Some Irish Graves in Rome (4)

John Healy
Some Irish Graves in Rome | start of essay

It was their intention to proceed to friendly Spain; but meantime King James’s Ambassador was intriguing against them at Madrid, and urging the King to give no countenance to those whom he described as a band of fugitive conspirators. King Philip, anxious to keep on good terms with James, thereupon sent word to the Irish nobles that it would be better for them to proceed to Rome than to Madrid. Pope Paul V. had already intimated to the exiled Earls, through Peter Lombard, Archbishop of Armagh, that no matter what others might do, he would at all times give the exiles a home and a welcome in Rome. So they resolved to cross the Alps and take refuge with the Father of the Faithful. Some of the ladies and youths of their company were left for the present in the old University city, under the protection of the Archdukes, who, however, as we shall see, were unable to save Bernard O’Neill, the son of the Earl, from the murderous hands of some agent of the English Government.

On the 28th February they set out, twenty-one in number, for the Eternal City. There were no railways then, or Alpine tunnels. The St. Gothard Pass was deep in snow, so deep that when the party was crossing the Devil’s Bridge, over the foaming Reuss, at the foot of the Pass, one of their horses slipped on the bridge and fell down the abyss with all the provisions and some money which he was carrying. But they struggled onwards to Milan, where they again received a royal welcome, and finally reached Rome towards the close of April, 1608. Here again a royal welcome awaited the illustrious exiles by command of the Pope.

Peter Lombard, Archbishop of Armagh, with several Cardinals, met the party at the Flaminian gate, and conducted them to the Salviati Palace in the Borgo, near St. Peter’s Church on Montorio, which his Holiness had provided for their reception. Next day they were invited to see the Pope himself at the Quirinal, and he received them with fatherly tenderness, and was deeply moved by the story of their sufferings. The Pontiff also set aside an ample sum for their maintenance, and the King of Spain also settled pensions on the Earls to enable them to keep their state in Rome. The ladies of the party were also received by the Pope with the greatest honour, and the most illustrious dames and nobles in Rome visited them and received them in their palaces. But the young eagles of the North, taken away from the breezy uplands of their native hills, pined away like caged birds in the malarial atmosphere of a Roman summer. Many of the party were attacked by the Roman fever in the sultry June. Most of them recovered, but the Earl of Tyrconnell, whose victorious sword had so often flashed against the foe through all the borders of the North, sickened unto death, and on the 22nd of July, strengthened with the Last Sacraments, at the age of 33, gave his soul to God, and was buried on the Sacred Hill—sacred, indeed, but far, far away from the dear old abbey by the sea at Donegal, where his fathers slept in peace. He was buried like his sires in the habit of St. Francis, and he knew that the Monks of St. Francis for many a day would pray for his soul’s repose. Three months later his brother Caffar, at the early age of 25, was buried in the same grave—

“Caffar, whom
Tyrconnell of the Helmets mourns in deep despair,
For valour, truth, and comely bloom,
For all that greatens and adorns—a peerless pair.”

Just twelve months later, and the Roman summer claimed another victim. Young Hugh O’Neill, the Baron of Dungannon, eldest son of the great Hugh, was carried up to the Church of St. Peter on Montorio, and laid in a new grave beside his cousins before the high altar. He, too, was cut off in his vernal bloom at the age of 24, and the news brought great joy to Dublin and to London; and the King’s ministers wrote joyful letters to each other announcing the event, for they feared and hated the name of O’Neill as they feared the gates of hell. But the old Earl still lived on, and so long as he lived they were still sore afraid, for they knew that the very name of the great Hugh would still awake and incite the men of the North to deeds of valour and of vengeance.

Yet the great old man was then more to be pitied than to be feared. He saw the hope of his house laid low, and the light of his life extinguished, when his son was laid to rest beside his cousins in the Church of St. Peter. He had other sons, it is true, but the bloodhounds of James were on their track. His youngest son, Conn, was left behind in Ireland in the hurry of the flight. He was picked up by Chichester, and, boy as he was, he ended his life in the Tower of London. Young Bernard, who remained in Brussels as a page in the Court of the Archdukes, although his father did not live to hear it, was strangled in his lodgings with Lis hands tied behind his back, by an agent of the British Government—that same Government who had poisoned Red Hugh, and on six different occasions had tried to assassinate both Shane O’Neill and the Earl. Two more still remained, Henry, who was a Colonel, and John, who was a sailor in the service of Spain, but both died at a later period, and left, I believe, no family behind them. There was only one boy, a nephew of old Hugh, the son of his brother Art, who survived and found his way to Ireland where in many a well-fought field he taught the English foe that the sword of O’Neill was as keen in his hands as when it was wielded by Hugh the Great. There is some reason to think that Eoghan Roe, too, was poisoned by the agents of England.

