An ancient world, long departed, has left its discarded image in the mirror of Ireland. When Henry VIII assumed the title of King of Ireland in 1541 English influence, although they had been there already for four centuries, hardly extended outside Dublin and the bigger towns. Beyond these, and especially in the northern portion of Ireland, the old Gaelic way of life continued, largely unaffected by English law. It was a different civilization, different in language and its sense of values, in its law and social structures. It was ancient, admirable, and archaic.
The Irish by nature and preference were country dwellers. Their wealth was in crops and huge herds of cattle; their houses were built of timber or wattle in the ancient way: their strongholds for the most part were crannogs (artificial lake islands) or raths (circular fortifications of earthwork) as can be seen in the remains on the Hill of Tara today. An occasional stone fort acknowledged the progress of techniques and thinking in the world beyond them; otherwise they were content to speak their own language and cultivate a way of life distinctive in its music, its poetry, its sagas, its pride in blood and genealogy. If wars disturbed them frequently it was in the usual pattern of cattle raids or the feuding and rivalries of their chiefs. Although there had been attempts from time to time by the more powerful kings to impose some form of centralized authority they had failed to effect any permanent change. Gaelic Ireland remained a country of autonomous statelets with shifting allegiances, living, as it were, on the tributes they exacted from each other as fortune waxed or waned. You have only to look at the old maps. Topographically they may be largely fictional; politically they reveal a perilous situation, in which small territories, labelled "The countrie of O Boyle", "The countrie of MacSorley", "Harry Oge's countrie", The Countrie of O Kane" and a hundred others all elbow each other with aristocratic arrogance and self-absorption. Although an "Irish" way of living had some meaning, however undefined, for the O Kanes and the Harry Oges, the larger concept of Ireland as a nation seems to have been quite beyond them.
England, on the other hand, had progressed to a concept of centralized authority which in Elizabeth's reign (1558-1603) produced a material power for which the Englishman has been much hated ever since, and a burst of cultural activity which cannot be too highly regarded, not only in her dramatists and poets but in her musicians who, although burdened with such unfortunate names as Dr Bull and Dr Blow, were nevertheless the great Contrapuntists. There could be no doubt of the outcome for Ireland, it seemed, when England determined on the big push to conquer her.
Yet when it came, near the close of the 16th century, it very nearly misfired altogether, precisely because it encountered in the person of Hugh O Neill, Earl of Tyrone, the one Irish leader educated by England itself to understand the strength of England's political organization and the weakness of the Irish.
It had been English policy to acknowledge individual chiefs from among rival claimants by accepting token submission from them, giving them the title of Earl, and then confirming their overlordship in the territories they controlled, on condition that they accepted English law. Many of them made their submission, which appeared to be nominal, only to find that their territories had now been opened to the legitimate incursions of English judges and officials and to the erection of English military strongpoints. In Hugh O Neill England went a step further. He was the likely successor to the powerful chieftainship of Tyrone ("Tir Eoghain" - the 'Countrie' of Owen), a substantial and completely unsubjugated northern territory. Elizabeth brought him to England as a child to be educated there. An English upbringing, it was thought, followed by the prospects of an English title which would secure him his right to his Irish territory, might induce him to suffer the same introduction of English law and practice among his people. Some time after Hugh had returned to Ireland he was, on Elizabeth's agreement, made Earl of Tyrone. For a while the plan worked, in so far as he fought side by side with his English patrons in their war against the rebellious Earl of Desmond. His loyalty seemed to be sincere and he was given an allowance to help him guard the peace in Ulster, with permission to keep six companies of soldiers for the same purpose.
