Shane O’Neill and the Scots in Ulster (2)

Eleanor Hull
Shane O’Neill and the Scots in Ulster | start of chapter

On the death of Shane, in 1567, one of his old rivals, Sir Turlogh Lynogh[12] O’Neill, stepped again to the front to dispute the claims of Hugh O’Neill. Turlogh belonged to another branch of the great O’Neill clan, and was cousin to Shane.

During Shane’s lifetime he had lost no opportunity of trying to supplant him, and he had waylaid and murdered Brian, Hugh’s brother, whom he looked upon as a possible competitor. The clan stood behind Turlogh, whom they had elected tanist, and he went on steadily strengthening his position by fortifying his two castles on the Bann, though he resided for the most part at Dunnalong, on the Tyrone side of Lough Foyle. He warned the Government that in Hugh they had “reared up a whelp they would not easily pull down.”

The long life of Turlogh and his constant intrigues make his name prominent in the State Papers of his period. He was regularly inaugurated chief of his clan at Tullahogue, with all the accustomed ceremonies, but he offered to prove his loyalty by sending away his Scottish mercenaries, a promise the sincerity of which was somewhat weakened by his marriage with Lady Cantyre, the widow of James MacDonnell of the Isles. He had proposed to her in 1567, sending his message by two of his bards, who were instructed to say that he would be happy to marry “either herself or her daughter.” The following year she made up her mind to accept him, and in July 1569 she came over to the Isle of Rathlin, which in olden days had belonged to the Kingdom of the Isles, where Turlogh met her, and they passed a fortnight in festivities.

In spite of Turlogh’s promises to the English Government, she came accompanied by a fleet of galleys and an army of Scots; so much so, that Turlogh is said to have eaten himself up by supporting such a host of Scottish allies. In 1572 he had a thousand Scots at Lough Foyle, and the numbers increased rapidly. Lady Cantyre did her best to keep her husband quiet; she had known many troubles in her own family, and wished for peace. She told her husband, when he was contemplating joining the Desmond insurgents, declaring that “he would be O’Neill, whoever thought evil of the same,” that her Scottish relatives, the Earl of Argyll and others, possessed greater lands and titles than his, yet were content to submit their causes to the laws and themselves to the King’s pleasure.

For a time her persuasions were not without effect. Turlogh is reported “very tractable”; he was created Earl of Clanconnell in May 1578 for life, and the Queen’s general pardon in 1581, from which Desmond alone was excepted, had Turlogh specially in view. The offer of this pardon, which was the Queen’s own act and made upon her own initiative, came like a thunderbolt to Lord Grey de Wilton, the then Deputy, who was just returning from his ruthless campaign against Desmond and preparing to attack the insurgents of Leinster and the North. He made vigorous protests. The proclamation of a general pardon would, he assured the Queen, be a great dishonour.

“If her Majesty will not go through, better deliver Ireland over to the Irish and call all Englishmen away. The Irish are not to be reclaimed by courtesy, but with severe justice and rigour.”

Such were the impassioned messages sent hurriedly across the Channel by the men on the spot, using arguments hardly outworn up to recent date. Nevertheless, the pardon came, and Grey was forced to leave his army behind and carry the offer of pardon to Turlogh, who, though he had gone into camp with over four thousand men, ready to stir if the Scots should decide to march on England, submitted at once; “he put off his hat and joyed that he had peace.” On hearing of his submission many others followed his example and came in.

The new settlements of the Scots in the North, which occupied so much of the attention of Shane and Turlogh O’Neill, as well as that of the English Government, must now be dealt with, Elizabeth’s declared resolve that no Scot should set foot in Ulster, had it been possible to give effect to it, might have eased one perennial Irish problem. But however a Tudor sovereign might desire to give no fresh footing to her bitterest foes, who were then intriguing with France for the restoration of Mary of Scots, the natural movement of peoples whose territories lay within sight of each other across a narrow channel, and who had been closely associated from the early sixth century could not be stopped.

