O'Neill, Hugh (c. 1550–1616), 2nd earl of Tyrone , the ‘Great O'Neill’, was second son of Joan Maguire and Matthew Feardorcha O'Neill (qv), who had been designated baron of Dungannon when Conn O'Neill (qv) arranged the surrender and regrant of Tyrone with the crown in 1542. Shane O'Neill (qv), Conn's eldest legitimate son, objected to this arrangement, claiming that Matthew was not really an O'Neill at all, having been born Matthew Kelly in Dundalk and later affiliated to the O'Neill family by Conn at the age of fourteen. As a result a devastating war broke between the rival contenders in the 1550s for control of Tyrone. Shane, in spite of the crown's military support for his opponent, had Matthew killed in 1558, and on Conn's death the following year succeeded to the Gaelic title of ‘O'Neill’.
Upbringing and early life
In these circumstances the lord justice, Henry Sidney (qv), gave Matthew's sons – the MacBarons – Brian and Hugh as wards of the crown to be fostered by Giles Hovenden, a New English settler, who had leased Conn's property at Balgriffen, Co. Dublin. In 1562 the elder, Brian, was murdered by Turlough Luineach O'Neill (qv). Meanwhile Hugh continued to be fostered by Hovenden's wife, Joan Walshe, even after she was widowed and remarried to John Piggott. Throughout the rest of his life Hugh was close to his Hovenden foster-brothers, particularly Henry, who became his secretary, whose ‘mother brought up the baron from a child’ (PRO, SP 63/104, no. 28). Much has been made of the alleged bringing-up of Hugh O'Neill by Sir Henry Sidney in England. There is no evidence for this. O'Neill himself speaks of his ‘education amongst the English’ rather than in England itself. This misconception seems to have arisen from Sidney's assertion in his 1583 Memoir that O'Neill was ‘bred in my house from a little-boy, then very poor of goods and full feebly friended’ (UJA, iii (1855), 92). In the context of Sidney's Irish service, this is plainly a reference to his Dublin household and refers either to the boy's initial arrival in the Pale or more likely to the mid 1560s, when Hugh became politically important with the renewal of war against Shane.
Hugh's wardship formally ended when he sued out his livery in November 1567. By then Shane O'Neill had been removed from the scene by the skeans of the MacDonnells, and the Strabane-based Turlough Luineach had taken the opportunity to fill the vacuum he had left as O'Neill. That winter Sidney brought Hugh, the young baron of Dungannon, and other Irish lords to the court in London on a sort of triumph, and on his return he placed Hugh in the barony of Oneilland in Co. Armagh. Hugh's presence was intended to keep Turlough confined north of the River Blackwater and was part of Sidney's plan to break up the O'Neill lordship. Once back in Ulster, Hugh was able to engage the support of Art MacBaron (1618), his half-brother, who had ‘held the fort’ for the MacBaron interest in the time of Shane's predominance, and to reactivate his original fosterage connections with the household families of the O'Hagans and O'Quinns. It was doubtless these ‘particular and peculiar followers’ of his own who, Sidney says, ‘much repined that the great and regal estate of the O'Neill (as they deemed it) should be so broken and dismembered’ (UJA, iii (1855), 93). Sidney paid Dungannon's expenses at the 1569 parliament and arranged a subsidy for him to fit out a detachment of cavalry. Nevertheless family, fosterage, and later marriage connections were as much a part of O'Neill's success as government backing. Whereas the state later insisted that he had been raised from the dust to be ‘a creature of our own’ (Cambridge University Library, MS Kk1 15, no. 31, ff 87–8), he countered that he had gained what was his by right through ‘scratching in the world’ (CSPI, 1596–7, 484). By the early 1570s the baron was putting Turlough Luineach under severe pressure, but the latter took advantage of ‘the enterprise of Ulster’ – a privatised colonial venture launched belatedly in 1573 to exploit the defeat of Shane O'Neill and his subsequent attainder, which had banned the O'Neill title and vested his lands in the crown – to unite the province behind him. In the event Hugh recouped his position by fighting alongside the 1st earl of Essex (qv) and was rewarded handsomely by him for his services. Essex could not defeat Turlough, but his erection of the Blackwater fort benefited not only the crown but the baron too. The latter further hemmed Turlough in at this time by reorientating his marriage alliance – dumping the daughter of Sir Brian MacPhelim O'Neill (qv) of Clandeboye in favour of Siobhán, daughter of Sir Aodh O'Donnell (qv) (d. 1600) of Tirconnell.