Being recognized by the Crown as Earl of Tyrone meant security, at least for a time, but the inherent disadvantages began to irk O Neill. As Earl of Tyrone he was, like the rest, committed to the English system. As leader of the tuath, under the Irish system, he would have absolute authority and the unfettered inheritance due to his Blood. The influence of life among the Tyrone clansmen, his close connections with other Ulster chiefs who were at loggerheads with the Government, and his first-hand knowledge of the impermanence of English promises eroded his belief in his personal position. Again, with the increasing pressures to push the Protestant Reformation, religious loyalty became an active issue and Ireland generally began to look to France and Spain as possible sources of help. O Neill showed his sympathies very clearly in this regard when he succoured some of the survivors of the Spanish Armada and got them safely away to Scotland, a treasonable act punishable by death. He saw his brother-in-law, Red Hugh O Donnell, heir to the chieftainship of Tyrconnell (Donegal), seized by a trick and imprisoned in Dublin Castle from which he was to make a daring escape in the winter of 1591. To complicate matters further, he fell in love with Mabel Bagenal, who eloped with him. It was a grave matter. Her brother, who was Elizabeth's Chief Marshal of Ireland at the time, was infuriated and swore vengeance. O Neill eventually abandoned all pretence to loyalty. He had himself inaugurated as The O Neill on the hill of Tullaghogue (presumably by an O Cahan, see above), reverting to the ancient Gaelic manner of his clan, an act which symbolized his utter rejection of the English system. He was in open rebellion.
Soon there was an army in the field against him. He was not unprepared. The law had allowed him six companies of soldiers. It had not said they must always be the same soldiers, so he had changed them completely whenever they were properly trained. He had imported quantities of lead under licence for the roofs of his houses. He had made firm alliances with other chiefs so that, with the encouragement of his initial success in a number of impressive victories, his rebellion became a national uprising. Philip II of Spain was sued for help and a strong confederacy of Ulster chieftains prepared for total war under Hugh O Neill's leadership, finding in him: "at last, a man of real greatness, a statesman as well as a soldier, a born leader who combined thought with action and caution with energy, no out-of-date Gaelic chief intent on his own rights and wrongs, but a man of intellect who understood his times and who called on Ireland to combine all her wrongs and seek redress as a united nation. The great rising began in the north with an alliance of Tyrconnell and Tyrone, formerly hostile, and while the elder Hugh proved to be a cautious leader, in Red Hugh O Donnell was found a lieutenant, a young hero, and the forward fighter of the cause". (E. Curtis: "A History of Ireland").
For five years a state of rebellion existed. O Neill won his battles but fought them only when he had to. He had no siege equipment and no field guns with which to attack the big towns. His hopes and those of his allies were centred on the promises of men and equipment from Spain. Only if the ships of Philip were on the high seas could he hope for permanent victory over his enemies. The watchers searched the seas about Ireland, waiting anxiously for the fulfilment of a promise while O Neill fought to hold the upper hand. They sought in vain. As the years passed English military strength built up and opportunity trickled away. When Spanish help came at last under Don Juan del Aguilla, they landed at Kinsale in the extreme south, quite inexplicably, since it left the whole length of Ireland between them and the army they were supposed to assist. They were immediately surrounded and besieged, so that instead of helping O Neill, he was forced to march from the extreme north to the extreme south in an effort to relieve them. The operation was beyond his resources. He was defeated, his army broken and his northern stronghold rendered defenceless.
Dunboy Castle stands on a promontory on the Beare peninsula in Kerry with the Atlantic spreading in front of it and at one time it belonged to a powerful Irish prince, O Sullivan Beare. He too, an ally of the Great O Neill, was a victim of the defeat at Kinsale and his castle was bombarded to smithereens in a last stand which for heroism and hopelessness outclasses anything in romantic fiction. Following its destruction O Sullivan managed to withdraw with the remnants of his clan to the fastnesses of Glengarriff. Here his fighting men guarded the passes against attack for six months, while deer-hunting and fishing supported the refugees. It worked until winter came, when O Sullivan had 400 fighting men left to guard 600 non-combatants consisting of women and children, servants and the aged and infirm. On the last day of December 1602 he made the decision to fight his way north, a journey of two or three hundred miles, taking with him all his dependants, including the sick and the wounded. It meant literally hacking his way from Glengarriff to Leitrim through country which was entirely subdued and infested with English forces. Word was sent through the country by the Lord President calling on all "on peril of being treated as O Sullivan's covert or open abettors, to fall upon him, to cross his road, to bar his way, to watch for him at fords, to come upon him by night; and above all, to drive off or destroy all cattle or other possible means of sustenance, so that of sheer necessity his party must perish on the way. Whose lands soever O'Sullivan would be found to have passed through unresisted, or whereupon he was allowed to find food of any kind, the Government would consider forfeit."
