The Escape of Hugh Roe O'Donnell

(Extract from Connellan's translation of The Annals of the Four Masters)

From The Cabinet of Irish Literature, Volume 1 (1880), edited by Charles A. Read

Red Hugh, the son of Hugh, son of Manus O'Donnell, remained in imprisonment and in chains in Dublin, after his former escape, till the winter of this year [1592]. He and his fellow-prisoners, Henry and Art, the sons of O'Neill, i.e. of John, having been together in the early part of the night, got an opportunity of the guards before they had been brought to the dining-room, and having taken off their fetters they afterwards went to the privy, having with them a very long rope, by which the fugitives descended through the privy, until they reached the deep trench which surrounded the castle; they afterwards gained the opposite side, and mounted the side of the trench. There was a trusty servant who was in the habit of visiting them, to whom they disclosed their intention, and he met them at that time to direct them; they then proceeded through the streets of the city indiscriminately with others, and no one took notice of them more than of any other person, for the people of the town did not stop to make their acquaintance that time, and the gates of the city were open. They afterwards passed through every intricate and difficult place until they arrived on the open plain of Slieve Piol (the Red Mountain, on the borders of Dublin and Wicklow), by which Hugh in his first escape had passed.

The darkness of the night and the swiftness of their flight, through dread of being pursued, separated the oldest of them from the others, namely, Henry O'Neill. Hugh was the youngest of them in age, although he was not so in noble deeds. They were much grieved at Henry's separation from them; but, however, they continued their progress, led on by their own man. The night was dropping snow, so that it was not easy for them to walk, for they were without clothes or outside coats, having left their upper garments in the privy through which they had come. Art (O'Neill) became more exhausted by the hasty journey than Hugh, for it was a long time since he had been incarcerated, and he became very corpulent from the length of his residence in the prison; it was not so with Hugh; he did not exceed the age of boyhood, neither did he cease in growth or become corpulent, and his pace and progress were quick and active. When he perceived that Art became exhausted, and that his pace was slow and tardy, he requested him to put his hand on his own shoulder, and the other hand on the shoulder of the servant, and they proceeded in that manner until they crossed the Red Mountain; after which they were fatigued and wearied, and they could not bring Art farther with them; and since they could not convey him with them they stopped there, and stayed under the shelter of a high projecting rock which stood before them. Having remained there they sent the servant with word to Glenmalure (in Wicklow), where dwelt Fiacha Mac Hugh (O'Byrne), who was then at war with the English; that glen was an impregnable stronghold, and a great number of the prisoners of Dublin, when they made their escape, were in the habit of proceeding to that glen, for they considered themselves secure there until they returned to their countries.

When the servant arrived at the place of Fiacha he related to him his message, and the condition he left the persons in who had fled from the city, and they would not be overtaken alive unless they came to relieve them at once. Fiacha immediately commanded a number of his friends whom he could rely on to go to them, one man bearing food, another ale and mead. They accordingly proceeded, and arrived at the place where the men were; but, alas! unhappy and uncomfortable were they on their arrival, for the manner in which they were was that their bodies were covered as it were in beds of white hailstone, like blankets, which were frozen about them, and congealed their thin light dresses, and their thin shirts of fine linen to their skins, and their moistened shoes and leathern coverings to their legs and feet, so that they appeared to the people who came as if they were not actually human beings, having been completely covered with the snow, for they found no life in their members, but they were as if dead; they took them up from where they lay, and requested them to take some of the food and ale, but they were not able to do so, for every drink they took they cast it up immediately, so that Art at length died and was buried in that place. As to Hugh, he afterwards took some of the mead, and his faculties were restored after drinking it, except the use of his feet alone, for they became dead members, without feeling, having been swelled and blistered by the frost and snow. The men then carried him to the glen which we have mentioned, and he remained in a private house, in the hidden recesses of a wood, under cure, until a messenger came privately to inquire after him from his brother-in-law the Earl O'Neill. After the messenger had come to him he prepared to depart, and it was difficult for him to go on that journey, for his feet could not be cured, so that another person should raise him on his horse, and take him between his two hands again when alighting. Fiacha sent a large troop of horse with him by night, until he should cross the river Liffey, to defend him against the guards who were looking out for him; for the English of Dublin received intelligence that Hugh was in Glenmalure, so that it was therefore they placed sentinels at the shallow fords of the river, to prevent Hugh and the prisoners who had fled along with him from crossing thence into the province of Ulster.