The road to power
Hugh's route to power was a tortuous one. Within Tyrone he had strong opponents in the wily Turlough Luineach and the numerous and popular sons of Shane O'Neill; within the north he had to contend with the ambitions of Sir Nicholas Bagenal (qv) and his son Sir Henry (qv), successively marshals of the queen's army in Ireland. However, with his early years in Ulster, his youth in the Pale, and his visit to court, Hugh had an unparalleled range of contacts, Gaelic, Old English, New English, and English, at his disposal. Furthermore he was one of the most adept politicians in Irish history – well versed in English and Irish affairs, as able in negotiation as in battle, capable of managing and dissembling his feelings, and possessed of a charisma which captivated the men and women who came in contact with him.
Hugh's ambition and ‘dissimulation’ was apparent to the state as early as 1579 when he sent Siobhán – she had not borne him a male heir as yet – home to Tirconnell and prepared to marry a daughter of Turlough in order to become tánaiste of Tyrone. When this rapprochement with the ruling O'Neill failed, Hugh took back his spurned wife. Instead he made a new mutually beneficial arrangement with the state, by which he undertook to defend the borders of the Pale from the depredations of his fellow Ulstermen in return for soldiers in pay. When Turlough waxed strong in 1580, Hugh left the province for a time to serve in Munster, though he was not present at the massacre at Smerwick. While Turlough's ranting, threats, and drum-beating during the Desmond war scuppered any chances of his ennoblement, Hugh was praised by Lord Deputy Arthur Grey (qv) as ‘the only Irish nobleman that hath done any service and drawn blood since my coming’ (PRO, SP 63/79, no. 5). Commissions and soldiers given to Hugh to defend the Ulster borders, which allowed the state to deploy its forces elsewhere, gave Hugh the opportunity to extent his influence over the uirríthe in south-east Ulster.
In March 1583 Turlough's death was reported and Hugh O'Neill marched on the inaugural stone at Tullaghogue to assume the prohibited title of ‘O'Neill’. This proved abortive because news came through that Turlough had recovered from a drink-induced coma lasting twenty-four hours. The state in Dublin – exhausted in the wake of the southern war and fearful of the turbulence which a MacShane succession might have engendered – had been inclined to acquiesce in Hugh's claim as the lesser of two evils. In the aftermath of this revealing episode, Hugh demanded control of the Blackwater fort and letters patents not only for Tyrone but also the Lagan valley. The lords justices wondered about the future disposition of this ambitious loyalist, since once in charge of Tyrone he would be ‘the greatest subject of form that has been in this realm of long time . . . able to command all Ulster even to the town of Dundalk’ (PRO, SP 63/102, no. 71). Further evidence was available in the spring of the following year when Hugh O'Neill, together with other Ulster lords, was at Strabane with his old adversary Turlough Luineach O'Neill ‘solemnizing their new Easter of the pope his appointing’ (PRO, SP 63/108, no. 56). The Old Style Easter was still three weeks away. Dublin was alarmed at this diplomatic activity, which saw not only the baron of Dungannon sinking his differences with the ageing O'Neill in order to get recognition as tánaiste but also the leading men of Ulster making in effect a joint religious declaration. The lords justices in Dublin reported themselves as being ‘mere strangers’ to these goings-on in the north.
