Shane O'Neil (O'Neill) - Sketches of Olden Days in Northern Ireland

From Sketches of Olden Days in Northern Ireland by Rev. Hugh Forde

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Of all the Ulster chieftains before the Plantation, none stands out more prominently than Shane O’Neil for strength of character, ambition, and daring. In the partial settlement of Ireland, which had been brought about by King Henry VIII., the O’Neils among other noble families surrendered their lands to the Crown, to receive them again under the usual feudal tenure. Con O’Neil, the father of Shane, had received for himself and his heirs the title of Earl of Tyrone. For himself and his heirs ? But who were the heirs of Con it was not easy to decide.

The favourite of the family, says Froude, from whom I freely quote in this sketch, was the offspring of an intrigue with a certain Alyson Kelly, the wife of a blacksmith at Dundalk. This child, a boy named Matthew, grew to be a fine dashing youth, such as an Irish father would be proud of, and King Henry allowed the father to name at his will the heir of his new honours. So Matthew Kelly became Baron of Dungannon when O’Neil received his earldom, and to him was also secured the reversion of the earldom at his father’s death.

Shane, the legitimate son, and his brothers were jealous of Matthew, and conspired against him. At the beginning of April, 1562, the young Baron of Dungannon was waylaid in a wood near Carlingford by Tirlogh O’Neil. He fled for his life, with the murderers behind him, till he reached the banks of a deep river which he could not swim, and there he was killed.

Strange to say, the old O’Neil, instead of being irritated, saw in this exploit a proof of commendable energy. He at once took Shane into favour, and had he been able would have given him his dead brother’s rights. But, unfortunately, the Baron of Dungannon had left a son behind him, and the son was with the family of his grandmother, beyond the reach of steel or poison.

Shane soon after conspired against his father, deposed him and drove him into the Pale, where he afterwards died. Shane then threw over his English title, and professing to prefer the name of O’Neil to any patent of nobility held under an English sovereign, he claimed the right of succession by Irish custom, precedent, and law. In Tyrone the clan elected their chief from the blood of the ancient kings, and Shane, waiving all questions of legitimacy, received the votes of his people, took the oath with his foot upon the stone, and, with the general consent of the North, was proclaimed “O’Neil.”

In his view of the state of Ireland, the poet Spenser tells us “They place him that should be called their captain upon a stone always reserved for that purpose, and commonly placed upon a hill.” The stone in Westminster Abbey, brought from Scone by Edward I., was one of these, and according to legend is the original Lias Fail, or thundering stone, on which the Irish kings were crowned.

The Irish of the North and the Scots of the Western Isles had for two centuries kept up a close and increasing intercourse. Some thousand Scotch families had emigrated from Bute, Arran, and Argyllshire to find settlements on the thinly-peopled coasts of Antrim and Down. James M‘Connell and his two brothers, near kinsmen of the House of Argyll, crossed over with two thousand followers to settle in Tyrconnell; while to the Callagh O’Donnell, the chief of the clan, the Earl of Argyll himself gave his half-sister for a wife. With this formidable support the O’Donnells threatened to eclipse their ancient rivals, the O’Neils.

So matters stood in the spring of 1560. The O’Donnells were prepared to join the English army under Lord Sussex, the Deputy, on its advance into Ulster against Shane, but Shane had prepared a master-stroke. He made a rapid raid into Tyrconnell and carried off both the Callagh O’Donnell and his wife, the countess, and by this last manoeuvre the O’Neils became supreme in Ulster. Lord Sussex made a dash on Armagh and seized the cathedral, but shortly after he was lured into an ambush, and out of 500 English soldiers fifty lay dead and fifty more were badly wounded, and the survivors of the force fell back to Armagh so dismayed as to be unfit for service.

Shane was now successful everywhere. The Maguire had to flee from his islands, the castle of the O’Donnells was surrendered, the English garrison at Armagh was withdrawn, and at last over river, bog, and mountain Shane was undisputed Lord of Ulster. He built himself a fort on an island in Lough Neagh, which he called “Foogh-ni-Gall,” or “Hate of Englishmen,” and grew rich on the spoils of his enemies. “The only strong man in Ireland,” he administered justice after a paternal fashion, permitting no robbers but himself. When wrong was done he compelled restitution. Two hundred pipes of wine were stored in his cellars, six hundred men-at-arms fed at his table—“as it were his janissaries”—and daily he feasted the beggars at his gate.

O’Donnell was in exile, and only the Scottish colonies of Antrim remained unsubdued. O’Neil lay quiet through the winter; with the spring and the fine weather, when the rivers fell and the ground dried, he roused himself out of his lair, and with his gallowglasses and kerns, and a few hundred “harquebuss men,” he dashed suddenly down upon the “Redshanks” and broke them utterly to pieces. Six or seven hundred were killed in the field. James M‘Connell and his brother, Sorley Boy, were taken prisoners, and for the moment the whole colony was swept away.

