Some Irish Graves in Rome (3)

John Healy
Some Irish Graves in Rome | start of essay

Such were the motives, as he tells us himself, that inspired “the dauntless Red Hugh,” the bravest and best of the Gael in this conflict with his relentless oppressors. The great Earl of Tyrone was his brother-in-law, and in his youth Hugh O’Donnell was betrothed to O’Neill’s daughter, but, I believe, the marriage never took place. O’Neill was a much older man and a greater general than O’Donnell. He had been trained in his youth in England; and he knew how to baffle the statesmen of Elizabeth with caution and cunning superior to their own. He had great military talents, and his talents were perfected by great and varied experience in war. Henry IV. of France declared that O’Neill was the second soldier of the age—he himself being the first. He gained by sheer military skill a great victory over Bagnal and the English at the Yellow Ford, near Armagh, which proved that, on equal terms, no English general could keep the field against him. In fact, until the fatal day of Kinsale, the careers of O’Neill and O’Donnell might be described as ones of almost unbroken victory. You have read of that fatal field, where the cause of Ireland received its death-blow; and, what is saddest of all, the defeat of the Irish was to a great extent due to their own fatal jealousies and dissensions. That took place at the end of 1601 or beginning of 1602. O’Donnell forthwith set out for Spain to seek once more the help of the Spanish King, Philip III. The King received him kindly, and promised to help him. But there were delays, and as O’Donnell hastened once more to see the King, he fell sick at Simancas, a Royal castle, and after sixteen days’ illness he died there, and his remains were buried with great solemnity by Royal command in the Franciscan Convent of Valladolid, where the King kept his court at the time.

There was some suspicion of foul play even then, yet hardly any one could credit it. But now we know it was too true. O’Donnell was poisoned by one James Blake of Galway, who was bribed for the purpose by Carew, President of Munster. We have Carew’s own letter, partially in cypher, describing the hellish plot, and we have his account of its success, written also in cypher, to the Secretary Salisbury, that he might give the joyful news to his royal mistress, who was then fast hastening to her own fearful death. Father Murphy has published the documents, and given us the key of the cypher in his introduction to the “Irish Life of Red Hugh O’Donnell,” lately published. So the best and the bravest of the Gael was assassinated in a foreign land by the agents of that wicked Queen, whose Deputy had caused him to be kidnapped when a mere boy and loaded with fetters in the dungeons of Dublin Castle. When will the men of Donegal forget those wicked deeds?

O’Neill and Rory O’Donnell, the brother and heir of Red Hugh, submitted to the Deputy Mountjoy, in the beginning of 1603, just when the Queen was dying, but of that fact they were carefully kept in ignorance. James I.—the ungrateful, pedantic, drivelling James—with the blood of Irish kings in his veins, succeeded to the throne, and at first there were hopes of better times. O’Neill was pardoned, and was confirmed in the possession of a great part of his ancient territory. Rory O’Donnell was made Earl of Tyrconnell, and in like manner succeeded to the ancient principality of his family, with certain restrictions in favour of Nial Garve O’Donnell, who had done much to accomplish the ruin of his family, and very fitly ended his own traitorous career in the Tower of London. But the northern Earls soon learned that the pardon and restoration of their estates was a hollow pretence. O’Neill, in a document which we still possess, sets out a long list of his grievances. No priest would be allowed to say Mass even in his own barony of Dungannon; his vassal, O’Kane, was encouraged to refuse him the usual dues payable to the over-lord; the new prelates of Derry and Armagh claimed a great part of his territory as church land. English sheriffs, too, and other officials, harried and plundered his tribesmen, and every effort was made to drive him into rebellion that his estates might be confiscated. Similar schemes were set on foot against Rory O’Donnell in Tyrconnell. Still, O’Neill was cautious, and gave no ground to his enemies for arresting him on a charge of treason.

Then Chichester had recourse to informers to get up a charge of treason against the Earl. The Baron of Howth, Christopher St. Lawrence, to his shame be it said, was the base delator; and Nugent, Baron of Delvin, seems to have lent his assistance. A pretended plot was discovered, and O’Neill was commanded to go to England with the Earl of Tyrconnell, to answer the charges against him. But his son, Henry, sent him word from Brussels that if they went they were lost, that they would certainly be imprisoned in the Tower, or perhaps executed at Tyburn. A ship was got ready at Brussels to enable them to escape from the country. It was secretly brought to Rathmullen by Maguire of Fermanagh, a devoted friend and fellow-soldier of the two Earls, and so on the 14th September, 1607, at 12 o’clock at night, O’Neill and O’Donnell, with their immediate friends and relations, go souls in all, weighed anchor, and set sail on that ill-fated voyage to the Continent, from which they were never destined to return. The Four Masters describe them as the most illustrious party of emigrants that the winds ever wafted from the shores of Ireland, and pathetically add, “woe to the heart that meditated, woe to the mind that conceived, woe to the council that decided on the project of their setting out on this voyage, without knowing if they should ever return to their native principalities or patrimonies to the end of the world.” It was, in truth, a fatal mistake, but yet produced its own good fruit in its way, as we shall presently see.

It was only a small craft of 80 tons, with 90 persons on board, and they set sail for Spain at the very worst time in our western seas, when the equinoxial gales are sure to blow. Nor did they fail to come from the south-west, right in the track of the little vessel, buffeting her hither and thither for fourteen days, until at last the half-famished crew of the ill-fated ship, short of water and of food, and drenched with the billows, were forced to run for shelter to the estuary of the Seine, a little to the seaward of Rouen, in France, where they landed on the twenty-first day after their departure. They were kindly received, but detained to ascertain the pleasure of the King in their regard. The King allowed them to continue their journey, as he did not care to keep the exiles in France, but when the British Ambassador asked to have them sent to London, the King indignantly replied, “France is a free country; no guest of France shall be molested, least of all those driven from their homes on account of their religion.”

Still, Henry had no desire to give needless offence to his royal brother of England, and he intimated that the sooner the exiles proceeded on their journey to the Low Countries the better. They travelled by easy stages, first to Brussels and afterwards to Louvain. Everywhere on their journey they were received with the greatest marks of esteem. At Brussels, Spinola the governor received them as princely guests, and entertained them at a royal banquet. Albert and Isabella the Archdukes, met them at the door of their palace, and received the exiles with the most cordial welcome. At Louvain, it might be said, they were once more at home. They were lodged in the palace where the great Emperor Charles V. spent his boyish days. Florence Conry, afterwards Archbishop of Tuam, was then founding the great convent of St. Anthony, which afterwards did so much for Irish literature. Henry O’Neill, the son of the Earl, was there, too, and in command of a Spanish regiment, which he received from the King, in spite of all the influence of England. There were many Irish Franciscans there also in the young convent of St. Anthony, who gave an Irish welcome to the toil-worn exiles. The burgomeister and all the citizens, too, received them with the highest honour, and there they stayed to rest themselves for some months in that city of learning.