In the summer of 1584 the MacShanes made their bid for power, backed by Scots mercenaries. Only crown intervention prevented the collapse of Turlough's power. This gave Lord Deputy John Perrot (qv) the opportunity to impose English composition forces led by the so-called ‘butter captains’ on the north, instead of the Scots mercenaries the lords generally employed. Although the long-term intention was the extension of crown control, the composition was also a short-term measure to shore up Turlough. Perrot also divided up central and eastern Ulster into lieutenancies in an attempt to demarcate spheres of influences for Turlough, Hugh, and Marshal Bagenal. In 1585 Hugh O'Neill took advantage of Turlough's declining power to overrun Dungannon, the Tyrone heartland, and the same year when attending parliament he was recognised as earl of Tyrone by the house of lords. He completed his success with a visit to court in 1587, where he charmed the queen and acquired letters patent to the lordship of Tyrone. A subsequent land commission included O'Cahan's country and the Fews within the earl's patent. In spite of representations from Perrot and Bagenal, all Turlough received was the captaincy of Tyrone for life. Perrot was furious at the result and an attempt was now made to contain the new earl's power. One commentator reckoned that the crown had paid £20,000 to put him in power. However, the subsidy paid to him to maintain his horse-band was now switched to Turlough to enable him to pay his composition forces. Most significantly Perrot had ‘Red’ Hugh O'Donnell (qv) arrested and imprisoned by the famous stratagem of sending a ship full of wine to Rathmullen. Hugh O'Neill protested at this action against the young Tirconnell lord, to whom his daughter was betrothed, as ‘the most prejudice that might happen unto me’ (PRO, SP 63/132, no. 31). He was similarly annoyed when Perrot began a new round of surrender-and-regrant agreements with minor Ulster lords, which threatened to detach the uirríthe from his clutches. In attempting to restore forward momentum in 1588, Hugh rendezvoused with Sir Hugh O'Donnell for an attack on Turlough; Perrot described the overthrow the earl suffered as a result at Carricklea as the best news from the north in nine years.
With his route to ultimate power now blocked, Hugh O'Neill had increasingly to resort to bribery, conspiracy, and subterfuge to advance his cause. At the time of the shipwreck of the Spanish armada on the Irish coast, the Dublin government feared his reaction as a leading papist, but they need not have worried. Apart from aiding individual survivors, and indeed keeping on a stranded soldier called Pedro Blanco as his personal servant, he saved face when his composition forces, led by Richard Hovenden and John Kelly, massacred the crew of La Trinidad Valencera and marched off its officers as prisoners to Drogheda. Besides having properly paid composition forces, Turlough had now established an open alliance with the MacShanes, welcoming Hugh Gavelach O'Neill back from exile in Scotland and adopting Conn as his son and tánaiste. There was open warfare in Tyrone. At the end of 1589 the earl had a stroke of luck when he gained possession of Hugh Gavelach after his capture by the Maguires. It was alleged that the earl had hung Gavelach from a thorn bush with his own hands. In fact the earl had offered to spare Gavelach if the rest of the MacShanes submitted to his rule; when an agreement was not forthcoming, he was hanged at Dungannon by the public executioners of Tyrone. The earl had also refused to hand over Gavelach to the authorities in Dublin. Capt. Thomas Lee (qv) later alleged that the earl had won the acquiescence of Lord Deputy William Fitzwilliam (qv) with ‘a great bribe’. Nevertheless Hugh O'Neill was now forced to travel to London to exculpate himself. There he was placed under house arrest but released after letters from Fitzwilliam and the Irish council commending him as a source of stability in the north. Hugh was further embarrassed at court by the arrival of Conn MacShane with a welter of allegations against him, but he was eventually allowed to leave, having agreed to forego the title of ‘O'Neill’ and to accept the reform of his territories. About this time the ageing Sir Nicholas Bagenal described the earl ‘as so allied by kindred in blood and affinity as also by marriages and fosters and other friendships as if he should be ill-disposed might hap put the crown of England to more charges than the purchase of Ulster should be worth’ (PRO, SP 63/145, no. 16).
The Bagenal marriage
It was not London's plans for Tyrone but Fitzwilliam's policy towards Monaghan that proved the most significant political development. Hugh Roe MacMahon, its lord, was executed for taking Irish exactions and then the MacMahon lordship was partitioned between the various septs of the clan. The church land was parcelled out to English servitors, an English garrison established in Monaghan town, and shire government and the common law established instead of brehon law. This small revolution threatened all Gaelic lords who did not comply with their surrender-and-regrant regulations with the replication of the Monaghan settlement throughout the north. O'Neill was directly affected, not only with the loss of the dues once paid by MacMahon as an urrí but also the loss of an aggrandised termon land and a mortgaged ballybetagh on the Monaghan borders. The beneficiary of these developments was Sir Henry Bagenal, who not only received the termon lands of Muckno but also now looked forward to an even greater prize of making his chief commissionership of Ulster an administrative reality in a ‘reformed’ Ulster. O'Neill believed that Fitzwilliam favoured Bagenal on account of large gifts of plate and money. In an abortive and extraordinary attempt to win back the initiative, Hugh wooed and then eloped with the marshal's sister, Mabel Bagenal (qv), as his third wife. This marriage, conducted by the protestant bishop of Meath, Thomas Jones (qv), at William Warren's house in Drumcondra, infuriated Sir Henry Bagenal to such an extent that he had O'Neill's divorce from his first wife investigated. At the end of 1591, after years of ineffectual lobbying, attempted bribery, and a failed escape attempt, Hugh O'Donnell finally escaped from Dublin castle using a silk rope supplied by the earl. After hiding in Glenmalure, O'Donnell was escorted back to Ulster by Turlough Boye O'Hagan. With O'Donnell power reasserted in the west, Hugh O'Neill and his son-in-law were able to join together and finally reduce Turlough Luineach, who in May 1593 surrendered the whole government of Tyrone to Hugh for an annual pension of £2,000. In the meantime Hugh sent his illegitimate son Conn Mac An Íarla on a disownable raid into Monaghan at the time of English court sessions there, which was widely regarded as an attempt to destabilise its reform settlement. Tension ramped up when in the winter of 1592/3 Edmund Magauran (qv), the exiled archbishop of Armagh, returned from Spain for a round of meetings with the Ulster lords.
