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Hugh O’Neill: a Provocateur of Fate

by Marina J. Neary

“Men are fated to do what their talents demand of them.” With that phrase Sean O’Faolain, the most prominent biographer of Hugh O’Neill, the 2nd Earl of Tyrone, sums up the legendary Irish rebel’s political career encompassing three decades of ambition, volatile alliances, tantalizing promise of victory and ultimate defeat.

The Great O’Neill never thought twice about befriending strangers or turning former friends into enemies. Taking the existing tradition to the extreme, he galloped in and out of alliances. He rebelled against his patron queen, lost, repented, received her pardon, rebelled again against her successor, fled Ireland and finally settled in Rome under the protection of the Pope and the King of Spain, securing himself the reputation of a brazen, charismatic traitor.

With his famous crimson beard, four wives that would make Henry VIII envious, and countless children legitimate and bastard, Hugh O’Neill maintains his status as one of the most controversial and mysterious figures in Irish history. The very date of his birth is uncertain. O’Faolain claims it is 1550, while other historians believe it to be as early as 1540. Keeping accurate records was hardly a priority for Gaelic chieftains. Up until his death in 1616 Hugh O’Neill remained a coveted ally for some of the most prominent political figures in Europe. There were always monarchs willing to take him under their wing.

He was born during a chaotic era when family relatives denounced and poisoned each other. As a mere lad he was a protégé of Elizabeth I, who shouldered the chore of supervising his reeducation. The Virgin Queen perceived the articulate, energetic boy as a worthwhile investment and raised him to be a law-enforcer in Gaelic Ireland. His duties were to impose the English ways upon the native “barbarians” and to suppress any attempts of the Irish chieftains to reclaim their freedom.

Initially, O’Neill’s behavior appeared perfectly in line with the Queen’s will. He performed all the tasks expected of him, having fought in 1580 with the English forces against Gerald Fitzgerald, 15th Earl of Desmond, and later assisted with the suppression of the Scots rebellion in Ulster in 1584. For his service to the crown, he was made by Parliament 2nd Earl of Tyrone, in spite of his questionable legitimacy, and soon became the most powerful man in Ireland.

All the bloodshed and intrigue that Hugh had witnessed as a child growing up in the woods of Ulster prior to becoming Elizabeth’s protégé had become intrinsic parts of his nature. He did not feel at ease unless he was in a state of conflict, be it physical, mental or political. Fortunately in Tudor-dominated Ireland, there was no shortage of opportunities to engage in conflict.

His pugnacious, effervescent character would not allow him to enjoy the benefits of his station. He eloped with Mabel, the sister of his sworn enemy Sir Henry Bagenal.

By then Hugh had already had two marriages under his belt. The first one, to Katherine O’Neill, ended in a scandalous annulment. The second one, to Joanna O’Donnell, left him a widower. Having cut his grieving period short, Hugh abducted and seduced Mabel, a naïve, exquisitely beautiful Protestant girl twenty years younger. She ran away and eloped with Hugh, having embraced Catholicism and enraging her family.

Her marriage brought her no joy, as the amorous fog before her eyes had gradually dissipated. Having witnessed treachery and corruption that abounded within the walls of Dungannon Castle, she learned what it was really like to be married to an Irish chieftain. She died in 1595, allegedly of a broken heart, caused by Hugh’s repeated infidelities.

Because of the controversy surrounding her marriage to O’Neill, Mabel became known as Helen of Troy of Elizabethean Ireland. Hugh’s fourth and last wife was Katherine Magennis who later accompanied him into exile in Rome.

He was not the first man in history to turn his country into a laboratory for his political experiments. Nor was he the only man of his generation to be misunderstood by his contemporaries. Nineteenth-century Irish nationalists invented a romantic myth about Hugh O’Neill, depicting him as a self-sacrificing idealist who fought for Gaelic freedom. However, modern historians blame O’Neill for accelerating the demise of Gaelic Ireland. His outlandish attacks against the Tudor dynasty were dictated not by patriotism or altruism but by profane curiosity. His Nine Year War was just a political experiment, a test of his abilities as military leader.

After his defeat at the Battle of Kinsale in 1601 he was reduced to the status of guerrilla chieftain and spent a year roaming the Irish countryside with his children and soldiers. At last he wrote an official letter of surrender to Mountjoy, giving himself over to the mercy of the Tudors and pleading for pardon.

Astonishingly enough, he received that pardon several days before Queen Elizabeth died, and he was later restored to his earldom. Upon returning to Tyrone, he found his former domain a hunger-ridden wasteland. The famished natives greeted him with hatred, volleying him with stones and dirt.

The Queen’s successor, James I, a Stuart and a Celt, was sympathetic towards Ireland. A bit of patience and diplomacy on Hugh’s part, and Gaelic Ireland could have been given a second chance. Unfortunately, the truce did not last long. Hugh, an incorrigible provocateur of fate, made it impossible for him and his family to stay in Ireland. His unpopularity with his subjects kept growing, as did his conflict with James I. The final straw was his personal animosity with Sir Arthur Chichester.

On September 14, 1607 Hugh O’Neill and Rory O’Donnell, Earl of Tyrconnel, fled Ireland. The event became known as the Flight of the Earls and ranks among the most celebrated episodes of Irish history, as it ushered in the Irish diaspora. Hugh and Rory found temporary shelter in the Netherlands. The winter was brutal, and they did not wish to risk traveling by sea. Then in the spring of 1608 they proceeded to Rome where Pope Paul V welcomed them with open arms, praising them as Catholic avengers.

The last eight years of his life Hugh O’Neill spent under the protection of the Pope and the King of Spain, sipping wine and sharing his tales, which inspired many epic ballads back home in Ireland.

Copyright © 2010 by Marina J. Neary

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