After Dunboy

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


THREE days after the defeat at Kinsale, O'Donnell—having deputed his brother Ruari to command the clan in his absence—accompanied by his confessor, his secretary, and some military attachés or aids-de-camp, sailed from Castlehaven for Corunna, where he arrived on the 14th of January. "He was received with high distinction by the Marquis of Caracena and other nobles, 'who evermore gave O'Donnell the right hand; which, within his government,' says Carew, 'he would not have done to the greatest duke in Spain.' He traveled through Gallicia, and at Santiago de Compostella was royally entertained by the archbishop and citizens; but in bull-fighting on the stately Alameda he had small pleasure. With teeth set and heart on fire, the chieftain hurried on, traversed the mountains of Gallicia and Leon, and drew not bridle until he reached Zamora, where King Philip was then holding his court. With passionate zeal he pleaded his country's cause; entreated that a greater fleet and a stronger army might be sent to Ireland without delay, unless his Catholic majesty desired to see his ancient Milesian kinsmen and allies utterly destroyed and trodden into earth by the tyrant Elizabeth; and above all, whatever was to be done he prayed it might be done instantly, while O'Neill still held his army on foot and his banner flying; while it was not yet too late to rescue poor Erin from the deadly fangs of those dogs of England. The king received him affectionately, treated him with high consideration, and actually gave orders for a powerful force to be drawn together at Corunna for another descent upon Ireland.[1]

"He returned to that port, from which he could every day look out across the western waves that lay between him and home, and where he could be kept constantly informed of what was passing in Ireland. Spring was over and gone, and summer too had passed away, but still the exigencies of Spanish policy delayed the promised expedition."[2] "That armament never sailed; and poor O'Donnell never saw Ireland more; for news arrived in Spain, a few months after, that Dun-baoi Castle, the last stronghold in Munster that held out for King Philip, was taken; and Beare-Haven, the last harbor in the south that was open to his ships, effectually guarded by the English. The Spanish preparations were countermanded, and Red Hugh was once more on his journey to the court, to renew his almost hopeless suit, and had arrived at Simancas, two leagues from Valladolid, when he suddenly fell sick; his gallant heart was broken, and he died there on September 10, 1602. He was buried by order of the king with royal honors, as befitted a prince of the Kinel-Conal; and the chapter of the cathedral of St. Francis, in the stately city of Valladolid, holds the bones of as noble a chief and as stout a warrior as ever bore the wand of chieftaincy or led a clan to battle."[3]

"Thus," says another writer, "closed the career of one of the brightest and noblest characters in any history. His youth, his early captivity, his princely generosity, his daring courage, his sincere piety, won the hearts of all who came in contact with him. He was the sword, as O'Neill was the brain, of the Ulster confederacy: the Ulysses and Achilles of the war, they fought side by side without jealousy or envy, for almost as long a period as their prototypes had spent in besieging Troy."

One cannot peruse unmoved the quaint and singular recital of O'Donnell's characteristic merits and virtues given by the Four Masters. Of him it can with scrupulous truth be said that—unlike not a few others, famed as soldiers, or rulers, or statesmen—his character, in every phase, was pure and noble; and that his private life as well as his public career was worthy of admiration, without stain and without reproach. Meanwhile O'Neill had set out homeward at the head of the shattered Ulster contingent; and now the lord deputy felt that the moment had come for a supreme effort to pour down upon and overwhelm him. The "Lion of the North" was struck, and, badly wounded, was retreating to his lair. This was surely the time for pressing him to the death—for surrounding, capturing, or slaying the once dreaded foe. So throughout Leinster, Connaught, and Ulster, the cry was spread for the English garrisons, and all natives who would mark themselves for favor and consideration to rise simultaneously and burst in upon the territories of the confederate chiefs; while the deputy swiftly assembled troops to intercept, capture, or destroy them on their homeward way from the south. The Irish cause was down—disastrously and hopelessly. Now, therefore, was the time for all who "bow the knee and worship the rising sun" to show their zeal on the winning side.

