Shane O'Neill

O'Neill, Shane (John), son of preceding, born about 1500, was from an early age at war with other members of his family. In 1552 he avenged his father's imprisonment by attacking his reputed half-brother, the Baron of Dungannon, and his Anglo-Irish allies, who had already, according to the state papers, "done notable good service" against him. In 1557 he collected a large army and made a raid into Tirconnell, but was defeated by the O'Donnells in Raphoe, near the hill of Binnion. Next year the Baron was killed in an encounter with some of Shane's forces — no warrant for the statement of an eminent writer that "Shane cut his brother's throat." Shane carried off from Dungannon Castle his father's plate and other valuables, together with about £800 in money, determined, according to the chronicler, "to do what he coulde to destroy the pore country." In 1559 the old Earl of Tyrone died, and Shane thereupon, in defiance of the claims of his nephew, son of the Baron of Dungannon, was elected The O'Neill. This placed him in direct opposition to the English crown, which had granted Tyrone to the Baron and his heirs.

Mr. Richey says: "The origin of the war with Shane O'Neill was that fruitful cause of mischief, the attempt of the English government to change the chieftaincy of an Irish tribe into an estate in land, and to force it, instead of being elective, to descend according to the rule of the English law of inheritance." The policy both of O'Neill and the Government was from the first tolerably clear. He desired to keep in check the powerful O'Donnells, to draw under his influence the various smaller tribes by whom he was surrounded, and thus to maintain himself as supreme lord in Ulster; whilst the Government sought to prevent the aggrandizement of any particular chief.

Soon after assuming the chieftaincy, Shane engaged in a conspiracy of the Geraldines; but the feebleness of the Government prevented active steps being taken against him. In February 1559, the Deputy, Sir Henry Sidney, desired a meeting at Dundalk, which Shane declined until Sir Henry consented to be god father to one of his children. The ceremony over, they entered into conference, when Shane boldly gave his reasons for opposing the Government, and the Deputy advised him to rest quiet until the matter was considered by the Queen. Elizabeth and her council decided: "We think most meet, especially for the preferment of the person legitimate in blood, and next for that he is thereof in quiet possession, that the Deputy should allow him to succeed his father;" at the same time the Deputy was authorized "to practise with such other our subjects as be neighbours unto him, by reward or otherwise, by whom ye may most probably reform the said Shane, or otherwise by our force compel him to stand to your order and governance."

Shane engaged in a voluminous correspondence relative to a proposed visit to the Queen in London, whilst secret machinations continued on both sides. Elizabeth's representatives privately arranged for a general assault upon him — by the Deputy and the Earl of Kildare on the south, O'Donnell on the north-west, and the Scottish colony of Antrim on the north-east. Suddenly, in May 1560, Shane appeared in Tirconnell, and carried off O'Donnell and his wife, sister of the Earl of Argyle. He imprisoned O'Donnell, and made such successful love to his wife that, through her influence, the Scotch settlers in Antrim, upon whose assistance the English had relied, were brought to his side. The Lord-Lieutenant (the Earl of Sussex) made an ineffectual effort to reduce Shane to obedience; and at the same time that he was laying plans for Shane's assassination, Queen Elizabeth again urged that he should be induced to visit her.

After the failure of another expedition under Sussex, a peace was patched up on the 19th October 1561; and on the 6th of January 1562, he made his submission before the Queen. Mr. Froude thus describes his reception: "The council, the peers, the foreign ambassadors, bishops, aldermen, dignitaries of all kinds were present in state, as if at the exhibition of some wild animal of the desert. O'Neill stalked in, his saffron mantle sweeping round and round him, his hair curling on his back and clipped short below the eyes, which gleamed from under it with a grey lustre, frowning, fierce, and cruel. Behind him followed his galloglasses, bareheaded and fair-haired, with shirts of mail which reached beneath their knees, a wolfskin flung across their shoulders, and short, broad battle-axes in their hands." Although in words he made an humble submission, the courtiers rightly described his attitude as that of "O'Neill the great, cousin of St. Patrick, friend of the Queen of England, enemy to all the world besides."

After the interview, and in direct violation of his safe conduct, O'Neill was detained in London, and refused confirmation in his tribal lands until he agreed to proceed against his former allies the Scots, not to make war without the consent of the Government, and virtually to abandon all claim of supremacy over the adjoining chiefs. Even these terms he did not secure until he had cajoled and flattered the Queen — deferring to her on all minor points, and even asking that she should choose a wife for him. On 5th May 1562, a proclamation was issued that he was in future to be reputed a good and natural subject. Immediately on his return he invaded Tirconnell, not considering the articles binding, owing to the manner in which they had been forced upon him.

Attempts were now made to secure his person: he was invited to a meeting at Dundalk, and was solicited to court Sussex's sister at Dublin. Hostilities were recommenced with little effect on either side; and on 11th September 1563, Elizabeth, sick of the war, concluded another peace, under which he was confirmed in the title of O'Neill. "As an evidence of returning cordiality," says Mr. Richey, "a present of poisoned wine was sent to him by Sussex, which being unskilfully prepared, failed of its due effect, though it brought him and his household to the verge of death." He was now left in peace, virtual ruler of Ulster. He built a castle by Lough Neagh, which he called "Fuath na Gall" (Abomination of the Strangers), and might have retained a splendid principality, but for his insatiable ambition and inability to live with his neighbours. In August 1564 the council approved Shane's desire to attack the Scots. At the same time the Lord-Justice Arnold assured Cecill that he acts with the wild Irish "as with bears and bandogs; so that he sees them fight earnestly and tug each other well, he cares not who has the worse."

