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The History of Ulster
Shane O'Neill and the Crown


The Crown defied by Shane O'Neill - He claims the Sovereignty of all Ulster - He is visited by the Lord Justice, Sir Henry Sidney - Shane's Claims considered by the Crown - Elizabeth declares in his Favour - And alters her Decision - O'Neill attacks and captures O'Donnell - He invades Breffny - Sussex, the Lord-Lieutenant, invades Tyrone - His Forces defeated by Shane.

The history of Ulster during the first ten years of the reign of Elizabeth was largely a record of the doings of Shane O'Neill. Having assumed the chieftaincy on the death of his father, and having set aside the claims of the young Baron of Dungannon, he now proceeded to set the Government at defiance, and claimed the sovereignty of all Ulster. For some years he had professed peaceable intentions towards the Crown of England, and had been formally received as an ally by the Lord Deputy, whom he had assisted on one or two occasions to subdue the Scots. His assumption of the chieftainship of Tyrone was, however, an act which flouted the power of the Crown which had created his father a peer of the realm, vested him with his lands to be held by English tenure, and determined the succession in favour of Ferdoragh and his issue. His turbulence and arrogance were represented in such exaggerated terms to Sir Henry Sidney, who as Lord Justice acted in the absence of Sussex, that by the advice of the Council the Deputy marched northwards to Dundalk, and summoned Shane to account for his proceedings and give assurances of his loyalty.

O'Neill has been represented as three-fourths of a savage, and as being addicted to every vice. But subsequent events prove that, barbarian though he possibly was, he was cautious, circumspect, and acute. The loyalty of his followers, he was well aware, depended on their opinion of his power and dignity; and that therefore his attendance on Sidney in his quarters would be interpreted as an abject submission on his part, and an acknowledgment of the power of the Government. He determined, in consequence, to evade the Lord Justice's summons, and at the same time to impress upon his countrymen how great was his own importance. Accordingly he replied to Sidney's summons in terms which expressed un- swerving loyalty to the Queen, and submission to her representative; at the same time requesting, as an evidence of the friendly relations existing between the Government and himself, that the Lord Justice should honour him with a visit, and further that he should stand sponsor for a child lately born to him.

The insolence of this overture was fully recognized; yet it was deemed politic to comply with it, and Sidney accepted the invitation and the responsibilities it entailed. O'Neill entertained him with rude magnificence, and when the ceremonials were ended, and the real business of the meeting came to be discussed, Shane was well prepared to conduct his own defence. With firmness and composure he acknowledged that he had opposed the succession of Ferdoragh's son to the sovereignty of Tyrone. It was well known, he added, that Ferdoragh, whom Henry VIII had incautiously created Baron of Dungannon, was not the son of Conn O'Neill, and he assured Sidney that even if he himself were to resign his pretensions in favour of Ferdoragh, more than one hundred members of the sept of O'Neill were ready to assert the honour of their family against the usurpation of any spurious race. He pointed out that the letters patent, on which the claim of Ferdoragh's son were based, were, in effect, vain and frivolous, for Conn O'Neill, by the ancient institutions of Ulster, could claim no right in Tyrone save during his own life; nor was he empowered to surrender or exchange his tenure without consent of all the chiefs and inhabitants of his territory. Or, if the cause should be determined by the English law, it is the known order and course of this law that no grants can be made by letters patent until an "inquisition be previously held of the lands to be conveyed; but no such inquisition had been held in Tirowen, which had not known the English law, nor ever been reduced to an English county". Were it still determined that the inheritance should descend in succession to the rightful heir, he, Shane, was the rightful heir, as eldest of the legitimate sons of the Earl of Tyrone. But his claim rested on a foundation which none in Ulster dare gainsay on the unanimous and free election of his fellow-countrymen, who on the death of his father had chosen him for their leader, as the best and bravest of his family : an election ever practised in Ulster without any application to the Government of England. And thus invested with the chieftaincy of Tyrone, he claimed only those rights and jurisdictions which a long line of his predecessors had enjoyed, of which the proof could be produced so as to exclude all controversy and render the interference of the Crown totally unnecessary.

The Lord Justice, who, previous to this meeting with Shane, had deemed it "dishonourable that he should be 'gossip' to a rebel before submission", was now so deeply influenced by the arguments urged by O'Neill in support of his rights, that he consulted the Council, and on their advice he informed Shane that the points brought forward by him were of too great importance to receive an immediate and hasty decision, and that he would therefore first submit them to the Queen. In the meantime he advised O'Neill to persevere in a loyal and peaceable demeanour, and to rest assured of receiving from the throne whatever should be found right, meet, and equitable. Shane promised to follow his advice, and Sidney withdrew his forces from Dundalk.

