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Aodh Ruadh Ó Domhnaill - The man and his times

Of the rebellions that took place in Ireland during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England the one that came closest to success was that led by Hugh O'Neill of Tyrone and Aodh Ruadh Ó Domhnaill, known in English as Red Hugh O'Donnell, of Tyrconnell

Aodh Ruadh Ó Domhnaill was the son of the Aodh who had accepted the title of Earl of Tyrconnell from Henry VIII of England. In 1587, when he was still only a boy of fifteen and living with his foster father, MacSweeney, at Rathmullan on Lough Swilly , a ship laden with wine sailed into the harbour. The young prince and his companions were invited on board and, while they were enjoying themselves in sampling the wine, the ship put to sea and sailed for Dublin.

It was in fact a plot hatched by the Lord Deputy, Sir John Perrot, to capture an Ó Domhnaill and hold him as hostage. At this time the great Spanish Armada was being prepared and Perrot was trying to ensure that it would not receive help from any of the Irish chiefs.

Aodh Ruadh was held in Dublin Castle for four years. Then on Christmas Eve 1591 he escaped along with Henry and Art, the two sons of Shane O'Neill, and hid for two nights in the Dublin Mountains. Art O'Neill died from the cold, but Aodh Ruadh was rescued, almost frozen to death, by Fiach MacHugh O'Byrne and brought to Glenmalure in Wicklow. As soon as he had recovered sufficiently to travel, Aodh Ruadh set out for his father's castle at Ballyshannon, resting on the way for some days with Hugh O'Neill at Dungannon. When he reached home his father, now an old and feeble man, resigned as chieftain and Aodh Ruadh was chosen to take his place.

After Aodh Ruadh became chieftain an alliance was forged between the great northern families. Ó Domhnaill along with the O'Neills of Tyrone, the MacDonnells of Antrim, the Maguires of Fermanagh, the MacMahons of Monaghan and the O'Rourkes of Breffni were committed to stopping the introduction of English law and the reformed church into Ulster.

Aodh Ruadh and the Maguires of Fermanagh took to the field against the English in 1594 and were joined by Hugh O'Neill in 1595. In that year O'Neill captured the English fort at Portmore on the river Blackwater, laid seige to Monaghan and successfully beat off a relieving force at the Battle of Clontibret.

The English then suggested a truce in order to negotiate terms acceptable to the northern leaders. In January 1596 O'Neill and Aodh Ruadh met the Lord Deputy's Council near Dundalk. They demanded religious freedom and the right to rule their own territories in their own way. The negotiations were prolonged, although there was a waiting game being played by both sides. The English hoped that, given sufficient time, it might be able to break up the alliance and isolate the northern leaders, as they had done with Shane O'Neill who had been slain by the MacDonnells in Cushendun. The chieftains for their part were already in communication with Philip II and were waiting for news of Spanish aid.

The war began again in 1597. The Deputy Lord Borough planned a triple attack on Ulster. The chiefs were in a particularly strong position. Their southern frontier was marked by the Leitrim mountains, the river Erne and Lough Erne, the lakes of Cavan, the bogs of Monaghan, the hills of south Armagh and the Carlingford and Mourne mountains. However, Borough thought that, if he launched three attacks simultaneously, one of them was likely to get through.

In the summer of 1597 the attack began. In the west Sir Conyers Clifford tried to force his way into Donegal from Connacht, but was defeated at Ballyshannon and driven back. A second army advanced from the Midlands, but it was annihilated at Tyrell's Pass near Mullingar. Finally, the Lord Deputy himself attempted a break through in the east, but he was defeated by Hugh O'Neill at Drumflugh on the Blackwater and died from the wounds he received.

In 1598 the English decided to make an all-out effort to end the war and sent Marshal Bagenal into the north with five thousand men. Some years earlier O'Neill had married Bagenal's sister against her brothers wishes and the marshal was eager for revenge. O'Neill had eight thousand men under his command and was assisted by Aodh Ruadh, Maguire and MacDonnell. The two armies met at the Yellow Ford on the Callan River, two miles from Armagh on August 14, 1598. The Ulster chiefs inflicted a crushing defeat on the English, Bagenal himself being killed during the battle.

