Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone

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Hugh O'Neill
Hugh Ó Neill, 2nd Earl of Tyrone.jpg
Earl of Tyrone
Reign 1587 – 1607
ireland 1595
Predecessor Turlough Luineach O'Neill
Successor Henry O'Neill
Born c. 1550
Tyrone, Ireland
Died 20 July 1616 (aged c. 66)
Burial San Pietro in Montorio, Rome, Italy
Spouse Katherine O'Neill
Joanna (Siobhán) O'Donnell
Mabel Bagenal
Katherine Magennis
Issue Hugh
House O'Neill Dynasty
Father Matthew O'Neill
Mother Siobhán Maguire
Religion Roman Catholicism

Hugh O'Neill (Irish: Aodh Mór Ó Néill; literally Hugh The Great O'Neill; c. 1550 – 20 July 1616), was an Irish Gaelic lord, Earl of Tyrone[1] (known as the Great Earl) and was later created The Ó Néill. O'Neill's career was played out against the background of the Tudor conquest of Ireland, and he is best known for leading the resistance during the Nine Years' War, the strongest threat to English authority in Ireland since the revolt of Silken Thomas.

Early life

O'Neill came from a line of the O'Neill dynasty - derbfine - that the English authorities recognized as the legitimate successors to the chieftainship of the O'Neills and to the title of Earl of Tyrone. He was the second son of Feardorcha Ó Néill, known in English as Matthew O'Neill, reputed illegitimate son of Conn, 1st Earl of Tyrone.

Shane O'Neill (Seán an Díomais) a legitimate son of Conn, employed the ambivalent status of Matthew's paternity to affirm his own claim to the title The O'Neill, although illegitimacy in itself made little or no difference in terms of the Irish legal system of derbfine, where five degrees of consanguinity through the male line with a blood ancestor who had held the O'Neill title were required of any claimant. Once Matthew was accepted by Conn as his son, he was as entitled to the O'Neill lordship as Shane,[2] although, if proven, Shane's constant assertion that Matthew was actually an adoptee,[3][4] affiliated[5] to the O'Neills, rather than the illegitimate issue of Conn would have rendered his claim to the earldom void [6] and would have entirely disqualified him from succession also under derbfine .

In the ensuing conflict for the succession Matthew was killed by the Ó Donnaile followers of Shane and Conn, placing his sons Brian and Hugh in a precarious situation. The continuing support for their claims came from the English administration in Dublin, which was anxious to use the reliance of the sons of Matthew on their support to break the independent power of the O'Neill lords of Ulster. This was part of a general English policy to transform Irish Gaelic titles into feudal titles granted under the crown that would bring them entirely within the English legal system through a policy known as surrender and regrant, in which the Irish forcibly surrendered their lands to the crown and had them granted back into their keeping as property of the crown, rather than the property of the sept, or Gaelic extended family.

O'Neill succeeded his brother, Brian, as baron of Dungannon, when the latter was assassinated by Shane's Tánaiste, or deputy, Turlough Luineach O'Neill[7] in 1562. He was brought up in the English colonial outpost known as the Pale, by the Hoveneden family, not in England as has been erroneously claimed in various histories; but after the death of Shane he returned to Ulster in 1567 under the protection of Sir Henry Sidney, lord deputy of Ireland. In Tyrone, Hugh's cousin, Turlough Luineach O'Neill had succeeded Shane O'Neill as The O'Neill, or chieftain, but was not recognized by the English as the legitimate Earl of Tyrone. The crown therefore supported Hugh O'Neill as the rightful claimant and as an ally in Gaelic controlled Ulster. During the Second Desmond Rebellion in Munster, he fought in 1580 with the English forces against Gerald Fitzgerald, 15th Earl of Desmond, and assisted Sir John Perrot against the Scots of Ulster in 1584.

In the following year he was summonsed to attend Parliament in Dublin as Earl of Tyrone and, in 1587 after a visit to the Court in England, he was awarded a patent to the lands of his grandfather, the first earl, Conn O'Neill. His constant disputes with Turlough were fomented by the English with a view to weakening the power of the O'Neills, but with the growing power of Hugh, the two came to some agreement and Turlough abdicated in 1595. Hugh was subsequently inaugurated as The O'Neill at Tullahogue in the style of the former Gaelic kings, and became the most powerful lord in Ulster.