Shane had now reached the summit of his power, but dark days were in store for him. A new Deputy—Sir Henry Sidney —was sent from England, a strong and capable commander. Without delay he crossed with his army into Shane’s own county. He marched without obstruction to Bessbrook, one of O’Neil’s best and largest castles, which was found utterly burnt and razed to the ground. From Bessbrook ho went on towards Clogher, through pleasant fields and villages, so well inhabited as no Irish county in the realm was like it; it was the very park or reserve into which the plunder of Ulster had been gathered, where the people enjoyed the profits of unlimited pillage from which till then they had been themselves exempt. “There we stayed,” said Sidney, “to destroy the corn. We burnt the country for twenty-four miles compass, and we found by experience that now was the time of year to do the rebels most hurt.” Meanwhile an expedition had sailed from England under Colonel Randolph, As he came up Lough Foyle he was struck with the situation of Derry. Nothing then stood on the site of the present city lave a decrepit and deserted monastery of Augustine monks, which was said to have been built in the time of St. Columba, but the eye of the English commander saw in the form of the ground, says Froude, in the magnificent lake and the splendid tidal river, a site for the foundation of a powerful colony, suited alike for a military station and a commercial and agricultural town. There Sidney joined Randolph, and after a careful survey entirely approved his judgment. The monastery with a few sheds attached to it provided shelter. O’Donnell, O’Doherty, and the other friends of England agreed all of them that it was the very best spot in the northern counties to build a city.

Sidney stayed a few days at Derry, and then leaving Colonel Randolph with 650 men, 350 pioneers, and provisions for two months, continued his own march. He restored O’Donnell to his castle, and scarcely pausing to rest his troops, Sidney again went forward; on 19th February, 1567, he was at Ballyshannon; on 22nd at Sligo; on 24th he passed over the bogs and mountains of Mayo into Roscommon, and then leaving behind them as fruitful a country as was in England or Ireland all utterly waste, the army turned their faces homeward. Twenty castles had been taken as they went along and left in hands that could be trusted.

Meanwhile Shane was hovering cautiously in the neighbourhood of Lough Foyle, when Colonel Randolph fell upon him by surprise. The O’Neils fled after a short sharp action. O’Doherty with his Irish horse chased the flying crowd, killing every man he caught, and Shane recovered himself to find he had lost 400 of the bravest of his followers; more fatal overthrow neither he nor any other chief had yet received at English hands. But the success was dearly bought; Colonel Randolph, himself leading the pursuit, was struck by a random shot and fell dead from his horse. A little later a joint movement was concerted between Sidney and the O’Donnells, and while the Deputy, with the light horse of the Pale, overran Tyrone and carried off 8,000 cattle.

Hugh O’Donnell came down on Shane on the river that runs into Lough Foyle. The spot where the supremacy of Ulster was snatched decisively from the ambition of the O’Neils is called in the despatches Gaveston. The situation is now difficult to identify. It was somewhere, perhaps between Lifford and Londonderry, on the west side of the river, after a brief fight the O’Neils broke and fled; the enemy was behind them, the river was in front, and when the Irish battle-cries had died away over moor and mountain, only 200 survived of those fierce troopers who were to have cleared Ireland for ever from the presence of the Saxons. For the rest, the wolves were snarling over their bodies, and the seagulls wheeling over them with screams and cries as they floated down to their last resting-place beneath the quiet waters of Lough Foyle.

Shane’s foster brethren, faithful to the last, were all killed; he himself, with half a dozen comrades, rode for his life pursued by the avenging furies. Sorley Boy and the Countess of Argyll were still in his hands, and M‘Kevin told him that for their sakes or at their intercession he might find shelter and perhaps help among the kindred of the MacDonnells. In the far extremity of Antrim, sheltered among the hills and close upon the sea, lay the camp of Alister MacDonnell and his nephew Gillespie.

Here on Saturday, the last day of May, appeared Shane O’Neil, with M‘Kevin and some fifty men. He had brought the countess and Sorley Boy as peace-offerings, and alighted at Alister’s tent and threw himself on his hospitality. He was received with kindness. The feud seemed to be buried in the restoration of Sorley Boy; an alliance was again talked of, and for two days all went well.

The third evening, Monday, 2nd June, after supper, when the wine and the whiskey had gone freely round, and the blood in Shane’s veins had warmed again, Gillespie MacDonnell, who had watched him from the first with an unfriendly eye, turned round upon M‘Kevin and asked scornfully whether it was he who had bruited abroad that the lady, his aunt, did offer to come from Scotland to Ireland to marry with his master. M‘Kevin, meeting scorn with scorn, said that if his aunt was Queen of Scotland she might be proud to marry The O’Neil. “It is false,” the fierce Scot shouted, “my aunt is too honest a woman to match with her husband’s murderer.” Shane, who perhaps had drunk too much, heard the words, and forgetting where he was, flung back the lie in Gillespie’s throat. Gillespie sprang to his feet, ran out of the tent, and raised the slogan of the Isles. A hundred dirks flashed in the moonlight, and the Irish, wherever they could be found, were struck down and stabbed. Some two or three found their horses and escaped; all the rest were murdered, and Shane himself, gashed with fifty wounds, was wrapped in a kern’s old shirt and flung into a pit hastily dug among the ruined arches of Glenarm.

Even there what was left of him was not allowed to rest. “Four days later,” says Froude, “the Captain of Knockfergus hacked the head from the body, and carried it on a spear’s point through Drogheda to Dublin, where, staked upon a spike, it bleached on the battlements of the Castle.” So died Shane O’Neil, a keen and fiery patriot, the representative in his birth of the line of the ancient kings; the ideal in his character of all which Irishmen most admire; regardless in his actions of the laws of God and man, yet the devoted subject in his creed of the Roman Catholic Church; with an eye which could see far beyond the limits of his own island, and a tongue which could touch the most passionate chords of the Irish heart.

But man, proud man,

Drest in a little brief authority,

Flays such fantastic tricks before high heaven

As make the angels weep.

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