But old Hugh knew none of these things. He was now seventy years of age, and failing fast. For some years, indeed, he hoped almost against hope to get such help from the King of Spain as would enable him to return to Ireland, reconquer his hereditary dominions, and expel the intruders from the North. But the old hero’s heart grew sad as he saw his cherished hopes one by one doomed to disappointment. In 1615 he fell ill, and the greatest Roman doctors tried to restore him to health, but in vain; it was a malady of the mind rather than the body. The thought of his gallant tribesmen, the loyal and the brave, driven without mercy from the land which their fathers owned to make way for the foe and the stranger pressed heavily on his heart. At the beginning of the following year he lost his sight; and he himself now felt that there was no hope that he could ever again lead the warriors of the North to victory. The darkness around him was a sad emblem of the darkness which had settled over the fair hills of his native land. He felt, indeed, that if by mortal arm his father’s throne could have been saved, his arm the feat had done. But he had drawn a sword that could not save; the cause of Ireland was lost. "Each morrow brought sorrow and shadows of dread, and the rest that seemed best was the rest of the dead." He felt that he would soon sleep with his son in the Franciscan habit in the church of Montorio, and he had not long to wait. On the 20th of July, 1616 the old man died in the 76th year of his age.

The record of O’Neill’s death is, fitting enough, the last entry in the Annals of the Four Masters. The hope of an independent Ireland lies buried in his grave. "Although," they add, "he died far from Armagh, the burial place of his ancestors, it was a token that God was pleased with his life when the Lord permitted him to have no worse burial place than Rome, the head city of the Christians." Yes, it was well that the Northern Earls died in Rome, and that we know where they rest on the Golden Mount, where the "martyr-saint" was crucified. A heedless thinker might say that they fought in vain and died in vain. But no; they bravely fought and nobly died for their faith and their fatherland; and men like them never live or die in vain. St. Peter was crucified with his head downwards on the very spot where they sleep. Did he live and die in vain? The yellow sands of that Coliseum, whose ruins can be seen beyond the river, were often dyed red with the blood of the martyrs whose noble deaths made sport for the yelling mobs of Rome. They surely did not die in vain. No, nor the three hundred who fell at Thermopylae, nor the Roman Senators who calmly awaited death from the Gauls in their curule chains on the Capitol, nor the brave men of every age and country who gave their lives for God, or for their native land. They go down to the grave, but their example abides for ever—a living force to incite men to imitate their deeds, and if needs be, follow them to a noble death.

And rest assured that the story of the Fate and Fortunes of the Northern Earls has been, and will be through generations yet unborn, a most powerful agent in fostering and strengthening the spirit of faith and nationality in the bosoms of the men of Ireland. And those silent graves on Montorio have been, and will be for ages to come, a bond of union stronger than steel to bind the heart of Ireland to the great heart of Rome. We can never forget that when the northern chiefs were driven by oppression from their native land, when the King of France told them to move on, when even friendly and generous Spain was afraid to receive them, it was the Pope (Paul V.) who with open arms welcomed them to his city of Rome, gave them a palace to dwell in, and an income to live upon, commanded his Cardinals and nobles to pay them all the honours due to princes who had sacrificed everything for their faith, and when the end came had them buried with princely honours in the beautiful Church on St. Peter’s Mount. We can never forget these things in Ireland, and it was thoughts like these that brought the Irish pilgrims to visit the graves on Montorio; that made us give a mightier shout of joy to see the Pope in St. Peter’s; that have caused me to recall the memories of those Irish graves in Rome; and that will, I hope, help to strengthen in the hearts of all an undying love for faith and country, as well as an unswerving loyalty “to that grand old Roman See” that never deserted our fathers in the days of their trials.