Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone

Hugh O'Neill (Irish: Aodh Mór Ó Néill; literally Hugh The Great O'Neill; c. 1550 – 20 July 1616), was an Irish Gaelic lord, Earl of Tyrone[lower-alpha 1] (known as the Great Earl[2]) and was later created The Ó Néill. O'Neill's career was played out against the background of the Tudor conquest of Ireland, and he is best known for leading the resistance during the Nine Years' War, the strongest threat to English authority in Ireland since the revolt of Silken Thomas.

Hugh O'Neill
Only authenticated depiction of Hugh O'Neill. Part of a fresco in the Vatican depicting a coronation ceremony in Rome in 1608.[1]
Earl of Tyrone
Reign1587 – 1607
PredecessorTurlough Luineach O'Neill
SuccessorHenry O'Neill
Bornc. 1550
Tyrone, Ireland
Died20 July 1616 (aged c. 66)
SpouseKatherine O'Neill
Joanna (Siobhán) O'Donnell
Mabel Bagenal
Katherine Magennis
HouseO'Neill Dynasty
FatherMatthew O'Neill
MotherSiobhán Maguire
ReligionRoman Catholicism

Early life

O'Neill came from a line of the O'Neill dynastyderbfine – that the English authorities recognized as the legitimate successors to the chieftainship of the O'Neills and to the title of Earl of Tyrone. He was the second son of Matthew O'Neill (Feardorcha Ó Néill), reputed illegitimate son of Conn, 1st Earl of Tyrone.

Shane O'Neill (Seán an Díomais), a legitimate son of Conn, employed the ambivalent status of Matthew's paternity to affirm his own claim to the title The O'Neill, although illegitimacy in itself made little or no difference in terms of the Irish legal system of derbfine, where five degrees of consanguinity through the male line with a blood ancestor who had held the O'Neill title were required of any claimant. Once Matthew was accepted by Conn as his son, he was as entitled to the O'Neill lordship as Shane,[3] although, if proven, Shane's constant assertion that Matthew was actually an adoptee,[4] affiliated to the O'Neills,[lower-alpha 2] rather than the illegitimate issue of Conn would have rendered his claim to the earldom void[5] and would have entirely disqualified him from succession also under derbfine.

In the ensuing conflict for the succession Matthew was killed by the Ó Donnaile followers of Shane and Conn, placing his sons Brian and Hugh in a precarious situation. The continuing support for their claims came from the English administration in Dublin Castle, which was anxious to use the reliance of the sons of Matthew on their support to break the independent power of the O'Neill lords of Ulster. This was part of a general English policy to transform Irish Gaelic titles into feudal titles granted under the Crown that would bring them entirely within the English legal system through a policy known as surrender and regrant, in which the Irish forcibly surrendered their lands to the Crown and had them granted back into their keeping as property of the Crown, rather than the property of the sept, or Gaelic extended family.

Hugh succeeded his brother, Brian, as baron of Dungannon, when the latter was assassinated by Shane's Tánaiste, or deputy, Turlough Luineach O'Neill,[6] in 1562. He was proclaimed Earl of Tyrone in 1585 but when he went through the ancient ritual of becoming 'The O'Neill', the chief of Tír Eoghain, in 1595, he had thrown down the gauntlet to Tudor power.[7]

O'Neill became a ward of the state and was brought up in the Hovenden household at Balgriffin, outside Dublin,[8] but after the death of Shane he returned to Ulster in 1567 under the protection of Sir Henry Sidney, Lord Deputy of Ireland.[2] In Tír Eoghain, Hugh's cousin, Turlough Luineach O'Neill, had succeeded Shane O'Neill as The O'Neill, or chieftain, but was not recognized by the English as the legitimate Earl of Tyrone. The Crown therefore supported Hugh O'Neill as the rightful claimant and as an ally in Gaelic controlled Ulster.

