The Great O'Neill -- Dead 400 Years in 2016

Last week, in his sleep, in his small palace in Rome, 400 years ago, one of the greatest figures in Irish history passed away, Hugh O'Neill. . With him in his final moments may have been his teenage son, John, whom he had nominated to succeed him as Earl of Tyrone and as The O'Neil. Also, there may have been his nephew, who was to become increasingly the de facto leader of the exiled Irish Gaelic Lords in Europe, Owen Roe O'Neill. Undoubtedly senior figures in the Spanish administration and in the Vatican would have attended him in his final days or paid their respects at his funeral, as well as senior Irish clergy living in Rome. The scene at his bedside on his last evening may have been similar to that captured in a painting by an unknown Italian or East European artist, painted a century later, "Farewell at the deathbed." (left)

O'Neill, O'Donnell and other Gaelic nobility left Ireland in the Irish history-transforming event known as the Flight of the Earls, from Rathmullan, Co. Donegal, September 1607. Following the Nine Year's War against English rule in Ireland, the last battle of which was the Battle of Kinsale, O'Neill marched his army back to Ulster, in the middle of winter, to continue the fight, before his eventual surrender two years later, in 1603. He had lost 1500-2000 men at Kinsale, but the English had lost over 7000 men, half their exhausted army, which had been the largest army ever assembled by Elizabeth !. O'Donnell had gone to Spain to collect more Spanish support and O'Neill must have felt confident that he could fight on successfully. But, after their Kinsale disaster, the English changed their tactics. They resolved "never to meet this man on the battlefield again". Instead, they deployed the tactic that Lord Chichester said was "being used with success in the New World", that is, an attack on the civilian population.

The genocide which ensued in Ulster for about a year, led by Lords Mountjoy and Chichester, which I do not remember ever reading in Irish school history books, is described by English historians as the darkest, most atrocious event in English history. Soldiers would raid small villages, when O'Neill's army was elsewhere, and slaughter every man, woman, and child. By sword, and later by starvations, by the destruction of crops. The landscape was littered with human bones, or starving children, their mouths green from eating grass. Some were even taught by fathers and mothers to cannibalise their parent's bodies when they died. A very high percentage of the population of Ulster died, especially East Ulster, and most others fled, to Donegal, to the south, even some lucky ones making it as emigrants to London, France, Netherlands and further, in what became the first years of seemingly unending Irish emigration.

These events are probably what (good !) Queen Elizabeth II was referring to when, on her visit to Ireland a few years ago, she "apologised", saying (I paraphrase) that "there were certain things we did during our rule in Ireland that we would do differently now or even not at all" (Actually it was not only Ulster...There was a similar attack on the civilian population of Munster about twenty years earlier, followed by an attempt to populate the vacated land with English planters.)

This of course brought down O'Neill. He was unable to defend his people or support the junior clan leaders of Ulster. He surrendered and was later intimidated out of his Earldom by legal, economic and political means, salted with a continuing threat of arrest and execution, so that he decided to move to Catholic Europe and try to rebuild support from there in 1607. But English diplomatic tactics preceded him and he found himself somewhat unwelcomed by the Spanish and their administration in Brussels He was basically shunted on to Rome, where the Pope felt obliged to show him some honours, give him an elevated position in the community in Rome, and awarded him and his family a small (but frugally furnished) palace in which to live out his life. Rome (right) was a place of elegant architecture in those days, though "stinking hot" in summer.

I don't know if the men of 1916 and their successors in "Free Ireland" of the last 100 years are bothered to read and show respect for the heroics of the Gaelic Order in the early modern history of our land. We honour the other side, in Mountjoy Square, and elsewhere. Where is Great O'Neill Avenue? Is there a large monument to him in Phoenix Park? I think there's an O'Donnell Avenue in Buenos Aires or is it Madrid..and a famous O'Reilly Calle in Havana and O'Higgins pops up in many South American countries. And others. What is wrong with us, that we are afraid to give due honour and proper commemoration to real heroes of the past? I suppose history only began in 1916.

Great Hugh O'Neill, we remember you on your 400th anniversary, July 20, 1616, and we Salute You!

For more of my perspective on the Irish experience, visit

Great ONeill

Views: 2001

Tags: Diaspora History, History of Ireland, Irish Freedom Struggle, On This Day, Tudor Ireland, War

Comment by Patrick Francis Deady on July 31, 2016 at 4:41pm

The Treatment.

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on August 2, 2016 at 9:17am

There is a statue of Collin's in Red Square Russia.... My brother was on business there and when they heard his Irish Accent... all the Russian people clambered around him...

Comment by Richard R. Mc Gibbon Jr. on August 19, 2016 at 8:23am

Grand article !  Now what I am about to propose is to be taken in the good humor it was given,.... there should be something named after the Great O'Neill; better than a street or park or even statue, remember the Flight of the Earls,..... hold on to ye funny bone,...... The Great O'Neill International Jetport !  ;-)  Slainte

Comment by Brian O'Doherty on August 19, 2016 at 9:11am

I like the Great O'Neill Airport idea. Good thinking, Richard. Chicago-O'Hare...Dublin-O'Neill...why not?

