O'Neill and O'Donnell

Following the death of Gearoid Mor Fitzgerald his son, Gearoid Og Fitzgerald, succeeded to the position of Lord Deputy and to the title. The leanings of the father towards the native Irish (Sean Ghael) were even surpassed by the love and fiendship of the son towards them, and it was not long until his enemies were reporting his activities to the English king and parliament. Events in England now began to overtake those in Ireland as the Reformation had taken place in 1516 and, under the rule of Henry VIII, would soon spread to this country. Gearoid Mor had been called over to London to account for his activities and Gearoid Og would also receive similar summonses and much more frequently.
On one of these occasions he was imprisoned in the tower of Londo but, prior to his departure and knowing that he would likely be detained, he had appointed his son ‘Silken’ Thomas (Fitzgerald) to act in his stead during his absence. Thomas, who had been nicknamed ‘Silken’ because of his fine clothes, was a headstrong young individual. His enemies the Butlers took advantage of the situation and, knowing the hot-headedness of Thomas, put out the rumour that Gearoid Og had been executed.

Silken Thomas believed the untrue rumour and did exactly as they had hoped, rising out in open rebellion against the English throne. However, the ‘Geraldine’ (Fitzgerald) castle in Maynooth was bombarded by parliament forces and the young man was captured. Along with his five uncles he was executed in 1537, thus bringing to an end the power and influence of the Kildare ‘Geraldines’. Their enemies, the Butlers, were now supreme.

From now onwards the Irish had a double fight on their hands as, besides opposing the English invaders and confiscators of their lands, they had now also to fight for the freedom of their religious beliefs. The ‘Geraldines’ had espoused the ‘old’ religion but the new rulers of the land forcefully promoted the ‘new’ religion. The Dublin parliament now recognised Henry as “King of Ireland” while monasteries and convents were closed and Church lands and property were confiscated.

Thus it continued throughout the reign of Edward VI, but on the accession of Mary I in 1553, some effort was made to restore the Catholic religion. Mary, however, was also the instigator of a new policy that would seriously influence the entire country at a later date. She approved the ‘plantation’ of two countries, Laois and Offaly, to be known thereafter as Queen’s County (Laois) and King’s County (Offaly). Such a policy would have a devastating effect on Irish history at a later date.

Whatever efforts had been made to restore the Catholic religion were shattered when Elizabeth I came to the throne in England and, from now onwards, the war between the two nations took on a more sinister and much more bitter aspect. Elizabeth’s reign was marked by three outbreaks of rebellion against her rule, all of which would eventually end in failure. The first of these was the rebellion of the Ulster chieftain Shane O’Neill in 1559.

Shane was the younger son of Conn O’Neill, who had submitted to the English in 1541, accepting the title of Earl of Tyrone. On Conn’s death the title, according to English law, passed to his eldest son Matthew, but this was contested by Shane who had the support of the majority of the Ulster Irish and who was then elected by them as their leader with the traditional Irish title of “The” O’Neill. Matthew was killed in a skirmish with Shane’s followers and Shane now also claimed the title of Earl of Tyrone. The English were powerless against Shane and he was invited to attend Elizabeth’s court in London, where the lady could not help but be impressed by the personality and bearing of the Ulster chieftain. She made him “captain of Tyrone” and he returned to Ulster to exert his authority over the entire province.

Unfortunately, Shane, who was nicknamed “Shane the Proud” adopted the wrong tactics against his fellow Irishmen. Instead of trying to unite them against a common enemy, he forced his authority on them in a totally belligerent manner that only succeeded in creating more enemies for himself and weakening the strength of Ulster. First to suffer were the MacDonnells of Antrim, whom he slaughtered at the Battle of Glenshesk. He then turned his attention to the O’Donnells on his western flank, but here he met more than he had bargained for and was severely defeated by them at Lough Swilley. Seeking revenge, he turned to the MacDonnells of Antrim for assistance and was promised same. However, during the festivities to mark the new alliance, if such it could be called, some of the MacDonnells recalled the slaughter inflicted on them at Glenshesk and, in a fit of rage, they executed Shane (1567) and sent his head to Dublin where government officials breathed a huge sigh of relief and placed the head on a stake on the walls of the city.