When Capt. Humphrey Willis was sent into Maguire's country as sheriff of Fermanagh in Easter 1593 and the survival of yet another Gaelic lordship was put in the balance, the die was finally cast. O'Neill sent his brother, Cormac MacBaron, and his foster-brothers to assist Maguire against Willis. Later when this had been achieved he met Hugh Maguire (qv), his cousin and new son-in-law, at Castle Toome. Subsequently Maguire went on the offensive against the Binghams in north Connacht and O'Neill had Phelim mac Turlough O'Neill, who had links with Bagenal, assassinated by the O'Hagans. With a mounting number of allegations against the earl's loyalty, the state called him to account in Dundalk. Between 14 and 28 June 1593, charges that O'Neill had conspired with papist bishops, taken oaths with other Ulster lords, assisted Maguire, and murdered Phelim mac Turlough were examined. There was no conclusive proof, the witnesses and the state were under direct military threat in Dundalk, and the earl claimed that the allegations were concocted against him by Bagenal. His way out of the proceedings at Dundalk was to agree to assist the marshal in a campaign against Maguire. During this campaign O'Neill and Bagenal spent as much time watching each other as attacking Maguire, and when they finally did at the Erne ford, Lughaidh Ó Cléirigh (qv) writes that ‘Aodh Ó Néill was wounded thereat, and he was pleased thereat, so that the English would not have any suspicion of him’. The state next wanted O'Neill to deal with O'Donnell, against whom there was also mounting evidence, but he made excuses. When government commissioners travelled to Dundalk in March 1594, they concluded, after talks with O'Neill and the other Ulster lords, that there was a confederacy established between them, that O'Neill was their leader, and that the main cause of their unrest was the Monaghan settlement and its feared replication. ‘This undoubtedly, together with the rooted malice of the earl towards the marshal, is the cause of these great stirs and uproars in that province’ (PRO, SP 175, no. 89).
In these initial stages of the war, O'Neill used his brothers, relatives, and followers as proxies who made war on his behalf. For instance, it was Cormac MacBaron who defeated the English relief column to the beleaguered garrison in Enniskillen at the battle of the Ford of Biscuits on the River Arney, with the earl only turning up later to claim his share of the booty. Soon after O'Neill had the audacity to visit the new lord deputy, Sir William Russell (qv), in Dublin and gave a bravura performance which saw him return home in triumph. The queen was incandescent with rage that he had not been arrested. When the earl's half-brother, Art MacBaron, took the Blackwater fort in early 1595, the state's tolerance cracked. It proceeded to draw up a proclamation against the earl, dredging up the old claims about his father's parentage and insisting that the earl was the procurer of a province-wide revolt against the crown. By the time the proclamations were read out in Irish and English, the earl had already been in open action at Clontibret, where he had harried to near calamity a supply column which Marshal Bagenal led to and from the besieged garrison at Monaghan. The English army, leavened with reinforcements brought back from campaigning in Brittany, was astounded at the ability of the confederate army. Many of these Irishmen had been trained in the composition bands, and more were now being trained by veterans returned from Spanish regiments. These veterans taught the effective use of guns and improvised in the Irish landscape the defensive entrenching methods learned in the war in the Netherlands. The buannacht system, originally devised to maintain Scots mercenaries, was now switched to the support of this domestic standing army.