During the Second Desmond Rebellion in Munster, he fought in 1580 with the English forces against Gerald Fitzgerald, 15th Earl of Desmond, and assisted Sir John Perrot against the Scots of Ulster in 1584.[2]

In the following year he was summonsed to attend the Irish House of Lords in Dublin as Earl of Tyrone and,[2] in 1587 after a visit to the Court in England, he was awarded a patent to the lands of his grandfather, the first earl, Conn O'Neill. His constant disputes with Turlough were fomented by the English with a view to weakening the power of the O'Neills, but with the growing power of Hugh, the two came to some agreement and Turlough abdicated in 1593. Hugh was subsequently inaugurated as The O'Neill at Tullyhogue in the style of the former Gaelic kings, and became the most powerful lord in Ulster. Turlough died in 1595.[2]


O'Neill's career was marked by unceasing power politics: at one time he appeared to submit to English authority, and at another intrigued against the Dublin government in conjunction with lesser Irish chieftains.[2] In keeping with the practice common at the time, he bribed officials both in Ireland and at Elizabeth's court in London. Though entirely supported by the Dublin administration in his early years, he seems to have been unsure whether his position as head of the O'Neills was best secured by alliance with the English or by rebellion against the advance of their government into Ulster from 1585.

In the early 1590s, English government in Ulster took the form of a Provincial Presidency, to be headed by the colonist, Henry Bagenal who lived at Newry. In 1591, O'Neill roused the ire of Bagenal by eloping with his sister, Mabel, but showed his loyalty to the crown with his military support for his brother-in-law in the defeat of Hugh Maguire at Belleek in 1593.[2] After Mabel's death, O'Neill gradually fell into a barely concealed opposition to the crown and sought aid from Spain and Scotland. In 1595, Sir John Norris was ordered to Ireland at the head of a considerable force for the purpose of subduing him, but O'Neill succeeded in taking the Blackwater Fort before Norris could prepare his forces. O'Neill was instantly proclaimed a traitor at Dundalk.[2] The war that followed is known as the Nine Years' War.

Nine Years' War

O'Neill followed Shane's policy of arming the people, rather than relying as Turlough had done upon Scots mercenary soldiers, such as redshanks or Irish professionals employed under buannacht. This policy allowed him to field an impressive force, with cavaliers and gunpowder supplied from Spain and Scotland, and in 1595 he gave the crown authorities a shock by ambushing and routing a small English army at the Battle of Clontibret. He and other clan chiefs then offered the crown of Ireland to Philip II of Spain who refused it.

In spite of the traditional enmity between his people and the O'Donnells, O'Neill allied himself with Hugh Roe O'Donnell, son of Shane's former ally and enemy Hugh O'Donnell, and the two chieftains opened communications with King Philip II of Spain. In some of their letters to the king – intercepted by the lord deputy, Sir William Russell – they were shown to have promoted themselves as champions of the Roman Catholic Church, claiming liberty of conscience as well as political liberty for the native inhabitants of Ireland. In April 1596, O'Neill received promises of help from Spain, and thereafter chose to temporize with the authorities, professing his loyalty to the crown as circumstances required.[9] This policy was a success and, even though Sir John Norris sought to bring him to heel, O'Neill managed to defer English attempts on his territory for more than two years.

In 1598, a cessation of hostilities was arranged and a formal pardon granted to O'Neill by Elizabeth. Within two months he was again in the field, and on 14 August he destroyed an English army at the battle of the Yellow Ford on the Blackwater river,[10] in which engagement the English Commander, Henry Bagenal, was killed.[11] It was the greatest of all setbacks to English arms in Ireland. If the Earl had been capable of driving home his advantage, he might have successfully upset English power in country, as discontent had broken out in every part — and especially in the south, where James Fitzthomas Fitzgerald with O'Neill's support was asserting his claim to the earldom of Desmond at the head of a formidable army of Geraldine clansmen — discontent broke into open rebellion. But Tyrone, who possessed but little generalship, procrastinated until the golden opportunity was lost.[10]

