Flight of the Earls

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


It was not long wanting. An anonymous letter was found, or was pretended to have been found, at the door of the council chamber in Dublin Castle, purporting to disclose with great, circumstantiality a conspiracy, of which O'Neill was the head, to seize the castle, to murder the lord deputy, and raise a general revolt.[1] The most artful means were resorted to by all whose interest it was to procure the ruin of the northern chiefs, to get up a wild panic of real or affected terror on this most opportune discovery!

O'Neill well knew the nature of the transaction, and the design behind it. The vultures must have prey—his ruin had become a state necessity. In the month of May, he and the other northern chiefs were cited to answer the capital charge thus preferred against them. This they were ready to do; but the government plotters were not just yet ready to carry out their own schemes, so the investigation was on some slight pretext postponed, and O'Neill and O'Donnell were ordered to appear in London on their defense at Michaelmas. There is little doubt that hereupon, or about this time, O'Neill formed and communicated to his northern kinsmen and fellow-victims the resolution of going into exile, and seeking on some friendly shore that safety which it was plain he could hope for in Ireland no longer. They at once determined to share his fortunes, and to take with them into exile their wives, children, relatives, and household attendants; in fine, to bid an eternal farewell to the "fair hills of holy Ireland."

The sad sequel forms the subject of that remarkable work—"The Flight of the Earls; or the Fate and Fortunes of Tyrone and Tyrconnell," by the Rev. C. P. Meehan, of Dublin; a work full of deep and sorrowful interest to every student of Irish history. I can but briefly summarize here, as closely as possible from various authorities, that mournful chapter in our national annals. "In the beginning of September 1607, nearly four months after the pretended discovery of St. Lawrence's plot, O'Neill was at Slane with the lord deputy, Sir Arthur Chichester; and they conferred relative to a journey, which the former was to make to London before Michaelmas, in compliance with a summons from the king. While here a letter was delivered to O'Neill from one John Bath, informing him that Maguire had arrived in a French ship in Lough Swilly." Sir John Davis, the attorney-general of that day, says: "He, O'Neill, took leave of the lord deputy, in a more sad and passionate manner than was usual with him. From thence he went to Mellifont, and Sir Garrett Moore's house, where he wept abundantly when he took his leave, giving a solemn farewell to every child and every servant in the house, which made them all marvel, because in general it was not his manner to use such compliments."

On his way northward, we are told, he remained two days at his own residence in Dungannon—it was hard to quit the old rooftree forever! Thence he proceeded hastily (traveling all night) to Rathmullen, on the shore of Lough Swilly, where he found O'Donnell and several of his friends waiting, and laying up stores in the French ship. Amid a scene of bitter anguish the illustrious party soon embarked; numbering fifty persons in all, including attendants and domestics. With O'Neill, in that sorrowful company, we are told, went—his last countess, Catherina, daughter of Maginnis; his three sons, Hugh, Baron of Dungannon, John, and Brian; Art Oge, the son of his brother Cormac, and others of his relatives; Ruari, or Roderic O'Donnell, Earl of Tyrconnell; Caffa or Cathbar, his brother, and his sister Nuala, who was married to Niall Garve O'Donnell, but who abandoned her husband when he became a traitor to his country; Hugh O'Donnell, the earl's son, and other members of his family; Cuconnaught Maguire, and Owen Roe Mac Ward, chief bard of Tyrconnell." "It is certain," say the 'Four Masters,' "that the sea has not borne, and the wind has not wafted in modern times, a number of persons in one ship, more eminent, illustrious, or noble in point of genealogy, heroic deeds, valor, feats of arms, and brave achievements, than they. Would that God had but permitted them," continued the old annalists, "to remain in their patrimonial inheritance until the children should arrive at the age of manhood! Woe to the heart that meditated—woe to the mind that conceived—woe to the council that recommended the project of this expedition, without knowing whether they should to the end of their lives be able to return to their ancient principalities and patrimonies." "With gloomy looks and sad forebodings, the clansmen of Tyrconnell gazed upon that fated ship, 'built in th' eclipse and rigged with curses dark,' as she dropped down Lough Swilly, and was hidden behind the cliffs of Fanad land. They never saw their chieftains more."[2]

They sailed direct to Normandy. On their arrival in France the English minister demanded their surrender as "rebels;" but Henry the Fourth would not give them up. Passing from France through the Netherlands, they were received with marked honors by the Archduke Albert. In all the courts of Europe, as they passed on their way to the Eternal City, they were objects of attention, respect, and honor from the various princes and potentates. But it, was in that Borne to which from the earliest date their hearts fondly turned—"the common asylum of all Catholics," as it is called in the epitaph on young Hugh O'Neill's tomb—that the illustrious fugitives were received with truest, warmest, and tenderest welcome. Every mark of affection, every honorable distinction, was conferred upon them by the venerable pope, Pius the Fifth, who, in common with all the prelates and princes of Christendom, regarded them as confessors of the faith. In conjunction with the King of Spain, the holy father assigned to each of them a liberal annual pension for their support in a manner befitting their royal birth and princely state in their lost country. Through many a year, to them, or to other distinguished Irish exiles, the papal treasury afforded a generous and princely bounty.

