The Flight of the Earls and the End of Mediæval Ireland

Eleanor Hull
The Flight of the Earls

After a desperate and successful struggle with the ‘English Maguire,’ who held the islands of Lough Erne and all the fords, O’Sullevan arrived in Glenconkeine, only to find that O’Neill was on his way to Dublin, about to make his submission and accept terms of peace.

Hugh had decided that the moment had arrived when he could hold out no longer. The fatal news of the death of O’Donnell had broken his hopes, and, ever since, his most trusted officers had been falling away from him, seeing no hope left of success.

The sons of Shane O’Neill, whom the English had induced him to release from imprisonment on his last submission, were now guiding the Deputy’s army into Ulster. The fort of Portmore was being rebuilt and had been renamed Charlemont. It was situated close to Tyrone’s old home of Dungannon and commanded the entrance into the North. But, most decisive reason of all, Ulster was swept by famine, and to sustain human life in the country had become an impossibility.

The terrible policy of the year before had had its full result, and Ulster, whose fields had formerly been thick with corn, was reduced to a desert. Mountjoy and his party as they moved along saw everywhere the results of their own deliberate action.

“We have seen no one man in all Tyrone of late,” he writes, “but dead carcases merely hunger-starved, of which we found divers as we passed. Between Tullaghoge and Toome [a distance of seventeen miles] I believe there lay unburied a thousand dead, and since our first drawing this year to Blackwater there were about three thousand starved in Tyrone. … To-morrow, by the grace of God, I am going into the field, as near as I can to utterly waste the County Tyrone.”

The wolves, coming down to the plains from the woods and mountains, attacked and tore to pieces men weak from want. A terrible plague ran through the country. Tyrone felt that it was time to make an end, and when Sir Garrett Moore, the one man he trusted, came to him with Mountjoy’s message he at once signified his intention to go with him and prepared for the journey. On March 29 he surrendered himself to the two commissioners at Tougher, five miles from Dungannon, and on the following evening he made his formal submission to the Deputy at Mellifont, agreeing without demur to all the conditions imposed.

Two days before the arrival of Tyrone a messenger to the Deputy had arrived at Mellifont from London bringing important news. Queen Elizabeth, the woman whom some of those who had seen service in Ireland “feared more than the rebel Tyrone,” had passed away. Her last days had been haunted by the thought of her great adversary, whom “the cost of £100,000 and the best army in Europe had not been able to subdue.”

Shortly before her death, when she was feeling “creeping time at her gate,” Sir John Harington was called to her presence; he found her in most pitiable state, but her first question was to ask whether he had seen Tyrone. Now she was gone without knowing of the submission he had made to her shade, for it was deliberately decided by Mountjoy that O’Neill should not be told till his submission was complete.

To James, if he succeeded, no submission would need to have been made, for James had a grateful recollection of help received from O’Neill during his Scottish wars. It was only when he was about to repeat his oath in Dublin that Tyrone was informed that it was to be taken to the new monarch. All men observed his face when the disclosure was made to him. His astonishment was plain, but he burst into passionate weeping.

A few days later he was on his way to England, accompanied or followed by Rory O’Donnell, O’Sullevan, Niall Garbh, and other Irish chiefs anxious to pay their respects to the new king. Only O’Rorke and Maguire declined any accommodation, and departed to their own country.

O’Sullevan could obtain no pardon, and fled to Spain with others of his family, being warmly received and decorated by the Catholic King; Rory was restored to his country with the title of Earl of Tyrconnel; but Niall Garbh, Rory’s old rival and enemy, who had been so long supported by Elizabeth’s Government, found himself looked upon by James I as a usurper, and reduced to his old position with the title of Baron. He had long filled a place to which he had no claim.

O’Sullevan finds him “rough [garbh] by name and rough by nature,” and his loud complaints moved none to sympathy. In days to come, his wife’s mother, Ineen Dubh, mother to Hugh Roe and Rory, accused Sir Niall of taking part in O’Doherty’s revolt, and in 1608 he, his son, and his two brothers were committed to the Tower. His two brothers were released; but Sir Niall and his son ended their lives in confinement, the former after an imprisonment of eighteen years.

