The Great O’Neill – Biography Of Irish Gaelic Chieftain

The Great O’Neill by Seán Ó Faolain

Aedh Ruadh Ó Néill, or as he was better known in English, Red Hugh O Neill, was the last of the mighty chieftains who ruled Gaelic Ireland from the earliest times. These powerful aristocrats devised a precarious system of rule on the Emerald Isle that lasted for well over one thousand years. It all ended in 1601, after O’Neill’s inexplicable defeat at the Battle of Kinsale. The old Gaelic order began to crumble and, when the final rebellious chieftains fled Ireland on board a French-flagged ship, departing for the continent in what is known as The Flight of the Earls, Gaelic Ireland was broken.

In his celebrated account of the fascinating life of Red Hugh O’Neill, Seán Ó Faolain creates a vivid picture of Ireland during Elizabethan times. He doesn’t merely give us the facts. He gifts us with a story woven with great care and attention to detail. It’s well that he does for O’Neill was one of the most misunderstood and complex personalities to have emerged from Ireland. Ó’Faolain lifts the lid on the larger areas of darkness in The Great O’Neill‘s life, presenting a brutally honest, and often unflattering portrait of a man who defeated one English army and indirectly destroyed numerous others by intrigue, tact and animal cunning.

Born in Dungannon in 1550, Hugh O’Neill was the son of Matthew O’Neill who was formerly believed to be the son of a blacksmith from Dundalk. Upon his father’s death, the then Matthew O’Kelly’s mother, Alison, declared that he was really the son of Conn O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, with whom she had conducted a love affair. Conn accepted this claim and recognised Matthew as his first-born son. However, Conn’s other son, Seán, who history records as Seán the Proud, refused to accept his loss of place within the O’Neill hierarchy. This refusal began a feud within the clan which was to be used to good effect by the English colonial authorities in later years. The feud lasted into the next century.

It was into this warring atmosphere that the young Hugh was born and grew to be a ‘rascal horseboy’. At the tender age of 9, he was taken (with the permission of his family) to England by an English lord to be raised among his people’s natural enemies. This was an extension of the Gaelic system of fosterage designed to create and strengthen alliances. Hugh spent almost 10 years there, gaining not only a formal education, but also an intimate understanding of the English system of law and aristocracy. By allowing Hugh O’Neill to come to England and be given access to higher English society, Elizabeth the First made perhaps the greatest mistake of her life, one she recognised all too late.

When Hugh returned to Ireland in his late teens, he determined to retrieve the title and lands he felt were his due. His uncle, Seán the Proud, held the coveted title of The O’Neill (head of the clan). But young Hugh had learned patience far beyond his few years on earth. He also had enough Machiavellian wit to make Churchill look like Mr Bean. Hugh waited, toeing the English line, winning greater favour with the colonials who were then trying to expand into the Gaelic fortress of Ulster.


 Site of O’Neill’s Castle in Dungannon, in modern day County Tyrone

It is a mark of O’Neill’s lack of principle, or perhaps a sign of his obsession, that when the Desmond Rebellion erupted in 1579, Hugh O’Neill marshalled his forces and rode with the English to suppress the uprising in the south of his country. It should be remembered that, at this time, Ireland comprised many Gaelic chieftaincies, confederate in nature. The English authorities mercilessly exploited this natural weakness turning Irish against Irish time and time again.

As the years passed, Hugh O’Neill manoeuvred his way into a stronger position in Ulster and was trusted, mostly, by the growing colonial administration in Dublin. He secretly built up his forces, however. One example of O’Neill’s duplicity was when he ordered vast quantities of lead, purportedly to roof his castle. It was instead used to make bullets for his burgeoning army. He also built alliances with the other Gaelic chieftains, most notably Red Hugh O’Donnell (lot of red-heads back in the day) who was to prove one of the most tenacious and warlike of all of the Gaelic leaders.