O'Neill's career was marked by unceasing power politics: at one time he appeared to submit to English authority, and at another intrigued against the Dublin government in conjunction with lesser Irish lords. In keeping with the practice common at the time, he bribed officials both in Ireland and at Elizabeth's court in London. Though entirely supported by the Dublin administration in his early years, he seems to have been unsure whether his position as head of the O'Neills was best secured by alliance with the English or by rebellion against the advance of their government into Ulster from 1585.

In the early 1590s, English government in Ulster took the form of a Provincial Presidency, to be headed by the colonist, Henry Bagenal who lived at Newry. In 1591, O'Neill roused the ire of Bagenal by eloping with his sister, Mabel, but showed his loyalty to the crown with his military support for his brother-in-law in the defeat of Hugh Maguire at Belleek in 1593. After Mabel's death, O'Neill gradually fell into a barely concealed opposition to the crown and sought aid from Spain and Scotland. In 1595, Sir John Norris was ordered to Ireland at the head of a considerable force for the purpose of subduing him, but O'Neill succeeded in taking the Blackwater Fort before Norris could prepare his forces. O'Neill was instantly proclaimed a traitor at Dundalk. The war that followed is known as the Nine Years War.

Nine Years War

O'Neill followed Shane's policy of arming the people, rather than relying as Turlough had done upon Scots mercenary soldiers, such as redshanks or Irish professionals employed under buannacht. This policy allowed him to field an impressive force, with cavilers and gunpowder supplied from Spain and Scotland, and in 1595 he gave the crown authorities a shock by ambushing and routing a small English army at the Battle of Clontibret. He and other clan chiefs then offered the crown of Ireland to Philip II of Spain who refused it.

In spite of the traditional enmity between his people and the O'Donnells, O'Neill allied himself with Hugh Roe O'Donnell, son of Shane's former ally and enemy Hugh O'Donnell, and the two chieftains opened communications with King Philip II of Spain. In some of their letters to the king - intercepted by the lord deputy, Sir William Russell - they were shown to have promoted themselves as champions of the Roman Catholic Church, claiming liberty of conscience as well as political liberty for the native inhabitants of Ireland. In April 1596, O'Neill received promises of help from Spain, and thereafter chose to temporize with the authorities, professing his loyalty to the crown as circumstances required. This policy was a success and, even though Sir John Norris sought to bring him to heel, O'Neill managed to defer English attempts on his territory for more than two years.

In 1598, a cessation of hostilities was arranged and a formal pardon granted to O'Neill by Elizabeth. Within two months he was again in the field, and on 14 August he destroyed an English army at the battle of the Yellow Ford on the Blackwater river, in which engagement Henry Bagenal was killed; it was the greatest of all setbacks to English arms in Ireland. If the earl had been capable of driving home his advantage, he might have successfully upset English power in country, as discontent had broken out in every part - and especially in the south, where James Fitzthomas Fitzgerald was asserting his claim to the earldom of Desmond. In reality, O'Neill required foreign intervention and, despite his growing reputation in Europe as a commander in the field, this was not yet forthcoming.

Eight months after the battle of the Yellow Ford, a new Lord Lieutenant, the Earl of Essex, landed in Ireland with the largest expeditionary force ever sent there from England (17,000 troops). Essex found that O'Neill had been waiting to see what might be attempted against him; acting on the queen's explicit instructions, and after some ill-managed operations in the south of country, he had a parley with Tyrone at a ford on the Lagan on 7 September 1599, when a truce was arranged. Elizabeth was displeased by the favourable conditions allowed to O'Neill- as she reasonably pointed out, if she had intended to simply abandon Ireland, she would not have needed to send Essex there-

and by Essex's treatment of him as an equal. The Lord Lieutenant then traveled back to the Queen's court near London without permission - a desperate move, which culminated in a failed attempt to take the Tower of London against the queen's authority and his execution for treason.