In September 1595 on the death of Turlough Luineach, the earl travelled to Tullaghogue to receive the prohibited title of ‘O'Neill’. By the end of the year the crown was forced to negotiate, and after much toing and froing between the Ulster borders, Dublin, and London, the confederates were being offered pardons, local autonomy, and informal tolerance of their religion. However, this compromise settlement was aborted by the arrival of Spanish agents in May 1596. Instead, after a meeting at Lifford, O'Neill and O'Donnell requested a Spanish army to liberate them and a Habsburg prince to rule over them.
The crown eventually tired of the confederate attempts to frustrate the settlement, and in 1597 replaced Russell with Lord Burgh (qv) as lord deputy. Burgh mounted a large offensive into Ulster, but he died of an Irish ague at Newry on his return from revictualling the new fort he had built on the Blackwater. The state was forced again to fall back on negotiation, but all that could be achieved was a temporary extension of the ceasefire as O'Neill once again raised the stakes to include liberty of conscience throughout Ireland and presented a book of grievances listing all the government excesses committed against the Irish over the past fifty years. When the ceasefire eventually broke down, O'Neill by turns threatened to storm or starve out the Blackwater fort. By the time Marshal Bagenal was selected to lead an army to revictual the fort, O'Neill had the ground prepared with a series of ditches constructed as obstacles along the line of march. The traverse of these obstacles and the continuous pressure from skirmishers on right and left caused the English companies to lose contact. The vanguard was overthrown and Bagenal killed and the main battle thrown into disorder by a gunpowder explosion. With up to half of Bagenal's force of 4,000 dead at the Yellow Ford on 14 August 1598, O'Neill had achieved the greatest victory ever achieved by Irish arms against the English. With the government in Dublin quaking and indeed grovelling to him, doubts have since been cast on O'Neill's judgment for not following up the great victory because his only physical gains were the evacuation of the Blackwater fort and Armagh cathedral, where the survivors had taken refuge. However, we do not know what O'Neill's own losses were; secondly, we know how inadequate his own forces were at siege warfare, having lost many trying unsuccessfully to dislodge a small English force from the earthen-ramparted fort in the heart of his own territory. Nevertheless the victory facilitated the spread of the revolt nationwide when in October Uaithne O'More (qv) and Richard Tyrrell (qv) marched into Munster to raise the disaffected and dispossessed there against the plantation.
As a result of these victories, O'Neill now had to face the 2nd earl of Essex (qv), the victor at Cadiz, with the largest English army ever dispatched to Ireland. A key to Essex's projected campaign was the dispatch of amphibious forces to Lough Foyle behind O'Neill's lines, but these were not sent and instead Essex dissipated his forces in marching pointlessly round the south of Ireland. By the time he was ordered to confront O'Neill he had an army of only 4,500, who were in no condition to fight. Instead he fatefully decided to negotiate alone with O'Neill at the ford of Bellaclinthe on the borders and left himself open to misconstruction. We can reconstruct what happened there on 7 September 1599 from subsequent documents and speeches of Essex. Doffing his cap and wading his horse into the stream, O'Neill expressed his love of Essex's father whom he had once served in Ulster. He was now willing to look to Essex above all others in the hope of obtaining peace with justice. He would not give Essex anything in writing – the earl would have to carry his offer of submission and conditions to court and deliver them viva voce. He said that he feared that the crown would advertise the information into Spain in order to break his alliance with them. When O'Neill demanded liberty of conscience, Essex replied: ‘Hang thee up, thou carest for religion as much as my horse’ (Moryson, Itinerary (London, 1617), pt ii, 75). O'Neill also demanded the restoration of confiscated lands throughout Ireland to their former owners. He wanted the crown to make peace with all those in revolt in one treaty, rather than separate ones, so that the Irish cause would be a monolith with him at its head. It is quite ridiculous to think that they may have discussed a bargain to make one of them king of England and the other king of Ireland. Essex's mission to court was a failure – his attempt to browbeat the queen ended in his arrest. When he heard this news, O'Neill broke off the peace process, though unbeknown to him Robert Cecil, Essex's rival, was still interested in concluding a peace on account of war-weariness in England.