The arrival of the family of the Bysets, or Bissetts, expelled from Scotland for supposed complicity in the murder of the Earl of Atholl in the thirteenth century, seems to have been the first of the later immigrations. They settled in Rathlin Island, off the Antrim coast, and in the Glynnes or Glens of Antrim. By the marriage of Margery Byset to John More MacDonnell of the Isles toward the close of the fourteenth century the Byset estates passed into his family.

It was on the rocky island of Rathlin that Robert Bruce lay in hiding in his outlaw days, and there it is that he is said to have learned his lesson of perseverance from a spider. But it was through the disastrous wars between the O’Neills and O’Donnells in the early sixteenth century that the Scots began to come over in such numbers as to present for the first time an ‘Ulster problem.’

Both sides sought to strengthen their armies by the importation of those redoubtable ‘Redshanks’ (so called because they wore leggings of red-deer skins) who were always ready to sell their services to the highest bidder, or to form an alliance with the Scottish MacConnells or MacDonnells. “Three hundred Scots are harder to vanquish than six hundred Irishmen,” wrote Sidney to the Queen in 1568, and it gave no pleasure in London to learn that eight Irishmen had been soliciting the aid of the Scottish king for O’Neill or that O’Donnell had his agents out in the Isles to induce the Redshanks to assist him for pay. “The Scots in the North build, manure the ground, and settle, as though they would never be removed,” complains a State Paper in 1571; and later it was one of the chief objects in view in the plantation of Ulster to banish these unwelcome Scots.

The Scottish chief who plays the largest part in the history of the sixteenth century was Sorley Boy (Somhairle buidhe) MacDonnell,[13] youngest son of Alastair, Lord of Isla and Cantyre and of the Glynnes of Antrim, who usually lived at Ballycastle, where he was visited by Shane.

Sorley was Lord of the Route and of Dunluce Castle, whose perilous approach still gives a striking example of the old warlike conditions in the North of Ireland. He had been imprisoned for a year in Dublin and had spent the years 1565–67 in durance under Shane. He fought in turn against the O’Neills and O’Kanes (O’Cahans), and disputed successfully the lordship of the Route[14] with the MacQuillans. Later he disputed every foot of his territory with Elizabeth’s best generals.

From the coasts of Antrim he carried the banner of the Clandonnell over Clannaboy, and “the slogan of his warlike Scots was heard alike on the hills of Derry and in the straths of Tyrone.”

The keynote of his policy was that “playnly Englische men had no right to Yrland [Ireland].” He “playnly” thought that Scotsmen had every right to it; but the English opinion was different. “It is to be hoped that the most part will take their journey towards heaven,” wrote Burghley to the Lord Deputy in 1591. But by that date they were so firmly rooted in Antrim that there was little hope that Burghley’s friendly wish would be fulfilled.

In 1554 Calvagh O’Donnell had returned with a large army of Redshanks, who took part in his wars against his own father as well as against Shane O’Neill. He was taken prisoner by Shane, and his long and cruel imprisonment put an end to all plans for the time. He was hurried about in the recesses of Tyrone to avoid capture by Sussex, and barbarously tortured in the attempt to force him to give up his jewels. He was at last so far crushed by suffering that he secured his release by the surrender of Lifford and his claims on Inishowen in Donegal, with the payment of a good ransom; yet he and his people still had to be starved into surrender. He crossed over to London to lay his case before the Queen, and was listened to sympathetically, the Queen commiserating the state of destitution into which he had been brought. In 1566 he marched with Sidney into Tyrone and Tyrconnel, the towns as they fell being handed back to Calvagh. Of this journey Sidney wrote, “Your Majesty hath recovered a country of 70 miles in length and 48 in breadth, and the service of 1000 men, now restored to O’Donnell.” But Calvagh shortly afterward fell from his horse in a fit, with his dying words adjuring his clansmen to be loyal to the Queen.