Comment by Richard R. Mc Gibbon Jr. on August 19, 2016 at 11:38am

Brian, maybe they will have a package special from the Great O'Neill Airport to Rome; round trip ! ! ;-)

Slainnte and go ahead and smile

Comment by michael dunne on October 10, 2016 at 10:28am

It is still an unanswered question as to why the O'Neill and O'Donnell armies were isolated or ignored by the Southern chieftains in the noted battle of Kinsale? Even though the Desmond Rebellion, the largest and bloodiest by far in Irish history was over by a couple of years, it is reasonable to think that at least some support from these quarters could be expected. The unpleasant spectacle of O'Neills collusion with Lord grey and Spencer in quelling Catholics in this Desmond rebellion was to please Queen Elizabeth 1st who had him installed as the Earl of Tyrone as a tactic for the continued policies of 'Surrender and Regrant' of Henry and her own additional strategy of 'Pacata Hibernia' . Later O'Neill recognized the need to pursue his own agenda as Irish leader and took the course of action recorded in history

Either way, the end of the Earldoms saw the beginnings of social unrest from the grass root level Irish people through Tithe Wars, The Land League etc which ensured the fertilization of 'Síolta Teine' and 400 years of insurgency, earls or no earls.

Comment by Brian O'Doherty on October 10, 2016 at 11:55am

Yes, fair comment. Although some Southern leaders did provide shelter to the Spaniards...incl. Sullivan Beare and others. The southern part of the country had been decimated 20 years earlier in the Desmond Rebellion. Anyway, the idea that all local clans should unite to fight a common enemy had not arrived in Ireland by then. I think the first real "nationalist", and our greatest hero,  was Owen Roe, a generation later, who proposed and fought for a "republic" and even then, when they could have won, under his leadership, divisions among the Irish opened the opportunity for Cromwell (and the loss of a probable Irish empire in the world, as achieved by all other European nations at the time)

Comment by michael dunne on October 12, 2016 at 11:40am

Thank you Brian for this article on one of Irelands revered characters.

Elizabethan confiscations of Catholic lands in Munster and plantation of Protestants was a continuation of the Reformation policies used as a land grab by Elizabeth's ambitious and greedy agents. These Earls were slippery landowners and Fitzgerald of Desmond no exception. The reality is those at Dún an Óir surrendered and the vast majority executed at Lord Grays instruction, and known amusingly today as 'Grays Pardon'. You have not addressed whether of not Hugh O'Neill accompanied Gray and Spencer during the extensive campaign to crush the 2nd Desmond Rebellion which ended circa 1585 paving the way for the colonization of Munster. The 'scorched earth' policy of warfare used in those times is reputed to have caused the deaths of almost 500,000 people from starvation war and pillage.

That O'Neill and O'Donnells army marched 300 miles south in the height of winter raises some questions about their judgement. O'Neill' s success as a militarist centered around his victory in the Battle of the Yellow Ford which was seen by Elizabeth as second only to her defeat of the Spanish Armada. O'Neill learned his military tactics growing up in the English court so why did he change tack and ultimately lose by leaving his own well known terrain. Why were the Spanish in Bantry allowed return unharmed to Spain. Did they put up any fight or was this a done deal with Elizabeth? Why was O'Donnell poisoned in Spain? Was Rome to be the only haven for O'Neill?

You are correct in the inability of Irishmen to unite under one leader or more importantly one cause. The only exception was Brian Boru who by force usurped the status quo and challenging all rival powers declared himself king of Ireland. Even he bought his crown at Armagh by donating a bucket of gold to the Catholic Church. Eoin Roe was also up scuttled by the Catholic Church in his attempts to become the leader of the various Irish armies in confronting the Cromwellian forces.

Even in Ireland's late 19th C history we see the various organizations coming together under the banner of the land question. The bigger question of the class struggle has been parked and remains so ever since.

Comment by Brian O'Doherty on October 12, 2016 at 1:04pm

Thanks Michael. Also, I've visited your page here, on this fine site, and I've taken a copy of your guide to researching the family tree. Thanks for that. Very helpful. You are so well versed that you could sell your knowledge (!!). The problem is how best to package it and I think my product is the answer. Log in and explore its potential. Then imagine a page ("desktop") of c. 100 links to many interesting related, or , better, indirectly related aspects of a chosen topic. All types of data, text, images, it has a url it can be linked, then dragged around, re-grouped, etc. The result is New Knowledge. And that NK can be zapped to any other member is c. 8 seconds, and arrives all ready to roll, to click and open all those links., He might pay you a tenner for a page of good stuff ! Its free for you for now


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