Instead O'Neill decided to openly embark on a faith-and-fatherland propaganda campaign to win over the Old English of the Pale. He sent out a proclamation demanding their support of his campaign as fellow Irishmen and catholics and threatened the recalcitrant with destruction and damnation. He turned the rhetoric of the Tudor conquest on its head: ‘I will employ myself to the utmost of my power in their defence and for the extirpation of heresy, the planting of the catholic religion, the delivery of our country of infinite murders, wicked and detestable policies by which this kingdom was hitherto governed, nourished in obscurity and ignorance, maintained in barbarity and incivility and consequently of infinite evils which are too lamentable to be rehearsed’ (TCD, MS 578, f. 31). The same document shows that O'Neill had thought about the kingship of Ireland when he stated rhetorically: ‘I have protested and do hereby protest if I had gotten to be king in Ireland without the catholic religion . . . I would not the same accept’ (ibid.). Soon afterwards he issued ‘articles to be stood upon by O'Neill’ which would have created a catholic, self-governing Ireland. Cecil on receiving this document marked it ‘Eutopia’. Both O'Neill's ambitions and the limitations of his ideological démarche were exhibited when he now embarked on a winter tour of Munster. He appointed James fitz Thomas Fitzgerald (qv) as earl of Desmond. On the other hand Viscount Buttevant (qv) at Barrycourt, who refused O'Neill's overtures to join the catholic cause, reciting his long-standing allegiance to England and non-interference with his practice of religion, had to watch his lands and tenantry on Great Island and elsewhere being devastated. Although the pope later gave O'Neill the honorific title of lieutenant-general of the Catholic Army of Ireland, it is doubtful if even permission to excommunicate recalcitrants and neutrals, which O'Neill so earnestly desired but never received, would have had an effect on changing the allegiance of the Old English – such was their ingrained distrust of the Gaelic Irish.
In default of an Old English change of heart, Spanish intervention was the key to winning the war in Ireland, and O'Neill committed himself further to that alliance when he sent his second son, Henry, as a hostage to Spain in April 1600. However, O'Neill's nemesis had finally arrived in Ireland in the shape of Charles Blount (qv), Lord Mountjoy. There was now no let-up in the war as the new lord deputy began the clearance of Leinster. The Lough Foyle garrison was finally established under Sir Henry Docwra (qv), who after a slow start began winning over reluctant subjects of O'Neill and O'Donnell such as Art mac Turlough O'Neill and subsequently his son Turlough mac Art and Niall Garvach O'Donnell (qv). In the autumn of 1600, after a month of intermittent fighting in the Moyry pass which had successfully prevented Mountjoy's army advancing into Ulster, O'Neill made an inexplicable withdrawal from his trenches. As a result Mountjoy was able to establish a new forward garrison at Armagh. This lord deputy, however, did not intend long lines of supply to isolated garrisons but rather more numerous garrisons, which closer together supported each other and operated to waste the surrounding countryside. Meanwhile O'Neill built forts of his own on the Tyrone side of Lough Neagh in an attempt to prevent devastating raids from a fleet of boats which Sir Arthur Chichester (qv) had built.
In the late summer of 1601 O'Neill and O'Donnell finally received news of the dispatch of a Spanish expedition. They were displeased at its small size and later heard that it had landed at Kinsale in Co. Cork, where the revolt had already been stamped out. In the wake of Mountjoy's redeployment of troops from the Ulster borders to besiege the Spaniards, O'Neill was able to ravage the northern Pale and to collect a large army. He could be blamed for the slowness of his departure, but his successful rendezvous with O'Donnell in Cork in December 1601 put Mountjoy in a trap between the Irish camp and the Spaniards in Kinsale. This Irish army was too large to stay in the field for long and was under strident demands from the starving Spaniards for prompt action. Neither O'Neill nor O'Donnell wanted to fight, but their reputations were at stake and they eventually agreed to a Spanish plan for an advance towards the English front line. Once the Irish took up position on a particular hill, the Spaniards were to come out of the town and break through the English trenches to join up with them. On the morning of 24 December 1601 (OS)/3 January (NS) the Irish reached the required position, but when they were spotted and Mountjoy ordered out his men, O'Neill decided to retreat. Having retreated over two small rivers, the 5,000-strong Irish army drew up behind a bog, but a cavalry charge by Mountjoy's much smaller force routed them. 1,200 were killed, another 800 wounded to die later, and many more died on the long journey home. The Tyrone infantry that had fought the war so valiantly, steadily, and successfully had been destroyed in an hour. As a result, in the summer of 1602 Mountjoy was finally able to breach the Blackwater barrier into the heart of Tyrone, join up with Docwra, take Dungannon, destroy the O'Neill inaugural stone at Tullaghogue, and waste the country. Later, in flight from Ulster, O'Neill and Ruaidhrí O'Donnell (qv) claimed that Mountjoy's campaign was the cause of ‘so much misery that our people were eating human flesh and up to forty thousand of them died of sheer hunger’ (Walsh, Destruction by peace, 190). Given such circumstances, it is remarkable that the earl managed to remain in hiding in the forest of Glenconkyne until he was able to surrender with some dignity at Mellifont in March 1603.
