Aodh Mór Ó Néill died on this date, 20th July, in 1616.

In his biography, 'The Great O'Neill', Seán Ó Faoláin portrays the exile O'Neill's last days in Rome as a period of despair and disillusionment.

This really was not how it was supposed to end. In 1598, after the Battle of the Yellow Ford, there was little reason to suppose the defeat of the Gaelic world of Ulster was inevitable. A twin policy of sword and scorched earth clinically delivered from the English power base of Dublin had decimated Gaelic society in the southern provinces throughout the 16th Century but the Gaels of  Ulster, led by O'Neill and Aodh Ruaidh Uí Dhomhnaill, had every reason to expect their northern lands to remain apart from the 'Pale'.

At the Yellow Ford, O'Neill and O'Donnell had routed an advancing English army of 4,000 men (six regiments of foot with cavalry support).

 The English force sustained heavy losses in the battle and its immediate aftermath, with the 2,000 survivors eventually being shipped from Newry to the safety of Dublin after negotiating safe passage.

From that high point, with The Great O'Neill lauded by the enemies of Elizabethan England (ie most of Europe), and with the prospect of Spanish aid, the Gaels of Ulster could reasonably countenance the re-conquest of the rest of Ireland from English rule with some confidence.

The tactical disaster of 1601 in Kinsale, Co Cork, far from their northern stronghold, changed everything, and the Flight of the Earls resulted in O'Neill and his entourage in exile in Rome.

Despite many setbacks and tribulations, O'Neill continued to lobby the Spanish Court for the military assistance to re-enter the field of battle. It wasn't to be, and the Irish nobility steadily succumbed to the fevers and malaria that afflicted them in Rome.

At least seven, but possibly eleven or more, of the O'Neill and O'Donnell party were buried in the Spanish sponsored church of St Pietro in Montorio, high on the Gianicolo hill that overlooks Rome.

At first, the deaths of the party received all the ritual and ceremony of European nobles of the first rank. The ornate marble ingraved grave-slabs inlaid on the floor, above the underground burial vaults, record the homage paid to The Great O'Neill's son, also Hugh, and to the O'Donnells, Hugh and Cathbarr (sons of Aodh Ruaidh).

By the time of Hugh O'Neill's own death, on this day in 1616, only a basic slab was required, as described by a record made in 1664. Indeed, although the ornate grave slabs of his son and the two O'Donnells are still intact, O'Neill's own marble slab has since disappeared - possibly during the upheaval of the 'Risorgimento', when Garibaldi's forces engaged French forces on the Gianicolo hill (with St Pietro suffering structural damage from the ensuing cannon-fire).

It is known that some grave-slabs were moved, broken or re-used during the opening of new burial vaults over the course of time.

Due to the records made in 1664, we do know where the original was placed, and we do know the original Latin inscription that marked the passing of The Great O'Neill: "D.O.M. HUGONIS PRINCIPIS ONELLI OSSA"  (To God the Best and the Greatest. The bones of Prince Hugh O’Neill).

Using this record, a replica plaque was laid in place of the original slab by Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich in 1989.

The original slab may well have disappeared forever, smashed to pieces by an under pressure builder. However, there is also the tantalising prospect that the Great O'Neill's grave-slab is still there, but moved and placed upside down, waiting to be rediscovered.

O'Neill's exile turned the Gaelic world upside down, and, with hindsight,  we might now say that was the beginning of the end for Gaelic Ireland, However, the encouraging thing about the cycle of history is that, if you wait long enough, the great wheel turns.

If the Great O'Neill were to return now, he might retrace his steps along the Callan River, along the Yellow Ford, on to his old stronghold of Dungannon, on to the O'Neill inauguration site at Tullyhoge, across the great plains of Ulster where his vast herds of cattle once roamed, and on to Rathmullan where he sailed to exile through Lough Swilly.

On this fanciful journey, Aodh Mór would surely find some solace in the irrefutable evidence that Gaelic Ireland is not dead and gone, after all.

All languages shift and modulate over a space of 400 years, but The O'Neill would recognise the Gaelic voices to be heard today all along that route, ever clearer, ever louder.

