Shane O'Neill

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


THE changes of English sovereigns little affected English policy in Ireland. Whatever meaning the change from Henry to Edward, from Edward to Mary, and from Mary to Elizabeth, may have had in England, in Ireland it mattered little who filled the throne; the policy of subjugation, plunder, and extirpation went on. In Mary's reign, indeed, incidents more than one occurred to show that, though of course bent on completing the conquest and annexation of Ireland, she was a stranger to the savage and cruel passions that had ruled her father, and that were so fearfully inherited by his other daughter, Elizabeth. The aged chief of Offaly, O'Connor, had long lain in the dungeons of London Tower, all efforts to obtain his release having failed. At length his daughter Margaret, hearing that now a queen—a woman—sat on the throne, bethought her of an appeal in person to Mary for her father's life and freedom. She proceeded to London and succeeded in obtaining an audience of the queen. She pleaded with all a woman's eloquence, and with all the fervor of a daughter petitioning for a father's life. Mary was touched to the heart by this instance of devotedness. She treated young Margaret of Offaly with the greatest tenderness, spoke to her cheeringly, and promised her that what she had so bravely sought should be freely granted. And it was so. O'Connor Faly returned with his daughter to Ireland a free man.

Nor was this the only instance in which Mary exhibited a womanly sympathy for misfortune. The fate of the Geraldines moved her to compassion. The young Gerald—long time a fugitive among the glens of Muskery and Donegal, now an exile sheltered in Rome—was recalled and restored to all his estates, honors, and titles; and with O'Connor Faly and the young Geraldine there were allowed to return to their homes, we are told, the heirs of the houses of Ormond and Upper Ossory, "to the great delight of the southern half of the kingdom."

To Mary there succeeded on the English throne her Amazonian sister, Elizabeth. The nobles and commoners of England had, indeed, as in Mary's case, at her father's request, declared and decreed as the immortal and unchangeable truth that she was illegitimate; but, according to their code of morality, that was no earthly reason against their now declaring and decreeing as the immortal and unchangeable truth that she was legitimate. For these very noble nobles and most uncommon commoners eat dirt with a hearty zest, and were ready to decree and declare, to swear and unswear, the most contradictory and irreconcilable assertions, according as their venality and servility suggested.

Elizabeth was a woman of marvelous ability. She possessed abundantly the talents that qualify a statesman. She was greatly gifted indeed; but nature, while richly endowing her with so much else beside, forgot or withheld from her one of the commonest gifts of human kind—Elizabeth had no heart. A woman devoid of heart is, after all, a terrible freak of nature. She may be gifted with marvelous powers of intellect, and endowed with great personal beauty, but she is still a monster. Such was Elizabeth; a true Tudor and veritable daughter of King Henry the Eighth; one of the most remarkable women of her age, and in one sense one of the greatest of English sovereigns.

Her reign was memorable in Irish history. It witnessed at its opening the revolt of John the Proud in Ulster; later on the Desmond rebellion; and toward the close the great struggle that to all time will immortalize the name of Hugh O'Neill.

John the Proud, as I have already mentioned, was elected to the chieftaincy of the O'Neills on the deposition of his father by the clan. He scornfully defied all the efforts of the English to dispute his claim, and soon they were fain to recognize him and court his friendship. Of this extraordinary man little more can be said in praise than that he was an indomitable and, up to the great reverse which suddenly closed his career, a successful soldier, who was able to defy and defeat the best armies of England on Irish soil, and more than once to bring the English government very submissively to terms of his; dictation. But he lacked the personal virtues that adorned the lives and inspired the efforts of the great and brave men whose struggles we love to trace in the annals of Ireland. His was, indeed, a splendid military career, and his administration of the government of his territory was. undoubtedly exemplary in many respects, but he was in private life no better than a mere English noble of the time; his conduct toward the unfortunate Calvach O'Donnell leaving a lasting stain on his name.[1]

The state papers of England reveal an incident in his life which presents us with an authenticated illustration of the means deemed lawful by the English government often enough in those centuries for the removing of an Irish foe. John had reduced all the north to his sway, and cleared out every vestige of English dominion in Ulster. He had encountered the English commander-in-chief and defeated him. He had marched to the very confines of Dublin, spreading terror through the Pale. In this strait Sussex, the lord lieutenant, bethought him of a good plan for the effectual removal of this dangerous enemy to the crown and government. With the full cognizance and sanction of the queen, he hired an assassin to murder O'Neill. The plot, however, miscarried, and we should probably have never heard of it, but that, very awkwardly for the memory of Elizabeth and of her worthy viceroy, some portions of their correspondence on the subject remained undestroyed among the state papers, and are now to be seen in the State Paper Office. The career of John the Proud closed suddenly and miserably. He was utterly defeated (A.D. 1567) in a great pitched battle by the O'Donnells; an overthrow which it is said affected his reason. Flying from the field with his guilty mistress, his secretary, and a bodyguard of fifty horsemen, he was induced to become the guest of some Scottish adventurers in Antrim, upon whom he had inflicted a severe defeat not long previously. After dinner, when most of those present were under the influence of wine—John, it is said, having been purposely plied with drink—an Englishman who was present designedly got up a brawl, or pretense of a brawl, about O'Neill's recent defeat of his then guests. Daggers were drawn in an instant, and the unfortunate John the Proud, while sitting helplessly at the banqueting board, was surrounded and butchered.


[1] He invaded the O'Donnell's territory, and acting, it is said, on information secretly supplied by the unfaithful wife of the Tyrconnell chief, succeeded in surprising and capturing him. He kept O'Donnell, who was his father-in-law, for years a close prisoner, and lived in open adultery with the perfidious wife of the imprisoned chief, the stepmother of his own lawful wife! " What deepens the horror of this odious domestic tragedy," says M'Gee, "is the fact that the wife of O'Neill, the daughter of O'Donnell, thus supplanted by her shameless stepmother under her own roof, died soon afterward of ' horror, loathing, grief and deep anguish' at the spectacle afforded by the private life of O'Neill, and the severities inflicted on her wretched father!"