The English grew increasingly uneasy. Some Gaelic lords refused to pay tribute to Elizabeth, and their de facto leader, O’Neill, managed to come up with a range of excuses as to why he couldn’t or shouldn’t subdue them. He deceived and cajoled and convinced the Dublin regime that he was acting on good faith. But really O’Neill was playing them all for fools. He had his plan and the English could only speculate as to his true intent.

When war in Ireland eventually came, O’Neill professed his reluctance to fight the English, and it may be that this is truly how he felt. Hugh gave the impression that his own personal circumstances were of greater import to him than any national issues. Yet, it was these national circumstances that forced his hand. He found himself unable to avoid or deflect war with the English any longer. He was in a corner.  He knew that eventually the English were going to make a vassal of him, removing his lands and wealth. He knew it was therefore fight or lose all sense of his place in Gaelic Ireland. The colonial encroachment was relentless and O’Neill could see that the only way to stop the English expansion was to beat the drums of war.


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During his education in England, Hugh O’Neill learned much about the art of war. He put this knowledge to good effect in the years that followed as one English army after another set out to destroy him, only for their campaigns to end in ruin. As O’Neill’s popularity in Ireland increased, the wealth of the English exchequer shrank accordingly. Elizabeth soon realised her folly in having accepted young O’Neill into English society.

When the Lord of Newry, Bagenal, went in search of O’Neill (O’Neill had secretly married Bagenal’s sister Mabel, who he later divorced), the two armies eventually met just outside today’s  Blackwatertown in County Armagh. It was at the Battle of the Yellow Ford that O’Neill destroyed Bagenal’s forces, killing Bagenal in the process. Of almost 5000 English soldiers who fought that day, less than 2000 survived, those having fled and taken refuge at the cathedral in Armagh city (where today lies the body of Brian Ború). With this victory, O’Neill was now recognised as a force to be reckoned with.

Elizabeth was outraged. She immediately opened her purse strings and paid for an army of 20,000 experienced troops to sail for Ireland under the command of General Mountjoy. Meanwhile, the Catholics of the continent lined up to assist O’Neill. The Spanish sent a force of some 2000 which landed at Kinsale at the behest of southern chieftains, the Anglo-Norman Desmonds among them. It was to be O’Neill’s, and Ireland’s, undoing.

O’Neill and O’Donnell were forced to march from Ulster in the north, to Kinsale in the south, during a harsh winter in order to relieve the Spanish soldiers who were then under siege in the coastal town by a sizeable English army. The Ulster troops set out their lines and prepared for battle. What happened next is open to much speculation. However, it seems that owing to a lack of clear communication with the Spanish forces, who were under intense pressure from the English army, the Irish forces were routed. It seems incredible that a force of battle hardened Irish soldiers would fall to pieces so quickly. It is said that the collapse took place within one hour. Perhaps the tiring forced march played a part, as well as the undoubted skill in battle of the English commanders. When the Irish retreated, the Spanish surrendered. The Battle of Kinsale is believed to have been the most important battle ever fought on Irish soil. It sounded the death-knell for Gaelic Ireland. The year was 1601.

One important point to be made at this juncture is that not all of the major Gaelic chieftains were on the side of O’Neill. The O’Dohertys of Inishowen, for example, fought on the side of the English. They were not alone. Across Ireland, many local clans refused to turn out on the side of Irish freedom. They were more concerned with their own possessions and parochial needs. It will be seen, in an examination of Irish history, that at no time did the English ever defeat the armies of Irish alone. They always had assistance from treacherous or cowardly Irish who could not see the greater danger of colonial expansion. Throughout Irish history, it was this tendency towards internecine rivalry that beat the Irish. In effect, they beat themselves.

After The Battle of Kinsale, Red Hugh O’Donnell immediately sailed for Spain in an effort to raise a larger force to continue the fight. But an English assassin, James Blake, is said to have poisoned him. With the death of O’Donnell, O’Neill lost his bravest and truest friend. He gave up hope of a continuation of the fight after this.