Eight months after the battle of the Yellow Ford, a new Lord Lieutenant, the Earl of Essex, landed in Ireland[10] with an expeditionary force sent there from England of 16,000 troops and 1500 horse.[12] After months of ill-managed operations in the south of the country, and loss of three-quarters of his forces to disease, desertion, and execution of hundreds of troops for cowardice [13] he had a parley with Tyrone at a ford on the Lagan on 7 September 1599, when a truce was arranged.[10] Elizabeth was displeased by the favourable conditions allowed to O'Neill, [10] as she pointed out, if she had intended to simply abandon Ireland she would not have needed to send Essex there, and by Essex's treatment of him as an equal.[10] The Lord Lieutenant then traveled back to the Queen's court near London without permission – a desperate move, which culminated, more than a year later, in a failed attempt at an uprising in London, and weeks after, his execution for treason on February 25, 1601.[14]

The queen was in a tricky situation, because political discourse was dominated by the issue of the succession to the throne, just as her most illustrious military commanders were being frustrated by O'Neill in the middle of the Anglo-Spanish War. Tyrone continued to concert measures with the Irish leaders in Munster, and issued a manifesto to the Catholics of Ireland, summoning them to join his standard as he protested that the interests of religion were his first care. After a campaign in Munster in January 1600, during which the English Plantation of Munster was destroyed, he hastened north to Donegal, where he received supplies from Spain and a token of encouragement from Pope Clement VIII.[10] At this point the controversial Jesuit, James Archer, was effectively operating as his representative at the Spanish court.

In May 1600 the English achieved a strategic breakthrough, when Sir Henry Docwra, at the head of a considerable army, took up a position in O'Neill's rear at Derry; meanwhile, the new lord deputy, Sir Charles Blount, 8th Baron Mountjoy (a protégé of Essex[15]), marched in support from Westmeath to Newry, compelling O'Neill to retire to Armagh. A large reward was offered for the rebel's capture, dead or alive.[10]

In October 1601, the long-awaited aid from Spain appeared in the form of an army under Don Juan de Aguila, which occupied the town of Kinsale in the extreme south of the country.[10] Mountjoy rushed to contain the Spanish, while O'Neill and O'Donnell were compelled to hazard their armies in separate marches from the north, through territories defended by Sir George Carew, in the depths of a severe winter. They gained little support en route. At Bandon they joined together, and then blockaded the English army that was laying siege to the Spanish.[10] The English were in a poor state, with many of their troops disabled with dysentery, and the extreme winter weather made life in camp very difficult. But owing to poor communications with the besieged Spanish and a crucial failure to withstand the shock of a daring English cavalry charge, O'Neill's army was quickly dispersed. The Irish army retreated, and the Spanish commander surrendered. The defeat at the battle of Kinsale was a disaster for O'Neill and ended his chances of winning the war.

O'Donnell went to Spain to seek further assistance, where he died soon afterwards (poisoning was suspected).[10] With a shattered force, O'Neill made his way once more to the north, where he renewed his policy of ostensibly seeking pardon while warily defending his territory. English forces managed to destroy crops and livestock in Ulster in 1601–1602, especially in the lands of O'Neill's principal vassal, Donal O'Cahan. This led to O'Cahan's withdrawal from O'Neill, and fatally weakening his power. In June 1602 O'Neill destroyed his capital at Dungannon and retreated into the woods of Glenconkeyne.[16] Early in 1603, Elizabeth instructed Mountjoy to open negotiations with the rebellious chieftains, and O'Neill made his submission in the following April to Mountjoy, who skilfully concealed news of the death of the Queen until the negotiations had concluded.[10]

Peace settlement

O'Neill went with Mountjoy to Dublin, where he heard of the accession of King James. He presented himself at the court of the king in June, accompanied by Rory O'Donnell, who had become chief of the O'Donnells after the departure of his brother Hugh Roe. The English courtiers were greatly incensed at the gracious reception accorded by James to these notable rebels.[10]

