The O'Neill

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


DURING the four years over which the imprisonment of Red Hugh extended, important events had been transpiring in the outer world; and amid them the character of Hugh of Dungannon was undergoing a rapid transmutation. We had already seen him cultivating friendly relations with the neighboring chiefs, though most of them were in a state of open hostility to the queen. He, by degrees, went much further than "this. He busied himself in the disloyal work of healing the feuds of the rival clans, and extending throughout the north feelings of amity—nay, a network of alliances between them. To some of the native princes he lends one or two of his fully-trained companies of foot; to others, some troops of his cavalry. He secretly encourages some of them (say his enemies at court) to stouter resistance to the English. It is even said that he harbors popish priests. "North of Slieve Gullion the venerable brehons still arbitrate undisturbed the causes of the people; the ancient laws, civilization, and religion stand untouched. Nay, it is credibly rumored to the Dublin deputy that this noble earl, forgetful apparently of his coronet and golden chain, and of his high favor with so potent a princess, does about this time get recognized and solemnly inaugurated as chieftain of his sept, by the proscribed name of 'The O'Neill;' and at the rath of Tulloghoge, on the Stone of Royalty, amid the circling warriors, amid the bards and ollamhs of Tyr-eoghain, 'receives an oath to preserve all the ancient former customs of the country inviolable, and to deliver up the succession peaceably to his tanist; and then hath a wand delivered to him by one whose proper office that is, after which, descending from the stone, he turneth himself round thrice forward and thrice backward,' even as the O'Neills had done for a thousand years; altogether in the most un-English manner, and with the strangest ceremonies, which no garter king-at-arms could endure."

While matters were happening thus in "Ulster, England was undergoing the excitement of apprehended invasion. The Armada of Philip the Second was on the sea, and the English nation—queen and people—Protestant and Catholic—persecutor and persecuted—with a burst of genuine patriotism, prepared to meet the invaders. The elements, however, averted the threatened doom. A hurricane of unexampled fury scattered Philip's flotilla, so vauntingly styled "invincible;" the ships were strewn, shattered wrecks, all over the coasts of England and Ireland. In the latter country the crews were treated very differently, according as they happened to be cast upon the shores of districts amenable to English authority or influences, or the reverse. In the former instances they were treated barbarously—slain as the queen's enemies, or given up to the queen's forces. In the latter, they were sheltered and succored, treated as friends, and afforded means of safe return to their native Spain. Some of these ships were cast upon the coast of O'Neill's country, and by no one were the Spanish crews more kindly treated, more warmly befriended, than by Hugh, erstwhile the queen's most favored protégé, and still professedly her most true and obedient servant. This hospitality to the shipwrecked Spaniards, however, is too much for English flesh and blood to bear. Hugh is openly murmured against in Dublin and in London.

And soon formal proof of his "treason" is preferred. An envious cousin of his, known as John of the Fetters—a natural son of John the Proud, by the false wife of O'Donnell—animated by a mortal hatred of Hugh, gave information to the lord deputy that he had not only regaled the Spanish officers right royally at Dungannon, but had then and there planned with them an alliance between himself and King Philip, to whom Hugh—so said his accuser—had forwarded letters and presents by the said officers. All of which the said accuser undertook to prove, either upon the body of Hugh in mortal combat, or before a jury well and truly packed or impanneled, as the case might be. Whereupon there was dreadful commotion in Dublin Castle. Hugh's reply was—to arrest the base informer on a charge of treason against the sacred person and prerogatives of his lawful chief; which charge being proved, John of the Fetters was at once executed. Indeed, some accounts say that Hugh himself had to act as executioner; since in all Tyrone no man could be prevailed upon to put to death one of the royal race of Nial—albeit an attainted and condemned traitor.

