Shane O’Neill and the Scots in Ulster (3)

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

Dublin Castle had been enlarged and decorated during the Lieutenancy of Sir Henry Sidney. It was solidly built and surrounded by a trench of water over which a drawbridge gave entry to the castle yard; yet on two occasions Hugh, with the help of friends outside, managed to escape.

On his first flight he succeeded in getting out of the city and across the Three Rock Mountain in the night, hoping that Phelim O’Toole, whom he regarded as a friend and who had offered to help him, would give him shelter; but the treacherous chief handed him over to the Government, and he was more closely incarcerated than before.

Again, on Christmas night 1591, when their fetters were removed for supper, and probably some extra liberty was allowed on account of the festival, Hugh, with two companions, Henry and Art, sons of Shane O’Neill, who had been confined since boyhood, effected their escape by sliding down a drain, and again took their way across the Dublin mountains southward.

It was a bitterly cold night and the rain was pouring down. The mountain was slippery with melting snow, and their clothes were thin and scanty. Henry was separated from the others in the darkness, and Art, who had grown stiff and corpulent from long confinement, began to fail, and finally could go no farther. He had to sit down under a cliff in the bitter cold, which was so severe that the great toes on Hugh’s feet were frozen. They were depending on the help of Fiach macHugh of Glenmalure, “the great firebrand of the mountains between Wexford and Dublin,” as Perrot’s biographer calls him. He had promised to send horses, but had contented himself with sending a guide.

Now that they could walk no farther, they sent this man on to tell Fiach of their distress; but so closely were all his movements watched that it was not until the third night that four of his men reached the cave with food and drink. It was too late to save Art, who died before their eyes; but Hugh, who was younger, and who had eaten grass to still the pangs of hunger, was still alive. When he had been forced to take some drink he was lifted from the ground and carried to Glenmalure, from whence, when he was able to mount a horse, he was escorted home to Ulster, almost miraculously escaping capture by the way, for every movement was watched. He found that Henry O’Neill had arrived in Ulster before him.

Hugh O’Neill’s system of keeping a number of the border English in his pay pledged to aid and support him proved, on this occasion, of real service, for they were conveniently blind to the fact that an O’Donnell was passing through their districts. Indeed, many believed that the incoming Lord Deputy, Fitzwilliam, himself had a hand in his prisoner’s escape; the avaricious Fitzwilliam was not a man to refuse a bribe and Hugh O’Neill is said to have paid him £1000 for this service. Perrot declared that he could have had £2000 for the same purpose.

Hugh Roe O’Donnell’s country had not been faring well in his absence; in spite of his father’s protests, sheriffs of the very worst type had been appointed in the North, one Captain Willis being the most objectionable. Captain Lee, an Englishman who knew the conditions well, says that Willis had with him “three hundred of the very rascals and scum of that kingdom, who did rob and spoil the people, ravished their wives and daughters, and made havoc of all; … men whom no well-advised captain could admit into his company.” It was to the acts of these men that Lee ascribes a great part of the unquietness of O’Donnell’s province.[19]

“Old age lay heavy” on the old O’Donnell, and he was already falling into senile decay. But a new era began with the return of his son. The father resigned his position, which fell into Hugh Roe’s hands, and no sooner was the latter inaugurated chief on the rock of Kilmacrenan than a vigorous policy was adopted designed to restore to Tyrconnel its former freedom from outside interference. He swept the sheriffs out of his country, cleared the monastery of Donegal of the soldiers quartered within its precincts, and attacked old Turlogh O’Neill, who was opposing Hugh O’Neill on the English side, in his castle at Strabane. He deposed him and shut him up in a small island in a lake, where he remained till his death two years afterward.

All this time Hugh Roe was suffering severely from the effects of his terrible journey across the Dublin mountains on the winter’s night of his escape. For a year he had to lie on his bed in his castles of Donegal and Ballyshannon, directing operations in which he could take no active part. The physicians at length removed his toes, and he began slowly to recover. It was while he was in this condition that Hugh O’Neill proposed to him that they should repair together to the Viceroy and give in their submissions. To this surprising suggestion O’Donnell responded unwillingly, and only after much persuasion was he induced again to put himself within the power of the men from whom he had so recently escaped.

With great difficulty he was got upon a horse, and with O’Neill he journeyed to Dundalk, where “the next day in church before a great assembly he delivered his humble submission, making a great show of sorrow for his misdemeanours committed … and very willingly yielded himself to be sworn to perform the several parts of his submission.”