King James received Hugh with respect and friendliness, and made him welcome at the Court. This sudden change in O’Neill’s fortunes brought consternation in more quarters than one. “I have lived,” cries Sir John Harington, “"to see that damnable rebel Tyrone brought to England, courteously favoured, honoured, and well liked. … How did I labour after that knave’s destruction! I was called from my home by her Majesty’s command, adventured perils by sea and land, endured toil, was near starving, ate horseflesh in Munster, and all to quell that man, who now smileth in peace at those that did hazard their lives to destroy him. … Now doth Tyrone dare us old commanders with his presence and protection.”[1]

In Ireland the embarrassment was hardly less. Docwra, still holding his post at Lough Foyle, was particularly disturbed by the news. He had recently persuaded O’Kane (O’Cahan), one of O’Neill’s under-chiefs and his son-in-law to come in, on the agreement that he should hold directly of the Crown, and no more pay rents or hold his lands under his lord O’Neill. He should, in fact, be an independent chief.

Docwra, a blunt soldier who had endeavoured to deal honestly with the chiefs, with whom he was on good terms, was in the act of effecting these arrangements when sharp reminders came down from Dublin that “my Lord of Tyrone is taken in to be restored to all his honours and dignities” and that O’Kane’s country is his and must be obedient to his command.

When Docwra expostulates that “this is strange and beyond all expectation,” and declares “I know not how I shall look this man in the face when I shall know myself guilty directly to have falsified my word to him,” he is told that O’Kane is “but a base and drunken fellow … and able to do neither good nor harm,” while the public good demanded that my Lord of Tyrone “should be contented, upon which depends the peace and security of the whole kingdom.”

Truly times were changed when Mountjoy could write thus of his old foe.[2]

Docwra, in spite of his own vigorous dislike of the whole matter, had to pass on the unwelcome orders to O’Kane, who was highly offended, burst into a passion, and shaking hands with Hugh, Tyrone’s son, who was present, bade the devil take all Englishmen and as many as put their trust in them. He asked, “Would the English claim him hereafter” if he followed Tyrone’s counsel, though it were against the king? The relations between him and Tyrone were no better, and at the council table in Dublin Tyrone seized the papers he had given to O’Kane granting him his land at a fixed rent out of his hand again, and tore them in pieces before his eyes.

A similar treatment of O’Doherty, whose lands were sold away without his consent, was the cause of that chief’s hasty plunge into rebellion and subsequent downfall.

Nor was Docwra himself better treated. The fishing of Lough Foyle promised to him as part of his reward was restored to Tyrone, and Docwra returned to England a disappointed man, seeing all his work undone, and he himself suspect and glad if by silence he and his might save their necks. When he presented his case in London he was told that “it was all for the public good—the old song,” as he says.[3]

It is in the doings of Sir John Davies, Attorney-General for Ireland, and of Sir Arthur Chichester, the new Deputy, during their visitation of Ulster in the autumn of 1606, that we may find the real causes of the last scene in the drama of Tyrone’s life in Ireland, which led him to take the resolution of departing from the country.

His life had been rendered well-nigh intolerable by the constant espionage kept upon his every word and movement, and the sense that his nearest kin were being constantly tempted to report his actions. Long ago he had said that so many eyes were watching him that he could not drink a full bumper of sack but the State was advertised thereof within a few hours after. These men were greedy for the forfeit of his lands, out of which they hoped to reap a share.

Added to this was the proclamation of the new king against the Catholics, far more severe and less easy to evade than any that had preceded it. Hugh saw that it was the determination of James and of his agents to Anglicize the North, and to pass the lands to new planters, in spite of all promises and pledges to the contrary.

For Tyrone and the old chiefs there was no more a place in Ireland, and means were certain to be found to oblige the surrender of their ancestral lands to strangers. He saw this being taken in hand all over Ulster, and even if hints that he was personally unsafe were erroneous this was sufficient to decide him to take flight to countries where he was sure that a welcome would await him. Quietly he made his plans, and, though a large party sailed with him, the Government was quite in the dark as to his determination.[4]

His final movements were hastened by the arrival of one John Bath, a Drogheda merchant and ship’s captain, who had been sent by Cuconnacht Maguire, now in the Low Countries or Brittany, to tell him that they had brought a ship round to Rathmelton, on Lough Swilly, and were taking in food and drink preparatory to their return; Bath urged the importance of not losing this opportunity of leaving the country.

Tyrone was at Slane with Chichester, trying to settle the bounds of the lands about Dungannon and Charlemont which he had consented to surrender. He had just heard rumours that Chichester was to be appointed President of Ulster, and it did not seem likely that the relations between him and the new President would be cordial. The rumour was unfounded, for Sir Arthur retained the post of Deputy, but it may have influenced O’Neill’s decision. He determined to go, and sent Bath on to Ballyshannon to acquaint Rory O’Donnell with his resolution.

