Shane O'Neill

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Chapter XXV

In 1561 Sussex returned from England with reinforcements for his army, and marched to Armagh, where he established himself in the Cathedral. From thence he sent out a large body of troops to plunder in Tyrone, but they were intercepted by the redoubtable Shane O'Neill, and suffered so serious a defeat as to alarm the inhabitants of the Pale, and even the English nation. Fresh supplies of men and arms were hastily despatched from England, and the Earls of Desmond, Ormonde, Kildare, Thomond, and Clanrickarde assembled round the Viceregal standard to assist in suppressing the formidable foe.

And well might they fear the lion-hearted chieftain! A few years later, Sidney describes him as the only strong man in Ireland. The Queen was warned, that unless he were speedily put down, she would lose Ireland, as her sister had lost Calais. He had gained all Ulster by his sword, and ruled therein with a far stronger hand, and on a far firmer foundation, than ever any English monarch had obtained in any part of Ireland. Ulster was his terra clausa ;and he would be a bold, or, perhaps I should rather say, a rash man, who dare intrude in these dominions. He could muster seven thousand men in the field; and though he seldom hazarded a general engagement, he "slew in divers conflicts 3,500 soldiers and 300 Scots of Sidney's army."[6] The English chronicler, Hooker, who lived in times when the blaze and smoke of houses and haggards, set on fire by Shane, could be seen even from Dublin Castle, declares that it was feared he intended to make a conquest over the whole land.

Even his letters are signed, if not written, in royal style.[7] He dates one Ex finibus de Tirconail, when about to wage war with the neighbouring sept of O'Donnell; he dates another, Ex silvis meis, when, in pursuance of his Celtic mode of warfare, he hastened into his woods to avoid an engagement with the English soldiers; he signs himself Misi O'Neill—Me, the O'Neill. As this man was too clever to be captured, and too brave to be conquered, a plan was arranged, with the full concurrence of the Queen, by which he might be got rid of by poison or assassination. Had such an assertion been made by the Irish annalists, it would have been scouted as a calumny on the character of "good Queen Bess;" but the evidence of her complicity is preserved in the records of the State Paper Office. I shall show presently that attempts at assassination were a common arrangement for the disposal of refractory Irish chieftains during this reign.

The proposal for this diabolical treachery, and the arrangements made for carrying it out, were related by Sussex to the Queen. He writes thus: "In fine, I brake with him to kill Shane, and bound myself by my oath to see him have a hundred marks of land to him and to his heirs for reward. He seemed desirous to serve your Highness, and to have the land, but fearful to do it, doubting his own escape after. I told him the ways he might do it, and how to escape after with safety; which he offered and promised to do." The Earl adds a piece of information, which, no doubt, he communicated to the intended murderer, and which, probably, decided him on making the attempt: "I assure your Highness he may do it without danger if he will; and if he will not do what he may in your service, there will be done to him what others may."[8]

Her Majesty, however, had a character to support; and whatever she may have privately wished and commanded, she was obliged to disavow complicity publicly. In two despatches from court she expresses her "displeasure at John Smith's horrible attempt to poison Shane. O'Neill in his wine." In the following spring John Smith was committed to prison, and "closely examined by Lord Chancellor Cusake." What became of John is not recorded, but it is recorded that "Lord Chancellor Cusake persuaded O'Neill to forget the poisoning." His clan, however, were not so easily persuaded, and. strongly objected to his meeting the Viceroy in person, or affording him an opportunity which he might not live to forget. About this time O'Neill despatched a document to the Viceroy for his consideration, containing a list of "other evill practices devised to other of the Irish nation within ix or tenn yeares past." The first item mentions that Donill O'Breyne and Morghe O'Breyne, his son, "required the benefit of her Majesty's laws, by which they required to be tried, and thereof was denied;"[9] and that when they came to Limerick under the protection of the Lord Deputy, they were proclaimed traitors, and their lands and possessions taken from them. Several other violations of protection are then enumerated, and several treacherous murders are recorded, particularly the murder of Art Boy Cavanagh, at Captain Hearn's house, after he had dined with him, and of Randall Boye's two sons, who were murdered, one after supper, and the other in the tower, by Brereton, "who escaped without punishment."


[6] Army.—See Dr. Stuart's History of Armagh, p. 261.

[7] Style.—In one of the communications from Sussex to O'Neill, he complains of the chieftain's letters as being "nimis superbe scriptae. "—State Papers for 1561.

[8] May.—Moore's History of Ireland, vol. iv. p. 33.

[9] Denied.—This document has been printed in the Ulster Arch. Jour. vol. ii. p. 221, but the editor does not mention where the original was procured.