O'Neill, Shane (Seaán) (c.1530–1567), chief of the O'Neills of Tír Eoghain (1558–67), was the youngest son of the reigning O'Neill, Conn Bacach (qv), and his wife Sorcha, daughter of Hugh Oge O'Neill, chief of the Clandeboye O'Neills. Shane was left motherless shortly after his birth and fostered out to the O'Donnellys, a substantial client family of, and hereditary officeholders under, the O'Neills. Conn Bacach's decision to foster Shane within his own lordship rather than with neighbouring powers is perhaps an indication of Shane's relative unimportance. The youngest of at least six acknowledged male children, the infant Shane possessed of himself little diplomatic leverage, while his delivery into the hands of an unquestioningly loyal family helped diffuse any tensions which his arrival may have provoked among his siblings. With the exception of his brief abduction in 1531 by Niall Oge O'Neill, a dynastic rival of Conn Bacach, Shane's early life is shrouded in obscurity; but he seems to have remained with the O'Donnellys until he reached manhood, and was known in Ulster during his lifetime as ‘Seaán Donnghaileach’.
Entry into dynastic politics By the time Shane first appears in the surviving sources – in 1548 he is recorded leading a successful raiding party against the Clandeboye O'Neills – the lordship of Tír Eoghain was on the brink of a severe dynastic crisis. By then the series of diplomatic agreements which, as part of the settlement with the Dublin administration, Conn Bacach had entered into in the early 1540s with his principal neighbours in Ulster had provoked serious internal tensions among his own family. Internal jockeying for power was exacerbated by opportunist interventions by the O'Donnells, by English adventurers operating from the settlement of Nicholas Bagenal (qv) at Newry, and above all by the MacDonalds (MacDonnells) of the Isles, who used the discomfiture of O'Neill as an occasion to extend their power in Clandeboye and the other lordships of Ulster, east of the Bann. Conn's mild early efforts to assert his authority only encouraged his enemies while forfeiting the trust of his former friends in Dublin. Thus in 1551 he opened all-out war on his enemies both among the O'Neills and in Ulster as a whole. The Dublin government's ill-advised arrest of Conn during negotiations had the effect of plunging the O'Neill lordship into unrestrained dynastic war. And it was in these circumstances that Shane, hitherto of no account in any of the diplomatic and political manoeuvrings of the 1540s, rose suddenly to prominence. Battening on the divisions between Feardorcha (qv), Conn's eldest son and the one who, as baron of Dungannon, had been recognised by the crown as Conn's successor as earl of Tyrone, and all of the conservative elements within the dynasty, Shane proclaimed himself as the true defender of his father's cause. Of itself the claim carried little weight, though it did enable him to seize the O'Neill treasury for ‘safe keeping’. But a strategic and cynical alliance with Hugh O'Neill Oge of Clandeboye enabled him to acquire overnight a major force of Scots mercenaries, urgently needed by Shane, and in great oversupply with Hugh.
Shane's supply of Scots radically transformed the war among the O'Neills, enabling him to lay waste the lands and herds of all who opposed him. Belatedly realising its error, the Dublin government at length reinstated Conn. Repudiating Shane's legitimist claims, Conn again allied himself with Dungannon and sought to reassert his authority by making renewed attacks on the Scots in the Glens and Clandeboye. Thus Shane was forced to assert himself overtly as a contender for the O'Neillship. This he did by renewing his alliance with the Clandeboye O'Neills and (through them) the MacDonnells, by violently demanding tribute from the Maguires, the O'Reillys, and the MacMahons and by ruthlessly enforcing his authority over the other dynastic collaterals, silencing most and forcing some, like Felim Rua O'Neill of the Fews, into exile in the Pale. Thus he steadily closed the net around Dungannon and his father until in 1558 he had the former assassinated (by the O'Donnellys) and forced the latter to flee for protection to the Pale, where he died helpless the following year.
