Hugh Roe O'Donnell

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


BY this time young Hugh Roe O'Donnell had, as we have already learned, escaped from his cruel captivity in Dublin, mainly by the help of that astute and skillful organizer, Hugh of Dungannon. In the spring of the year following, "on May 3, 1593, there was a solemn meeting of the warriors, clergy, and bards of Tyrconnell, at the Rock of Doune, at Kilmacrenan, 'the nursing place of Columbcille.' And here the father of Red Hugh renounced the chieftaincy of the sept, and his impetuous son at nineteen years of age was duly inaugurated by Erenach O'Firghil, and made The O'Donnell with the ancient ceremonies of his race."

The young chief did not wear his honors idly. In the Dublin dungeons he had sworn vows, and he was not the man to break them; vows that while his good right hand could draw a sword, the English should have no peace in Ireland. Close by The O'Donnell's territory, in Strabane, old Torlogh Lynagh O'Neill had admitted an English force as "auxiliaries" forsooth. "And it was a heart-break," says the old chronicler, "to Hugh O'Donnell, that the English of Dublin should thus obtain a knowledge of the country." He fiercely attacked Strabane, and chased the obnoxious English "auxiliaries" away, "pardoning old Torlogh only on solemn promise not to repeat his offense. From this forth Red Hugh engaged himself in what we may call a circuit of the north, rooting out English garrisons, sheriffs, seneschals, or functionaries of what sort soever, as zealously and scrupulously as if they were plague-pests. Woe to the English chief that admitted a queen's sheriff within his territories! Hugh was down upon him like a whirlwind! O'Donnell's cordial ally in this crusade was Maguire lord of Fermanagh, a man truly worthy of such a colleague. Hugh of Dungannon saw with dire concern this premature conflict precipatated by Red Hugh's impetuosity. Very probably he was not unwilling that O'Donnell should find the English some occupation yet awhile in the north; but the time had not at all arrived (in his opinion) for the serious and comprehensive undertaking of a stand-up fight for the great stake of national freedom. But it was vain for him to try remonstrance with Hugh Roe, whose nature could ill brook restraint, and who, indeed, could not relish or comprehend at all the subtle and politic slowness of O'Neill.

Hugh of Dungannon, however, would not allow himself at any hazard to be pushed or drawn into open action a day or an hour sooner than his own judgment approved. He could hardly keep out of the conflict so close beside him, and so, rather than be precipitated prematurely into the struggle which, no doubt, he now deemed inevitable, and for which, accordingly, he was preparing, he made show of joining the queen's side, and led some troops against Maguire. It was noted, however, that the species of assistance which he gave the English generally consisted in "moderating" Hugh Roe's punishment of them, and pleading with him merely to sweep them away a little more gently; "interfering," as Moryson informs us, "to save their lives, on condition of their instantly quitting the country!" Now this seemed to the English (small wonder indeed) a very queer kind of "help." It was not what suited them at all; and we need not be surprised that soon Hugh's accusers in Dublin and in London once more, and more vehemently than ever, demanded his destruction.

It was now the statesmen and courtiers of England began to feel that craft may overleap itself. In the moment when first they seriously contemplated Hugh as a foe to the queen, they felt like "the engineer hoist by his own petard." Here was their own pupil, trained under their own hands, versed in their closest secrets, and let into their most subtle arts! Here was the steel they had polished and sharpened to pierce the heart of Ireland, now turned against their own breast! No wonder there was dismay and consternation in London and Dublin—it was so hard to devise any plan against him that Hugh would not divine like one of themselves! Failing any better resort, it was resolved to inveigle him into Dublin by offering him a safe-conduct, and, this document notwithstanding, to seize him at all hazards. Accordingly Hugh was duly notified of charges against his loyalty, and a royal safe-conduct was given to him that he might "come in and appear. "

To the utter astonishment of the plotters, he came with the greatest alacrity, and daringly confronted them at the council-board in the castle! He would have been seized in the room, but for the nobly honorable conduct of the Earl of Ormond, whose indignant letter to the lord treasurer Burleigh (in reply to the queen's order to seize O'Neill) is recorded by Carte: "My lord, I will never use treachery to any man; for it would both touch her highness' honor and my own credit too much; and whosoever gave the queen advice thus to write, is fitter for such base service than I am. Saving my duty to her majesty, I would I might have revenge by my sword of any man that thus persuaded the queen to write to me." Ormond acquainted O'Neill with the perfidy designed against him, and told him, that if he did not fly that night he was lost, as the false deputy was drawing a cordon round Dublin. O'Neill made his escape, and prepared to meet the crisis which now he knew to be at hand. "News soon reached him in the north," as Mr. Mitchel recounts, "that large reinforcements were on their way to the deputy from England, consisting of veteran troops who had fought in Bretagne and Flanders under Sir John Norreys, the most experienced general in Elizabeth's service; and that garrisons were to be forced upon Ballyshannon and Belleek, commanding the passes into Tyrconnell, between Lough Erne and the sea. The strong fortress of Portmore also, on the southern bank of the Blackwater, was to be strengthened and well manned; thus forming, with Newry and Greencastle, a chain of forts across the island, and a basis for future operations against the north."