The Scottish MacDonnells had in vain endeavoured to preserve a neutral attitude during the wars between the O’Neills and O’Donnells. Shane, early in 1562, in his newly found friendship with Elizabeth after his submission, proposed to the Queen to inflict a signal punishment upon the Scots, who were fast gaining a firm footing in his borders, and whom he wished to sweep out of his path. The offer met with unqualified approval, and he set to work with vigour, passing over the country with fire and sword. A report was sent to London from the authorities that Shane’s dealings had been “most commendable.”

The fresh contingents sent over by James MacDonnell, Lord of Isla, elder brother to Sorley Boy, were not sufficient to stop his progress, and when the chief himself came over in the following spring it was to find his castle in flames and Sorley Boy in full retreat.

The Scots, indeed, were almost annihilated and their officers captured or killed in a bloody battle at Ballycastle in May 1565. Shane was able to report in courtier language:

“By divine aid I gave them battle, in which many of Sorley’s men were slain, the remnant fled; we took large spoils on that day, and at night we occupied the camp from which Sorley had been expelled. … God, best and greatest, of His mere grace, and for the welfare of her Majesty the Queen, gave us the victory against them. … Glory be to God, such was the result of my services undertaken for her Majesty in the Northern parts.”

And he adds, “Not here alone, but everywhere throughout Ireland where my aid may be required, I am ready and prepared to make sacrifices for her Grace. … I am O’Neill.”[15]

The old chief, James MacDonnell, was left to die in Shane’s prison, a leader of whom the Annals of the Four Masters say “that his own people would not have deemed it too much to give his weight in gold” if Shane would have accepted a ransom.

Sorley was also imprisoned, like Calvagh in former days. Consternation was felt in England at the rapid increase of Shane’s power; but the two years’ struggle had so exhausted him that he could fight no longer, and he was hardly dissuaded by his followers from making a fresh and abject submission to Sidney with a halter round his neck. His miserable end was brought about by the Scots in revenge for his ill-usage of their leaders. It seems to have been planned by the English, probably in conjunction with Sorley Boy and the Countess of Argyll, Calvagh’s former wife, so vilely abused by Shane. She and Sorley both had sufficient reason to hate the tyrant who had had them in his power, and they must often have conversed together during Sorley’s imprisonment in Shane’s house. Both of them were present at the banquet at which Shane was assassinated. He had been invited to attend a family assembly at Cushendun on June 2, 1567, ending with a banquet to celebrate a new reunion between the O’Neills and the MacDonnells.

For two days all went well, but a dispute arising as to the claims to precedence between the two families, Shane being heated with wine, his pride and temper carried him away into insulting speeches, which the Scots so much resented that they fell upon him with their dirks and literally hacked him to pieces. His body, “wrapped in a kerne’s old shirt,” was thrown into a pit.[16]

Captain Piers, Governor of Carrickfergus, “by whose device the tragedy was practised,” having succeeded in getting hold of the head, sent it “pickled in a pimpkin” to Sidney and obtained the reward for the capture. It was seen on a pole over Dublin Castle by Campian in 1571.

Sixteen years later the Scots were still looking for the reward for the killing of Shane which had been given to Captain Piers. Sidney, on the contrary, ordered them to depart the country. It seems clear that Sidney, who was usually averse to treacherous deeds, was a party to the assassination of Shane. He thanked heaven for having made him the instrument of the “killing of that pernicious Rebell.”

The body was privately buried in the Franciscan monastery of Glenarm. An old tradition says that some years later a friar from Armagh stood at the gate of Glenarm, to beg the body of Shane that it might be buried beside his ancestors in Armagh. “Have you,” inquired the Abbot, sternly, “brought with you the body of James MacDonnell, Lord of Antrim and Cantyre? For know you that so long as ye trample on the grave of James of Antrim and Cantyre, we will trample on the dust of your great O’Neill.”[17]

The Scottish position in the North was much strengthened by a series of marriages between Scottish ladies of high rank and Irish chieftains. About the same time as the marriage of Lady Cantyre to Turlogh O’Neill, her daughter, the Ineen Dubh MacDonnell, daughter of the fourth Earl of Argyll, was wedded to Hugh O’Donnell of Donegal. She became the mother of Hugh Roe O’Donnell, or ‘Red Hugh,’ who was thus of mixed Irish and Scottish descent.