Then Hugh, full of a fine glowing indignation against these accusing murmurers in Dublin, sped straightway to London to complain of them to the queen, and to convince her anew, with that politic hypocrisy taught him (for quite a different use, though) in that same court, that her majesty had no more devoted admirer than himself. And he succeeded. He professed and promised the most ample loyalty. He would undertake to harbor no more popish priests; he would admit sheriffs into Tyrone; he would no more molest chiefs friendly to England, or befriend chiefs hostile to the queen; and as for the title of "The O'Neill," which, it was charged, he gloried in, while feeling quite ashamed of the mean English title, "Earl of Tyrone," he protested by her majesty's most angelic countenance (ah, Hugh!) that he merely adopted it, lest some one else might possess himself thereof; but if it in the least offended a queen so beautiful and so exalted, why he would disown it forever![1] Elizabeth was charmed by that dear sweet-spoken young noble—and so handsome too. (Hugh, who was brought up at court, knew Elizabeth's weak points). The Lord of Dungannon returned to Ireland higher than ever in the queen's favor; and his enemies in Dublin Castle were overturned for that time.

The most inveterate of these was Sir Henry Bagnal, commander of the Newry garrison. "The marshal and his English garrison in the castle and abbey of Newry," says Mr. Mitchel, "were a secret thorn in the side of O'Neill. They lay upon one of the main passes to the north, and he had deeply vowed that one day the ancient monastery, de viridi ligno, should be swept clear of this foreign soldiery. But in that castle of Newry the Saxon marshal had a fair sister, a woman of rarest beauty, whom O'Neill thought, it a sin to leave for a spouse to some churl of art English undertaker. And indeed we next hear of him as a love-suitor at the feet of the English beauty." Haverty tells the story of this romantic love-suit as follows:

"This man—the marshal, Sir Henry Bagnal—hated the Irish with a rancor which bad men are known to feel toward those whom they have mortally injured. He had shed a great deal of their blood, obtained a great deal of their lands, and was the sworn enemy of the whole race. Sir Henry had a sister who was young and exceedingly beautiful. The wife of the Earl of Tyrone, the daughter of Sir Hugh Mac Manus O'Donnell, had died, and the heart of the Irish chieftain was captivated by the beautiful English girl. His love was reciprocated, and he became in due form a suitor for her hand; but all efforts to gain her brother's consent to this marriage were in vain. The story, indeed, is one which might seem to be borrowed from some old romance, if we did not find it circumstantially detailed in the matter-of-fact documents of the State Paper Office. The Irish prince and the English maiden mutually plighted their vows, and O'Neill presented to the lady a gold chain worth one hundred pounds; but the inexorable Sir Henry removed his sister from Newry to the house of Sir Patrick Barnwell, who was married to another of his sisters, and who lived about seven miles from Dublin. Hither the earl followed her. He was courteously received by Sir Patrick, and seems to have had many friends among the English. One of these, a gentleman named William Warren, acted as his confidant, and at a party at Barnwell's house, the earl engaged the rest of the company in conversation while Warren rode off with the lady behind him, accompanied by two servants, and carried her safely to the residence of a friend at Drumcondra, near Dublin. Here O'Neill soon followed, and the Protestant bishop of Meath, Thomas Jones, a Lancashire man, was easily induced to come and unite them in marriage the same evening. This elopement and marriage, which took place on August 3, 1591, were made the subject of violent accusations against O'Neill. Sir Henry Bagnal was furious. He charged the earl with having another wife living; but this point was explained, as O'Neill showed that this lady, who was his first wife, the daughter of Sir Brian Mac Felim O'Neill, had been divorced previous to his marriage with the daughter of O'Donnell. Altogether the government would appear to have viewed the conduct of O'Neill in this matter rather leniently; but Bagnal was henceforth his most implacable foe, and the circumstance was not without its influence on succeeding events."


[1] Thus, according to the tenor of English chroniclers, but as a matter of fact, Hugh had not at this time been elected as The O'Neill. This event occurred subsequently; the existing O'Neill having been persuaded or compelled by Hugh Roe of Tyrconnell to abdicate, that the clans might, as they desired to do, elect Hugh of Dungannon in his place.