Hugh O'Neill

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


THERE now appears upon the scene of Irish history that remarkable man whose name will live in song and story as long as the Irish race survives—leader of one of the greatest struggles ever waged against the Anglo-Norman subjugation—Hugh O'Neill; called in English "patents" Earl of Tyrone.

Ever since the closing years of the eighth Henry's reign—the period at which, as I have already explained, the policy of splitting up the clans by rival chiefs began to be adopted by the English power—the government took care to provide itself, by fair means or by foul, with a supply of material from which crown chiefs might be taken. That is to say, the government took care to have in its hands, and trained to its own purposes, some member or members of each of the ruling families—the O'Neills, O'Reillys, O'Donnells, M'Guires, O'Connors, etc., ready to be set up as the king's or queen's O'Neill, O'Reilly, or O'Donnell, as the case might be, according as policy dictated and opportunity offered. One of these government protégés was Hugh O'Neill, who, when yet a boy, was taken to London and brought up in the court of Elizabeth.

As he was a scion of the royal house of O'Neill, and, in English plannings, destined one day to play the most important part as yet assigned to a queen's chief in Ireland, viz., the reducing to subserviency of that Ulster which formed the standing menace of English power, the unconquerable citadel of nationality, the boy Hugh—the young Baron of Dungannon, as he was called—was the object of unusual attention. He was an especial favorite with the queen, and as may be supposed the courtiers all, lords and ladies, took care to pay him suitable obeisance. No pains were spared with his education. He had the best tutors to attend upon him, and above all be was assiduously trained into court finesse, how to dissemble, and with smooth and smiling face to veil the true workings of mind and heart. In this way it was hoped to mold the young Irish chief into English shape for English purposes; it never once occurring to his royal trainers that nature some day might burst forth and prove stronger than courtly artificiality, or that the arts they were so assiduously teaching the boy chief for the ruin of his country's independence might be turned against themselves. In due time he was sent into the army to perfect his military studies, and eventually (fully trained, polished, educated, and prepared for the role designed for him by his English masters) he took up his residence at his family seat in Dungannon.

Fortunately for the fame of Hugh O'Neill, and for the Irish nation in whose history he played so memorable a part, the life of that illustrious man has been written in our generation by a biographer worthy of the theme. Among the masses of Irishmen, comparatively little would be known of that wondrous career had its history not been popularized by John Mitchel's "Life of Hugh O'Neill." The dust of centuries had been allowed to cover the noble picture drawn from life by the master hand of Don Philip O'Sullivan Beare—a writer but for whom we should now be without any contemporaneous record of the most eventful period of Anglo-Irish history, save the unjust and distorted versions of bitterly partisan English officials.[1] Don Philip's history, however, was practically inaccessible to the masses of Irishmen; and to Mr. Mitchel is almost entirely owing the place O'Neill now holds—his rightful prominence—in popular estimation.

Mr. Mitchel pictures the great Ulster chieftain to us a patriot from the beginning; adroitly and dissemblingly biding his time; learning all that was to be learned in the camp of the enemy; looking far ahead into the future, and shaping his course from the start with fixed purpose toward the goal of national independence. This, however, cannot well be considered more than a "view," a "theory," a "reading." O'Neill was, during his earlier career, in purpose and in plan, in mind, manner, and action, quite a different man from the O'Neill of his later years. It is very doubtful that he had any patriotic aspirations after national independence—much less any fixed policy or design tending thereto—until long after he first found himself, by the force of circumstances, in collision with the English power. In him we see the conflicting influences of nature and nature-repressing art. His Irishism was ineradicable, though long dormant. His court tutors strove hard to eliminate it, and to give him instead a "polished" Englishism; but they never more than partially succeeded. They put a court lacquer on the Celtic material, and the superficial wash remained for a few years, not more.

The voice of nature was ever crying out to Hugh O'Neill. For some years after leaving court, he lived very much like any other Anglicized or English baron, in his house at Dungannon. But the touch of his native soil, intercourse with neighboring Irish chieftains, and the force of sympathy with his own people, now surrounding him, were gradually telling upon him. His life then became a curious spectacle of inconsistencies, as he found himself pulled and strained in opposite directions by opposite sympathies, claims, commands, or impulses; sometimes in proud disregard of his English masters, behaving like a true Irish O'Neill; at other times swayed by his foreign allegiance into acts of very obedient suit and service to the queen's cause. But the day was gradually nearing when these struggles between two allegiances were to cease, and when Hugh, with all the fervor of a great and noble heart, was to dedicate his life to one unalterable purpose, the overthrow of English rule and the liberation of his native land!


[1] To Don Philip's great work the "Historiae Catholicae Iberniae," we are indebted for nearly all that we know of this memorable struggle. " He is," says Mr. Mitchel, "the only writer, Irish or foreign, who gives an intelligible account of O'Neill's battles; but he was a soldier as well as a chronicler." Another writer says, " The loss of this history could not be supplied by any work extant." Don Philip was nephew to Donal, last lord of Beare, of whom we shall hear more anon. The "Historiae Iberniae" was written in Latin, and published about the year 1631, in Lisbon, the O'Sullivans having settled in Spain after the fall of Dunboy.