Tyrconnell and Tyrowen, as well as the territories of O'Rorke and Maguire, were inundated by converging streams of regular troops and volunteer raiders; while O'Neill, like a "lion," indeed, who finds that the hunter is rifling his home, made the earth tremble in his path to the rescue! With the concentrated passion of desperation he tore through every obstacle, routed every opposing army, and marched—strode—to the succor of his people, as if a thunderbolt cleared the way. Soon his enemies were made to understand that the "Lion of the North" was still alive and unsubdued. But it was, in sooth, a desperate cause that now taxed to its uttermost the genius of Hugh. The lord deputy, Mountjoy, proceeded to the north to take command in person against him; while "Dowcra, marching out of Derry, pressed O'Neill from the north and northeast."

Mountjoy advanced on Hugh's family seat, Dungannon; but O'Neill could even better bear to see his ancestral home in ashes than to have it become the shelter of his foes. The lord deputy "discovered it in the distance, as Norreys had once before done, in flames kindled by the hand of its straitened proprietor." "With vigor and skill undiminished and spirit undaunted, Hugh rapidly planned and carried out his measures of defensive operations. In fine, it was in this moment of apparent wreck and ruin and despair that O'Neill's character rose into positive grandeur and sublimity, and that his glorious talents shone forth in their greatest splendor. "Never," says one of our historians, "did the genius of Hugh O'Neill shine out brighter than in these last defensive operations. In July, Mountjoy writes apologetically to the council that, 'notwithstanding her majesty's great forces O'Neil doth still live.' He bitterly complains of his consummate caution, his 'pestilent judgment to spread and to nourish his own infection,' and of the reverence entertained for his person by the native population. Early in August, Mountjoy had arranged what he hoped might prove the finishing stroke in the struggle; Dowcra from Derry, Chichester from Carrickfergus, Danvers from Armagh, and all who could be spared from Mountjoy, Charlemont, and Mountnorris, were gathered under his command, to the number of eight thousand men, for a foray into the interior of Tyrone.

Inisloghlin, on the borders of Down and Antrim, which contained a great quantity of valuables belonging to O'Neill, was captured, Magherlowney and Tulloghoge were next taken. At the latter place stood the ancient stone chair on which the O'Neills were inaugurated, time out of mind; it was now broken into atoms by Mountjoy's orders. But the most effective warfare was made on the growing crops. The eight thousand men spread themselves over the fertile fields, along the valleys of the Bann and the Roe, destroying the standing grain with fire, where it would burn, or with the praca, a peculiar kind of harrow, tearing it up by the roots. The horsemen trampled crops into the earth which had generously nourished them; the infantry shore them down with their sabers; and the sword, though in a very different sense from that of Holy Scripture, was, indeed, converted into a sickle. The harvest moon never shone upon such fields in any Christian land. In September, Mountjoy reported to Cecil, 'that between Tullaghoge and Toome there lay unburied a thousand dead,' and that since his arrival on the Blackwater—a period of a couple of months—there were three thousand starved in Tyrone. In O'Cane's country the misery of his clansmen drove the chief to surrender to Dowcra, and the news of Hugh Roe's death having reached Donegal, his brother repaired to Athlone, and made his submission to Mountjoy. Early in December, O'Neill, unable to maintain himself on the river Roe, retired with six hundred foot and sixty horse to Glencancean, near Lough Neagh, the most secure of his fastnesses. His brother Cormac, McMahon, and Art O'Neill, of Clandeboy, shared with him the wintry hardships of that asylum, while Tyrone, Clandeboy, and Monaghan, were given up to horrors, surpassing any that had been known or dreamt of in former wars."