Surrender, reinstatement, flight, and death
Fynes Moryson (qv) in his History of the rebellion of the earl of Tirone recorded that ‘the name of O'Neill is so revered in the north as none could be induced to betray him upon the large reward set upon his head’. In the same way that Moryson overdramatised the difficulties of the English army at Kinsale, so too did he overemphasise the significance of Mountjoy's keeping the news of Elizabeth's death secret from O'Neill. In fact, O'Neill's submission at Mellifont was not an abject surrender but a matter of negotiation which Mountjoy was keen to accelerate in case news of the death leaked out. Having received concessions, O'Neill renounced foreign alliances, the name of O'Neill and control of the uirríthe. Later he travelled to London, where he was received favourably by King James. He obtained a new patent which, with a few exceptions, was nearly as extensive as his original 1587 one; and, having the audacity to ask for the lord presidency of Ulster, was conceded the lieutenancy of Armagh and Tyrone.
On his return the earl intensified his control of Tyrone, making use of the patent to claim absolute landownership so as to reduce the landholdings of collateral branches of the O'Neill family or convert them to tenants-in-chief. He also needed tillers of the soil to boost the economy, and as a result he tried hard to hold on to or attract back the mobile tenantry, the so-called churls, who had been dispersed by the war. However, with Mountjoy's influence waning at court the government policy soon reverted to the prewar reform agenda. In 1605 the government issued a proclamation freeing the tenantry from illegal restraint by their lords. In Tyrone itself the earl faced legal challenges about his control of church lands and fishing rights. George Montgomery (qv), the new protestant bishop, as well as clamping down on catholic worship also encouraged Donnell O'Cahan (qv) to leave his wife, O'Neill's daughter Rose, and to return to his first wife, and then to seek separate patents to his lands. A key promoter of the rights of Gaelic freeholders was the new attorney general, Sir John Davies (qv), who seized on the opportunity that O'Cahan's desire for independence from O'Neill offered. There is no satisfactory explanation for the panicked flight of Hugh O'Neill, Ruaidhrí O'Donnell, and their dependents from Rathmullen in September 1607. Clearly pressure was again building up against the Gaelic lords of Ulster and this time they had no recourse to armed revolt. There was plainly a worry that the earl would be arrested in London, where he had been called to settle the legal dispute with O'Cahan. It may be that he was secretly involved in a catholic conspiracy and feared discovery. Whatever prompted the flight, it was a snap decision. It meant the earl abandoning plans at an advanced stage for the hugely significant marriage of his son and heir Hugh, baron of Dungannon, to a daughter of the earl of Argyll.
The fugitives’ ship did not reach Spain as they hoped but was driven by storms into port at Quilleboeuf in Normandy. The French king, Henri IV, who ranked O'Neill after Nassau and Spinola as ‘the third of the great captains’ (Damaschino, La spada, 385), refused English demands to hand over the refugees and instead permitted them free passage to the Spanish Netherlands. The Irish Franciscans welcomed the earls to Louvain; but the following spring the Spanish authorities, to avoid diplomatic difficulties with England, packed the fugitives off to Rome. There the earls were housed by the pope and lived on a stingy Spanish pension. In the summer of 1608 Ruaidhrí O'Donnell, his brother Caffar, and Hugh, baron of Dungannon, died of fever. As English plans for confiscation and plantation unfolded, O'Neill continuously petitioned Philip III for assistance with restoration by either diplomatic overtures to King James or direct Spanish military intervention spearheaded by the Irish regiment commanded by his son Henry. Meanwhile his asylum was monitored by English spies and informers and beset by worsening relations with his former supporter, Peter Lombard (qv), the Old English archbishop of Armagh.