O Sullivan travelled by the Pass of Keimaneigh to Agharis which lies between Gougane Barra and Macroom; then northwards between Charleville and Buttevant to the traditional refuge of the hunted and defeated, the vast solitude of the Glen of Aherlow, holding off skirmishes and guerrilla attacks and fighting pitched battles which were won against enormously superior forces by sheer desperation. He crossed Slieve Felim and at Portland they entrenched themselves while they prepared to cope with the great natural barrier of the Shannon river. Eleven horses were slain, their hides used to make a boat and the flesh eaten and in that way, harassed still by their pursuers, they made the crossing. At Aughrim they fought a pitched battle against a force of 800 which barred their path and again, driven by desperation, burst their way through. They crossed Slieve Muire (Mount Mary) and pushed on by out-of-the-way paths and through deep snowdrifts. When they at last reached O Rourke's castle at Dromahair in Leitrim, the party consisted of 18 non-combatants and only 16 armed men. Within a few days about 50 more straggled in; the rest of the company of one thousand had either strayed, or succumbed to exposure and fatigue, or had been slain.
In 1603 Lord Deputy Mountjoy was writing to the Privy Council "All that are out doe seeke for mercy excepting O'Rorke and O'Sullivan, who is now with O'Rorke". In 1604 O Sullivan, despairing of effective resistance, sailed for Spain and the court of King Philip where, having been received with honour and granted lodging and a pension, he was murdered by English agents in the suburbs of Madrid on his way from Mass.
The stump of Dunboy Castle still stands at the water's edge outside the town of Castletownbere, surrounded by a small wood in which herons nest. Beside it, in 1920, a Welsh-born landowner built an enormous mansion, Puxley Hall, which is in ruins also. The writer James Plunkett takes up the story:
"When I asked about it locally at first I could get no information, until perseverance forced one man to talk.
'It got burned", he said. I knew he was being evasive and I also knew why. He thought I was British because I was with a BBC crew and felt the truth might be unnecessarily insulting to my country - after all, we were guests.
"Who burned it?' I asked.
'Damn the bit of me knows', he said.
'Was it the boys?' I asked.
He was basically an honest man.
After a struggle he gave in.
'Now that you mention it', he said, as though the recollection had just come to him, 'I believe it was'."
So Dunboy Castle and Puxley Hall stand in ruins together, the one razed to the ground by the army of Elizabeth, the other burned out by Irish rebels. Three hundred years and more separate them in time and yet they are very close to one another; not merely contiguous, but close in the sense Louis MacNeice meant when he wrote:
. . . as close
As the peasantry were to the landlord,
As the Irish to the Anglo-Irish,
As the killer is close one moment
To the man he kills,
Or as the moment itself
Is close to the next moment.
Defeated at Kinsale, O Neill was forced to withdraw. The English forces, seizing the opportunity, burst into Tyrone, coming down from Derry and over from Antrim and up from Armagh by causeways and forest paths and the hidden ways that had been denied them for so long. The cattle were driven off, the cornfields trampled and burned. The Queen's viceroy ran up her banner above O Neill's ruined castle of Dungannon. To emphasize the full meaning of his victory he ordered his men to climb the hill of Tullaghogue to shatter the stone chair which for centuries had been the inaugural seat of The O Neill. The hammer strokes at Tullaghogue on that September day of 1602 sounded the knell not of O Neill's sovereignty alone, but of the old Gaelic civilization and order.