All the lands of the Ulster chieftains were now declared forfeit, but in a conciliatory move, some favour was restored to Hugh O’Neill, the older son of Conn, who was also allowed to retain the title of Baron of Dungannon. A pardon was also granted to many of the Sean Ghall (“old” English) but this did not extend to the Geraldines of Munster, where James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald rose out in rebellion “in defence of the Catholic religion”, thus beginning what was known as “The Desmond Wars”. James Fitzmaurice went to the continent for assistance and returned in 1579 with papal approval and a small force of mercenaries.

Unfortunately, James Fitzmaurice received little support on his return and was eventually killed in that same year, while his little force of Italians and Spaniards was massacred at Smerwick, Co. Kerry in 1580. The example of James Fitzmaurice, however, was followed up by Gerald Fitzgerald, the 15th Earl of Desmond, but he was not militarily inclined and the rebellion was quickly subdued. More than 300,000 acres of Fitzgerald lands in Munster were then declared forfeit in yet another “Plantation” and the persecution of Catholics continued unabated. The worst atrocity of all was when the archbishop of Cashel, Dermot O’Hurley, was imprisoned on his return from Rome, then tortured and hanged in Dublin in 1584.

In 1588 the Spanish Armada came to grief off the west coast of Ireland and many Spanish sailors were washed up on the shores of Donegal, Connacht and Kerry and were quickly integrated into the native Irish society. Unfortunately, many others were betrayed to their English captors and suffered the consequences.

With the defeat of the Shane O’Neills and Desmond uprisings, the main hope now rested with the surviving Ulster earls, but, in this regard, Elizabeth had also done her ‘homework’ well. Knowing from where future opposition to her authority in Ireland might come, she laid plans for nipping the danger in the bud. Hugh O’Neill, son of Matthew and Baron of Dungannon, was taken to England as a youth and brought up at the English Court where he was trained in the English fashion, both in language, politics and in the art of warfare. When Elizabeth considered him ‘safe’ he was sent back to Ulster to rule the northern province in her interest.

Hugh O’Neill, later to be termed “The Great Earl” initially did as he was expected to do, but was quick to realise that this was not in his own interest or in the interest of his fellow countrymen. He was also intelligent enough to realise that an all-out war with the English was inevitable if Ulster, and Ireland, was to survive, so he soon began to train an army secretly. He also realised that unity was strength and that peace with his fellow Ulster earls was essential if he was to achieve his goal of finally ridding the country of the English invader.

The other great Ulster chieftain of the period was ‘Red’ Hugh O’Donnell, the future chieftain of the O’Donnells of Tirconnaill (Donegal), but here again Elizabeth’s agents laid what seemed to be the perfect plan. As a youth, Red Hugh was fostered by the MacSweeneys on the shores of Lough Swilley. One day as they romped on the shores of the lough, a Spanish ship entered the harbour selling wine. The captain of the vessel invited Red Hugh and his friends aboard to partake to their hospitality but shortly after going aboard, O’Donnell realised that the ship was moving. When they jumped to their feet they discovered that the doors were locked and that they were prisoners of the queen ... the ship no longer flying a Spanish flag but an English one.

Red Hugh was taken to Dublin where he was imprisoned in Dublin Castle. His first effort at escape ended in re-capture but the second attempt in 1592 was more successful and he made his escape along with another young Ulster prince, Art O’Neill. However, it was mid-winter and they suffered terribly from frost and snow among the Wicklow hills before being rescued by Fiach McHugh O’Byrne, the great Wicklow chieftain, who brought them to his hide-out in Glenmalure. Unfortunately, Art died from the experience, while Red Hugh had to have part of his foot amputated because of frost-bite and was permanently lame thereafter. But two young Ulster earls were now at large and would soon wage the greatest and most united rebellion in Irish history against English rule.