Reactions and reports on the death of the Great O’Neill

Hugh O'Neill was buried in the church of San Pietro in Montorio, beside his son, also Hugh, Baron of Dungannon, and his brothers-in-law, Rory and Cathbarr O'Donnell.

The inscription on his tomb is briefer and not as grand as that recorded for his son and the O Donnells. The original inscription of his tomb was recorded by the historian, Father C.P. Meehan in 1832. During renovations to the church in 1848 the tombstones bearing the epitaphs of the Baron and O Donnells were carefully set in place again but the flagstone bearing the inscription on O Neill’s tomb was lost and a replica set in place at the behest of His Eminence, the late Cardinal Tomas O Fiaich, bearing the original inscription, can now be seen. The inscription reads,

By all accounts the funeral was a grand affair, attended by the Spanish ambassador, cardinals, foreign ambassadors and, Roman dignitaries. There was also a large attendance of Irish nobles and gentlemen. The following extract from the English ambassador in Madrid, Sir Francis Cottington reported to London how the Irish exiles in Spain gathered to mark the occasion.

“The Earl of Tyrone is dead at Rome, by whose death this King saves five hundred ducats every month, for so much pension he had from here well paid him. Upon the news of his death, I observe that all the principal Irish entertained in several parts of this Kingdom are repaired unto this court, as O Sullivan Bear, or Master of Bearhaven, from the Groyne (i.e. la Coruna); Raymond Burke from Lisbon; one who calls himself Desmond from Bayonne in Galicia; and the Archbishop of Tuam, from Alcala, with many others of less note, but captains and of good quality.”

From the English point of view, the death of O Neill was greeted with a great sigh of relief. Removed from the scene was the ‘Arch Traytor’ who, while he lived was a constant source of concern.
Throughout his exile, the many rumours of his imminent return to Ireland had sent shivers through the English establishment in Ireland and was a continuing threat to the Plantation settlement.

Even after his death, there remained the lingering threat that one of O’Neill’s sons would grasp and carry the torch. The seventeenth century Gaelic chroniclers, the Four Masters, wrote their tribute to O’Neill in these words, “the person who here died was a powerful, mighty lord, (endowed) with wisdom, subtlety, and profundity of mind and intellect; a warlike, predatory, enterprising lord, in defending his religion and patrimony against his enemies.”

The Rev E.A. D’Alton in his ‘History of Ireland’ published in 1912 is fulsome in his praise of O’Neill. “In him the Irish lost their greatest leader, the greatest that had ever led them into battle or presided over their councils. Both Art MacMurrough and Red Hugh were daring chiefs; but the former lacked steadiness and patience, while the latter confined his activities to Leinster alone.

Unlike O Donnell, O Neill was cautious and foreseeing, laying his plans with care, and refusing to be led by impulse or passion, and unlike MacMurrough, his activity extended to the whole country, and his purpose was to combine against the common enemy, the scattered fragments of the nation’s power ... In his own day, against the whole forces of England, he all but succeeded; and failed only because of the universal treachery which surrounded him, a treachery so appaling, so shameful, that, except O Donnell and Maguire, there was not one on whom an honest man could rely, none that was not a trickster or a cheat.

Amid such leaders he towers as does the Pyramid over the plain. Later ages were not slow to recognise his worth; and in times of stress and storm his countrymen sought, but sought in vain, for another Hugh O’Neill.”

However, Hiram Morgan, in his meticulously researched book, “Tyrone’s Rebellion” published in 1993 is not nearly so fulsome in his analysis of O Neill. He writes , “The successes of O’’Neill’s early career depended on the political skills he could bring to bear on a given situation.

He lacked the charisma of O’Donnell yet was possessed of considerable personal charm. For instance, he made a favourable impression on the Queen on his visit to Court in 1587. He inspired loyalty in his servants to such an extent that he would trust them as double agents.

Most of all he was a consummate liar. His dissembling manner deceived some government officials, others allowed themselves to be deceived by taking bribes. Therefore, he made himself the enigma he is today because the elaborate campaign of disinformation he waged was so successful that it confounded subsequent historians as well.

There are many examples of his political acumen in the early stages of the conflict. He used his kinsmen as proxies to wage war on the state and, when challenged, claimed they were refusing to do his bidding. When he did not wish to meet officials face to face he evinced a fear of treachery. This may have been a genuine fear given the assassination of Shane O’Neill and the more recent executions of Hugh Roe Mac Mahon and Brian O Rourke. On the other hand, he was willing to gamble his own personal safety at the battle of the Ford of the Erne or when he went to Dublin to explain himself to the new lord deputy. He was not averse to murdering political opponents such as Hugh Gavelock MacShane O Neill and Phelim MacTurlough O Neill ... O Neill was a very ambitious man; indeed far too ambitious because he lacked experience in the vital area on which ultimate success depended. He did not have the formal training in regular warfare which he might have acquired had he been brought up at Court or visited the continent as a young man. He was beaten decisively at Kinsale ... His victories were Irish ambushes on the grand scale, including Clontibret and the Yellow Ford, over the inept Sir Henry Bagenal.”

In mitigation of this harsher judgement of Morgan’s, it must be pointed that he mainly deals with O Neill’s actions only until the end of 1596. There are those who will disagree with Morgan’s analysis, for example, on the difficulties presented by the failure of the Spanish to land in either a northern or western port and the subsequent failures of Philip III to support O Neill in the period after 1607. Whatever view one takes, O Neill yet remains as the leader who most nearly succeeded in breaking English control of Ireland.

Courtesy of Pat John Rafferty and the Tyrone Times