The queen was in a tricky situation, because political discourse was dominated by the issue of the succession to the throne, just as her most illustrious military commanders were being frustrated by O'Neill in the middle of the Anglo-Spanish War. The rebel earl continued to concert measures with the Irish leaders in Munster, and issued a manifesto to the Catholics of Ireland, summoning them to join his standard as he protested that the interests of religion were his first care. After a campaign in Munster in January 1600, during which the English Plantation of Munster was destroyed, he hastened north to Donegal, where he received supplies from Spain and a token of encouragement from Pope Clement VIII. At this point the controversial Jesuit, James Archer, was effectively operating as his representative at the Spanish court.

In May 1600 the English achieved a strategic breakthrough, when Sir Henry Docwra, at the head of a considerable army, took up a position in O'Neill's rear at Derry; meanwhile, the new lord deputy, Sir Charles Blount, 8th Baron Mountjoy (a protégé of Essex), marched in support from Westmeath to Newry, compelling O'Neill to retire to Armagh. A large reward was offered for the rebel's capture, dead or alive.

In October 1601, the long awaited aid from Spain appeared in the form of an army under Don Juan de Aguila, which occupied the town of Kinsale in the extreme south of the country. Mountjoy rushed to contain the Spanish, while O'Neill and O'Donnell were compelled to hazard their armies in separate marches from the north, through territories defended by Sir George Carew, in the depths of a severe winter. They gained little support en route. At Bandon they joined together, and then blockaded the English army that was laying siege to the Spanish. The English were in a poor state, with many of their troops disabled with dysentery, and the extreme winter weather made life in camp very difficult. But owing to poor communications with the besieged Spanish and a crucial failure to withstand the shock of a daring English cavalry charge, O'Neill's army was quickly dispersed. The Irish army retreated, and the Spanish commander surrendered. The defeat at the battle of Kinsale was a disaster for O'Neill and ended his chances of winning the war.

O'Donnell went to Spain to seek further assistance, where he died soon afterwards (poisoning was suspected). With a shattered force, O'Neill made his way once more to the north, where he renewed his policy of ostensibly seeking pardon while warily defending his territory. English forces managed to destroy crops and livestock in Ulster in 1601-02, fatally weakening his power. In June 1602 O'Neill destroyed his capital at Dungannon and retreated into the woods of Glenconkeyne. Early in 1603, Elizabeth instructed Mountjoy to open negotiations with the rebellious lords, and O'Neill made his submission in the following April to Mountjoy, who skillfully concealed news of the death of the queen until the negotiations had concluded.

Peace settlement

O'Neill went with Mountjoy to Dublin, where he heard of the accession of King James. He presented himself at the court of the king in June, accompanied by Rory O'Donnell, who had become chief of the O'Donnells after the departure of his brother Hugh Roe. The English courtiers were greatly incensed at the gracious reception accorded by the king to these notable rebels.

Although O'Neill was confirmed in his title and core estates, he immediately fell into dispute with Chichester's Dublin administration upon his return to Ireland. Under the 1603 peace agreement most of his land had been given to his former Brehon law tenants. in the case of the Bann Fishery, the government eventually established that his entitlement to the benefit of that property was nullified on account of the original Anglo-Norman conquest in 1172, a precedent of significant implications for the former Gaelic polity.[8] In the meantime, it was the dispute over O'Neill's rights concerning certain of his former feudatories - Donal O'Cahan being the most important - that led to his flight from Ireland. They were now freeholders of the Kingdom of Ireland, with new legal rights, but O'Neill expected them to support him as in the past, which they declined to do. In O'Cahan's case the Ó Catháin clan had traditionally inaugurated the O'Neill kings in the past. Chichester consider O'Cahan's case to be pivotal, as if he caved in to O'Neill then other Ulster chiefs might also be persuaded to give up their freehold rights, and another war might follow. This dispute dragged on till 1607, when O'Neill was invited by King James to go to London to argue his case. Warned, however, that his arrest was imminent[citation needed] (and possibly persuaded by Rudhraighe Ó Domhnail, 1st Earl of Tyrconnell - whose relations with Spain had endangered his own safety) the decision was made to fly to Spain.


