Hugh O'Neill

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Hugh O'Neill (Irish Aodh Mór Ó Néill) (1555 - July 20, 1616), 3rd Earl of Tyrone, is best known for his leading role in the Nine Years War, in which he and other native Irish chieftains rebelled against the rule of Queen Elizabeth I.

Early Life

O'Neill's grandfather, Conn, had been named 1st Earl of Tyrone by Henry VIII in 1541. Hugh O'Neill's father, Matthew, was a candidate to succeed his father as Earl, but was murdered in 1562 by his cousin Shane, who then became the 2nd Earl. Shane also sought to murder Hugh, eliminating a rival to the title. Hugh was thus raised by a foster family in the Pale for his own safety. After Shane himself was murdered by the rival O'Donnell Clan in 1567, Hugh returned to Tyrone, and was eventually raised to the Earldom in 1587. In 1595, he was inaugurated as The Ó Neacute;ill (leader of the full O'Neill clan)), as Irish kings had been in the past.

During his early career, O'Neill was a loyal subject of Elizabeth. He supported the Crown by fighting against Gerald Fitzgerald, 15th Earl of Desmond, during the Second Desmond Rebellion in 1580. O'Neill also campaigned on the English side against the Scots in Ulster in 1584.

Nine Years War

In the 1590s, however, O'Neill began to act against the interests of the Crown. He raised an army loyal to him. In the past Irish forces had been poorly armed relative to their English opponents, but O'Neill was determined to avoid this problem. He imported guns from Europe and lead from Liverpool, claiming that it was to be used to construct a roof for his castle[Citation Needed]. In 1595 O'Neill was declared a traitor to the Crown, marking the beginning of the Nine Years War.

O'Neill allied with Hugh O'Donnell (Irish Aodh Ruadh Ó Domnhaill) of Tír Connaill, and sought assistance from King Phillip II of Spain. In letters to Phillip, intercepted by the English, O'Neill and O'Donnell proclaimed themselves champions of the Catholic Church. Phillip promised to send military assistance, and O'Neill declared himself loyal to the Queen while he awaited help; Elizabeth granted a pardon in 1598.

Within two months of the pardon, however, O'Neill returned to the field, annihilating an English army under Henry Bagenal at the Battle of Yellow Ford. Yellow Ford marked the most significant defeat of the English in Ireland, and prompted unrest throughout Ireland. However, O'Neill did not possess sufficient military force to press the advantage, and continued to wait for Spanish support.

The long-promised assistance from Spain finally arrived in October 1601, when an army under Don Juan de Aguila landed at Kinsale, County Cork. Unfortunately for O'Neill, the Spanish had landed at the opposite side of the island from his own forces. O'Neill and O'Donnell rushed to Kinsale to attack the English army under Mountjoy, which was besieging the Spanish garrison. However, due partially to poor communications between the Irish and Spanish, O'Neill failed to withstand the English cavalry and was routed, after which de Aguila surrendered, effectively ending the Irish chances of winning the war.

After Kinsale O'Neill returned to his own country, and focused on defending his own territory rather than driving the English out. In 1603 Elizabeth ordered Mountjoy to negotiate; O'Neill submitted in April 1604, unaware that Elizabeth had died, which might have strengthened his resolve to fight on.

Flight of Earls

O'Neill presented himself to the new King James I in Dublin in June 1604. Although he was allowed to retain his lands and his earldom, the English set about reducing his power by encouraging his tenants to dispute O'Neill's rights. In 1607, O'Neill agreed to go to London to ask for the king's judgment. However, after being warned that he would be arrested in London, O'Neill joined Rory O'Donnell, Hugh O'Donnell's successor as Earl of Tyrconnell, in fleeing to the Netherlands, a journey memorialized as the Flight of Earls. In the spring of 1608 the party moved on to Rome, where they intended to seek continued Spanish support to continue the war against the English. But Phillip's larger interests had changed, and he declined to provide further support. O'Neill remained in Rome until his death on July 20, 1616.