of the Royal Army in Ireland by the queen and assumed overall charge of the prosecution of the war against the Earl of Tyrone from October 1597. Ormond's critics in Dublin blamed him for O’Neill's victory at the Battle of the Yellow Ford in August 1598. However, he had received a serious wound some weeks earlier and this prevented him from marching north into Ulster. The commander in the field, Sir Henry Bagenal, had more experience of campaigning in Ulster, but ignored Ormond's advice and allowed too much space between his regiments when marching on the beleaguered Blackwater Fort leading to the annihilation of the army. However, Ormond’s quick response allowed him to regain the initiative, doing just enough to prevent O’Neill and his confederates from capitalising on their successes without over-extending their reach. Consequently, a renewed rebellion in Munster fizzled out in October.


The arrival of the Earl of Essex as Lord Lieutenant in 1599 at the head of the largest army ever seen in Ireland seemed to signal the end of the rebellion. Ormond’s successes meant that it should’ve been little more than a ‘cleaning up exercise’ but instead the Englishman fought a series of inconclusive battles across Leinster and Munster, wasting funds and dispersing his army into garrisons rather than marching into Ulster to force O’Neill into submission. When he finally moved north he entered into an unsatisfactory truce with the Earl of Tyrone in September 1599 that the queen considered humiliating and which Ormond had refused to countenance during his negotiations with O’Neill two years earlier.

O’Neill’s position was now at his summit and he made what he hoped was a ‘royal’ progress through Ireland towards Munster in early 1600, throwing his support behind a claimant to the Earldom of Desmond and preaching Holy War against the queen. However, when Ormond tried to bring him to battle in Tipperary, O’Neill refused to meet him and soon fled northwards into Ulster. It is not a part of the Great Earl’s career you often hear about.



Nevertheless, that same year Elizabeth despatched Charles Blount, 8th Baron Mountjoy, and Sir George Carew (as well as the ancestors of the Viscounts Powerscourt, Earls of Cavan, Marquesses of Downshire, and Barons Blayney) to replace Essex and, I think it is fair to say, pursued an abhorrent policy of total war in Ulster and used famine as their chief instrument. By the middle of 1601, O’Neill was in dire straits.


However, in September 1601 good news arrived at his court in the depths of the Forest of Glenconkeyne: a fleet of forty-five Spanish ships (and some 3,500 men) had landed in Ireland. There was a problem. The fleet under Don Juan del Aguila had landed at the town of Kinsale on the south coast of Ireland rather than at Carlingford on the east coast of Ulster as O’Neill had advised. Don Juan was quickly put under siege by Sir George Carew and Sir Cormac McCarthy. Sickness soon followed within the hungry garrison. By November both Hugh O’Donnell and O’Neill were on the move with their armies, baffling the besiegers by the speed and stealth of their advance. While the government army was reinforced by the Earls of Thomond and Clanricarde, the rebel army found a willing participant in Donal O’Sullivan Beare and Finian O’Driscoll of Baltimore. Both armies amassed outside the walls of Kinsale.

By this time, Carew was contemplating raising the siege and retreating to Cork for he now found himself trapped between Kinsale and the oncoming army under O’Neill. He dithered until it was too late and it seemed his army faced utter annihilation. But a disagreement arose between Don Juan and O’Neill which caused a serious breakdown in communication. O’Neill and O’Sullivan, believing the Spaniards to be under a night attack, hurried to their allies’ aid, but O’Donnell got lost in the darkness and, the next day, Christmas Eve 1601, Mountjoy attacked the isolated O’Donnell. A general panic ensured and the united Irish army was scattered. Starvation and the winter cold quickly finished what the sword had begun.

Don Juan, seeing his allies’ defeat, surrendered Kinsale and sailed back to Spain, leaving the Munster rebels to face the might of the victorious government army. Submissions began to flow in from all parts of the country with, in fairness, pardons flowing liberally in the opposite direction. In Spain, O’Donnell died in August 1602 while attempting to gain support for further action. O’Neill, bereft of support, decided that the moment to submit had arrived. He surrendered himself to Mountjoy and prepared for Queen Elizabeth’s judgement on his future. He did not hold much hope.

But he arrived in England to discover that the queen had passed away two days before his surrender and the new King James I, a Scot, forgave them all their trespasses, and was said to have treated O’Neill with great favour. Rory O’Donnell, who had succeeded his brother, Hugh, was even made Earl of Tyrconnell!



Nevertheless, O’Neill saw the aim of King James and his proclamations against Catholics, far more severe than any of Elizabeth’s policies. A new plantation was planned. Ulster was to be colonised and there would be no place in this new land for O’Neill and the old order.

Quietly he made his plans. A merchant from Drogheda was contacted and a price was agreed. He and his closest family and supporters collected their belongings. They made their way through Tyrone to Donegal where they were joined by the Earl of Tyrconnell. At Lough Swilly on September 14th 1607 the two earls took flight to Spanish Flanders in a merchant vessel. They did not stay there long but ventured south to Italy and were accepted with great respect in Rome.

Hugh O’Neill never returned to Ireland but died in the Eternal City in 1616.

His story, and that of his family, survived and it will be wonderful to see all the descendants of that great family return to the land in which so many strands of their tale were woven.



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