Head of his nation Immediately on Conn's death Shane had himself proclaimed O'Neill through the traditional ceremony at Tullaghogue, and next sued Dublin to have himself acknowledged as Conn's successor to the earldom of Tyrone. Shane's haste was prompted by anxieties on a number of issues. First, despite (or perhaps because of) the ruthless manner in which he had asserted his military might among them, Shane's political authority over the O'Neills was far from secure, and several potential opponents, including Turlough Luineach (qv) and Felim Rua of the Fews persisted in their independence. Shane's imperfect domestic authority necessitated a continuing dependence on the MacDonnells, a condition which was both economically oppressive and diplomatically restrictive. Shane's concerns were deepened by the ascendancy in Tír Conaill of Calvagh O'Donnell (qv) – usurping son of the incumbent lord, Manus O’Donnell (qv) – who was seeking to assert his own domestic authority by renewing an aggressive policy toward the ancient enemy, O'Neill. But above all Shane was concerned about the attitude of the Dublin administration. The reappointment of Sir Anthony St Leger (qv) as viceroy in 1553 had been the occasion of a tentative rapprochement between Dublin and Shane, for while St Leger continued to recognise Tyrone and Dungannon, he had acknowledged Shane's position as an important figure in Ulster politics by granting him a generous pension from the civil list. St Leger's replacement by the less supple earl of Sussex (qv) brought about a sharp deterioration in relations; though Shane submitted to Sussex soon after his arrival and received a full pardon. But Shane's evasive responses on being summoned to join with the viceroy in two successive campaigns against the MacDonnells (1557, 1558) provoked Sussex's suspicion and anger. Sussex's exemplary sack of Armagh (1557) and Shane's subsequent moves against Dungannon and Tyrone produced a total breach in relations. Thus when Shane sued for recognition as Tyrone, Sussex's response was hostile. The suit could not be entertained, he asserted, until all of Shane's outstanding disputes, both with the lesser lords of Ulster and with the major families in Tír Eoghain, had been settled by government arbitration. Such terms were unacceptable; and both parties prepared for war.
Sussex's unsuccessful moves against Shane, 1560–64 The failure of Sussex's attempts to launch a campaign against Shane in 1560 enabled Shane to prepare, and when in 1561 Sussex at last got underway, his campaign plan was destroyed both by Shane's sudden seizure and imprisonment of Sussex's greatest Ulster ally, An Calbhach O'Donnell (qv) (May), which caused all other allies to melt away, and by a surprise attack (July) on the rearguard of the English campaign army as it made its way through Armagh. The collapse of Sussex's war effort made way for an alternative approach which Shane, with the aid of the earl of Kildare (qv) and his allies at Whitehall, had been promoting since 1559: that Shane should bypass Sussex and Dublin and sue in person before Elizabeth to be recognised as earl of Tyrone.
Though they proved to be inconclusive in the short term, Shane's negotiations at Whitehall in January–May 1562 were to be of decisive importance not only for Shane but in regard to the crown's subsequent policy toward Gaelic Ireland in general. His case for recognition was on the surface strong. First he argued that Dungannon's undisputed illegitimacy had invalidated the 1542 settlement made with Conn, and that the process needed to be commenced de novo with the only figure who, like Conn, had been elected the O'Neill by his people. All this was plausible, and had earlier been recognised as such by Elizabeth herself. But the dangerous implications which the position contained only became plain when debate was joined. Sussex's response to this claim was blunt. 1542 was not a treaty; it was an act of grace and favour by the crown toward a surrendering rebel. As such, the matter of Dungannon's illegitimacy was irrelevant. The title was in the gift of the crown to confer on any at its pleasure. To this Shane and his lawyers replied trenchantly that Conn had surrendered, and had been regranted, rights (and obligations) which he held not in his own person, but as ‘an officer’ of the O'Neills, and it was only as such that the wide-ranging demands for the reform of the lordship could have been put to (and accepted by) him. The evidence of the 1542 negotiations supported this case. But the implication that all of the negotiations of the 1540s with the Irish lords had been founded on this fudge was intolerable. Other factors also intervened. Recognition that Shane's embassy served the factional interests of Lord Robert Dudley and his allies in Ireland had already aroused the suspicions of Secretary Cecil, and his additional realisation that a temporary disappointment of Shane might aid him in delicate negotiations currently under way with the earl of Argyll persuaded him to weigh in on the side of the Irish viceroy. Thus he proposed that no further negotiations be held until Dungannon's heir Brian O'Neill (qv) was invited to court. This amounted to an effective withdrawal of the terms under which the mission had been undertaken, and enforced an end to all negotiations. In April the unfortunate Brian was murdered (ostensibly against Shane's will by Turlough Luineach), Shane was allowed to depart on the terms of safe conduct, and Sussex was again given royal assent to prepare for war.