By this time O'Sullivan had bravely held his position in Glengarriffe for full six months against all the efforts of the Munster army. That picturesque glen, whose beauty is of worldwide fame, was for Donal a camp formed by nature, within which the old and helpless, the women and children of his clan, with their kine and sheep, were safely placed, while the fighting force, which, with Tyrrell's contingent, did not exceed eight hundred men, guarded the few passes through which alone the alpine barriers of the glen could be penetrated. Here the little community, as we might call them, housed in tents of evergreen boughs, lived throughout the summer and autumn months, "waiting for the news from Spain." They fished the "fishful river" that winds through that elysian vale, and the myriad confluent streams that pour down from the "hundred lakes"of Caha. They hunted the deer that in those days, as in our own, roamed wild and free through the densely wooded craggy dells. Each morning the guards were told off for the mountain watches; and each evening the bugles of the chief, returning from his daily inspection, or the joyous shouts of victory that proclaimed some new assault of the enemy repulsed, woke the echoes of the hills. And perhaps in the calm summer twilight, the laugh and the song went round; the minstrels touched their harps, and the clansmen improvised their simple rustic sports, while the chief and Lady Aileen moved through the groups with a gracious smile for all! For they nothing doubted that soon would come the glad tidings -that King Philip's ships were in the bay; and then!—Bear would be swept of the hated foe, and their loved Dunboy

—————again would rise
And mock the English rover!

Alas! this happy dream was to fade in sorrow, and die out in bitterest reality of despair! News came indeed from Spain at length; but it was news that sounded the knell of all their hopes to O'Sullivan and his people! O'Donnell was dead, and on hearing of the fall of Dunboy the Spanish government had countermanded the expedition assembled and on the point of sailing for Ireland! This was heart-crushing intelligence for Donal and his confederates. Nevertheless they held out still. There remained one faint glimmer in the north; and while there was a sword unsheathed anywhere in the sacred cause of fatherland, they would not put up theirs. They gave Carew's captains hot work throughout Desmond for the remainder of the autumn, capturing several strong positions, and driving in his outlying garrisons in Muskerry and the Carberies. But soon even the northern ray went out, and the skies all around were wrapt in Cimmerian gloom. There was room for hope no more!

What was now Donal's position? It is difficult adequately to realize it! "Winter was upon him; the mountains were deep in snow; his resources were exhausted; he was cooped up in a remote glen, with a crowd of helpless people, the aged and infirm, women and children, and with barely a few hundred fighting men to guard them. He was environed by foes on all hands. The nearest point where an ally could be reached was in Ulster, at the other extremity of Ireland—two or three hundred miles away—and the country between him and any such friendly ground was all in the hands of the English, and swarmed with their garrisons and scouring parties.

The resolution taken by O'Sullivan under these circumstances was one which has ever since excited among historical writers and military critics the liveliest sentiments of astonishment and admiration. It was to pierce through his surrounding foes, and fight his way northward inch by inch to Ulster; convoying meantime the women and children, the aged, sick, and wounded of his clan—in fine, all who might elect to claim his protection and share his retreat rather than trust the perils of remaining. It was this latter feature which pre-eminently stamped the enterprise as almost without precedent. For four hundred men, under such circumstances, to cut their way from Glengarriffe to Leitrim, even if divested of every other charge or duty save the clearing of their own path, would be sufficiently daring to form an episode of romance; and had Donal more regard for his own safety than for his "poor people," this would have been the utmost attempted by him. But he was resolved, let what might befall, not to abandon even the humblest or the weakest among them. While he had a sword to draw, he would defend them; and he would seek no safety or protection for himself that was not shared by them. His own wife and, at least, the youngest of his children, he left behind in charge of his devoted foster-brother, Mac Swiney, who successfully concealed them until the chief's return, nearly eight months subsequently, in an almost inaccessible spot at the foot of an immense precipice in the Glengarriffe mountains, now known as the Eagle's Nest. Many other families also elected to try the chance of escape from Carew's scouring parties, and remained behind, hidden in the fastnesses of that wild region.


[1] Mitchel.

[2] M'Gee.

[3] Mitchel.