The men who were along with Hugh were obliged to cross a difficult deep ford on the river Liffey, near the city of Dublin, which they passed unnoticed by the English, until they arrived on the plain of the fortress. He was accompanied by the persons who had on a former occasion forsaken him after his first escape, namely, Felim O'Toole and his brother, in conjunction with the troops who were escorting him to that place, and they ratified their good faith and friendship with each other; after bidding him farewell, and giving him their blessing, they then parted with him there. As to Hugh O'Donnell, he had none along with him but the one young man of the people of Hugh O'Neill who went for him to the celebrated glen, and who spoke the language of the foreigners (the English), and who was also in the habit of accompanying the earl, i.e. Hugh O'Neill, whenever he went among the English, so that he knew and was familiar with every place through which they passed. They proceeded on their two very swift steeds along the direct course of the roads of Meath, until they arrived on the banks of the Boyne before morning, a short distance to the west of Drogheda; but they were in dread to go to that city, so that what they did was to go along the bank of the river to a place where a poor fisherman usually waited, and who had a small ferrying curach (cot or small boat). Hugh having gone into the curach, the ferryman left him on the opposite side after he had given him his full payment; Hugh's servant having returned took the horses with him through the city, and brought them to Hugh on the other side of the river. They then mounted their horses, and proceeded until they were two miles from the river, where they saw a thick bushy grove before them on the way in which they went, surrounded by a very great fosse, as if it were a strongly-fenced garden; there was a fine residence belonging to an excellent gentleman of the English near the wood, and he was a trusty friend of Hugh O'Neill.

When they had arrived at the ramparts they left their horses and went into the wood within the fosse, for Hugh's faithful guide was well acquainted with that place; having left Hugh there he went into the fortress and was well received; having obtained a private apartment for Hugh O'Donnell he brought him with him, and he was served and entertained to his satisfaction. They remained there until the night of the following day, and their horses having been got ready for them in the beginning of the night, they proceeded across Sliabh Breagh and through Machaire Conaill (both in the county of Louth) until they arrived at Traigh-Baile Mic-Buain (Dundalk) before the morning; as the gates of the town were opened in the morning early they resolved to pass through it, and they proceeded through it on their horses until they arrived on the other side, and they were cheerful and rejoiced for having got over all the dangers which lay before them till then. They then proceeded to the Fiodh (the wood) where lived Torlogh, the son of Henry, son of Felim Piol O'Neill, to rest themselves, and there they were secure, for Torlogh was a friend and connection of his, and he and the Earl O'Neill were born of the same mother; they remained there till the following day and then proceeded across Slieve Fuaid (the Fews Mountains in Armagh), and arrived at Armagh, where they arrived privately that night; they went on the following day to Dungannon, where the earl, Hugh O'Neill, lived, and he was rejoiced at their arrival, and they were led to a retired apartment, without the knowledge of any excepting a few of his trusty people who were attending them, and Hugh remained there for the space of four nights, recovering himself from the fatigue of his journey and troubles, after which he prepared to depart, and took leave of the earl, who sent a troop of horse with him until he arrived at the eastern side of Lough Erne. The lord of the country was a friend of his and a kinsman by the mother's side, namely, Hugh Maguire, for Nualadh, the daughter of Manus O'Donnell, was his mother. Maguire was rejoiced at his coming, and a boat having been brought to them, into which they went, they then rowed from thence until they arrived at a narrow creek of the lake, where they landed. A number of his faithful people having gone to meet him, they conveyed him to the castle Ath-Seanaigh (Ballyshannon), in which were the guards of O'Donnell his father; he remained there until all those in their neighbourhood in the country came thither to pay their respects to him. His faithful people were rejoiced at the arrival of the heir to the chieftaincy, and although they owed him sincere affection on account of his family, they had motives which made him no less welcome to them, for the country up to that time had been plundered a hundred times over between the English and the Irish.