Constant correspondence went on between Shane and the Government: in April 1565 he writes acknowledging the Queen's great favour to him; in May he announces his defeat of the Scots; in July he sends the Queen a list of his captives; in March 1566 "he would have his parliament robes sent into his country, but he cares not to be made an earl. He never made peace with the Queen but by her own seeking. His ancestors were Kings of Ulster; Ulster was theirs, and Ulster is his, and shall be his... He hath won all by the sword, and by the sword he will keep it." On 25th April 1566, he writes, styling himself "Defender of the Faith," to Charles IX., King of France, for 5,000 well-armed men, to assist in expelling the English from Ireland. In July he entered the English Pale with fire and sword, and a little later he urged John of Desmond to join him against the English. On 17th September the Lord-Deputy, Sidney, marched from Drogheda against O'Neill. He destroyed Shane's house at Benburb, burned the country round Clogher, fortified Derry, and took the castles of Donegal, Ballysnannon, Belleek, and Sligo, which he handed over to the O'Donnells and O'Conors in trust for the Queen. In an encounter between O'Neill and Colonel Randolfe on 23rd November, Shane lost 400 of his men.

In December O'Neill sought to make terms with the Queen; and in February 1567 he again wrote to the French King urging him to send an army to assist him to restore and defend the Catholic faith. In May he was defeated near Lifford by the O'Donnells, when, utterly disheartened, he fled to his old enemies, the MacDonnells, at Cushendun. They received him with pretended friendship. A drinking bout and quarrel ensued, and he was killed, with most of his followers, on the 2nd June, His head was spiked on Dublin Castle, and his body was buried in the grounds of the old monastery at Glenarm. Acts were quickly passed for his attainder, and the abolition of the very name of O'Neill. Shane O'Neill was about 67 at the time of his death. The English Council directed the Lord-Deputy "not to forget Shane's wife and family if they do humble themselves." Shane was twice married — to an O'Donnell and a MacCarthy. He left Henry, Con, Art, Hugh, Shane, and two other sons, and a daughter, Alice.

His career cannot be better summed up than by the following remark from Mr. Richey's Lectures on Irish History: "Of all the Celtic chiefs of the 16th century none was so feared and hated by the English as Shane O'Neill. English statesmen of his own time accused him of every public crime and private profligacy. The later writers upon Irish affairs have improved upon their predecessors, and in the case of Shane freely sprinkle their pages with epithets not usual in polite literature. 'Ruffian' and 'adulterous murdering scoundrel,' are the terms used by Mr. Froude; but it is obvious that a man who excelled in address and diplomacy the ministers of Elizabeth — who wrote such letters as are still preserved in the state papers — for whose destruction the English Government thrice stooped to assassination — could not have been an ordinary man. So thoroughly has Shane's personal character been blackened, that the Irish have never attempted to make him a national hero; and he enjoys the unfortunate position, between the two nationalities, of being defamed by the one, and tacitly repudiated by the other. The peculiar position which he occupies in history is that of the last, if not the only purely Celtic chief, who offered a protracted and almost successful resistance to the national enemy. His better-known successor, Hugh O'Neill, was English by education, associations, and habits, and assumed the character of a Celtic chief as the means of gratifying his ambition; Owen Roe O'Neill was an accomplished Spanish officer, with nothing Irish in him save his origin and family tradition; but Shane was a thorough Celtic chief, not of the traditional type, but such as centuries of prolonged struggle for existence had made the chieftains of his nation. From his earliest days he had passed his life in civil wars and desperate adventures. A price had ever been set upon his head, and his life was constantly threatened by assassins. He knew that his very existence was an insult to the English government; he had great pretensions, and small means to carry them into execution; he was always involved in a net of intrigue and treachery; he had fierce passions, and never had learned to regulate them. No possible charge against him has been omitted; but, though they all contain some element of truth, they are manifestly exaggerated, and generally made by men who were themselves, with less excuse, open to similar imputations. He is a murderer; but he slew rivals set up by the English government, one of whom had already attempted his life; and the accusation is made by those who had themselves no scruple in attempting his assassination. He was bloodthirsty and merciless; but he never perpetrated such cruelties as the contemporary Earls of Desmond and Ormond were guilty of crimes dropped out of sight by English writers. He was false and treacherous; but he only lied and intrigued more skilfully than his English opponents. He had little regard for the sanctity of matrimony, and was profligate in his life; he was not much worse than his own father, or the Burkes of Connaught, and was almost the contemporary of Henry VIII. and Henry IV. He was a drunkard; he indulged in deep carouses, and drank like the Scotch chiefs of the succeeding century. He was a tyrant; the inhabitants of the Pale fled from the English rule to his protection, and his territory, when Sir Henry Sidney penetrated it, is stated to have been 'so well inhabited as no Irish county in the realm was like it.' He is described as barbarous in his manners; but he held his own in the Court of Elizabeth."


134. Four Masters, Annals of Ireland by the: Translated and Edited by John O'Donovan. 7 vols. Dublin, 1856.

140. Froude, James A.: History of England, from the Fall of Wolsey to the death of Elizabeth. 12 vols. London, 1862-'70.

170a. Ireland, History of: Martin Haverty. Dublin, 1860.

174. Ireland, History of, Lectures on the: Alexander G. Richey. 2 vols. Dublin, 1869-'70.

224. MacDonnells of Antrim, Historical Account: Rev. George Hill. Belfast, 1873.

311. State Papers relating to Ireland, Calendar 1171-1610. 6 vols. London, 1860-'75.