Although O'Neill was confirmed in his title and core estates, upon his return to Ireland he immediately fell into dispute with Chichester's Dublin administration.[10] Under the 1603 peace agreement most of his land had been given to his former Brehon law tenants. in the case of the Bann Fishery, the government eventually established that his entitlement to the benefit of that property was nullified on account of the original Anglo-Norman conquest in 1172, a precedent of significant implications for the former Gaelic polity.[17] In the meantime, it was the dispute over O'Neill's rights concerning certain of his former feudatories – Donal O'Cahan being the most important – that led to his flight from Ireland. They were now freeholders of the Kingdom of Ireland, with new legal rights, but O'Neill expected them to support him as in the past, which they declined to do. In O'Cahan's case the Ó Catháin clan had traditionally inaugurated the O'Neill kings in the past. Chichester consider O'Cahan's case to be pivotal, as if he caved in to O'Neill then other Ulster chiefs might also be persuaded to give up their freehold rights, and another war might follow.

This dispute dragged on until 1607, when O'Neill was invited by King James to go to London to argue his case. Warned, however, that his arrest was imminent (and possibly persuaded by Rudhraighe Ó Domhnail, 1st Earl of Tyrconnell – whose relations with Spain had endangered his own safety) the decision was made to flee to Spain.[10]


"The Flight of the Earls" occurred on 14 September 1607, when O'Neill and O'Donnell embarked at midnight at Rathmullan on Lough Swilly on a voyage bound for Spain. Accompanying them were their wives, families and retainers, numbering ninety-nine persons. Driven by contrary winds to the east, they took shelter in the Seine estuary and were told by the Spanish to pass the winter in the Spanish Netherlands and not to proceed to Spain itself. In April 1608, they proceeded to Rome, where they were welcomed and hospitably entertained by Pope Paul V.[10] The journey to Rome was recorded in great detail by Tadhg Ó Cianáin.[18] In November 1607 the flight was proclaimed as treasonous by James I.[19] A bill of attainder was passed against O'Neill by the Parliament of Ireland in 1613.[10]

The hopes of the earls for military support foundered as Philip III of Spain wanted to maintain the recent 1604 peace treaty with James I of England, the Spanish economy had gone bankrupt in 1596 and its European fleet had been destroyed some months earlier by the Dutch Republic at the Battle of Gibraltar. This suggests that the Flight was impulsive and unplanned.

O'Neill died in Rome on 20 July 1616 and was interred in the Spanish church of San Pietro in Montorio .[10] Throughout his nine-year exile he was active in plotting a return to Ireland, toying variously both with schemes to oust English authority outright and with proposed offers of pardon from London. When the former Crown loyalist Sir Cahir O'Doherty launched O'Doherty's Rebellion by the Burning of Derry in 1608 it raised hopes of a return, but the rebellion was quickly defeated. Oghy O'Hanlon was Hugh's nephew and played a leading role in O'Doherty's Rebellion. As a principal rebel leader, Oghy O'Hanlon had been stripped of his inheritance by Sir Arthur Chichester, and he may have been taken into protective custody before his exile to Sweden. O'Hanlon was presented into Swedish military service and threatened with execution if he resisted.[20][21]

Upon news of his death, the court poets of Ireland engaged in the Contention of the bards.

Status in Ireland

In 1598 O'Neill appointed James FitzThomas FitzGerald, the so-called Sugán Earl, as Earl of Desmond. Two years later in his camp at Inniscarra near Cork city he then recognized the celebrated Florence MacCarthy as the MacCarthy Mor or Prince of Desmond.[22] The fiasco of the 1599 campaign by Essex in Ireland added to the power vacuum in most parts of Ireland.