On September 8, 1607, he took leave of the Deputy, who returned to Dublin, and then went to spend his two last nights in Ireland at Mellifont at the house of his friend Sir Garrett Moore, the fosterer of his son John. It was observed that on his departure he wept abundantly, taking farewell of every child and servant in the house in turn.

In the hurry of the flight one of Tyrone’s children and one of Caffar O’Donnell’s babes were left behind, being away in the charge of their foster-parents; but a company of ninety-nine persons embarked, of whom the more important were—besides O’Neill and his countess, and three of their children—Rory O’Donnell, Earl of Tyrconnel, his brother Caffar, and his sister Nuala, with the attendants belonging to each.

Among Tyrone’s household was his English secretary, Henry Ovington, in whom he put such confidence that he had been included in all Tyrone’s conferences with Essex. He seems to have had no warning of what was on foot, and he later prayed the Government for permission to return. Among the others went Tadhg O’Keenan, from whose interesting account of the adventures of which he was an eyewitness we learn the future events in the lives of the distinguished party.[5]

After a stormy voyage which drove them up the Channel, and made a landing on the coast of Spain impossible, they reached the little town of Quillebœuf, at the mouth of the Seine, and proceeded by boats up the river to Rouen, whence by a leisurely route they found their way into Flanders, being everywhere treated with the greatest kindness and every mark of respect.

Before arriving at Brussels they were met by O’Neill’s eldest son, Colonel Henry O’Neill, at the head of his troop of Irish soldiers in the service of Spain, and on the following Saturday the Spanish commander-in-chief in Flanders, the Marquis Spinola, one of the most brilliant soldiers of his age, came to welcome them with a splendid retinue of nobles, and invited them to a banquet on the following day.

They were equally courteously received and entertained by the Archduke and Archduchess, the latter being the daughter of the King of Spain, and they met many notables, including the Duc d’Aumale, Cardinal Bentivoglio, the author of the History of the Wars in Flanders, and others.

They spent the winter in the Low countries, visiting Douai, Mechlin, Louvain, Antwerp, and other cities, and in the spring continued their journey into Italy.

From Louvain the two Earls had drawn up and forwarded to King James a full and dignified statement of the grievances for which they were obliged to leave their native land; these fully explain the causes of their flight.

They left behind them in Brussels the young boys John and Brian, who became pages to the Archduke, and the other children, one of whom was in the future to become the famous Owen Roe O’Neill, Tyrone’s half-nephew.

Nuala, who had been Niall Garbh’s wife, but had been forced to leave him, also remained behind. The rest of the party arrived in Rome in the beginning of May 1608. But the summer heat and malarial fever laid their hand upon Tyrconnel. He and his brother Caffar sank within a few weeks of each other, and were buried in a tomb which is still a resort of Irish visitors in the Church of S. Pietro Montario, on the Janiculum. The thoughts of their sister Nuala on hearing of their death are given voice to in Mangan’s well-known verses, “O woman of the piercing wail,” founded upon a fine poem by Owen Roe-Mac an Bhaird (or Ward), the family bard.[6]

Hugh O’Neill lived on for many years, but he had sorrow upon sorrow. His anxiety for his scattered family must have been great. His son Hugh, Baron of Dungannon, was stricken down soon after the O’Donnells and followed them to the tomb. Tyrone happily did not live to hear the fate of his young son Brian, who was mysteriously and foully murdered in Brussels in 1617; but the babe left behind in his flight had fallen into Chichester’s hands, and anxiety for its safety must often have weighed heavily upon him.[7]

Hugh O'Neill in Old Age and Blind

Hugh O’Neill in Old Age and Blind

Hugh passed away in 1616, aged, blind, and bowed with griefs. There were qualities of real greatness in O’Neill; wise, patient, and acute, in the difficult days in which he lived he played his part with skill and dignity, worthy of dealings with better men. We feel that he had a right to ask that the term ‘rebel’ should not be applied to him more often than was convenient, and that his persecutors should remember that he was a nobleman born.

Captain Lee, who knew Tyrone well, had a high opinion of his probity and his desire to act straightforwardly. He writes to the Queen in 1594 deploring the mismanagement by the Lord Deputy in his dealings with him and the other Northern men of position. He declares that “there was never man bred in these parts who hath done your Majesty greater service than he, with often loss of his blood upon the Queen’s enemies.” He ascribes the quiet of the North of Ireland during many years not to the Crown forces or to their officers, but only to the honest disposition and carriage of the Earl, who had made the country obedient to her Majesty.

“And what pity it is that a man of his worth and worthiness shall be thus dealt withal by his adversaries. … I humbly leave to your Majesty.”[8]