They parted from Fitzwilliam with mutual goodwill and blessings, and, after some days spent in friendly feasting at O’Neill’s house at Dungannon, O’Donnell returned to his own castle in Donegal, standing on the shores of the Bay. Sir Henry Sidney, who visited it in 1566, says of it:

“It is one of the greatest that I ever saw in Ireland in any Irishman’s hands, and would appear in good keeping one of the fairest, so nigh a portable water as a boat of ten tons may come within twenty yards of it.”

It had been built by Hugh’s ancestor, another Hugh Roe, grandson of Turlogh of the Wine, between 1505 and 1511, and added to in 1564.

Some years later, O’Donnell felt himself called upon to destroy his own fair castle to prevent it from falling into the hands of his brother-in-law, Niall Garbh, and his English allies. Near it, on the smooth sward that borders the lovely bay of Donegal, stood the buildings of the Franciscan monastery, the head of its order in Ireland, built in 1474 by Nuala, daughter of O’Conor Faly, and enriched by the munificence of succeeding O’Donnells.

Hard by the windows of the refectory was the wharf, where for centuries foreign ships had taken in their cargoes of hides, fish, wool, lining cloth, and falding, and where came the galleons of Spain, laden with wine and arms in exchange for the merchandise which the Lords of Tyrconnel sent annually to the marts of Brabant, then the great emporiums for the North of Europe.[20]

Up to 1601 the community still consisted of forty friars; they had dispersed into the mountains, carrying with them their altar-plate and valuables, when the English troops and sheriffs swooped down upon Donegal in the dead of night and occupied the monastery as a garrison; but they speedily returned when O’Donnell once more came among them. The effect of Hugh Roe’s submission was to bring him a period of peace, “for he had no fear, having entered into peace and friendship with the Lord Justice,” and the members of his sept who had hitherto been opposed to his election now came in and willingly made their submissions to him. Even Niall Garbh, “the Rough,” whose name fitly describes the fierce vindictive character given to him by all parties, now came in, though only out of fear of Hugh’s power.

But O’Donnell, with or without his will, soon found himself involved in the disturbances going on around him. Maguire was fighting Bingham in Connacht and Bagenal in Ulster, the latter being assisted by O’Neill, who, until events proved too strong for him, remained true to his oath of allegiance.

When Maguire was besieged in his castle of Enniskillen in 1594 O’Donnell felt bound to go to his assistance, and on the castle falling by treachery into the hands of the English he sat down before it and proceeded to starve the garrison into surrender.

After Maguire’s rout of the relieving party at the Ford of the Biscuits, Enniskillen and soon afterward Belleek fell into O’Donnell’s hands.

O’Donnell was now openly in arms against the English, and beginning to intrigue with Spain, not altogether with the goodwill of O’Neill, who was of the two by far the more long-sighted and experienced soldier. He thought that Hugh was inclined to be hasty, and feared that his own larger and more ambitious designs might be wrecked by a rash move of his ally. But O’Donnell’s unrivalled knowledge of the country, his swiftness of movement and combination, and the devotion with which he was followed made his constant raids a terror to his enemies.

While O’Neill in the east of Ulster was building up the formidable army which was to defeat the English at Clontibret and the Yellow Ford, O’Donnell was indulging with equal success in a series of wide-sweeping raids into Connacht, baffling Bingham and the watching English troops posted on his path by taking circuitous routes well known to him but impossible for the transport of Bingham’s artillery and heavy-armed troops. It was the kind of warfare that the Irish loved and which the English could not imitate and did not know how to circumvent. At one moment he would be sweeping Mayo and Sligo, dividing his men into marauding parties who cleared the country far and wide of cattle, herds of sheep, and booty of all sorts, returning to their homes “with vast treasures and great joy”; at another time they would chase the horses of the English cavalry into their camp when they were being led out for exercise. On one occasion their expedition carried them south as far as Thomond into the country of the O’Briens, the Earl of Thomond having proved faithful to his oath of allegiance all through the Munster wars.

Wherever O’Donnell raided the country was “completely gleaned by him,” and he did not hesitate “to put a heavy cloud of fire on the land all round” any district selected for a raid. It was the old accustomed way of fighting adopted by Irish and English troops alike. The enormous herds of live-stock driven off and of treasure accumulated in these descents is equally surprising whether we consider the condition of the inhabitants of the country districts or the possibility of their survival at a time when such raids occurred regularly during every fighting season.