Maybe, if his marble slab is ever found and turned the right way up, we may take it as an omen that his Gaelic Ulster was never really lost, it was just waiting to be found again, when the time is right.

For an indepth study of the Irish burials at St Pietro, see the NUI Galway Project Description: "San Pietro in Montorio -Burial Place of the Exiled Irish in Rome 16...."

For an insight to Hugh O'Neill: "The Great O'Neill: A Biography of Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, 1550 -1616. Seán Ó Faoláin, Dufour Edition, 1997.

Further Reading

'The O'Neill' Bedevils Mountjoy at Moyry Pass

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Tags: History, Irish Freedom Struggle, Italy, O'Donnell, O'Neill, Ulster, War

Comment by Ryan O'Rourke on July 20, 2013 at 7:51am

Fascinating stuff, Gerry.  Thanks for posting it.

Comment by john f headen on July 20, 2013 at 9:19am

I'm a direct decendant of this man and one of his wives Siobhan O'Donnell sister of Hugh O'Donnell

Comment by john f headen on July 20, 2013 at 9:39am

heard my grandfather saying that while on his way to Rome that while crossing the Alps the belly band of one of the pack-horses broke and that all of the family gold stitched into leather satchels disappeared down a mountain ravine where it still remains to this day under water in a gully called "The Devils ???-"-----3 weeks were spent trying to retrieve the coins to no avail

Comment by Gerry Regan on July 20, 2013 at 11:18am

John, do you refer here to O'Neill, or to your wealthy grandfather? ;-)

Comment by john f headen on July 20, 2013 at 11:46am

sorry--------i meant O'Neill of course  on his way to Rome-------not my impoverished grandad

Comment by john f headen on July 20, 2013 at 12:28pm

my grandad had access one time about 1900 to a hand-written account of the journey across europe-------i think he said it was in gaelic and maybe with the Franciscans in Louvain--------he was studying to be a jesuit at the time on the Continent

Comment by Eamon Loingsigh on July 21, 2013 at 6:30am

Thanks Gerard, very interesting topic. I need to study up on this a bit more, thanks for giving me the momentum.


Comment by The Last Torch on July 21, 2013 at 9:18am

Thanks for this. Love it! I married an O'Neill and had heard this history but haven't looked at it in any depth - yet...

Comment by Alannah Ryane on July 22, 2013 at 3:33pm

Great story! Makes me want to find my O'Neills even more!

Comment by Brian O'Doherty on July 23, 2013 at 6:34am

A good summary by Gerard Cappa. Congratulations and thanks, Gerard. My comment:

1. O'Neills sword was sent by the Vatican to Ireland in 1646, to be presented, formally, to Owen Roe O'Neill, Great Hugh's nephew, after Owen Roe's astonishing victory at the Battle of Benburb. It was presented by other O'Neills, in recognition that Owen Roe was  now to be the Chief. What happened the sword afterwards is an interesting question. Maybe his wife, Rosa, took it back to Brussels after his death (1649), when she went there after the cold blooded execution of his only son, Henry, who should have succeeded to the Chiefdom (1650). She took Henry's only son, Hugh, with her and she went on to Rome, which may explain why it could have turned up there sometime later. However, she later went from Rome to Spain, and subsequently back to Brussels, where she died , 1660.

2. As for "Kinsale...having changed everything". it should be not forgotten that O'Neill marched his army back to Ulster after the battle of Kinsale. He did not lose his army, in other words, and he fought on for two more years. What changed, though, was English tactics. They resolved never to face O'Neill on a battle field again. He (with O'Donnell) had lost c. 1500 troops in the battle, but the English lost c. half the largest army (15000) ever assembled in Europe, and "still we cannot defeat him". They then changed their tactics to those being used successfully in the New World. i.e avoid the armies and attack the civilian population. In the following year, 60,000 civilians were wiped out in East Antrim alone. According to undisputed accounts in various history books.That's how Gaelic Ireland was ultimately defeated. (even so, Owen Roe came very near to recovering it, a generation later)

3 Something should certainly be done to commemorate Hugh O'Neill on his 400th anniversary in three years time. Irish History began long before 1916, after all !


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