Red Hugh O'Donnell

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


MEANWHILE, years passed by, and another Hugh had begun to rise above the northern horizon, amid signs and perturbations boding no good to the crown and government of the Pale. This was Hugh O'Donnell—“Hugh Roe” or “Red Hugh”—son of the reigning chief of Tyrconnell.

Young O'Donnell, who was at this time “a fiery stripling of fifteen, was already known throughout the five provinces of Ireland, not only ‘by the report of his beauty, his agility, and his noble deeds,’ but as a sworn foe to the Saxons of the Pale;” and the mere thought of the possibility of the two Hughs—Hugh of Tyrone and Hugh of Tyrconnell—ever forming a combination, sufficed to fill Dublin Castle with dismay.

For already indeed, Hugh O'Neill's “loyalty” was beginning to be considered rather unsteady.

To be sure, as yet no man durst whisper a word against him in the queen's hearing; and he was still ready at call to do the queen's fighting against southern Geraldine, O'Brien, or Mac Caura.

But the astute in these matters noted that he was unpleasantly neighborly and friendly with the northern chiefs and tanists; that, so far from maintaining suitable ill-will toward the reigning O'Neill (whom the queen meant him some day to overthrow), Hugh had actually treated him with respect and obedience.

Moreover, “the English knew,” says the chronicler of Hugh Roe, “that it was Judith, the daughter of O'Donnell, and sister of the before-mentioned Hugh Roe, that was the spouse and best beloved of the Earl O'Neill.”

“Those six companies of troops also,” says Mr. Mitchel, “that he kept on foot (in the queen's name, but for his own behoof) began to be suspicious in the eyes of the state; for it is much feared that he changes the men so soon as they thoroughly learn the use of arms, replacing them by others, all of his own clansmen, whom he diligently drills and reviews for some unknown service. And the lead he imports—surely the roofing of that house of Dungannon will not need all these shiploads of lead—lead enough to sheet Glenshane, or clothe the sides of Cairnocher. And, indeed, a rumor does reach the deputy in Dublin that there goes on at Dungannon an incredible casting of bullets. No wonder that the eyes of the English government began to turn anxiously to the north.”

“And if this princely Red Hugh should live to take the leading of his sept—and if the two potent chieftains of the north should forget their ancient feud, and unite for the cause of Ireland,” proceeds Mr. Mitchel, “then, indeed, not only this settlement of the Ulster ‘counties’ must be adjourned, one knows not how long; but the Pale itself or the Castle of Dublin might hardly protect her majesty's officers. These were contingencies which any prudent agent of the queen of England must speedily take order to prevent; and we are now to see Perrot's device for that end.

“Near Rathmullan, on the western shore of Lough Swilly, looking toward the mountains of Innishowen, stood a monastery of Carmelites and a church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, the most famous place of devotion in Tyrconnell, whither all the Clan-Connell, both chiefs and people, made resort at certain seasons to pay their devotions.

Here the young Red Hugh, with Mac Swyne of the battle-axes, O'Gallagher of Ballyshannon, and some other chiefs, were in the summer of 1587 sojourning a short time in that part to pay their vows of religion; but not without staghounds and implements of chase, having views upon the red deer of Fanad and Innishowen.

One day, while the prince was here, a swift-sailing merchant ship doubled the promontory of Dunaff, stood up the lough, and cast anchor opposite Rathmullan; a ‘bark, black-hatched, deceptive,’ bearing the flag of England, and offering for sale, as a peaceful trader, her cargo of Spanish wine.

And surely no more courteous, merchant than the master of that ship had visited the north for many a year. He invited the people most hospitably on board, solicited them, whether purchasers or not, to partake of his good cheer, entertained them with music and wine, and so gained very speedily the good will of all Fanad.

Red Hugh and his companions soon heard of the obliging merchant and his rare wines.

They visited the ship, where they were received with all respect, and, indeed, with unfeigned joy; descended into the cabin, and with connoisseur discrimination tried and tasted, and finally drank too deeply; and at last when they would come on deck and return to the shore, they found themselves secured under hatches; their weapons had been removed; night had fallen; they were prisoners to those traitor Saxons.

Morning dawned, and they looked anxiously toward the shore; but, ah! where is Rathmullan and the Carmelite church? And what wild coast is this?

Past Malin and the cliffs of Innishowen; past Benmore, and southward to the shores of Antrim and the mountains of Mourne flew that ill-omened bark, and never dropped anchor till she lay under the towers of Dublin.

The treacherous Perrot joyfully received his prize, and ‘exulted,’ says an historian, ‘'in the easiness and success with which he had procured hostages for the peaceable submission of O'Donnell.'’