As the English continued to strengthen their advantage, Hugh's personal danger increased. At last, in 1607, while he was at Slane Castle on the river Boyne, word was brought that a French ship had arrived in Lough Swilly to take himself and the Earl of Tyrconnell to Spain. O Neill regarded it as an opportunity to make a direct appeal to the King of Spain for military assistance. He rode north, staying for two days at his old residence in Dungannon. Then, travelling all night, he hurried on to Rathmullen on Lough Swilly where in company with more than eighty others he set off for Spain. So, on the 14th day of September 1607, the feast of the Holy Cross, began the Flight of the Earls, an event recorded and deplored in the Annals of the Four Masters: "Woe to the heart that meditated, woe to the mind that conceived, woe to the council that decided on the project of their setting out on this voyage . . . Tonight Ireland is desolate. The banishment of her true race hath left wet-cheeked her men and her fair women - strange that such a dwellingplace should be so desolate".
After twenty-one days at sea O Neill and his retinue landed safely at a little town on the river Seine called Quilleboeuf. Bad weather made it impossible to sail directly to Spain, so the party looked for permission to make the journey through France. The English Ambassador demanded that the King of France should refuse them, which for diplomatic reasons he did; but he allowed them free passage to Flanders. The Ambassador objected to this too, but was ignored. At Louvain the English persuaded the Spanish Ambassador to withhold travelling permission, so O Neill thought to go by way of Lorraine, Switzerland and Italy. Immediately the Duke of Lorraine was warned that "His Majesty King James the First of England will be greatly displeased if favourable entertainment is afforded to these fugitives". Meanwhile spies dogged him and kept the Court informed of his every movement.
"O'Neill hath been at the Court of Beins, where it is said he was very favourably used by the Archduke, and was allowed the grace of personages of the greatest rank to speak with the Archduke covered".
"Tyrone was again in town two days since and lay a night at his son's lodging in Bruxelles".
"The Earl of Tyrone, his wife and forty men of their crew arrived, by the way of Switzerland, this last week in Milan, on horseback, well armed with arquebusses and pistols, to the no small wonder of the beholders; the Governor . . . sent to them, immediately upon their arrival, his 'cameriere maggiore', with banqueting stuff and such other refreshments, and with words of much affection".
Despite the spies and the plots to hinder them, they entered Rome in state by the Piazza del Popolo and were received in audience by the Pope on the 5th of May 1608 (as O Cianáin, scribe of the Maguires, and one of the party reports) "with kindness, with honour and with welcome". But as the years dragged on neither argument nor appeal could persuade either the Pope or the King of Spain to equip him with the arms and men to regain Ireland from his enemies. Gaelic Ireland was broken and doomed. With O Neill in exile, the spoils could be seized and the proclamations began to fly:"Whereas great scopes and extents of land in the several counties of Armagh, Tyrone, Coleraine, Donegal, Fermanagh, and Cavan are escheated and come to our hands by the attainder of sundry traitors and rebels, we considered how much it would advance the welfare of that kingdom if the said land were planted with colonies of civil men and well-effected in religion; whereupon there was a project conceived for the division of the said lands into proportions, and for the distribution of the same unto undertakers . . ."
That was the beginning of the Plantation of Ulster, which laid the ground for Ireland's present division and for the bitterness which is rending the North of Ireland to this very day.
While his territories and those of his fellow earls were being distributed to those civil men who were well-effected in religion, O Neill died in Rome and was buried at the Church of San Pietro in Montorio on the 20th of July 1616. He never got to Spain, nor did he return to Ireland. Surrounded at all times by spies and informers, his country divided among his enemies and her religion and language outlawed, he continued to petition for help. Though blindness afflicted him and age added to his difficulties, and though neither the Vatican nor Spain could supply him with the men and arms he sought for so persistently, we know, on the evidence of an agent's letter preserved among state papers in Britain, that he clung desperately to hope. The spy wrote that sometimes in the evening after dining, if the aged Prince were warm with wine, his face would glow and he would strike the table and he would say:
Beidh la geal graine go foill in Eirinn!
(There will be a good day yet in Ireland)
There would, indeed. But it was to take another three hundred years.