An Exile of Ireland: Hugh O’Neill, Prince of Ulster Micheline Kerney Walsh (Four Courts Press, £7.95)

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 3 (Autumn 1996), Reviews, Volume 4

This book is its author’s interpretation of documents from Spanish sources concerning Hugh O’Neill during the period 1602-1616. Previous writers,  such as Sean  Ó Faoláin, had to rely on sparse and hostile English sources which portrayed him during his exile in Rome as a man cowed by defeat, blind, drunk, melancholic, an image these documents destroy.

This correspondence has been available to historians since the late 1950s. In 1986, the first edition of this book appeared under the title Destruction of Peace: Hugh O’Neill after Kinsale, but while excellent, its size and cost ensured a limited circulation. To remedy this, and to ensure greater ease of reading, the author has reduced the number of documents from 276 to two, and also reduced the amount of notes.

The general reader might, however, have benefited from the retention of a few more of the most interesting documents. It should have been made clear that the forward by the late Cardinal Ó Fiaich was written for the first edition, as it refers to documents not in this work. Also, the fact of the recent restoration of the inscription on O’Neill’s tombstone, which had disappeared in 1848, should have been given more prominence.

These criticisms, however, do not affect the excellence of the materials used by Kerney Walsh, and the interpretations she draws from them. They shed light on two main areas: the reason for O’Neill’s departure with Rory O’Donnell, Earl of Tyrconnell, in September 1607, and his exile in Rome. The first has been hotly debated. English contemporaries argued that O’Neill left due to the anticipation of a plot against him, referring to the departure as the ‘flight of the Earls’.

Despite O’Neill’s favourable treatment at Mellifont in 1603, which enabled him to try to rebuild his former power, government officials, particularly Lord Deputy Chichester and Sir John Davies, were determined to counter this, by encouraging Donal Balagh O’Cahan in his case to be freed of O’Neill’s jurisdiction. They succeeded so well in turning James I against O’Neill that, instead of answering a summons to go to London, he and O’Donnell escaped. They had been told by ‘intimate friends…on the King’s very Council that their only choices were to die, to take up arms, or to escape’.

Kerney Walsh shows that O’Neill was not innocent; at the time the government was conspiring against him, he was conspiring against it. Philip III of Spain, even after making peace with England in 1604, encouraged O’Neill to prepare for another rising, promising him military aid, and paying him large sums in 1606-7. Representatives of the Old English, angry that their loyalty had been rewarded by religious persecution, held ‘secret meetings’ with O’Neill and O’Donnell in 1606, swearing that when they rose ‘they would assist them to the death’, asking them to request aid from Philip. Unknown to O’Neill, this Catholic league had been discovered by the English. His departure Kerney Walsh calls ‘the escape of the Earls’, as he had since 1602 requested Philip to send a warship to take him away if there was no prospect of war and aid, and hoped to present his argument for aid in person.

In exile, O’Neill embarked on a ‘persistent and unremitting effort’ to bring Ireland under Spanish rule and regain his lands, despite numerous setbacks. These included the deaths of many relatives, friends and supporters, including two of his sons, his subsistence on a small allowance ‘barely adequate for the food’, and the realpolitik of Spain and the Papacy. Philip did not want to break the peace with England, but knew that O’Neill would be a useful pawn to play if war did break out. His ambassador in London said that O’Neill’s presence was ‘a bridle’ to the English; their fears of him ‘gnaws at their entrails’. This fear of an O’Neill-led expedition to Ireland delayed the Ulster Plantation for a year, and led to moves by England for a reconciliation with him, moves sabotaged by Spain. The Papacy, by 1614, had lost interest in reconquering Ireland in favour of appeasement to gain the relaxation of anti-Catholic laws.

Despite all this, O’Neill persisted. He and O’Donnell urged immediate help for the rebellion of Cahir O’Doherty in 1608. When the Ulster Plantation took place, he repeatedly urged Philip and his ministers to stop the confiscation of his lands. Despite the legislation of attainder and confiscation passed by the Irish Parliament in 1614, O’Neill and the Irish exiles were ‘roused to a furious activity’; by May 1615, he asked for minimal military aid, the Irish regiment in Flanders being sufficient. Philip would, he points out, enter Ireland ‘acclaimed and loved by the people’; he would come not ‘to inflict tyranny but to remove it’. Despite this appeal being again rejected, O’Neill ‘continued to watch for a favourable turn of events’. Up to January 1616, six months before his death, there is no indication of failing health or a broken spirit, O’Neill grasping every opportunity that came his way. If he became blind, it must have been after 7 January 1616, when he signed a testimonial in his own hand. This book sheds light on a little known period in the life of a great figure in Irish history, from which he emerges very favourably, though not as a saint.

Murray Smith


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