Some Irish Graves in Rome (2)

John Healy
Some Irish Graves in Rome | start of essay

The two Hughs—the great Hugh O’Neill and Red Hugh O’Donnell—were, as the poet says, “Two princes of the line of Conn.” They were sprung from two twin brothers, Eoghan and Conal, sons of Nial of the Nine Hostages, who was himself seventh in descent from Conn of the Hundred Battles. The two brothers, with their own good swords, won the broad lands to which they gave their names; for Tyrone is simply Eoghan’s Land, as Tyrconnell is Conal’s Land. The brothers were so much attached to each other, that it is said Eoghan died of grief when he heard of the death of his brother Conal, who was killed in a raid which he made into the County Leitrim, and was buried near the old Church of Fenagh. His cromlech or monument is there still, and I myself have seen it. These two princes were Christians, and were baptised by St. Patrick during his missionary journey to the North. From that time till Queen Elizabeth’s reign their descendants ruled over their respective territories for 1150 years; and amongst them were scholars, saints, and warriors, many of whom became High Kings of Tara.

The O’Neills were always recognised as the leading family in the North; and were also generally regarded as Provincial Kings of Ulster. The O’Donnells and their predecessors, of the same race, but of other family names, claimed perfect independence and equality, and never paid tribute to the O’Neills. Even when eastern Ulster—Down and Antrim—was conquered by De Courcy and De Burgo, the O’Neills and O’Donnells still maintained their independence in the fastnesses of Tyrone and Donegal. In the reign of Henry VIII , A.D. 1542, Conn O’Neill agreed to accept an earldom from the King and acknowledge his Sovereignty; but he continued to be an independent prince. It is said that he took the Oath of Supremacy, of the meaning of which, however, he knew little or nothing, for he lived and died a Catholic like all his family. The safe-guarding clause, too, was then annexed, limiting the Royal Supremacy—“in so far as the Law of Christ permits”—which made a very great difference in the nature of the oath. We are told also that about the same time Manus O’Donnell and his son “made peace and amity” with the King’s deputy; but the words of the Four Masters imply that it was rather as independent princes than as dutiful subjects. Certainly no attempt was made at that time to interfere with the Northern Chiefs in the government of their principalities, or to enforce the King’s laws for the suppression of their monasteries.

But when Queen Elizabeth found herself firmly seated on the throne, she began to adopt a more aggressive policy. She and her Ministers meant first to destroy the Catholic Faith in Ireland as soon as they could; and secondly to reduce the Celtic Chiefs to English rule and obedience—she was determined to make Ireland at once a Protestant and “civilised” kingdom after the English model. To some extent in civil things we see the process going on under our own eyes in South Africa. I merely now state facts. It is admitted that the purpose is to abolish the civilisation of Pretoria and substitute that of Capetown and London. The Boers are content with their own civilisation; but England imposes on them a higher civilisation for their good, of course—just as Elizabeth, with even less right, undertook, for their good, to civilise Tyrone and Tyrconnell. But the gallant chieftains of the North resolved to fight to the death for their religion and ancient independence. In the latter they failed; but in the first they were victorious, for it is mainly owing to the heroic struggle made by them, and men like them, that the Catholic Faith still survives in Ireland. Had they yielded, Ireland would now be, like England, a Protestant country—for it was the tyranny of Elizabeth that made England Protestant.

And here let me observe that those Irish chiefs who fought against Elizabeth were not rebels or insurgents or anything of that kind. I am no advocate of rebellion; but please God I shall never cease to praise brave men fighting for their own. The Northern Earls were not rebels; they were gallant men fighting for their homes and altars against a tyrannical usurper; and I will prove it. Elizabeth had not a shadow of a title to the obedience of the Celtic chiefs of Ireland. Three titles to sovereignty are recognised—there is no fourth—and these are the right of birth, the right of conquest, and the will of the people. She had no right of birth, for she was the illegitimate daughter of Henry and Anne Boleyn, born whilst his legitimate wife, Catherine of Arragon, was still alive. Even her own father and the English Parliament in 1536, when Anne was put to death, declared his daughter to be illegitimate; and shall we recognise this bastard princess to be by birth Queen of Ireland? She had no title from conquest, at least till the very close of her reign, for the native chiefs were in the field down to the battle of Kinsale; and she was dead before Hugh O’Neill had made his actual submission to the deputy. She had no title from the will of the people, as these long struggles prove, and neither of the Parliaments held during her reign was representative of Celtic Ireland, and, such as they were, they made no pretence of giving her the Crown of Ireland. She had no title to rule Celtic Ireland from beginning to end. Hence, the Northern Chiefs were perfectly justified in resisting her authority by force of arms.

