The last free Chieftains of Ireland

Some weeks ago I wrote that probably the greatest muster of the Irish Gaelic lords that ever gathered on a battlefield took their place on either side at Knockdoe, Co Galway, on August 19 1504. The O’Donnells and the O’Neills, from their great northern fiefdoms, fought for law and order on the side of the Earl of Kildare who successfully imposed the king’s rule on his rebellious and quarrelsome son-in-law the Earl of Clanricard, Ulick de Burgh (Burke ) of Claregalway castle. Ulick’s marriage to Kildare’s daughter, and his disregard for her, gave the Earl a personal reason for the battle; but his allies were equally anxious to display their loyalty to King Henry VII, the undisputed king of England after the protracted and bloody Wars of the Roses.

Yet within 30 years, the house of Kildare was in revolt against the crown. The result was that the Earl of Kildare’s grandson, Tomás an tSíoda, was hanged and beheaded in the Tower of London. While at Tyburn his five uncles were partly hanged, cut down, had their intestines drawn from their bodies, thrown into a fire, before finally, and mercifully, hacked into four pieces with an axe. Rebellion against the English crown, much of it calamitous for the people involved, continued sporadically until the Flight of the Earls on September 14 1607, a significant moment in Ireland’s history.

Free spirits

Matters became more critical under the reign of Queen Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry VIII. Her mother Anne Boleyn was executed two and a half years after her birth. Elizabeth succeeded her Catholic sister Mary, who had tried to reverse the tide of Protestantism with public burnings, property seizure, and imprisonment. The young Elizabeth was herself imprisoned for nearly a year on suspicion of supporting Protestant rebels.

When she became queen, she wished to continue the faith of her father, but she was no extreme Protestant. Elizabeth saw herself a queen to all her subjects, Protestant and Catholic alike. However, Pope Pius V declared her a heretic, releasing her subjects from any allegiance to her. This put her in mortal danger. She feared assassination, and that her kingdom would be invaded. Although she never married (declaring that she was married to her people ), she attracted fierce loyalty. Men of great ability, such as her chief adviser, William Cecil; and Francis Walsingham, her principal secretary and spymaster (whose intelligence network became the envy of Europe, and a man who was feared by many ). Both men, and others, worked tirelessly, and ruthlessly by her side. They had no scruples in encouraging piracy, assassination, torture, blackmail, or war to safeguard the Queen’s life and her country’s interests.

She endeavoured to subdue the Irish chieftains with a mixture of re-granting their lands and castles, acknowledging the rights of their successors, if they swore loyalty to her. Many did so. If, however, rebellion continued, it was put down without mercy. A revolt in Munster led by the Earl of Desmond, Gerald Fitzgerald, in 1582, was met with a scorched earth policy that led to the death by starvation of an estimated 30,000 men, women and children. The poet Edmond Spencer wrote that the victims ‘were brought to such wretchedness as that any stony heart would have rued the same.’

Her most difficult and successful rebels were the combined forces of Hugh O’Neill and Hugh Roe O’Donnell who waged a nine-year war against the crown. It was to be the last time that Irish chieftains rode into battle, free spirits of an ancient land, resisting the coming of the new.

The javelin was thrown

England had long suspected that the two powerful clans of Tír Chonaill (now Donegal ), The O’Neills and O’Donnells, would join forces and wage war against them. The Lord Deputy of Ireland, Sir John Perrot, had Hugh Roe Ó Donnell, at the age of 15 years, and his two brothers, kidnapped and imprisoned in Dublin Castle. Five years later, in January 1592 the brothers were rescued by Hugh O’Neill, the Earl of Tyrone, and taken into the Wicklow mountains. It was freezing cold, and all suffered from frostbite. But they survived, and found refuge with Fiach MacHugh O’Byrne at Glenmalure. All that England feared now came to pass. An alliance between the O’Neills and the O’Donnells was forged. The javelin was thrown, and war was waged.

O’Neill proved to be an effective military commander. He inflicted serious defeats on the English army first under Sir Henry Bagenal at the Battle of Clontibret, and secondly, he annihilated the English forces at Yellow Ford, on the Blackwater river. O’Donnell repulsed an English expedition at the Battle of Curlew pass. He swept into Connacht and attempted to capture Galway, whose merchants were loyal to the Queen. Galway refused to yield, so he marched on Athenry and virtually destroyed it, to such an extent that, in the words of Professor Etienne Rynne, ‘the town became fossilised, with the result that Athenry today is ( preserved ) the classic Irish medieval town.’

The revolt of the northern earls was doomed to fail unless help came from Catholic Spain, England’s most feared enemy. On September 21 1601, after much procrastination, changing the place of disembarkation, misunderstandings, and bad weather, the Spanish finally arrived at Kinsale. Don Juan del Aguila landed with a force of more than 3,000 men and arms.

There was a scramble to reach him first. O’Neill and O’Donnell raced from the north to join forces, while the English desperately sought to stop the two armies meeting, while at the same time tried to contain the Spanish in Kinsale.

Elizabeth had learned her lesson not to allow her court favourites to lead her armies. The man who led her Irish army now was Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy, a hardened and brilliant soldier.

I haven’t space to go into the details of the battle, but from what appeared to have been an unassailable position of strength by the O’Neill and O’Donnell forces, and Spanish armies, they were totally routed and fled in disorder. The Spanish surrendered on terms.

The Queen’s man

No doubt thankful that the Irish rebellion was resolved, Elizabeth turned her attention to other pressing matters. But it was not finished. Now O’Neill and O’Donnell were wanted men. If caught they faced a bloody end either at Tyburn or in the Tower. Shortly after the battle of Kinsale, O’Donnell sailed to Corunna, in Galicia, Spain where many of the other chieftains were already gathering. He was determined to persuade King Philip II to send another army to Ireland.

A reader, Padhraic Faherty, Formoyle, Barna, enjoyed the picture of the gathering of the old Gaelic chiefs at Knockdoe. He reminded me that the Queen’s advisers had not quite finished with O’Neill and O’Donnell. At least one assassin was sent after them. Captain James Blake, a notorious double-agent, followed O’Donnell to Simancas, and on July 20 1602, poisoned him.

Blake was the younger brother of Sir Valentine Blake of Menlo Castle, and even though he appeared to side with the Spanish, he was later in the pay of Sir George Carew, the Queen’s man in Munster. There is evidence that a coded letter was written to Carew saying ‘the deed has been done.’

Blake survived to old age in Galway. He was buried at the old Franciscan cemetery, now under the Galway courthouse. His descendants inherited the magnificent woods of Gortnamona, in Kiltormer, Ballinasloe. His grandson, also James, became a Catholic priest.

O’Neill was luckier. On September 14 1607, having avoided capture for six years, he and his family, and followers (many of them Ulster noblemen ), set sail from Rathmullen, a village on the shore of Lough Swilly, Co Donegal, on a French ship . It was the end of the old Gaelic order. If there were assassins after Hugh he avoided them for 10 years. He died in Rome July 20 1616, the same July date as his warrior friend. He is buried at San Pietro, Montorio, Rome.

Well worth a visit if you are in Italy this summer.

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