The Flight of the Earls, one of the most celebrated - and lamented - episodes in Irish history, occurred on 14 September 1607, when O'Neill and O'Donnell embarked at midnight at Rathmullan on Lough Swilly on a voyage bound for Spain. Accompanying them were their wives, families and retainers, numbering ninety-nine persons. Driven by contrary winds to the east, they took shelter in the Seine estuary and were told by the Spanish to pass the winter in the Spanish Netherlands and not to proceed to Spain itself. In April 1608, they proceeded to Rome, where they were welcomed and hospitably entertained by Pope Paul V. The journey to Rome was recorded in great detail by Tadhg Ó Cianáin.[9]

However, his hopes of military support foundered as Philip III of Spain wanted to maintain the recent 1604 peace treaty with James I of England, the Spanish economy had gone bankrupt in 1596 and its European fleet had been destroyed some months earlier by the Dutch Republic at the Battle of Gibraltar. This suggests that the Flight was impulsive and unplanned.

In November 1607 the flight was proclaimed as treasonous by James I.[10] A bill of attainder was passed against O'Neill by the Parliament of Ireland in 1613. He died in Rome on 20 July 1616. Throughout his nine-year exile he was active in plotting a return to Ireland, toying variously both with schemes to oust English authority outright and with proposed offers of pardon from London. When the former Crown loyalist Sir Cahir O'Doherty launched O'Doherty's Rebellion by the Burning of Derry in 1608 it raised hopes of a return, but the rebellion was quickly defeated.

Upon news of his death, the court poets of Ireland engaged in the Contention of the bards.

Status in Ireland

In 1598 O'Neill appointed James FitzThomas FitzGerald, the so-called Sugán Earl, as Earl of Desmond. Two years later in his camp at Inniscarra near Cork city he then recognized the celebrated Florence MacCarthy as the MacCarthy Mor or Prince of Desmond.[11] The fiasco of the 1599 campaign by Essex in Ireland added to the power vacuum in most parts of Ireland.

O'Neill had little influence on the Lords of the Pale in Leinster, and his army had to feed itself by plunder, making him unpopular. He made enemies of some lords by interfering in their traditional autonomy if they did not give him their entire support. These included Lord Inchiquin, Ulick Burke, 3rd Earl of Clanricarde, The Magennis of west County Down and Tiobóid na Long Bourke.

O'Neill issued a proclamation to the Pale Lords on 15 November 1599, many of whom were Roman Catholic, protesting that his campaign was not for personal power but only for the freedom of the Catholic religion.[12] This was unconvincing to them, as before 1593 he had practised as an Anglican, and was not known for having any great interest in religion.

At the international level, O'Neill and O'Donnell had offered themselves as vassals of King Philip II of Spain in late 1595, and suggested that Archduke Albert might be crowned Prince of Ireland, which was declined. In late 1599, in a strong position after Essex's failed campaign, O'Neill sent a list of 22 proposed terms for a peace agreement to Queen Elizabeth, including a request on the status of future English viceroys. This amounted to accepting English sovereignty over Ireland as a reality, while hoping for tolerance and a strong Irish-led administration. The proposal was ignored.[13]


O'Neill was four times married, to Katherine O'Neill, daughter of Brian mac Felim, Chieftain of the Clan Aodh Buidhe O'Neills, Judith O'Donell, Mabel Bagenal, and Catherine Magennis. He had a large number both of legitimate and illegitimate children: four legitimate daughters, including Sarah, Cortine who married Sir Henry Oge O'Neill, grandson of Shane the Proud, and Alice, who married Randal mac Sorley Mac Donnell, the two latter having issue in the O'Neills of the Feevagh, including Captain Conn O'Neill, with whom Bonnie Prince Charlie Stuart escaped from Culloden ; two illegitimate sons, Turlogh and Conn; four legitimate sons, Hugh, Henry, Bryan, John.[14][15] His many descendants include Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington[16] and Queen Elizabeth II.[17]

Dramatic portrayals

Hugh O'Neill was played by Alan Hale, Sr. in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939).

O'Neill is the central character in Brian Friel's play Making History (1989), which is concerned largely with his third marriage to Mabel Bagenal: Friel describes the marriage as a genuine if ill-fated love affair.

In the BBC drama Elizabeth R he is played by Patrick O'Connell.