Elizabeth appears to have been as much impressed as Sidney by the reasoning and firmness of O'Neill, and after some consideration of the matter she declared that the late Earl of Tyrone should be succeeded by his eldest legitimate son Shane, and not by his illegitimate son Ferdoragh (or Matthew as he was called by the English), and this especially for two reasons: first, because Shane was the eldest legitimate son, and, secondly, because he was in quiet possession of all his father died possessed of, so that justice as well as expediency seemed to suggest that he should be permitted to succeed his father.

In less than twelve months this decision was reversed. The points raised by O'Neill had been debated in a series of questions "to be considered against Shane O'Neill", and the conclusion arrived at was that Henry VIII, being King of Ireland and Earl of Ulster, and inheriting from Henry II, who had conquered all Ireland, had supreme dominion over Ulster and could give the lands of Tyrone to whomsoever he pleased; and that though Conn O'Neill had but a life interest in these lands, he had rebelled, and had been joined by the people, and thus his rights, and the rights of the people, were forfeited to the Crown. From which it followed that Henry VIII was justified in making Ferdoragh heir to Conn O'Neill. The objection that there had been no previous inquisition was disposed of by the assertion that this form was required only when the land was ruled by such officers as escheators and sheriffs, and none such existed in Tyrone.

The speciousness of such reasoning is evident. Henry II never conquered Ulster, nor did he ever get any submission from the chiefs of the province. The Earldom of Ulster which Henry VIII inherited was but an empty title, for it will be remembered that Lionel, Duke of Clarence, failed in his efforts to recover the lands which were his wife's property, and in consequence the lands of Ulster were for centuries in the possession of the O'Neills. But the arguments brought forward appeared to satisfy Elizabeth and Cecil, and in 1560 the Queen directed Sussex as Lord Deputy to reduce Shane O'Neill to obedience, and she declared Brian, the son of Ferdoragh, to be the heir in right, and gave instructions that he should be restored to those lands of which Shane had dispossessed him.

Shane was prepared for any adverse action by England, and he had therefore endeavoured to strengthen his hands by making friendly advances to Calvagh O'Donnell, advances which were so willingly met that O'Neill now married O'Donnell's sister. The Government proceeded to show its distrust in the chief of Tirowen by attempting to alienate the neighbouring chiefs from him, and with that object in view honours were conferred on some and promises given to others. O'Reilly was created Earl of Breffny and Baron of Cavan, and a messenger was sent by a circuitous route to Calvagh O'Donnell, bearing letters from the Queen offering to create him Earl of Tirconnell, together with letters from the Earl of Sussex to O'Donnell's wife, a sister of the Duke of Argyll, informing her that the Queen was sending her some costly presents. The "presents" consisted of some old dresses of Queen Mary, and they were stated to be "for a token of favour". It was hoped that "the Countess of Argyll", as the lady was styled, might be the means of introducing Protestantism into Ulster. James MacDonald of the Isles and his two brothers, near kinsmen of the house of Argyll, who had settled in Tirconnell, were also approached with the same object.

O'Neill, who fully understood this indirect mode of showing enmity against himself, soon made the recipients of English favours rue the friendship which was only intended to wean them from the interests of their country. He invaded the territory of the newly created Earl of Breffny, and, after laying it waste, compelled O'Reilly to become his vassal. Against O'Donnell his enmity was not of recent date, and he seized an opportunity which now presented itself of gratifying all his vengeance. He learned that the principal part of O'Donnell's army was absent on a hostile excursion to Lough Veagh in Donegal, while Calvagh himself was almost unattended at the monastery of Kilodonnell, near the upper end of Lough Swilly; and, making a sudden descent, he surrounded the monastery, and carried off O'Donnell and his wife prisoners. The former he incarcerated in a dungeon in one of his castles, and the latter he made his mistress. It is stated that the imprisonment of her father caused Mary, O'Neill's wife, to die "of horror, loathing, grief, and deep anguish".

O'Neill now declared himself chief of all Ulster. He no longer attempted to disguise his hatred of England, but openly declared his determination to contend against English power, not only in his own province of Ulster, but also in Leinster and Munster. He led an army into Bregia, plundered the territory of the Pale, and only returned to the north at the approach of winter, when he had destroyed the corn and left no food in the country to support a hostile force.

