Flight of the Earls?: changing views on O’Neill’s departure from Ireland

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Features, Hugh O'Neill, Issue 1 (Spring 1996), Plantation of Ireland, Volume 4

87_small_1304610223One of the most argued over events in the career of Hugh O’Neill, second Earl of Tyrone, is his departure from Ireland with Rory O’Donnell, Earl of Tyrconnell, on 14 September 1607. English contemporaries claimed that he fled in anticipation of the discovery of a plot of his against the government. Later apologists for O’Neill produced a ‘false dawn’ theory that he, despite being favourably treated at his submission in 1603, fled because of a government plot against him. Thus they referred to his departure as ‘the flight of the earls’. Recent evidence from Spanish sources, however, has called into question the image of O’Neill as victim. He was plotting against government at the same time as it was probably plotting against him: he had long considered leaving Ireland. His departure, therefore, was not a precipitous ‘flight’ at all!

Favourable terms

The generosity of the terms offered to O’Neill at his submission at Mellifont Abbey is evident from the accounts of English contemporaries. Fynes Moryson, Mountjoy’s secretary, wrote in his An Itinerary (1617) that Elizabeth I was prepared to grant O’Neill ‘security for his life only’. Her advisors, including Mountjoy, persuaded her to be more generous. At O’Neill’s submission on 30 March 1603, Mountjoy promised to pardon him and his followers, and to restore his earldom, excepting some land for the government’s garrisons and native supporters.
When O’Neill later passed through Wales, on his way to London to meet the new king, James I, Moryson wrote that many women, whose menfolk had died in the ‘Irish wars’, were ‘flinging dirt and stones at the Earl…and reviling him with bitter words’. Though James confirmed the terms, O’Neill, on his return journey, had to be escorted ‘with troops of horse from place to place’. This popular anger was shared by those of higher social status, including the poet Sir John Harington, Elizabeth’s godson:
How did I labour after that knave’s destruction! I was called from my home by her Majesty’s command, adventured perils by sea and land, endured toil, was near starving, ate horse-flesh at Munster; and all to quell that man, who now smileth in peace at those who did hazard their lives to destroy him.

Sir Henry Dowcra, governor of Derry, made his dissatisfaction clear in his Narration, written in 1614. He had made promises of reward to some subordinate lords of O’Neill and O’Donnell, in return for their support. After Mellifont, Mountjoy reneged on all these promises, explaining that upon O’Neill ‘depends the peace and security of the whole kingdom’. Donal Balagh O’Cahan, who had been promised freedom from O’Neill’s jurisdiction, ‘bade the devil take all Englishmen and as many as put their trust in them’.
Such accounts were used by apologists to demonstrate that the generous terms granted O’Neill were a ‘false dawn’, and that official resentment would lead to a conspiracy against him. Young Irelander John Mitchel, in his Life of Aodh O’Neill (1845), maintained that for dissatisfied officials ‘a good time was coming’, though for the moment, a policy of conciliation and tolerance was necessary.

Sixteenth-century engraving of Hugh O'Neill,Earl of Tyrone. (National Library of Ireland)

Sixteenth-century engraving of Hugh O’Neill,Earl of Tyrone. (National Library of Ireland)


Until the mid-nineteenth century, most writers argued about O’Neill’s departure in religious terms. Sir John Temple, whose The Irish Rebellion (1646) became a standard anti-Catholic tract, asserted that 1607 was a prototype 1641 rebellion that failed to materialise. Edmund Borlase, in his History of the Execrable Irish Rebellion (1680), also interpreted 1607 via 1641, saying that it used religion as an excuse. Also mentioned was an anonymous letter sent to Sir William Ussher, Clerk of the Irish Council, in May 1607, warning of a plot by Catholics to seize Dublin Castle, set up a government, and gain a pardon and religious toleration. Failing this, they would ask Spain for help.
Richard Cox’s Hibernia Anglicana (1689), added extra details from the confessions of Barons Howth and Delvin, given on 25 August and 6 October 1607, of a plot by O’Neill. He also quoted favourably the 15 November 1607 proclamation of James I, which claimed that ‘private knowledge and inward terror of their own guiltiness’ in conspiring caused O’Neill and O’Donnell’s departure, not religious persecution. Catholic writers would later spend much time refuting this ex post facto proclamation.
Philip O’Sullivan Beare’s Historiae Catholicae Iberniae Compendium (1621) was first to claim a government plot against O’Neill on the grounds of religion. Following the 1605 persecution of Catholicism, which was unable to shake the spiritual resolve of the Irish, the English decided that the ‘leading men in the faith’ should be ‘cut down’. The government used Howth ‘to entice them to rebellion and inform on the conspirators’. Howth deceived some, who had not consulted ‘the old and very prudent’ O’Neill on the matter. O’Neill, O’Donnell, and Cuconnacht Maguire, ‘informed by some English friends’, escaped to France.
Anderson’s Royal Genealogies (1737) was the first to allege that Sir Robert Cecil orchestrated the plot, basing this belief on the contemporary allegation that he had been behind the 1605 Gunpowder Plot. This accusation was taken up by John Curry, campaigner for Catholic relief, in his Civil Wars (1786), in order to refute charges of Catholic disloyalty to the Crown. In a chapter headed ‘The conspiracy and flight of the earls’, he added that the fake plot, like the Gunpowder Plot, was revealed via an anonymous letter. He points out that there was no excuse for the confiscations in Ulster because of the absence of the ‘least commotion’ other than O’Doherty’s rising and the ‘forged plot’.
Curry was particularly important in popularising the term ‘flight of the earls’ as a title for O’Neill’s departure, and giving it a new meaning. Previous writers used it to imply that O’Neill and O’Donnell ran away from justice, as they had conspired against the government; Curry used it to imply that they ran away from danger, in the shape of an official plot. Dennis Taaffe, in the second volume of his Impartial History of Ireland (1810), later argued that Cecil organised the Gunpowder Plot to free James from obligations of toleration to Catholics.