But those illustrious exiles drooped in the foreign climes, and soon, one by one, were laid in foreign graves. Ruari, Earl of Tyrconnell, died July 28, 1608. His brother, Caffar, died on the 17th of the following September. Maguire died at Genoa on his way to Spain, on the 12th of the previous month—August, 1608. Young Hugh O'Neill, Baron of Dungannon (son of O'Neill), died about a year afterward, on September 23, 1609, in the twenty-fourth year of his age. Thus, in the short space of two years after the flight from Ireland, the aged Prince of Ulster found himself almost the last of that illustrious company now left on earth. Bowed down with years and sorrows, his soul wrung with anguish as each day's tidings from distant Ireland brought news of the unparalleled miseries and oppressions scourging his faithful people, he wandered from court to court, "eating his heart," for eight years.[3] Who can imagine or describe with what earnest passion he pleaded with prelates and princes, and besought them to think upon the wrongs of Ireland. "Ha!" (exclaims one of the writers from whom I have been summarizing), "if he had sped in that mission of vengeance—if he had persuaded Paul or Philip to give him some ten thousand Italians or Spaniards, how it would have fluttered those English in their dovecotes to behold his ships standing up Lough Foyle with the Bloody Hand displayed.[4] But not so was it written in the Book. No potentate in Europe was willing to risk such a force as was needed." To deepen the gloom that shrouded the evening of his life, he lost his sight, became totally blind and, like another Belisarius, tottered mournfully to the grave; the world on this side of which was now in every sense all dark to him. On July 20, 1616, the aged and heart-crushed prince passed from this earthly scene to realms—

"———-where souls are free;
Where tyrants taint not nature's bliss."

It was at Rome he died, and the holy father ordered him a public funeral; directing arrangements to be forthwith made for celebrating his obsequies on a scale of grandeur such as is accorded only to royal princes and kings. The world that bows in worship before the altar of Success turns from the falling and the fallen; but Rome, the friend of the weak and the unfortunate, never measured its honors to nations or princes by the standard of their worldly fortunes. So the English, who would fain have stricken those illustrious fugitives of Ireland from fame and memory, as they had driven them from home and country, gnashed their teeth in rage as they saw all Christendom assigning to the fallen Irish princes an exalted place among the martyr-heroes of Christian patriotism! On the hill of the Janiculum, in the Franciscan church of San Pietro di Montorio, they laid the Prince of Ulster in the grave which, a few years before, had been opened for his son, beside the last resting-place of the Tyrconnell chiefs. Side by side they had fought through life; side by side they now sleep in death. Above the grave where rest the ashes of those heroes many an Irish pilgrim has knelt, and prayed, and wept. In the calm evening, when the sunbeams slant upon the stones below, the fathers of St. Francis often see some figure prostrate upon the tomb, which as often they find wetted by the tears of the mourner. Then they know that some exiled child of Ireland has sought and found the spot made sacred and holy for him and all his nation by ten thousand memories of mingled grief and glory.[5]


[1] There seems to have been a plot of some kind; but it was one got up by the secretary of state, Cecil himself; Lord Howth, his agent in this shocking business, inveighling O'Neill and O'Donnell into attendance at some of the meetings. "Artful Cecil," says Rev. Dr. Anderson, a Protestant divine, in his "Royal Genealogies," a work printed in London in 1736, " employed one St. Lawrence to entrap the Earls Tyrone and Tyrconnell, the Lord of Delvin, and other Irish chiefs, into a sham plot which had no evidence but his. But these chiefs being informed that witnesses were to be heard against them, foolishly fled from Dublin; and so taking their guilt upon them, they were declared rebels, and six entire counties in Ulster were at once forfeited to the crown, which was what their enemies wanted."

[2] Mitchel.

[3] Of all his sons, but two now survived, Conn and Henry. The latter was page to the Archduke Albert in the Low Countries, and, like his father, was beset by English spies. When the old chieftain died at Rome it was quickly perceived the removal of Henry would greatly free England from her nightmare apprehensions about the O'Neills. So the youthful prince was one morning found strangled in Lis bed at Brussels. The murder was enveloped in the profoundest mystery; but no one was at a loss to divine its cause and design. Henry had already, by his singular ability, and by certain movements duly reported by the spies, given but too much ground for concluding that if he lived he would yet be dangerous in Ireland.

[4] In all his movements on the continent he was surrounded by a crowd of English spies, whose letters and reports, now in the State Paper Office, give minute and singularly interesting information respecting his manners, habits, conversations, etc. One of them mentions that in the evenings, after dining, if the aged prince were " warm with wine," he had but one topic; his face would glow, and striking the table, he would assert that they would "have a good day yet in Ireland." Alas!

[5] Some eighteen years ago a horrible desecration well-nigh destroyed forever all identification of the grave so dear to Irishmen. The Eternal City—the sanctuary of Christendom—was sacrilegiously violated by invaders as lawless and abhorrent as Alaric and his followers—the Carbonari of modern Europe; led by Mazzini and Garibaldi. The churches were profaned, the tombs were rifled, and

the church of San Pietro di Montorio was converted by Garibaldi into cavalry stables! The trampling of the horses destroyed or effaced many of the tombstones, and the Irish in the city gave up all hope of safety for the one so sacred in their eyes. Happily, however, when Rome had been rescued by France on behalf of the Christian world, and when the filth and litter had been cleared away from the desecrated church, the tomb of the Irish princes was found to have escaped with very little permanent injury. Some there are, who, perhaps, do not understand the sentiment—the principle—which claims Rome as belonging to Christendom—not to "Italy," or France, or Austria, or Naples. But in truth and fact, Rome represents not only "God's acre" of the world, but is the repository of priceless treasures, gifts, and relics, which belong in common to all Christian peoples, and which they are bound to guard.