O'Neill had little influence on the Lords of the Pale in Leinster, and his army had to feed itself by plunder, making him unpopular. He made enemies of some lords by interfering in their traditional autonomy if they did not give him their entire support. These included Lord Inchiquin, Ulick Burke, 3rd Earl of Clanricarde, The Magennis of west County Down and Tiobóid na Long Bourke.

O'Neill issued a proclamation to the Pale Lords on 15 November 1599, many of whom were Roman Catholic, protesting that his campaign was not for personal power but only for the freedom of the Catholic religion.[23] This was unconvincing to them, as before 1593 he had practised as an Anglican, and was not known for having any great interest in religion.

At the international level, O'Neill and O'Donnell had offered themselves as vassals of King Philip II of Spain in late 1595, and suggested that Archduke Albert might be crowned Prince of Ireland, which was declined. In late 1599, in a strong position after Essex's failed campaign, O'Neill sent a list of 22 proposed terms for a peace agreement to Queen Elizabeth, including a request on the status of future English viceroys. This amounted to accepting English sovereignty over Ireland as a reality, while hoping for tolerance and a strong Irish-led administration. The proposal was ignored.[24]


O'Neill was married four times:[10]

  • Married a daughter, probably Katherine, of Brian Mac Phelim O'Neill of Clandeboye In 1574, the marriage was annulled on grounds of consanguinity, although they had had several children.[25] She subsequently married Niall MacBrian Faghartach.[26]
  • 1574 married Siobhán (or Joanna; died 1591), daughter of Sir Hugh O'Donnell. In 1579 this marriage was repudiated, but shortly afterwards they were reconciled.[25] They had two sons,[25] and three daughters.[26]
  • Mabel (died 1595), the daughter of Sir Nicholas Bagenal.[26]
  • Catherine Magennis (died 15 March 1619[27]) daughter of Sir Hugh Magennis of Iveagh. She accompanied O'Neill in his flight, and is believed to have died at Louvain. She was the mother of several daughters, one of whom, Aellis (Elice, or Alice), married Sir Randal MacDonnell, 1st Earl of Antrim and another Hugh Roe O'Donnell. She also had three sons:[26]
    • John O'Neill or Shane Niall (died 1641). He called himself 3rd Earl of Tyrone. He entered the Spanish army, was called "El conde de Tyrone", and was killed in Catalonia.[26]
    • Con Brian (died 16 August 1617), who either was murdered or committed suicide in Brussels.[26]

It is probable O'Neill married a fifth time, for mention is made of a young countess of Tyrone during his residence in Rome. He had, in addition, numerous illegitimate children, of whom one, Con, who was left behind at the time of the flight, was educated at Eton College as a Protestant, and died apparently about 1622 in the Tower of London.[26]

Dramatic portrayals

Hugh O'Neill was played by Alan Hale Sr. in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939).

Hugh O'Neill was portrayed by Tom Adams in the Disney film: The Fighting Prince of Donegal (1966) with a character name change to Henry O'Neill.

In the 1971 BBC drama Elizabeth R he was played by Patrick O'Connell.

O'Neill is the central character in Brian Friel's play Making History (1989), which is concerned largely with his third marriage to Mabel Bagenal: Friel describes the marriage as a genuine if ill-fated love affair.

Running Beast (2007), a musical theatre piece by playwright Donal O'Kelly with music by the composer Michael Holohan, commemorating The Flight of the Earls 1607–2007

The Rebel Crown, a one-man play on the turbulent life of Hugh O'Neill was produced at the Burnavon theatre in Cookstown Co Tyrone in May 2016 and The Markets Theatre in Armagh, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Hughs Death in Rome in 1616. Written and performed by Owen O'Neill, writer comedian and poet.