The title of this seventeenth-century print of O'Neill submitting to Mountjoy at Mellifont in March 1603 reflects the view of his departure as a flight from justice.

The title of this seventeenth-century print of O’Neill submitting to Mountjoy at Mellifont in March 1603 reflects the view of his departure as a flight from justice.

Law, land, and the O’Cahan case

Writers after the mid-nineteenth century placed greater emphasis on the legal policy of the government, giving religion less emphasis, though still conceding that it was a factor in O’Neill’s departure. The importance of the introduction of English law and government into Ulster by Sir John Davies, Irish Solicitor-General and later Attorney-General, was stressed as the main factor in O’Neill’s departure. The methods used to accomplish this included most notably the O’Cahan case—the suit brought by Donal Balagh O’Cahan to be freed from O’Neill’s jurisdiction.
The first writer to seriously explore this area was Tom Moore, in the fourth volume of his History of Ireland (1846). He pointed out how difficult O’Neill’s position became with the abolition of the Gaelic laws of succession, and the challenge posed by the O’Cahan case. The latter showed that the disputed lands were vested in the Crown; O’Neill was also accused of possessing most of the bishopric of Derry. Being ‘broken down in all his means and resources’, he again began to plot against the government, then departed.
The contribution of Father C.P. Meehan’s Fate and Fortunes of the Earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnel (1868) to the interpretation of this period was considerable, due to its extensive use of primary sources. Meehan detailed how Davies and Lord Deputy Chichester, frustrated in their attempts to implicate the Ulster lords in treason, called upon the help of George Montgomery, the new Church of Ireland bishop of Derry, Clogher, and Raphoe. Montgomery, trying to locate the lands of the bishopric of Derry, incited O’Cahan to refuse O’Neill’s jurisdiction. O’Neill was summoned to Dublin Castle in April 1607 but Davies could not overturn Mountjoy’s decision.
In May Montgomery persuaded O’Cahan to petition Chichester and the Irish Council to hold his lands directly from the Crown. The Council decided that the land was vested in the Crown; but that O’Neill could, for the moment, possess a third. The king decided to judge O’Cahan’s suit in person, summoning both he and O’Neill to come before him in September. O’Neill knew that Davies and Chichester were planning to deprive him of his lands. Neither he nor O’Donnell knew about an official plot and the anonymous letter; Howth, supposed author of the latter was, claimed Meehan, ‘an instrument in the hands of Salisbury [Cecil] and Chichester’, being used, as Delvin was later, to give the ‘plot’ some credibility. O’Neill and O’Donnell began to suspect a plot due to official harassment and intimidation; they left after being informed from the Continent that O’Neill would be arrested if he went to England.
Meehan was as responsible as Curry for popularising the term ‘flight of the earls’ by his extensive use of a contemporary manuscript by Tadhg Ó Cianáin, a tale by one of the participants of the ‘flight’ and his party’s later journey to Rome. The manuscript was untitled; Meehan called it ‘the narrative of the Flight of the Earls’. When the manuscript’s first full translation by Father Paul Walsh appeared in 1913-4, it appeared under the title The Flight of the Earls, due to the influence of Fate and Fortunes. The title was subsequently gaelicised for the 1972 Irish edition as Imeacht na nIarlaí.
The first to allege that O’Neill and O’Donnell were unable to adapt to the new legal order was Richard Bagwell in volume one of Ireland under the Stuarts (1908). He conceded their accusation against corrupt officials, but said that the erosion of their power was inevitable. Their ‘local dominion…was incompatible with the modern spirit’. Their stay in Ireland could not have long retarded ‘the progress of events’.
A somewhat similar conclusion was reached by Nicholas Canny in his 1967 master’s dissertation The government reorganisation of Ulster 1603-7. Unlike Bagwell, however, he avoided pejorative terminology, and in his treatment of the subject, the most comprehensive since Meehan, he detailed how O’Neill’s power was eroded by Davies’ introduction of English law from 1605 onwards. The Church of Ireland asserted itself in Ulster; Catholics began to be legally persecuted; and the government placed itself on the side of tenants who were the victims of their overbearing lords.
The introduction of English law into Ulster needed freeholders to serve on juries; O’Neill outmanoeuvred the officials by appointing his supporters as freeholders in Tyrone. The Dublin government, helped by Mountjoy’s death and the Gunpowder Plot, determined on discrediting him and O’Donnell. Freeholders were established in Monaghan, Fermanagh, and Cavan in the summer of 1606, an enlargement of the policy which had caused the Nine Years War. The O’Cahan case was intended as a test case by Davies to turn O’Neill into a mere ‘extensive landlord’. He, O’Donnell, and Maguire left, unable to maintain themselves as Gaelic chieftains. In a 1971 article, Canny changed his conclusion. O’Neill, he now argued, was able to adapt to the new order, unlike O’Donnell and Maguire. He only joined them in exile because ‘the usually calculating Tyrone panicked’, partly due to old age.