These marriages brought about an interval of quiet, and all the efforts made by Elizabeth to get the Scots out of Antrim proved unavailing. Sorley Boy had landed again in 1567 with fresh followers, swearing that he would never depart out of Ireland with his goodwill. On the English refusal to confirm him in his new conquests he took possession of all the English garrison forts along the coast, except Dunluce, and repeopled them with his own tribesmen.

The Queen began to realize that the Scots were come to stay. It was the tidings of their rapid increase that gave Sir John Perrot an excuse for his crusade in the North in the year in which he was appointed Deputy, 1584. His original intention had been “to look through his fingers at Ulster, as a fit receptacle for all the savage beasts of the land,” but the arrival of large bodies of Scots changed his views. He marched north with an immense army, taking with him an imposing array of the protected Lords from the South, the principal leaders of the O’Connors and O’Mores, with the Earls of Ormonde and Thomond and Clanricarde, Sir John Norris and Hugh O’Neill. They divided into two sections, marching along both banks of the river Bann to Dunluce; but they saw nothing of Sorley, who prudently kept out of their path. Rumours went about that there was no Scottish invasion, and sharp letters from his parsimonious sovereign reminded the Deputy “that she would rather spend a pound forced by necessity than a penny for prevention,” an unsound policy for a ruler always in straits for money.

The story of young Hugh Roe O’Donnell’s capture belongs to the time of Perrot’s administration. The lad, who was only fourteen years of age, was already looked upon as the hope of his country. Prophecies were going about in Donegal that when two Hughs, father and son, should succeed each other as O’Donnell, the second would become monarch of Ireland. The old Hugh, though weak and feeble, had been determined in one thing—he would neither give hostages nor pay tribute to the English Crown, and the English dared not enforce their authority, knowing that the country was ripe for rebellion and that any rash move would bring out the sept and its Scottish supporters.

Perrot, usually an honourable man, though a severe officer, on this occasion stooped to a trick in order to get into his hands the lad whom his father refused to give him by way of hostage. He induced a Dublin merchant by bribes, promises, and threats to load a ship with wines and beer, especially with the sack “which the Irishmen love best,” and sail round to Donegal to try to find an opportunity to entrap the young O’Donnell.

Fifty soldiers provided by the Viceroy sailed with the ship, armed with weapons of war. They arrived on the shores of Lough Swilly and dropped anchor under the village of Rathmullen, in the MacSweeney’s country. It was not long before their purpose had been accomplished. The young lords from the castle came down to traffic with the merchant ship, and the wines were good. It chanced that Hugh Roe arrived late, with a troop of youthful companions, and more wine was sent for to the ship. It was refused on the ground that it was running short; but it was suggested that if the gentlemen would come down to the ship they could get sufficient for their entertainment out of what remained.

While they were feasting the anchor was weighed, and the ship began to put off into deep water. The youths, when they found this out, discovered also that they were enclosed under hatches and unable either to fight or escape. As soon as the country people got wind of what was happening they put off in boats to try to stop the ship and offer other hostages. The MacSweeneys were allowed to depart on giving their sons in their place, but Hugh Roe was carried off to Dublin, examined and committed to the warder of Dublin Castle, where he joined the sad group of chiefs’ sons, young fellows from the open hillsides and plains of the country, condemned, for no crime of their own, to spend their days “in the grate,” begging their bread from the passers-by, as hostages for the good behaviour of their families.

Anything more corrupting to youth or more embittering against the Government than this system it would be difficult to imagine. Hugh, the most important of the hostages, was kept in chains for three years and three months, and it is not surprising that these high-spirited lads spent their time in their “close prison” railing upon the unjust sentences and harsh treatment meted out to themselves and their people, and vowing revenge if their chance should come.[18]