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The History of Ulster
Death of Shane O'Neill


The "First Beginnings" of Deny - O'Neill writes to Cardinals of Lorraine and Guise - The Black Death in Derry - Hugh O'Donnell defeats O'Neill - Shane repairs to the Scots of Clanaboy, and is murdered - A Great Irishman.

Colonel Edward Randolph, whose untimely death left the garrison of Derry "a headless people", had proved himself a man of prudence, foresight, strength, and skill, qualities lacking in his followers, who, though none of them dared to assume the command, endeavoured hopelessly to fill his place. The dead commander had looked well after the troops, possessed as he was of that careful eye for detail that ensures success. His men did not lack even small creature comforts, for Randolph saw to it that they had "shirts, kerseys, canvas and leather" when they needed such things, and food and forage were forthcoming when required. Not alone did he look carefully after the commissariat, but he watched with zealous eyes the health of the troops, keeping them happily busy in building when they were not in the field, and they were therefore in good fighting trim. His men presented a great contrast to the idle, dissolute garrison of the Pale, of whom the Deputy had written "better have no soldiers than those that are here ".

But Randolph, removed by a random shot, left no one to take his place, and disorder prevailed where order had hitherto reigned, and, no one taking the initiative, supplies fell short, and with lack of food and clothing disease crept in. In the cold and murky days of mid-November a mysterious malady made its appearance and struck down the strongest. "The flux", a deadlier enemy than the Irish, "was reigning among them wonderfully," and decimated them with alarming rapidity. This dread disease had its origin in the fact that through some strange oversight the sleeping quarters had been built over the crypt of the ancient monastery, and the vapours from the charnel-house rose in the night and choked the slumbering soldiers. Christmas brought no relief. Supplies, intended for Derry, by a stupid blunder found their way to far-away Florida, and the melancholy story of the state of things is given by one who wrote in sadness of heart saying: "Many of our best men go away because there is none to stay them; many have died; God comfort us!"

But the new year (1567) brought better days, and Colonel St. Loo, who arrived with it, revived the drooping spirits of the soldiers by giving them an opportunity to have a brush with the enemy. He was so signally successful that 700 horses and 1000 cattle were secured after a few days' fierce fighting, and the Colonel was so well satisfied with the outlook that he wrote the Lord Deputy saying that had he but 300 more men " he could so hunt the rebel that ere May was past he should not show his face in Ulster".

The power of O'Neill, founded not upon a voluntary alliance of the, chieftains of Ulster, but upon their compulsory subjection to the ruling house, began rapidly to break up. His followers, divided and dispirited, commenced to mutiny against a leader who no longer commanded success. Daily the Deputy's encircling forces closed around the unhappy Shane, while their ranks were swelled by deserters from his cause. He felt that his strength was ebbing, and no doubt much "as the trapped beast feels when he hears the trapper coming through the woods". Recognizing that he must seek help elsewhere than in his own land, he wrote to the Cardinals of Lorraine and Guise, begging them for the sake of their brother, the great Duke, to come to his aid. "Help us!" he cried, endeavouring to arouse their enthusiasm by a personal reference. "When I was in England I saw your noble brother the Marquis d'Elboeuf transfix two stags with a single arrow. If the Most Christian King will not help us, move the Pope to help us. I alone in this land sustain his cause." But, alas for Shane's cause! no help came from the Cardinals.


Map of Ireland in 1567

Help, however, came from an unlooked-for quarter, and in strange guise. The Black Death visited Derry and took hundreds that had escaped the flux, those who had successfully evaded the miasma of November now falling victims to even a more terrible disease in March, only 300 men out of 1100 being left in a fit condition to take the field. Men were raised in Liverpool and put on board the transports for Derry, but reconsideration resulted in cancellation of the orders, as it was felt that it would be folly to send them to certain death. Concluding that something must be done to save the remnant of the stricken garrison, the English Council now decided that it would be wiser to remove the colony to other quarters on the Bann, and this would have been done but that an unlooked-for occurrence upset the project. Fire came to finish the work commenced by the flux and Black Death. Starting in a blacksmith's forge, it raged through the rough wooden buildings which had been built in close proximity to each other for purposes of fortification, and, reaching the powder magazine, blew it up, and with it some thirty men. Their comrades, paralysed by this overwhelming stroke of ill fortune, decided to abandon the city to its fate, and getting into their provision boats, from which they watched the conquering flames, they sailed away from the scene of the conflagration. Such was the beginnings of Derry, a city destined in later years to be the scene of epoch-making events.

