Hugh Roe O'Donnell

Patrick Weston Joyce

416. Sir John Perrott was lord deputy from 1584 to 1588. He treated the Irish with some consideration, much against the wishes of his Dublin council, many of whom were his bitter enemies. Yet his action was not always straight, as the following narrative will shew.

417. In anticipation of hostilities with Spain, where the Armada was at this time in preparation, he had already secured hostages from many of the Irish chiefs, but none from the O'Donnells, whom he feared more than all. In this strait he bethought him of a treacherous plan to seize either Sir Hugh O'Donnell or his son and heir.

418. Sir Hugh O'Donnell chief of Tirconnell had a son Hugh, commonly known as Hugh Roe (the Red), who was born in 1572, and who was now—1587—in his fifteenth year. Even already at that early age, he was remarked for his great abilities and for his aspiring and ambitious disposition. "The fame and renown of the above-named youth, Hugh Roe,"—say the Four Masters—"had spread throughout the five provinces of Ireland even before he had come to the age of manhood, for his wisdom, sagacity, goodly growth, and noble deeds; and the English feared that if he should be permitted to arrive at the age of maturity, he and the earl of Tyrone [Hugh O'Neill his brother-in-law] might combine and conquer the whole island."

419. Perrott's plan for entrapping young Red Hugh was skilfully concocted and well carried out. In the autumn of 1587 he sent a merchant vessel laden with Spanish wines to the coast of Donegal on pretence of traffic. The captain entered Lough Swilly and anchored opposite the castle of Rathmullen, where the boy lived with his foster father Mac Sweeny. When Mac Sweeny heard of the arrival of the ship, he sent to purchase some wine. The messengers were told that no more was left to sell; but that if any gentlemen wished to come on board they were quite welcome to drink as much as they pleased. The bait took. A party of the Mac Sweenys, accompanied by Hugh, unsuspectingly went on board. The captain had previously called in all his men; and while the company were enjoying themselves, their arms were quietly removed, the hatchway door was closed down, and the ship weighed anchor. When the people on shore observed this they were filled with consternation, and flocked to the beach; but they were quite helpless, for they had no boats ready. Neither was it of any avail when Mac Sweeny rushed to the point of shore nearest the ship, and cried out in the anguish of his heart, offering any amount of ransom and hostages. Young Hugh O'Donnell was brought to Dublin and safely lodged in Bermingham Tower in the Castle.

420. This transaction, however, so far from tending to peace, as Perrott no doubt intended, did the very reverse; for, as Leland justly observes, it was "equally impolitic and dishonourable." It made bitter enemies of the O'Donnells, who had been hitherto for generations on the side of the government. In young O'Donnell himself more especially, it engendered feelings of exasperation and irreconcilable hatred; and it was one of the causes of the O'Neill war which brought unmeasured woe and disaster to both English and Irish.

421. Three years and three months passed away: Perrott had been recalled, and Sir William Fitzwilliam was now, 1590, lord deputy; when O'Donnell, in concert with some of his fellow prisoners, made an attempt to escape. Round the castle there was a deep ditch filled with water, across which was a wooden bridge opposite the door of the fortress. Early one dark winter's evening, before the guard had been set, they let themselves down on the bridge by a long rope, and immediately fastened the door on the outside. They were met on the bridge by a youth of Hugh's people with two swords, one of which Hugh took, the other was given to Art Kavanagh, a brave young Leinster chief. They made their way noiselessly through the people along the dimly lighted streets, guided by the young man, while Kavanagh brought up the rear with sword grasped ready in case of interruption. Passing out through one of the city gates which had not yet been closed for the night, they crossed the country towards the hills, avoiding the public road, and made their way over that slope of the Three Rock Mountain overlooking Still-organ. They pushed on till far in the night; when being at last quite worn out, they took shelter in a thick wood, somewhere near the present village of Roundwood, where they remained hidden during the remainder of the night. Next morning O'Donnell was so fatigued that he was not able to keep up with his companions; for the thin shoes he wore had fallen in pieces with wet, and his feet were torn and bleeding from sharp stones and thorns. So, very unwillingly, his companions left him in a wood and pursued their journey, all but one servant who went for aid to Castlekevin, a little way off, near the mouth of Glendalough, where lived Felim O'Toole, one of Hugh's friends, who at once took steps for his relief.

422. After the fugitives had left the castle, the guards going to lock them up in their cells for the night missed them, and instantly raising an alarm, rushed to the door; but finding themselves shut in, they shouted to the people in the houses at the other side of the street, who removed the fastening of the door and released them. They were not able to overtake the fugitives, who had too much of a start, but they traced them all the way to the hiding-place. O'Toole now saw that his friend could no longer be concealed, for the soldiers had surrounded the wood; and making a virtue of necessity, he and his people arrested him and brought him back to Dublin. The council were delighted at his capture; and for the better security they shackled him and his companions in the prison with heavy iron fetters.