Sussex's renewed attempt at war collapsed before it could even get under way. Instead of a campaign Sussex resorted to assassination, sending ‘one Smith’ to supply Shane with poisoned wine. But this too failed, leaving Shane with only a bad hangover, and perfect grounds for his refusal to come to the viceroy until a final agreement had been negotiated by third parties. Sussex's failure and personal exhaustion provided an opportunity for his rivals at court once again to initiate the alternative strategy of conciliation. Responding to Shane's overtures, Dudley used his influence with Elizabeth not only to have Sussex temporarily supplanted as governor by a client of his own, Sir Nicholas Arnold (qv), he also secured royal permission for Sir Thomas Cusack (qv), St Leger's sometime lord chancellor, to commence negotiations with Shane toward a final settlement of all his demands. The peace concluded by Cusack with Shane at Drumcree, Co. Meath, in September 1563 was ostensibly generous. Acknowledging Shane as ‘the lord O'Neill’ it promised that his title to Tyrone would be confirmed as soon as the Dungannon title had been extinguished by statute. It recognised further that Shane was to have ‘the leading and service of so many captains as shall be proved to have of ancient custom appertained to . . . O'Neill', and granted the practical force of these claims in regard to O'Reilly and Maguire. Shane's demands to be made a commissioner to hear causes in Ulster, to have his would-be assassin brought to trial, and to have satisfactory assurances before he was again obliged to attend on the viceroy were all accepted. Even his suit to have a well-born Englishwoman as his wife was greeted with the assurance that the queen herself would join in the search. In fact, however, the concessions made at Drumcree were too generous to be practicable. Shane's suit for an English noblewoman was greeted with horror and indignation at Whitehall; the revelations which might arise from the trial of Smith were likewise considered unacceptable; and insistence on setting his own terms before answering the viceroy were deemed contumacious. None of these reservations were of themselves fatal. But the agreement that all should be settled by act of parliament proved to be; because, for a variety of reasons quite unrelated to Shane's own case, the summoning of an Irish parliament in the near future was regarded both in Dublin and Whitehall as a political and practical impossibility. Thus the peace process faltered over the winter and spring of 1563–4, with intermittent exchanges uncovering the very great difficulties which had been passed over at Drumcree, until Shane determined once more on force.
An irrevocable return to conflict, 1564–5 Shane's impatience with the stalled negotiations was based on several factors. He mistrusted the bona fides of Arnold and Cusack in Dublin, and was even more suspicious of the intentions of their superiors at Whitehall. But he had even more immediate concerns in Ulster. The implications of his suit for the earldom were not lost on his erstwhile allies, the MacDonnells, who stood to be the principal losers should Shane be transformed into a loyal subject under the Irish crown. Conversely the failure of the 1562 negotiations encouraged his old enemies both in Tír Eoghain itself and in the neighbouring lordships. It was to quell these rising discontents that Shane, immediately on his return from court, had felt compelled publicly to assert that ‘he went not into England to keep, but to win’, and to commence a further round of punitive raids on O'Donnell, the Maguires, and the O'Reillys, even as he prepared for renewed war with Sussex. The abortive nature of Drumcree – a public warning to all as to what Shane intended, and had not yet achieved – only deepened these pressures. And it is perhaps significant that it is around this time that he is reported to have surrounded himself with a bodyguard of ‘Janyzerys’ and to have begun the arming and training of the peasantry.
Even so, Shane proceeded with some caution. In the early summer of 1564 he sought permission both from Cecil and Dudley and from Arnold in Dublin to commence independently a war against the MacDonnells. In conception this was a shrewd move. No one could flatly refuse this offer to recommence a favourite English policy in Ireland, and the silence not only enabled Shane to commence operations in east Ulster, but to precede it by an immensely violent raid on the O'Donnells in May, ostensibly to protect his rear during the coming war at which Dublin was compelled to wink. But the war with the MacDonnells opened badly when Shane, challenging the Scots to open battle on the banks of the Bann, was pushed across the river and had his fortifications destroyed. A truce was hastily patched up. But this encounter marked the initiation of a violent vortex from which Shane was never to escape.
Determined to stifle the hope that he was not after all militarily invincible, Shane rounded on the O'Donnells in October to reassert his authority and to reassure his followers that there was still plenty of booty to be had by remaining in his service. This time he went further than mere plundering: he established a puppet regime in the person of Aodh Dubh O'Donnell (qv) and placed garrisons in the principal O'Donnell castles. Early in 1565 he turned again against the Scots, exploiting the MacDonnells’ attack on the lesser families of Clandeboye to secure local support in a carefully planned campaign. Using local knowledge to cut passes, Shane appeared unexpectedly in the Glens, laying siege and capturing the MacDonnell castles at Redbay and Ballycastle, and destroying a large force of the MacDonnells at Glentaisie on 2 May. Holding the leaders of the MacDonnells, James (qv) and Sorley Boy (qv) as prisoners, Shane rejected all offers of ransom, and spent the summer in the Glens, settling his own people there and placing garrisons in MacDonnell castles in order to protect them.