The effects of the battle were felt throughout the country and seemed likely to turn Ulster revolt into a national movement in which the native and Anglo-Irish leaders would combine in defence of the old way of life and the Catholic religion. Risings took place in Leinster and Munster and the Desmond plantation was overthrown in a few days.

As soon as the news of the battle of the Yellow Ford reached England Elizabeth gave orders that no expense was to be spared in crushing the Ulster chieftains. A great army of almost twenty thousand men was prepared, put under the command of the Queen's favourite, the Earl of Essex. He crossed over to Dublin in the spring of 1599 with orders to march at once to the north. Instead he moved south and frittered away his great army so that by the time he eventually reached Ulster he was in no position to wage war. The chieftains suggested a truce and began to negotiate conditions of peace. Elizabeth was angry at the failure of her great army to finish the war. Essex was recalled to London and executed in 1600.

His successor Lord Mountjoy was a man of very different character. He decided to avoid pitched battles, if possible, but to bring O'Neill, Ó Domhnaill and the other chieftains to submission by creating famine in their territories and cutting off all aid from their allies in the south. He established a strong fort at Derry, through which he could bring in supplies, and strengthened garrisons at various strong points throughout the north. Then he systematically began to destroy the crops and cattle in the area in order to create a famine. At the same time Sir George Carew, the new President of Munster, was carrying out a similar policy in the south and bringing the leaders there to their knees.

Before O'Neill and Ó Domhnaill got into real difficulties, a Spanish fleet with four thousand troops aboard reached Kinsale in September, 1601. Three years earlier, after the victory at the Yellow Ford, such an expedition might have ensured an Irish victory. Now, with the revolt in the south crushed and many of O'Neill and Ó Domhnaill's northern allies beginning to drop off, it offered no more than a last desperate hope of survival. O'Neill and Ó Domhnaill decided to march the length of Ireland in the bad autumn weather of 1601. They found that Mountjoy and Carew had already begun to besiege the Spaniards in Kinsale, and they in turn began to besiege the English. O'Neill wished to continue the blockade until Mountjoy was forced to surrender, buthe more impetuous Aodh Ruadh insisted on a surprise attack. Against his will O'Neill gave in, and the attack was a complete disaster.

O'Neill retreated to the north where he held out for some time in the woods of Tyrone. Aodh Ruadh fled abroad to seek further aid from King Philip III of Spain. He was lodged in the castle of Simancas during the negotiations to secure an expedition to Ireland. However during this period, it is thought that he was poisoned by James Blake, a English agent of Norman-Irish stock, and he died there. As a member of the Third Order of Saint Francis, he was buried in the church of San Francisco at Valladolid. This church was destroyed during the nineteenth century and none of the tombs that were been preserved. The Spaniards in Kinsale made peace with the English and were allowed to return home. Finally Hugh O'Neill offered to submit and was received by Lord Mountjoy at Mellifont near Drogheda on March 30, 1603 - six days after the death of Queen Elizabeth. By the terms of his submission O'Neill gave up his native title and was to be known under the English style of Earl of Tyrone; but was allowed to retain most of the lands that were granted to Conn O'Neill in 1542. Rory O'Donnell, younger brother of Aodh Ruadh, became Earl of Tyrconnell on the same terms and the two Earls crossed over to London where the treaties were confirmed by James I of England (James VI of Scotland).

The defeat of Aodh Ruadh and Hugh O'Neill is a turning point in Irish history, for it completed the Tudor conquest of the country. Even in Ulster, the most Gaelic of the provinces, the old way of life was swept away. The power of the chieftains was broken; the brehon laws were abolished; the bardic poets and chroniclers sank into obscurity and poverty. For the first tie the authority of the English King was recognised and English law enforced in every part of the country.

Taken from Ferment and Change 1485-1660 by John Magee.
Published by CJ Fallon Limited. © John Magee 1962.