423. Another weary year passed away. On Christmas night, 1591, before supper time, Hugh and his two companions Henry and Art O'Neill, the sons of Shane O'Neill, who were also in the prison, cut through their iron fetters with a file which had somehow been conveyed to them, and let themselves down on the bridge by a long silken rope. They crept through the common sewer of the castle, and, making their way across the ditch, were met at the other side by a guide sent by the great chief Fiach Mac Hugh O'Byrne of Glenmalure.

424. They glided through the dim streets as in their former attempt at escape, the people taking no notice of them; and passing out at one of the city gates which had not been closed, they made their way across the country; but in this part of their course they lost Henry O'Neill in the darkness. Greatly distressed at this, they still pressed on; but they found it hard to travel and suffered keenly from cold; for the snow fell thick, and they had thrown aside their soiled outer mantles after leaving the castle. They crossed the hills, shaping their way this time more to the west, up by Killakee and along the course of the present military road.

But Art O'Neill, who had grown corpulent in his prison for want of exercise, was unable to keep pace with the others: and Hugh and the attendant had to help him on at intervals by walking one on each side, while he rested his arms on their shoulders. In this manner they toiled on wearily across the snowy waste through the whole of that Christmas night and the whole of next day without food, hoping to be able to reach Glenmalure without a halt. But they became at last so worn out with fatigue and hunger, that they had to give up and take shelter under a high rock, while the servant ran on for help. Fiach despatched a small party with a supply of food, who found the two young men lying under the rock to all appearance dead:—"Unhappy and miserable" —write the Four Masters—"was the condition [of the young chiefs] on their arrival. Their bodies were covered over with white-bordered shrouds of hailstones freezing around them, and their light clothes and fine-threaded shirts adhered to their skin, and their large shoes and leather thongs to their legs and feet: so that covered as they were with snow, it did not appear to the men who had arrived that they were human beings at all, for they found no life in their members, but just as if they were dead."

They raised the unhappy sufferers and tried to make them take food and drink, but neither food nor drink could they swallow, and while the men were tenderly nursing them Art O'Neill died in their arms. And there they buried him under the shadow of the rock. Hugh, being hardier, however, fared better: after some time he was able to swallow a little ale, and his strength began to return. But his feet still remained frozen and dead so that he could not stand: and when he had sufficiently recovered, the men carried him on their shoulders to Glenmalure. Here he was placed in a secluded cottage, where he remained for a time under cure, till a young chief named Turlogh O'Hagan, a trusty messenger from Hugh O'Neill earl of Tyrone, came for him.

425. Meantime, the council hearing that O'Donnell was in Glenmalure with O'Byrne, placed guards on the fords of the Liffey to prevent him from passing northwards to Ulster. Nevertheless, as O'Neill's message was urgent, Fiach sent O'Donnell away with O'Hagan, and a troop of horse for a guard; but the young chief's feet were still so helpless that he had to be lifted on and off his horse. They crossed the Liffey at a deep and dangerous ford just beside Dublin, which had been left unguarded. Here O'Byrne's escort left them; and from Dublin they made their way northwards, attended by Felim O'Toole and his brother. Having escorted them to a safe distance beyond Dublin, the O'Tooles "bade Hugh farewell, and having given him their blessing, departed from him."

There were now only two, O'Donnell himself and O'Hagan, and they rode on till they reached the Boyne a little above Drogheda: here O'Donnell crossed in a boat while O'Hagan brought the horses round by the town. They next reached Mellifont, where resided a friend, Sir Garrett Moore, a young Englishman, with whom they remained for the night; and in the evening of the following day set off with a fresh pair of horses.

They arrived at Dundalk by morning, and rode through the town in open day without attracting any notice: and at last they reached the residence of Hugh O'Neill's half brother, chief of the Fews in Armagh. Next day they came to the city of Armagh, where they remained in concealment for one night. The following day they reached the house of earl Hugh O'Neill at Dungannon, where O'Donnell rested for four days; but secretly, for O'Neill was still in the queen's service.

The earl sent him with a troop of horse as an escort to Enniskillen Castle, the residence of O'Donnell's cousin Maguire of Fermanagh, who rowed him down Lough Erne, at the far shore of which he was met by a party of his own people. With these he arrived at his father's castle at Ballyshannon, where he was welcomed with unbounded joy.

426. There is good reason to believe that the deputy Fitzwilliam, who was very avaricious and unprincipled, was bribed by Hugh O'Neill earl of Tyrone to connive at the escape of O'Donnell and the two O'Neills.

427. At Ballyshannon Hugh remained under cure for two months. The physicians had at last to amputate his two great toes; and a whole year passed away before he had fully recovered from the effects of that one terrible winter night in the mountains.

In May this year, 1592, a general meeting of the Kinel-Connell was convened; and Sir Hugh O'Donnell, who was old and feeble, having resigned the chieftainship, young Hugh Roe—now in his twentieth year—was elected The O'Donnell, chief of his race.