And the prince of Tyrconnell was thrown into ‘a strong stone castle,’ and kept in heavy irons three years and three months, ‘meditating,’ says the chronicle, on the feeble and impotent condition of his friends and relations, of his princes and supreme chiefs, of his nobles and clergy, his poets and professors.”[1]

Three long and weary years—oh! but they seemed three ages!—the young Hugh pined in the grated dungeons of that “Bermingham Tower,” which still stands in Dublin Castle yard.

How the fierce hot spirit of the impetuous northern youth chafed in this cruel captivity.

He, accustomed daily to breathe the free air of his native hills in the pastimes of the chase, now gasped for breath in the close and fetid atmosphere of a squalid cell! He, the joy and the pride of an aged father—the strong hope of a thousand faithful clansmen—was now the helpless object of jailers' insolence, neglect, and persecution!

“Three years and three months,” the old chroniclers tell us—when hark! there is whispering furtively betimes as young Hugh and Art Kavanagh, and other of the captives meet on the stone stairs, or the narrow landing, by the warders' gracious courtesy.

Yes; Art had a plan of escape. Escape! Oh! the thought sends the blood rushing hotly through the veins of Red Hugh. Escape! Home! Freedom on the Tyrconnell hills once more! O blessed, thrice blessed words!

It is even so. And now all is arranged, and the daring attempt waits but a night favorably dark and wild—which comes at last; and while the sentries shelter themselves from the pitiless sleet, the young fugitives, at peril of life or limb, are stealthily scaling or descending bastion and battltment, fosse and barbican.

With beating hearts they pass the last sentry, and now through the city streets they grope their way southward; for the nearest hand of succor is amid the valleys of Wicklow.

Theirs is a slow and toilsome progress; they know not the paths, and they must hide by day and fly as best they can in the night-time through wooded country.

At length they cross the Three Rock Mountain, and look down upon Glencree.

But alas! Young Hugh sinks down exhausted. Three years in a dungeon have cramped his limbs, and he is no longer the Hugh that bounded like a deer on the slopes of Glenvigh!

His feet are torn and bleeding from sharp rock and piercing bramble; his strength is gone; he can no further fly. He exhorts his companions to speed onward and save themselves, while he secretes himself in the copse and awaits succor if they can send it.

Reluctantly, and only yielding to his urgent entreaties, they departed.

A faithful servant, we are told, who had been in the secret of Hugh's escape, still remained with him, and repaired for succor to the house of Felim O'Tuhal, the beautiful site of whose residence is now called Powerscourt.

Felim was known to be a friend, though he dared not openly disclose the fact. He was too close to the seat of the English power, and was obliged to keep on terms with the Pale authorities.

But now “the flight of the prisoners had created great excitement in Dublin, and numerous bands were dispatched in pursuit of them.”

It was next to impossible—certainly full of danger—for the friendly O'Tuhal, with the English scouring-parties spread all over hill and vale, to bring in the exhausted and helpless fugitive from his hiding-place, where nevertheless he must perish if not quickly reached.

Sorrowfully and reluctantly Felim was forced to conclude that all hope of escape for young Hugh this time must be abandoned, and that the best course was to pretend to discover him in the copse, and to make a merit of giving him up to his pursuers.

So, with a heart bursting with mingled rage, grief, and despair, Hugh found himself once more in the gripe of his savage foes.

He was brought back to Dublin “loaded with heavy iron fetters,” and flung into a narrower and stronger dungeon, to spend another year cursing the day that Norman foot had touched the Irish shore.

There he lay until Christmas Day, December 25, 1592, “when,” says the old chronicle, “it seemed to the Son of the Virgin time for him to escape.

Henry and Art O'Neill, fellow-prisoners, were on this occasion companions of Hugh's flight. In fact the lord deputy, Fitzwilliam, a needy and corrupt creature, had taken a bribe from Hugh O'Neill to afford opportunity for the escape.

Hugh of Dungannon had designs of his own in desiring the freedom of all three; for events to be noted further on had been occurring, and already he was, like a skillful statesman, preparing for future contingencies.

He knew that the liberation of Red Hugh would give him an ally worth half Ireland, and he knew that rescuing the two O'Neills would leave the government without a “queen's O'Neill” to set up against him at a future day.

Of this escape Haverty gives us the following account:

“They descended by a rope through a sewer which opened into the castle ditch; and leaving there the soiled outer garments, they were conducted by a young man, named Turlough Roe O'Hagan, the confidential servant or emissary of the Earl of Tyrone, who was sent to act as their guide.

Passing through the gates of the city, which were still open, three of the party reached the same Slieve Rua which Hugh had visited on the former occasion.

The fourth, Henry O'Neill, strayed from his companions in some way—probably before they left the city—but eventually he reached Tyrone, where the earl seized and imprisoned him.

