Hugh O’Neill

Hugh O'Neill - Public domain
Hugh O'Neill - Public domain

Aodh Mór Ó Néill, anglicized as Hugh The Great O’Neill (1540-1616), is a 16th-century Irish clan leader, known for leading the Irish resistance during the Nine Years’ War (1594-1603), a rebellion that shook England… and could have overthrown it!

Biography of Hugh O’Neill

A clan leader initially corrupted by the English

Hugh O’Neill was born between 1540 and 1550. A member of the O’Neill clan, Hugh grew up in a climate of tension, pitting other members of his family against each other, each fighting to take over the clan. Hugh lost his two brothers and his father, and fled to London for fear of being murdered as well.

He was then raised by the Hoveneden family.

As early as 1957, Hugh was contacted by the English government, who wanted to support him to take over from the O’Neill clan. At that time, Queen Elizabeth I sees in him a potential ally, and thus wishes to corrupt him, to rally him to the English cause. This strategy initially proved successful for the Kingdom of England, which sought to weaken the Gaelic clans of Ulster.

Initially seduced by the Kingdom’s advances, Hugh O’Neill agreed to defend English interests in Ulster. As early as 1580, during the Second Desmond Rebellions, Hugh O’Neill took part in the battle by fighting alongside the English, against the troops of Gerard Fitzgerald.

His involvement in the English cause enabled him to sit in the Dublin Parliament as early as 1585 as Earl of Tyrone. In 1587, he was also granted title to the lands of his grandfather, Conn O’Neill. However, he lost part of it, which was annexed by the Queen, who decided to build a fort near the Blackwater River. (This castle was later razed to the ground by Hugh himself during a battle.)

He was then officially enthroned in 1595 “Le O’Neill” in Telach Oc, in the manner of the ancient Gaelic kings. He was then the most powerful lord of all Ulster!

The Nine Years’ War

At that time, England was trying by all means to impose itself in Ulster. But very quickly, the attempts of corruption of the Irish clan chiefs took a new turn.

For example, the very ambitious Hugh O’Neill asked the Kingdom of England for a reward for his support of the Crown. O’Neill is indeed seeking the post of Lord President of Ulster, but Queen Elizabeth I refuses to grant it, fearing that her power would allow her to remove him from the throne.

Very angry, Hugh O’Neill broke all allegiance to the English crown, and allied himself with 7 other clan chiefs to fight against the English presence in Ulster, and to block the rise of Protestantism. He then recruited Ulster peasants, as well as Scottish mercenaries called Redshanks to build an army capable of facing the English assaults. He also obtained muskets, cartridges, and artillery pieces from Philip II of Spain, who was also opposed to Protestantism.

The conflict broke out in 1595, when he ambushed an English army that had participated in the Battle of Clontibret. Winning this first assault, Hugh decided with the other clan leaders to offer the crown of Ireland to Philip II of Spain, who refused it.

Conflicts between the English and the Irish followed one after the other. Hugh, more and more popular, claimed to be the champion of the Roman Catholic Church and the liberator of the Irish natives.

In 1598, the conflict broke down and Elizabeth I granted pardon to O’Neill. However, the conflict resumed two months later, and O’Neill was still fighting on behalf of the Irish cause. On August 14, 1598, he massacred an English army at the Battle of Yellow Ford near the Blackwater River.

Eight months after the battle, Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, was charged by the Queen to crush the rebels, with the support of an army of 17,000 men. But Devereux managed to obtain talks on 7 September 1599 and signed a truce with Hugh O’Neill.

But the conflicts resume at once, and Hugh O’Neill calls all the Irish to join him to fight in the name of the Catholic religion and their freedom. The whole of Ireland followed him, but the English managed to retake Derry and to force Hugh to withdraw to County Armagh. However, Spain sends him a new army, which is massacred at the Battle of Kinsale. This bitter failure is a disaster for O’Neill, who immediately destroys his chances of winning the war against England.

O’Neill fled with the rest of his army to the North. This flight allows Lord Mountjoy to gradually regain control of Ireland, and the cities of Ulster. At the time, famine rages, and the prevailing misery allows England to reaffirm its supremacy without difficulty.

Aware of his defeat, O’Neill was cautious and asked the Queen’s forgiveness. He then submits to Lord Mountjoy without knowing that Queen Elizabeth I has just died. The Nine Years’ War is now over.

End of Life

Conciliatory, Hugh went to the London court in June, to meet James I, successor to Elizabeth I. He is then pardoned and sent back to Ulster, but sees his rights and powers greatly reduced by the English government. He contested his situation with England until 1607, when he learned that his arrest was imminent. He decided to flee Ireland on September 14, 1607 and spent the winter in the Netherlands. In April 1608, he found hospitality in Rome, supported by Pope Paul V.

In 1613, Hugh O’Neill was officially declared an outlaw by the Irish Parliament. He died on 20 July 1616 in Rome, and was buried at San Pietro in Monotorio