It was now May, the month which St. Loo had threatened should not end without witnessing Shane's expulsion from Ulster, and it was determined that the forces of the Deputy should, with those of O'Donnell, make a joint movement to bring about O'Neill's overthrow. That indomitable chieftain had collected a motley army and invaded Tirconnell, crossing the estuary of the River Swilly at low water, near Letterkenny. He found Hugh O'Donnell encamped at Ardnagarry, on the north side of the river, with but a small body of men, and at once attacked him. The position of O'Donnell was for a moment desperate, but skilful generalship and enthusiasm made up for paucity in numerical strength, and the result to Shane's forces was appalling, for they were routed and fled panic-stricken towards the water, which during the fight had in returning covered the sands which earlier had afforded a ready passage. Plunging in they essayed to reach the other side, but, the waves being exceptionally strong, hundreds were drowned. O'Neill himself fled alone along the banks of the river westward to a ford at a little distance from Letterkenny, where he crossed under the guidance of a party of O'Donnell's men, by whom he could not have been recognized or he would have had short shrift. The Annalists aver that Shane's "reason and senses became deranged after this defeat".

Possibly overwrought by the sudden collapse of all on which he had prided himself, and "feeling himself all weakened, and beholding his declination and fall near at hand, he avowed and fully, determined to come in disguised manner, for fear of intercepting, with a collar about his neck, to the presence of the Lord Deputy, and to submit himself as a most wretched man, hoping by that order of humility to" find "some mercy and grace" at the hands of the Queen. From this course the fallen King of Ulster was dissuaded by his secretary, Neil Mackever, who maintained that his cause was not yet quite lost, and urged the stricken man, for the sake of his mistress ("the Countess of Argyll"), who had been faithful to him throughout his varying fortunes, to seek refuge amongst the Scots of Clanaboy, taking with him, as a sop to Cerberus, his prisoner Sorley Boy, who was still in durance at the castle of Foogh-ne-Gall. O'Neill consented, and "thereupon took his journey towards the Scots", accompanied by "the Countess" and Sorley Boy, and attended by his secretary and some fifty horsemen. Arriving on Saturday, the last day of May, at the sea-side camp of Allaster MacDonald and his nephew Gillespie, Shane entered Allaster's tent and craved his hospitality. His appearance had been un looked for, but he was received with apparent friendship expressed in "a few dissembled gratulatory words".

At first all went well, the hatchet appeared to be buried, and for two days no gleam of resentment for past penalties inflicted by O'Neill seems to have been allowed to show itself; but on the evening of Monday, the 2nd of June, all "fell to quaffing and drinking of wine", and a quarrel over the cups took place. Gillespie MacDonald, "all inflamed with malice and desire of revenge for the death of his father and uncle, began to minister quarrelling talk to O'Neill, who took the same very hot, and after some reproachful words passed between them," Gillespie demanded of the secretary whether it was he who "had bruited abroad that the lady, his aunt, wife unto James McDonnell, did offer to come out of Scotland into Ireland, to marry with O'Neill. The Secretary affirmed himself to be the author of that report, and said withal, that if his aunt were Queen of Scotland, she might be well contented to match herself with O'Neill; the other with that gave him the lie, and said that the lady, his aunt, was a woman of that honesty and reputation as would not take him, that was the betrayer and murderer of her worthy husband. O'Neill, giving ear to the talk, began to maintain his secretary's quarrell, and thereupon Gillespie withdrew himself out of the tent, and came abroad amongst his men, who forthwith raised a fray, and fell to the killing of O'Neill's men; and the Scots, as people thirsty of O'Neill's blood, for requiting the slaughter of their master and kinsfolk, assembled together in a throng, and thrust into the tent where O'Neill was, and there, with their slaughter swords, hewed him to pieces, slew his secretary and all those who were with him, except a very few which escaped by their horses."

So perished Shane the Proud.