O'Neill never gave up the possibility of return. In 1613 the English crown, with the Ulster plantation faltering and trouble with the Irish parliament, opened a channel to O'Neill about a reconciliation. The Spanish government proved lukewarm and the offer lapsed as the Irish and international situation changed. In 1615, amid heightening rumours of his return, a conspiracy was discovered in Ulster which saw his nephew Brian Crosach mac Cormac O'Neill hanged and his left-behind son, Conn, moved to England. The earl remained anxious to leave Rome to take up a forward position in the Low Countries but died in Rome 20 July 1616. The Spanish ambassador paid for an elaborate funeral. He was interred at San Piedro in Montorio, Rome's Spanish-run Franciscan church, alongside his son Hugh and his erstwhile brothers-in-law Ruaidhrí and Caffar O'Donnell.
In his lifetime O'Neill was described as a potential national saviour in Peter Lombard's 1600 De regno Hiberniae commentarius (posthumously published by the Louvain Franciscans in 1632) and as having been ‘born either to the very great good or great hurt of Ireland’ in William Camden's Britain (1610). In Primo Damaschino's La spada d'Orione (Rome, 1680) O'Neill was ranked as one of the great military commanders of the age. His chapter on ‘Ugo, Conte Di Tirone, Generale Ibernese’ has a small head and shoulders' likeness of its subject. In the nineteenth century he received biographical treatments from poet-clergyman James Wills (qv) in Lives of illustrious and distinguished Irishmen, ii (1840–47), from the Young Irelander John Mitchel (qv) in the Life and times of Aodh O'Neill, prince of Ulster (1845) and from the Manchester historian Robert Dunlop in the DNB, xliii (1895). In 1930 Paul Walsh (qv) provided a very useful booklet entitled The will and family of Hugh O'Neill, earl of Tyrone (1930). The most influential modern account of his life has been by Sean O'Faolain (qv) in The great O'Neill (1942). This faulty biography created an enigmatic O'Neill, vacillating between English and Irish identities and loyalties, defeated by a traditionalist Ireland. This image was fortified when Brian Friel (qv) used O'Faolain as his source for the play 'Making history' (1989). In 1993 a new account of O'Neill's early life was provided by Hiram Morgan in Tyrone's rebellion: the outbreak of the nine years war in Tudor Ireland (1993) and followed up with a series of articles on O'Neill and nationalism in the Historical Journal (1993) and Dúiche Néill (1994, 1997). In 2002 John McCavitt, incorporating the continental researches of Micheline Kerney-Walsh's (qv) Destruction by peace: Hugh O'Neill after Kinsale (Armagh, 1986), produced the Flight of the earls (Dublin 2002). The 400th anniversary of O'Neill's defeat saw further interpretation in Hiram Morgan's edited volume The battle of Kinsale (2004) and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004) had a revisionist account of O'Neill's life by Nicholas Canny.
O'Neill deserves praise as a military commander. He put together the highly effective army of Ulster, yet his tactics always had to be defensive because he did not have the resources to wage open, offensive, or siege warfare. This may have led to a lack of confidence, which translated into the fateful retreats from difficult but nevertheless winnable positions at the battles of Moyry Pass and Kinsale. He was a ruthless political operator – killing opponents, who would have used the same methods had they had the opportunity. He was a brilliant negotiator who played ‘good cop’ to O'Donnell's ‘bad cop’ in encounters with government commissioners. He managed to ‘up the ante’ in these negotiations and the government weakness on display fuelled his ambition. Though formerly a politique, he developed a faith-and-fatherland nationalism. This exercise in enlightened self-interest was too advanced for the Old English. He should have compromised in 1596 or at least risked the visit to London in 1607. He miscalculated his own and Ireland's importance in great power politics, becoming a pawn when he committed himself to Spanish intervention during the war and then sacrificing his position by fleeing in the mistaken hope of their benevolence. Instead of continuing to strive to lead the catholics of Ireland, his flight left the Ulster Irish leaderless and subject to plantation. In this Hugh O'Neill was a typical Gaelic lord – he cared only about himself, his offspring, and his immediate followers, and nothing for a people who deserved better. Hugh O'Neill is a study in power – he spent his life trying to win it, trying to retain it, and trying to regain it.