Final campaigns and death These were remarkable achievements but they marked an escalation in the struggle for hegemony in Ulster from which there could be no return. Shane's successes, followed by his renewed oppression of O'Reilly and a new campaign against O'Rourke which he launched late in 1565, deeply alarmed his erstwhile supporters in Dublin and at court. Regarding him as beyond their control, Dudley and Kildare now turned hostile, and, abandoning Arnold and his strategy of appeasement, began to promote a policy of outright war against Shane with Sir Henry Sidney (qv) as their favourite candidate for the viceroyalty. Appointed as lord deputy in September 1565, Sidney, after much cavilling and prevarication on the part of Elizabeth, finally received authority to move against Shane only in the following August, and was forced to commence a winter campaign. Ambitious in conception and much lauded in retrospect by its author, Sidney's attempt to trap Shane in a pincer movement through the establishment of an English expeditionary force at Derry was in reality no more successful than Sussex's straightforward assaults. Shane failed to appear before the viceroy; but he attacked the Derry garrison in November, killing its commander, Sir Edward Randolph, and effectively removing it from the war (it was wholly destroyed by an accidental explosion in April 1567). In the meantime Sidney's march through mid-Ulster was impressive but without permanent effect, and his hope to restore An Calbhach O'Donnell (released by Shane in 1564 as part of the Drumcree negotiations and in exchange for Lifford castle) in triumph in Tír Conaill was spoiled by the latter's sudden death on 26 October. Inevitably, on his return to Dublin, Sidney boasted of his achievements: the campaign, he claimed had at least shaken the loyalty of Shane's closest allies, and encouraged his greatest enemies. This was largely propaganda, necessary to save his reputation and secure supplies for another year. But it was true that the campaign had raised the stakes in Ulster, where Shane recognised that another assertion of authority was necessary, and all of his enemies realised what the likely consequences of another viceregal failure would be. Thus in the spring of 1567, when Shane again invaded Tír Conaill with the especial purpose of punishing Aodh Dubh who had temporarily deserted to Sidney, a crisis was reached. Precisely because he was so weak, and posed little threat to them, the leading families of Tír Conaill, after allowing him a brief humiliation at Shane's hands, rallied to Aodh Dubh, and on 8 May came against Shane in force at the ford of Fearsat Suibhle (Farsetmore), a traditional crossing point for the transfer of booty. Surprised, Shane's army was forced into the river, where 600 were killed in fighting and as many as 1,300 drowned. With them Shane lost also his closest lieutenants and the commander of his Scots mercenaries. This defeat so early in the campaign season was catastrophic, and Shane, having considered surrendering to Sidney, elected to negotiate with the Scots. It was not an entirely desperate move: Shane had already made his peace with some of the MacDonnells who served with him in the campaigns of 1566, he still had Sorley Boy as a hostage, and Sorley's brother, the chief of the MacDonnells, had as yet refrained from attacking him. But Glentaisie, and the subsequent plantation in the Glens, could not be erased; and Sidney, powerless himself, was busy in a secret intrigue promising the Scots the right of denization should they remove O'Neill. The Scots’ calculations were thus finely balanced. Thus when Shane arrived at Cushendun on 31 May to open negotiations, there was no feasting and drunken brawling, as the story later spread had it. But when Shane failed to convince them that they could live with him peacefully in Ireland, in the midst of talks on 2 June they cut his throat and those of his five companions.
Appearing more than two years after his death, the story of Shane's death in a drunken fight over women, like so many more concerning his vanity, his cruelty, and his gargantuan appetites, was inspired by clearly propagandist motives and has little corroborative support. In part a reflection of Elizabethan ethnocentricity, Shane's demonisation and marginalisation also served more important ideological and constitutional purposes. The challenge which he raised to the 1542 settlement not only affected the O'Neillship, but bore on the entire Tudor strategy of aristocratic ‘surrender and regrant’, revealing the insuperable difficulties involved in transforming Gaelic lords into English nobles, requiring the adoption of a radically different perspective on the constitutional, political, and social structures of Gaelic Ireland, as first adumbrated in the act of Shane's attainder, and rendering inevitable the sharp escalation in violence of which Shane was at once a perpetrator and a victim.
By 1554, he had married his first wife Katherine, daughter of James MacDonnell, lord of Cantyre. In 1560 he divorced her and married Mary, daughter of An Calbhach O'Donnell. She died in 1561 apparently grief-stricken by her husband's harsh treatment of her father. Upon seizing An Calbhach in May 1561, Shane had also captured the O'Donnell lord's wife (and his second wife Mary's mother) Katherine (nee MacLean), widow to the fourth earl of Argyll. She subsequently became his mistress and perhaps his wife, bearing him at least two sons. He had at least ten sons in total; known collectively as the MacShanes, they contended unsuccessfully with first Turlough Luineach and then Hugh O'Neill (qv), earl of Tyrone, for dominance of the O'Neill lordship in the late 16th century. The most noteworthy of the MacShanes were Art (qv), who died of exposure in the Wicklow mountains in 1592 after escaping from Dublin castle; Henry, who escaped with Art and was still alive in 1615; and Hugh Geimhleach, who was hanged in 1590 upon the orders of Hugh O'Neill, earl of Tyrone.