Hugh (The Great) O'Neill 1550-1616
Earl of Tyrone
Arch-Traitor. Arch-Rebel. The Monster of Ulster. The Great Devil. The Running Beast. Beelzebub. These were some of the names the Elizabethan English had for Hugh O'Neill, as he defeated or out-manoeuvred one of their armies after another.
Born in 1550, O'Neill was the grandson of Conn O'Neill, first Earl of Tyrone. Conn had a number of sons, and the eldest was for years assumed to be Sean, later to be known as Sean (or Shane) the Proud. However, the widow of a Dundalk blacksmith (Kelly) claimed that Conn O'Neill was the father of her son Matthew, and Conn accepted this. Since Matthew was older than Sean, this would have disinherited Sean, and he vigourously disputed the claim. War broke out between the claimants, and eventually Sean had Matthew, and later Matthew's eldest son Brian, murdered. Hugh O'Neill was Matthew's second son.
In 1559, after Conn's death, Sean was acknowledged as leader, and at the old Crowning Stone at Tullyhogue was given the White Staff of Sovereignty and hailed by his people as "The O'Neill". English policy was usually to try to maintain a balance of power among the Gaelic Irish, or to set up their own choice as leader. Probably with that in mind, the then Lord Deputy of Ireland, Sir Henry Sidney, offered to take the young Hugh back to London with him. The nine year old Hugh left his Gaelic world of woods and open countryside and sky, of huge herds of roaming cattle, of warrior kerns and gallowglasses, of raids and revenge, of the stories around the fireside about Cuchulainn and King Conor MacNessa and the Red Branch Knights, about the faery hosts, and about his ancestor, Niall of the Nine Hostages, the High King of all Ireland.
In the great city of London, O'Neill saw all the pomp and power, wealth and organisation of Queen Elizabeth the First's England. It was the time of Drake and the buccaneers and the Spanish Main. Spenser and Marlowe were his contemporaries. He may have heard of or even seen the Earl of Desmond, who was summoned to London and kept there for eight years as punishment for failing to force his Gaelic followers to adopt English clothes and customs. While here, he learned that his older brother Brian had been murdered by Sean's men, that he was now Baron of Dungannon, and that it was now his turn to lay claim to the title of The O'Neill.
In 1567 O'Neill returned to Ireland. He fought for the English, killing his own countrymen, in the brutal suppression of the Desmond Rebellion in Munster. Later, in Ulster, he was an ally of the First Earl of Essex. This was the Essex, who, in 1573, had invited the rebelling Brian O'Neill, Hugh O'Neill's father-in-law, to a meal. After the meal, Essex had Brian and 200 of his followers, men and women, slaughtered. Queen Elizabeth complimented Essex for this, saying that he was a "great ornament of her nobility". In 1574, the Scotsman Sorley Bui MacDonnell sent 600 women, children and wounded or elderly men to Rathlin island for safety, along with his own wife, children and many other relatives. Later, while Sorley watched helplessly from the mainland three miles away, Essex sent his men to the island, where they butchered every living soul. In a letter to Elizabeth, Essex gloated that Sorley was "likely to have run mad for sorrow, tearing and tormenting himself, and saying that there he lost all that ever he had" . Elizabeth again complimented Essex for his actions. So, at a time when English power in Ireland was being rocked to its foundations, Hugh O'Neill was allying himself with these English savages, and looking after Number One.
For almost twenty years, O'Neill served the English diligently, hoping for their help in furthering his own ambitions, or that they would at least not hinder him. O'Neill was a complex man, skilled in personal, local and state politics, often "dissembling", as the English called it, often cold, reserved and calculating, at other times displaying great emotion. When summoned to Dublin Castle in 1590 to answer accusations that he had murdered his cousin, Hugh Gaveloch, the son of Shane O'Neill (the murderer of Matthew and Brian), he denounced Gaveloch as having been a killer of women and children, a traitor and a murderer and the son of a traitor and murderer. He denied having murdered him, named others as the killers, and claimed that he himself had done nothing but good, and had always acted in the queen's best interests. Then he severely embarrassed the Dublin Council by bursting into floods of tears and refusing to be consoled until he was given permission to travel to London to throw himself on the queen's mercy.
It is likely that Tyrone often did not know himself where he really stood, unless it was simply for his own survival. Much of his theatrics, his twisting and turning, were the more convincing by being based on genuine frustration, on the near despair of a man fighting for his life and for his way of life in the remorseless trap of Elizabethan politics. He had one foot in the modern English world and one foot in the ancient Gaelic world, he understood each world, and he tried and tried and tried and ultimately failed to find lasting compromise between them. His relationship with the English changed, as mutual distrust hardened. Each party realised that even with the best of intentions (and intentions were rarely the best in 16th century Ireland or England), they could never really trust the other. There were irreconcileable differences between O'Neill and the English - his religion; his people and their half wildness and hatred of English ways, and his liking and tolerance of that half wildness, even though he himself also enjoyed the luxuries of wealth and power; his knowledge that to treat his people as the English wanted him to treat them would have destroyed his power; and also eventually his pride - he tired of having to crawl before the English, swear loyalty over and over again, and still find himself not trusted, beset with spies and accusations. Although he knew better than anyone what rebellion against the English would mean, and therefore strove to avoid it for as long as possible, at some stage O'Neill began to prepare for war.
TO BE CONCLUDED
Battle of Kinsale
See also Violence in Ireland .
The above is based mainly on Sean O'Faolain's book "The Great O'Neill",
available from Fred Hanna .
Published by Mercier Press
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Last updated September 2000.
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