  1. Hugh is usually referred to as the 2nd Earl of Tyrone (Canny 2008). But if his elder brother Brian is counted, Hugh is 3rd. By the patent of the earldom, Brien was de jure earl between their grandfather's death in 1559 and his own assassination in 1562. He never claimed the earldom, and did not call himself earl. He may not have been of age to take his seat in the Irish House of Lords, and he certainly did not control Tyrone.
  2. The genealogy Hiram Morgan has prepared notes on Matthew as "affiliated".(Morgan 1993, pp. 86–87).
  1. "Priest penetrates Vatican secrecy in quest for lost portrait of Irish rebel leader Hugh O'Neill". Mid-Ulster Mail. 18 February 2016. Retrieved 17 June 2018.
  2. McNeill 1911, p. 109.
  3. Brady 1996, p. 23.
  4. FitzSimons 2001, pp. 138–152; Brady 1996, p. 22
  5. Morgan 1993, p. 23.
  6. Morgan 1993, p. 214.
  7. Sean O'Faolain, The Great O'Neill: A Biography of Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, 1550–1616, Dufour Editions, 1997.
  8. Hiram Morgan, Tyrone's Rebellion (Dublin, 1993), pp 92–3
  9. McNeill 1911, pp. 109–110.
  10. McNeill 1911, p. 110.
  11. John McGurk, 'The Battle of the Yellow Ford, August 1598', Dúiche Néill: Journal of the O'Neill Country Historical Society, no. 11 (1997), pp 34–55.
  12. Lytton Strachey, Elizabeth and Essex: A Tragic History, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1928, p.202
  13. Strachey, p.206-208
  14. Strachey, p.242-268
  15. Strachey, p.183
  16. McCavitt p.44
  17. See Peter Carew for similar legal moves in support of colonial policy
  18. Ó Cianáin, T., "The Flight of the Earls", CELT (UCC) Archived 7 August 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  19. A Proclamation touching the Earles of Tyrone and Tyrconnell, 1607; CELT (UCC) Archived 7 August 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  20. Nicholas P. Canny, "Making Ireland British", 2001, ISBN 9780198200918
  21. Gráinne Henry, "Ulster Exiles in Europe, 1605–1641"
  22. Irish Pedigrees: MacCarthy Mor#123
  23. Morgan 1994.
  24. "Hugh O'Neill's War aims", online version published by CELT (UCC) Archived 7 August 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  25. Canny 2008.
  26. Dunlop 1895, p. 196.
  27. “Heroines or Victims? The Women of the Flight of the Earls”, Jerrold Casway in New Hibernia Review / Iris Éireannach Nua, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Spring, 2003), pp. 56–74



  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: McNeill, Ronald John (1911). "O'Neill". In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. 20 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 107–111.

Further reading

Secondary sources

  • Gerard Anthony Hayes McCoy Irish Battles (Belfast, 1989) ISBN 0-86281-212-7.
  • Nicholas P. Canny The Elizabethan Conquest of Ireland: A Pattern Established, 1565–76 (London, 1976) ISBN 0-85527-034-9.
  • Nicholas P. Canny Making Ireland British, 1580–1650 (Oxford University Press, 2001) ISBN 0-19-820091-9.
  • Steven G. Ellis Tudor Ireland (London, 1985) ISBN 0-582-49341-2.
  • Cyril Falls Elizabeth's Irish Wars (1950; reprint London, 1996) ISBN 0-09-477220-7.
  • Jefferies, Henry A. (2000). "Hugh O'Neill, earl of Tyrone, c. 1550–1616". In Charles Dillon, Henry A. Jefferies and William Nolan (ed.). Tyrone: History and Society. Dublin. pp. 181–232.
  • Colm Lennon Sixteenth Century Ireland — The Incomplete Conquest (Dublin, 1995) ISBN 0-312-12462-7.
  • O'Faolain, Sean (1970) [1942], The great O'Neill. A biography of Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, 1550–1616, Cork
  • James O'Neill, The Nine Years War, 1593–1603: O'Neill, Mountjoy and the Military Revolution (Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2017).
  • J. J. Silke The Siege of Kinsale

Primary sources

Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Turlough Luineach O'Neill
Ó Néill
Peerage of Ireland
Preceded by
Conn O'Neill
Earl of Tyrone

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