James MacDonald having been heard in private to say that the Queen of Scots was rightful Queen of England, and this saying being reported to Shane, he at once saw in MacDonald an invaluable ally, and he succeeded in inducing James to give him his daughter in marriage. By this alliance he made himself so formidable a foe that the Government became very much alarmed. Elizabeth had, at this time, designed to try the effect of a conciliatory policy with O'Neill, and Sussex, when returning from England as Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, in June, 1561, received instructions to that effect; but for some unknown reason the contrary course was pursued. The Viceroy had brought reinforcements from England, and, with as powerful an army as he could collect, including the forces of the Earl of Ormonde, he marched to Armagh, where he threw up entrenchments round the cathedral with the view of establishing a strong garrison there. He sent a large body of troops into Tyrone, and these were returning laden with spoil when O'Neill set upon them, defeated them with slaughter, and retook the booty. This defeat produced intense alarm in the Pale, and created no slight uneasiness even in England, while it proportionately increased the confidence of the Irish. Sussex had recourse to negotiations, but O'Neill declared that he would listen to no terms until the English troops were withdrawn from Armagh. Fresh reinforcements were poured in from England, and the Earls of Desmond, Kildare, Thomond, and Clanrickard are said to have assembled in the Lord-Lieutenant's camp, on 1st June, 1551, in obedience to his call. With a large and well-equipped army Sussex now advanced into Tyrone as far as Lough Foyle and devastated the country; but O'Neill, adopting the tactics which had always frustrated the English when their greatest efforts were made in the way of preparation, withdrew beyond their reach to his forests and mountains.

Sussex now stayed in Armagh doing nothing till the end of the month, when his provisions began to run short and necessity compelled him to move. Spies brought him word that in the direction of Cavan there were certain herds of cattle which an active party might cut off, and, the replenishment of his stores with a goodly quantity of beef being desirable, Sussex made an effort to secure them. He did not himself accompany the troops, for Ormonde being ill he stayed with him ; and the men, led by false guides, who were really in the pay of Shane, were at the additional disadvantage of being without their commander. On the morning of the second day they were marching forward in loose order; Sir William FitzWilliam, the Lord Deputy, with 100 horse, was a mile in advance of the main body, which consisted of 500 men-at-arms with a few hundred loyal Irish of the Pale; another hundred horse under James Wingfield brought up the rear. Straggling along thus, Wingfield was surprised by O'Neill, who attacked the rear-guard with a force of 600 men, sending the English horse galloping forward upon the men-at-arms, creating thereby confusion among the troops, the cavalry and infantry becoming intermingled and at the mercy of Shane's troopers, who rode through the broken ranks "cutting down the footmen on all sides". Fitz William, learning of the attack from a flying horseman, immediately galloped back, followed by a gentleman named Parkinson and ten or twelve of his own servants, and flung himself into the melee. Sir George Stanley was close behind him with the rest of the advanced horse, and "Shane, receiving such a
charge of those few men and seeing more coming after", blew a recall note and retreated unpursued. FitzWilliam's courage had saved the army from being annihilated. Out of 500 English, 50 lay dead, and 50 more were badly wounded; and the survivors fell back on Armagh.

The two reports made by Sussex of the events of this disastrous day give diverse accounts. To the Queen the Viceroy pretended that after a slight repulse he had gained a brilliant victory, to Cecil he was candid and deplored his heavy losses.

"By the cowardice of some", he wrote, "all was like to have been lost, and by the worthiness of two men all was restored and the contrary part overthrown. It was by cowardice the dreadfullest beginning that ever was seen in Ireland; and by the valiantness of a few (thanks be given to God!) brought to a good end. Ah! Mr. Secretary, what unfortunate star hung over me that day to draw me, that never could be persuaded to be absent from the army at any time, to be then absent for a little disease of another man? The rereward was the best and picked soldiers in all this land. If I or any stout man had been that day with them, we had made an end of Shane, which is now farther off than ever it was. Never before durst Scot or Irishman look on Englishmen in plain or wood since I was here; and now Shane, in a plain three miles away from any wood, and where I would have asked of God to have had him, hath with a hundred and twenty horse and a few Scots and galloglasse, scarce half in numbers, charged our whole army, and by the cowardice of one wretch whom I hold dear to me as my own brother, was like in one hour to have left not one man of that army alive, and after to have taken me and the rest at Armagh. The fame of the English army, so hardly gotten, is now vanquished, and I wrecked and dishonoured by the vileness of other men's deeds."

It was evident that the Viceroy's army was not an effective fighting force, nor was the self-styled King of Ulster to be easily crushed.


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