Hugh Roe and Art O'Neill, with their faithful guide, proceeded on their way over the Wicklow mountains toward Glenmalure, to Feagh Mac Hugh O'Byrne, a chief famous for his heroism, and who was then in arms against the government.

Art O'Neill had grown corpulent in prison, and had beside been hurt in descending from the castle, so that he became quite worn out from fatigue.

The party were also exhausted with hunger, and as the snow fell thickly, and their clothing was very scanty, they suffered additionally from intense cold.

For a while Red Hugh and the servant supported Art between them; but this exertion could not long be sustained, and at length Red Hugh and Art lay down exhausted under a lofty rock, and sent the servant to Glenmalure for help.

With all possible speed Feagh O'Byrne, on receiving the message, dispatched some of his trusty men to carry the necessary succor; but they arrived almost too late at the precipice under which the two youths lay.

‘Their bodies,’ say the Four Masters, ‘were covered with white-bordered shrouds of hailstones freezing around them, and their light clothes adhered to their skin, so that, covered as they were with the snow, it did not appear to the men who had arrived that they were human beings at all, for they found no life in their members, but just as if they were dead.’

On being raised up, Art O'Neill fell back and expired, and was buried on the spot; but Red Hugh was revived with some difficulty, and carried to Glenmalure, where he was secreted in a sequestered cabin and attended by a physician.”

Mr. Mitchel describes for us the sequel.

“O'Byrne brought them to his house and revived and warmed and clothed them, and instantly sent a messenger to Hugh O'Neill (with whom he was then in close alliance) with the joyful tidings of O'Donnell's escape.

O'Neill heard it with delight, and sent a faithful retainer, Tirlough Buidhe O'Hagan, who was well acquainted with the country, to guide the young chief into Ulster.

After a few days of rest and refreshment, O'Donnell and his guide set forth, and the Irish chronicler minutely details that perilous journey—how they crossed the Liffey far to the westward of Fitzwilliam's hated towers, and rode cautiously through Fingal and Meath, avoiding the garrisons of the Pale, until they arrived at the Boyne, a short distance west of Inver Colpa (Drogheda), ‘where the Danes had built a noble city;’ how they sent round their horses through the town, and themselves passed over in a fisherman's boat; how they passed by Mellifont, a great monastery, ‘which belonged to a noted young Englishman attached to Hugh O'Neill,’ and therefore met with no interruption there; rode right through Dundalk, and entered the friendly Irish country, where they had nothing more to fear.

One night they rested at Feadth Mor (the Fews), where O'Neill's brother had a house, and the next day crossed the Blackwater at Moy, and so to Dungannon, where O'Neill received them right joyfully.

And here ‘the two Hughs’ entered into a strict and cordial friendship, and told each other of their wrongs and of their hopes.

O'Neill listened, with such feelings as one can imagine, to the story of the youth's base kidnapping and cruel imprisonment in darkness and chains; and the impetuous Hugh Roe heard with scornful rage of the English deputy's atrocity toward Mac Mahon, and attempts to bring his accursed sheriffs and juries among the ancient Irish of Ulster.

And they deeply swore to bury forever the unhappy feuds of their families, and to stand by each other with all the powers of the North against their treacherous and relentless foe.

The chiefs parted, and O'Donnell, with an escort of the Tyrowen cavalry, passed into Mac Gwire's country.

The chief of Fermanagh received him with honor, eagerly joined in the confederacy, and gave him ‘a black polished boat,’ in which the prince and his attendants rowed through Lough Erne, and glided down that ‘pleasant salmon-breeding river’ which leads to Ballyshannon and the ancient seats of the Clan-Conal.

“We may conceive with what stormy joy the tribes of Tyrconnell welcomed their prince; with what mingled pity and wrath, thanksgivings and curses, they heard of his chains and wanderings and sufferings, and beheld the feet that used to bound so lightly on the hills swollen and crippled by that cruel frost, by the crueller fetters of the Saxon.

But little time was now for festal rejoicing or the unprofitable luxury of cursing; for just then, Sir Richard Bingham, the English leader in Connaught, relying on the irresolute nature of old O'Donnell, and not aware of Red Hugh's return, had sent two hundred men by sea to Donegal, where they took by surprise the Franciscan monastery, drove away the monks (making small account of their historic studies and learned annals), and garrisoned the buildings for the queen.

The fiery Hugh could ill endure to hear of these outrages, or brook an English garrison upon the soil of Tyrconnell.

He collected the people in hot haste, led them instantly into Donegal, and commanded the English by a certain day and hour to betake themselves with all speed back to Connaught, and leave behind them the rich spoils they had taken; all which they thought it prudent without further parley to do.

And so the monks of St. Francis returned to their home and their books, gave thanks to God, and prayed, as well they might, for Hugh O'Donnell.”


[1] Mitchel's “Life of Hugh O'Neill.”