Character of O'Neil

Justin McCarthy
Chapter IV | Start of Chapter

It is not easy to come to a satisfactory estimate of the character of Shane O'Neil. Some English historians treat him as if he were a mere monster of treachery and violent crime. Most Irish legends and stories convert him into a perfect hero and patriot; while other Irish writers of graver order are inclined to dwell altogether upon the wrongs done to him and the perfidies employed to ensnare him by those who acted for the English Government. It is necessary to keep always in mind that in their dealings with the Irish native populations the English Government only too frequently employed deception and treachery, thus giving the Irish Chieftains what they considered warrant enough for playing a similar game. Shane O'Neil was very unscrupulous in his methods of dealing with his enemies; he was a man of sensuous passions and fierce hatreds, but he was gifted with splendid courage, a remarkable capacity for soldiership, and much of the diplomatist's or statesman's art. An Irish essayist, who writes with much judgment and moderation on the subject, describes Shane as "a thorough Celtic Chief, not of the traditional type, but such as centuries of prolonged struggle for existence had made the Chieftains of his nation." This seems the only fair standard by which to judge his career. No Irish family gave more trouble in its time to the English conquerors than did the O'Neils, and Shane O'Neil was in some of his qualities the most extraordinary man of the family. There were other O'Neils who bequeathed to their country's history a brighter and purer fame, and of whose characters we can form a common estimate with less chance of dispute, but in Shane O'Neil we see a genuine type of the ancestral Irish Chieftain brought into dealings and antagonism with the advances and the emissaries of a newer civilization.