Running Beast (2007),a music theatre piece by playwright Donal O'Kelly and music by the composer Michael Holohan, commemorating The Flight of the Earls 1607-2007


  1. Hugh is usually referred to as the 2nd earl of Tyrone. ("Hugh O’Neill, 2nd earl of Tyrone", Britannica) But if his elder brother Brian is counted, Hugh is 3rd. By the patent of the earldom, Brien was de jure earl between their grandfather's death in 1559 and his own assassination in 1562. He never claimed the earldom, and did not call himself earl. He may not have been of age to take his seat in the Irish House of Lords, and he certainly did not control Tyrone.
  2. Brady, Ciaran. Shane O' Neill, HAI, (1996) p 23
  3. See: Fiona FitzSimons, ‘Fosterage and Gossipred in Late Medieval Ireland: Some new evidence’ in Patrick J. Duffy, David Edwards and Elizabeth FitzPatrick (eds), Gaelic Ireland c. 1250-1650 Dublin, 2001, pp 138-152
  4. Brady, Ciaran. Shane O' Neill, HAI, 1996, p 22
  5. Morgan, Hiram Tyrone's Rebellion, RHS & Boydell, (1993) pp. 86-7 the genealogy Hiram Morgan has prepared notes Matthew as "affiliated".
  6. Morgan, Hiram Tyrone's Rebellion, RHS & Boydell, 1993, p 23
  7. Morgan, Hiram. Tyrone's Rebellion, RHS & Boydell, 1993, p 214
  8. See Peter Carew for similar legal moves in support of colonial policy
  9. Ó Cianáin, T., "The Flight of the Earls", CELT (UCC)
  10. A Proclamation touching the Earles of Tyrone and Tyrconnell, 1607; CELT (UCC)
  11. Irish Pedigrees: MacCarthy Mor#123
  12. Morgan H., "FAITH AND FATHERLAND OR QUEEN AND COUNTRY?" Dúiche Néill: Journal of the O¹Neill country historical society, 1994
  13. "Hugh O'Neill's War aims", online version published by CELT (UCC)
  14. The journal of the Kilkenny and South-east of Ireland Archaeological Society. 5–6. Kilkenny and South-east of Ireland Archaeological Society. 1867. pp. 457–8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. O'Hart, John (1892). Irish pedigrees: or, The origin and stem of the Irish nation. 1. p. 725.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. "Pedigree for Richard Wellesley Marquess Wellesley, 2nd Earl of Mornington". Genealogics. Retrieved 23 November 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. Professor M. Humphrys website, 2011


  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). [ "O'Neill" ] Check |ws link in chapter= value (help). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

Secondary sources

  • Gerard Anthony Hayes McCoy Irish Battles (Belfast, 1989) ISBN 0-86281-212-7.
  • Canny, Nicholas (2004). "O'Neill, Hugh, second earl of Tyrone (c.1550–1616)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Nicholas P. Canny The Elizabethan Conquest of Ireland: A Pattern Established, 1565–76 (London, 1976) ISBN 0-85527-034-9.
  • Nicholas P. Canny Making Ireland British, 1580–1650 (Oxford University Press, 2001) ISBN 0-19-820091-9.
  • Steven G. Ellis Tudor Ireland (London, 1985) ISBN 0-582-49341-2.
  • Cyril Falls Elizabeth's Irish Wars (1950; reprint London, 1996) ISBN 0-09-477220-7.
  • Jefferies, Henry A. (2000). "Hugh O'Neill, earl of Tyrone, c. 1550–1616". In Charles Dillon, Henry A. Jefferies and William Nolan (ed.). Tyrone: History and Society. Dublin. pp. 181–232.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Colm Lennon Sixteenth Century Ireland — The Incomplete Conquest (Dublin, 1995) ISBN 0-312-12462-7.
  • Hiram Morgan Tyrone's Rebellion (1995).
  • O'Faolain, Sean (1970) [1942]. The great O'Neill. A biography of Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, 1550–1616. Cork.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • J. J. Silke The Siege of Kinsale

Primary sources

Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Turlough Luineach O'Neill
Ó Néill
Peerage of Ireland
Preceded by
Brian O'Neill
Earl of Tyrone