They would no doubt be willing enough to yield her a nominal obedience, for they feared her power, if she would only allow them liberty of conscience, and let them keep the faith of their fathers. They always put this in the forefront of their demands, but that liberty of conscience she always refused. It was essentially a religious war—on the one side a war of wicked aggression to “make Ireland English” in religion, language, and polity, that is, to root out the religion and destroy the National life of Catholic Ireland; on the other side, it was a war of self-defence, waged by men who were resolved to defend their faith and their country at the cost of their lives. And hence Pope Clement VIII. declared repeatedly that these wars of the Irish chiefs against Elizabeth were a crusade for the faith, undertaken to repel the unjust aggression of a foreign prince who had no right to the throne of Ireland, and broke the oath she took at her coronation to protect the Church and maintain the Catholic Faith throughout her realm.

The ten years’ war maintained by O’Neill and O’Donnell, from 1592 to 1602, was the most bloody and glorious of this prolonged struggle, and they have left us memories of Irish victories won over the generals of Elizabeth which will never fade from the minds of the people. “The dauntless Red Hugh” was not the greatest general, but he is the noblest figure which looms across that page of Irish history—the boldest, the bravest, the most chivalrous of all our island warriors; and hence it is that he holds so high a place in popular affection, higher perhaps than any other of our National heroes. He hated the Saxon with undying hatred, and not without good cause. Whilst he was yet a mere boy of fifteen he was basely kidnapped, with his cousins, by the captain of an English ship at Rathmullen; he was carried thence and imprisoned in the Castle of Dublin; he was loaded with iron fetters and left to starve, except in so far as the charity of the passers-by threw an alms through the bars of their grating to keep the poor boys from the pangs of hunger. He escaped, but was recaptured and loaded with still heavier fetters. He escaped once more in mid-winter to the hills of Wicklow. He saw poor Art O’Neill, his fellow-captive and fellow-fugitive, perish by his side at midnight in a rocky cave, and he himself suffered so much from cold and hunger that he was unable to walk to a place of shelter, and two of his frozen toes had to be amputated at the second joint.

Is it any wonder that the gallant boy hated the deputy who planned this crime, hated the Queen who approved of it, and hated all the oppressors of his country, who bore the Saxon name? And for ten years he gave it to them hot and heavy—sometimes in alliance with O’Neill, sometimes fighting on his own resources. With exultant pride O’Keenan tells in a splendid elegy of the glorious fields he won. I can now only refer to one, the battle of the Curlew Hills, north of Boyle, and I refer to it chiefly because in a short address which O’Donnell spoke to his soldiers before the battle, he sets out in a very striking way the manifold wrongs of his country. The battle was fought on the 15th August, 1599. The day before the battle O’Donnell and his troops fasted in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and on Lady Day itself he and most of his officers confessed their sins, and heard Mass and went to Communion. It was after Mass he addressed his soldiers, narrating their wrongs, bidding them trust in God and His Holy Mother, and assuring them of victory. Here are one or two stanzas of my own version of this splendid address:—

“Not for conquest, or for vengeance, on this blessed Lady Day,

Not in strength or numbers trusting, do we face their proud array;

But for Holy Mary’s honour, by their tainted lips defiled,

For the sacred rights of freemen, for the mother, maid, and child.

Prone and bleeding lies our country; sorrow clouds her crownless brow;

All the lines of peerless beauty limned in ghastly colours now.

In the light of glories olden, beaming through our dark disgrace,

See the madd’ning wrongs and insults heaped upon our fallen race—

Roofless homestead, broken altar, slaughtered priest, dishonoured maid—

Children of an outraged mother, whet ye well the thirsty blade!

Never chieftain of Clan Dalgaigh to th’ invader bowed the knee;

By the black years of my bondage, it shall ne’er be done by me!

I had rather angry ocean rolled o’er castle, cot, and hall,

Than see any Saxon bodagh rule in Royal Donegal.”