Allaster MacDonald "caused his mangled carcass to be carried into an old ruinous church near the camp, where, for lack of a better shroud, he was wrapt in a kerne's old shirt, and there miserably interred". Even there the remains of O'Neill found no rest, for we are told that "after being four days in earth" the body "was taken up by William Piers", captain of Knockfergus, who hacked off the head, which "was brought unto the Lord Deputy to Drogheda, the 2ist day of June, 1567, and from thence carried into the city of Dublin, where it was bodied with a stake", and placed to bleach on the top of the castle.

Such was the end of one of the greatest figures in Irish history, a man whose name has been blackened by historians to such an extent that he has never been taken as the subject of the dramatist, or of the writer of romantic fiction, although his meteoric career would seem to lend itself, with its many dramatic episodes, to poetic treatment. Even George Darley, himself an Irishman, appears to have found in the story of Becket, and that of Ethelstan, more congenial themes for his pen than this purely Hibernian one. In the tragedy of Irish history no figure stands forth in such striking relief as does that of Shane O'Neill. Semi-savage as he was, he was nevertheless a great Irishman. There was a tender strain in the man of whom Campion tells us, that when "sitting at meate, before he put one morsell into his mouth, he used to slice a portion above the dayly almes, and send it namely to some begger at his gate, saying it was meet to serve Christ first". Elizabeth, who was not prodigal of her favours, was impressed by Shane, the proof of which is "shown by her retaining towards him the same friendly bearing through all the strife, confusion, and what, in her eyes, was even still worse lavish expenditure, of which he continued for several years to be the unceasing cause". She frequently discountenanced the hostile movements against him, and so well was her leniency towards him understood that, in 1566, Sir William FitzWilliam complained in a letter to Cecil that "the Council were not permitted to write the truth of O'Neill's evil doings". He was popular even in the Pale, for his generous and high spirit commanded the respect of both friends and foes. By the Irish he was affectionately styled Shane andiomais, or Shane the Proud or Ambitious. He has been described as barbarous in his manners; but he held his own in the Court of Queen Elizabeth. He knew that his very existence was an insult to the English Government; he had great pretensions, and small means to carry them into execution; he was always involved in a net of intrigue and treachery; he had fierce passions, and had never learned to regulate them. But Shane must be judged by the ethical code of his own day a day in which much was done with the sanction and even approval of the moralists, that to-day would be censured or condemned. If Shane imprisoned his enemy O'Donnell, and monopolized his wife, his action must be judged by the standard of morality which permitted a monarch to execute his wife in the morning and be married again immediately after the execution. If language seems to have aided him to conceal his thoughts, he was not the only sophister of his time, and, misleading as were many of the sentiments expressed in his letters to Elizabeth, they did not surpass in mendacity many of the Queen's assurances of love to her ever dear sister Mary of Scotland, nor those of Sussex when he agreed to give Shane his sister as wife. Had there been a United Ireland, Shane would have been unsubduable. He defied for years the forces of the great Queen, and would have continued to do so but for the action of his arch-enemy, O'Donnell, who thus affords another instance of the blindness of the Irish to their own interests, otherwise it is impossible to account for the fact that they did not foresee that the ruin of Shane would in the long run be the prelude to their own. As Judge O'Connor Morris said: "They joined Sidney to destroy a great man of their race; for the idea of nationality did not exist in them; they could not look beyond their septs and their clans; they were still slaves of mere tribal discord ".

The attainder of Shane O'Neill quickly followed his defeat. An Act was passed for the attainder and for the extinguishment of the name of O'Neill, and the entitling of the Queen's Majesty, her heirs and successors, to the County of Tyrone and to other countries and territories in Ulster. In a preamble to the Act, crimes of great enormity are placed to Shane's credit, and he is accused of being guilty of deeds of which we have ample evidence he was innocent. Turlogh Lynnagh O'Neill, to whom Shane, on the occasion of his visit to London, had left the charge of Tyrone, was placed in possession of parts of his lands, as he had proved himself on sundry occasions a friend of the English during Shane's wars. Turlogh was the son of Niall Culanagh, son of Art Oge, younger brother of Con Bacagh O'Neill, first Earl of Tyrone.


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