When a French ship sailed into Lough Swilly in 1607, O’Neill was still hiding in his last stronghold in Glenconkeyne in what is today south Derry. It was the last bastion of Gaelic rule in Ireland. But Mountjoy was relentless. His net was closing and O’Neill had little choice but to flee Ireland. He boarded the vessel with the remaining Gaelic chieftains still refusing to bend to English rule. They left behind a devastated land entirely at the mercy of a ruthless colonial enterprise and nowhere suffered as badly as his last stronghold in today’s south Derry.

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Memorial to The Flight of the Earls

Red Hugh O’Neill died in Rome. He is interred in San Pietro, Montorio, in that city. He lies alongside his Gaelic comrades-in-arms, Rory and Cathbarr O’Donnell, as well as his son, also Hugh. His reasoning for many of the decisions he took in life are largely unknown as he left behind precious little personal correspondence. Was he a patriot? Perhaps. Or he may have been little more than a parochial opportunist whose hand was forced. His legend was created by those who didn’t know him. He’s described as ‘The Great O’Neill’, and lauded as the foremost of Ireland’s rebellious heroes. The truth may be that he was as flawed as any. He coveted power for power’s sake and, although he appeared to recognise the need for a national Irish Army- as the English did in their own land many centuries previous, he was not strong enough or charismatic enough to convince the weaker, less visionary Gaelic chieftains to follow him. Ultimately, it was these other Irish leaders who defeated him as they meekly returned to the cold embrace of the colonial administration.

O’Neill’s great failure was that he did not recognise or perhaps move to prevent the inherent internecine rivalries that have kept Ireland in bondage for 800 years. Give colonials an inch and they’ll take the entire country, and they did. Red Hugh O’Neill spent the last years of his life looking back on all he had lost and all that could have been. It was an ignominious end to one of the most celebrated Irish lives. Seán Ó Faolain’s wonderful novel is a hard-hitting exposé of O’Neill. It doesn’t try to dress him up in a hero’s garb. Instead it gives us facts and then let’s us decide for ourselves as to what made O’Neill tick.

Rebel Voice has a sneaking admiration for the mighty chieftain. He was a profiteer, certainly. He was greedy and power-hungry. He was also consumed with regaining the title of The O’Neill. Perhaps it was this obsession with a Gaelic title that demonstrated his love for his land, so intense that it blinded him initially. It’s unfortunate, therefore, that Hugh O’Neill couldn’t see the wood for the trees, at least until it was too late. Then again, maybe he did. He’s a frustrating f**ker when it comes to analysis. It’s easy to imagine how the English must have felt, god bless their little colonial socks.

“I coulda been a contender”. The words of Terry Malloy from the movie On The Waterfront. But although Malloy might have been a hope, Red Hugh O’Neill was one. He was a solid contender, for nine years. During that time he ran the English armies ragged around and within Ulster. It was only when he stepped out of his Ulster fortress that he was beaten and then only because of his desperate desire to help foreign troops and keep on good terms with the King of Spain.

If only he had taken responsibility for the location of the Spanish landing. If only he had ransacked Dublin entirely and banished the English administration first, instead of rushing on to Kinsale. If only he had ensured better comms with the Spanish. If only his troops weren’t so tired. If only he had effectively dealt with the traitors of Ulster and Ireland. If only he had cleared Ulster of all colonial presence. If only, if only, if only. Ireland is built upon if onlys. Red Hugh O’Neill was maybe The Great, but it was as the greatest ‘if only’ of them all. So near, yet so far. Aedh Ruadh Ó Néill, like him or loathe him, can rightly be regarded as one of the most formidable Irish personalities of them all, and this book goes to some way to explaining why.


Sult scale rating: 8 out of 10. This is a seriously good read. Whether you are a student of Irish history, of Elizabethan times, of warfare or of human psychology, The Great O’Neill is a book that will surely entertain you. It provides a solid and grounded introduction to a complex, troubled and capable Irish rebel who so very nearly won a nation.

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