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 Years 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 which 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'Neills army was elsewhere, and slaughter every man, woman, child. By sword, and later by starvations, by 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 parents 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 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 the 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 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 www.BrianODoherty.ie