Hugh Boy MacDavitt

Hugh Boy MacDavitt (Irish:Aodh buidhe Mac Daibhéid) was a Gaelic Irish warrior from Inishowen. He was the brother of Phelim Reagh MacDavitt and the foster father of Sir Cahir O'Doherty, the eldest son of the O'Doherty chieftain, Shane og O'Doherty and his wife Elizabeth McSweeney; Shane og ruled over Inishowen from 1582 until his death in January 1601.

For reasons unclear in the surviving period records, Hugh Boy had left Inishowen in the late 1500s and joined the Spanish infantry, serving as a soldier in Spain's forces in Flanders for more than a decade. He swiftly advanced through the ranks, attaining at least the rank of sargeant-major.

In 1594, when The Great Hugh O'Neill, unhappy that the English were refusing to nominate him as Lord President of Ulster, openly declared hostility against English rule in Ireland (thereby initiating the Nine Years War), O'Neill sent an emissary to the continent (one of Hugh Boy's brothers, apparently Shane cron) to request that Hugh Boy return to his homeland, to help O'Neill train the Irish Confederates in modern pike-and-shot combat. Hugh Boy agreed, submitting a request to the Spanish military command for license to leave his unit, a request that was granted in the fall of 1594. English spies uncovered this request, warning the English Privy Council that, given his status as a seasoned continental soldier and officer allied with Spain, Hugh Boy was a serious danger to English progress in Ireland, and perhaps the best trained soldier amongst the Irish.

Upon Hugh Boy's return to Inishowen, he was inaugurated as chieftain of Clann Daibhéid, a sept of the O'Dohertys apparently serving as hereditary counselors, emissaries, and teachers for the O'Doherty leadership based at Elagh Castle. The O'Doherty chieftain, Shane og, allowed Hugh Boy to occupy Burt Castle, which Hugh Boy refortified with modern gun turrets along the bawn wall, and five cannons to repel attackers.

Given Hugh Boy's status as an officer in the Spanish infantry, he maintained contact with his superiors after his return to Ireland. He served as an interpreter when Spanish emissaries visited the Irish confederate leaders and toured the country while assessing the situation in Ireland and planning the eventual landing of Spanish forces in Ireland (realized in September 1601, when 3,400 troops landed at Kinsale). Hugh Boy also personally negotiated with two kings of Spain for shipments of modern armaments that where transported by ship into Killybegs, County Donegal.

In the fall of 1600, Red Hugh O'Donnell had previously attempted to take back the O'Doherty's main castle at Elagh (along with Culmore Fort) by bribing the English officers who held these strongholds (a tactic O'Donnell had employed successfully previously), but the English officer revealed the plot to his superiors.[1]

After this plot was uncovered, the leader of English forces in Ulster, Sir Henry Docwra, was furious at the O'Dohertys and their MacDavitt sept, who had successfully feigned friendship with the English occupying their lands at Derry Fort, and Docwra contemplated having both the Doherty chieftain and Hugh Boy assassinated for their treachery. Docwra ordered scorched-earth raids against the Doherty's, destroying £3,000 (in 1600s value) of Doherty grain, killing 2,500 cows and other livestock, destroying homes, and killing about 150 people.

The death of O'Doherty chieftain, Shane og, in January 1601 conveniently allowed the Doherty's to sue for peace with the English at Derry, claiming that animosity to English rule died with him. Sean og's eldest son, Cahir, had a strong claim to succeed as chief of the O'Doherty's, as traditionally the chieftain had been chosen from Sliocht Brian branch of the clan. Apparently fearing the O'Doherty's loyalty, their overlord Red Hugh O'Donnell, took young Cahir as a hostage to assure O'Doherty allegiance; Red Hugh instead supported a rival candidate, the brother of the deceased Shane og. After the failed Elagh Castle/Culmore plot, the MacDavitt brothers succeeded in having Cahir released to them under fosterage, as surely O'Donnell trusted Hugh Boy's loyalty, even if he had questioned former O'Doherty chieftain Shane og's allegiance.

In order to regain English confidence, the O'Doherty's sent a band of MacDavitts (counselors and emissaries for the O'Doherty's, several of whom spoke English) and their gallowglass McCallions (Scottish mercenaries) to Derry to meet with Docwra, where they convinced Docwra that the Elagh/Culmore bribery plot was O'Donnell's idea, in which they were forced to participate, and that the O'Doherty's would ally with the English if they would protect them from O'Donnell, and support Cahir as the rightful chieftain over the O'Doherty's. In reality, O'Donnell had approved this tactic, as he had commanded that his Doherty underlords maintain the crops and cattle in Inishowen from further English scorched-earth raids to help support the Spanish forces when they eventually landed in Ireland.

While feigning support of the English (a necessity exercised by even O'Neill and O'Donnell at various points in their campaigns), the Doherty's hid their food stores from English attack, hid cannons in Inishowen's rugged mountains, attempted to persuade Docwra that Irish leaders who had genuinely defected to the English side were untrustworthy, and convinced Docwra to place all the Irish hostages the English demanded of Inishowen lords to secure their loyalty be held by the MacDavitts, with several MacDavitt lords held in their stead in Derry Fort.

On 11 August 1602, Hugh Boy was killed while travelling to Omagh at the request of Sir Henry Docwra. While Docwra was told that Hugh Boy had been killed by "loose men" (i.e., fighters unattached to any leader at the time), it is very likely he was assassinated at the request of Docwra's officers who both knew about his status as an officer in the army of England's primary enemy, Spain, and had several times warned the Privy Council that Hugh Boy was stealthily frustrating their efforts in Ulster, but yet Docwra treated him as a trusted ally and refused to believe any complaints against him.

Following his death, Docwra praised Hugh Boy as "a man whom I found faithful and honest". [2] The leader of the Spanish forces at Kinsale described Hugh Boy as a man of importance amongst the Irish Confederates, and an "old friend".

When the Irish lords of Ulster later left for the continent on the Flight of Earls to obtain additional military aid from Spain and the Vatican, two of Hugh Boy's brothers accompanied Hugh O'Neill and Rory O'Donnell, holding positions of trust; Eammon MacDavitt was tutor to chieftain Rory O'Donnell's eldest son (and his wife was the child's nanny), and Shane cron was emissary for O'Neill and O'Donnell, a position previously occupied by Hugh Boy.


  1. Bradley & Dooher p.47
  2. McGurk p.188


  • Falls, Cyril. Elizabeth's Irish Wars. Constable, 1996.
  • Bradley, Jim & Dooher, John. The fair river valley: Strabane through the ages. Ulster Historical Foundation, 2000.
  • McGurk, John. Sir Henry Docwra, 1564-1631: Derry's Second Founder. Four Courts Press, 2006.
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