A conspirator conspired against?

The belief that O’Neill was plotting against the government while the latter was plotting against him had few supporters, against the nationalist belief in his innocence. A.G. Richey, in the second series of his Lectures on Irish History (1870) and Robert Dunlop in his entry on O’Neill for The Dictionary of National Biography (1895) made tentative speculations in this direction. Categorical proof from Spanish sources had to wait until Micheline Kerney Walsh’s ‘Destruction by peace’ in 1986. Kerney Walsh used this proof to refer the ‘so-called’ Flight of the Earls as ‘a planned, tactical retreat’ by O’Neill to ask Philip III for military aid in person.
Letters written by O’Neill show that he had long contemplated such a retreat. On 24 December 1602, he requested Philip to send a warship to convey him, his allies and followers, ‘to you, safe from the fury of our enemies’ in the event of no further military aid being made available. A similar request to send a ship was made by Rory O’Donnell in December 1604 if Philip felt that the recent peace treaty made between England and Spain would not last. A successful appeal was also made to Philip for financial support with large sums being sent to O’Neill and O’Donnell in 1606-7.
Kerney Walsh detailed the background to the departure in a chapter entitled ‘The Escape of the Earls’. Representatives of the Old English, angered by the 1605 persecution, held secret meetings with O’Neill and O’Donnell, swearing, if a new uprising occurred, to ‘assist them to the death’, and begging them to ask Philip for help. By the time of their departure, no request had been made. Howth’s disclosures about the Catholic league were partly correct, though wrong in his belief that help had been asked for and promised. By 1607, O’Neill’s enemies had succeeded so well in arousing James’ suspicions that, on his arrival in London, he would have been ‘accused of treason, committed to the Tower and executed’. O’Neill and O’Donnell, informed of this by ‘intimate friends…on the King’s very council’, escaped, not wanting to fight without Philip’s orders.
John McCavitt reached a somewhat different conclusion utilising Kerney Walsh’s continental delvings in his 1994 Irish Historical Studies  reappraisal. He argued that the government had been following a policy of appeasement towards O’Neill, which only altered in July 1607 as a result of Howth’s allegations and a realisation of the impact of its religious policy. O’Neill’s arrest, however, was ‘far from inevitable’; he left due to being misinformed as to what action James I would take. McCavitt speculated that James would have, in the absence of clear proof against O’Neill, reverted to his ‘characteristically timorous approach’.


Apologists for O’Neill were partly correct in their basic theory of the ‘false dawn’, in that the government was overturning the Mellifont settlement. Their allegation that there was an official plot against O’Neill is still in question. However they were certainly wrong in claiming that O’Neill was innocent of plotting himself and that his departure was a ‘flight’. The words James Wills used in 1840 to explain his behaviour at the start of the Nine Years War are equally valid; O’Neill was ‘much sinning as well as much sinned against’.

Visual representations

In any survey of changing interpretations of past events, it would be a serious error to overlook attempts at visual representation. The seventeenth century saw O’Neill caricatured in Protestant propaganda woodcuts and the nineteenth century witnessed various romanticised impressions of his colourful career in book engravings. In more recent times Thomas Ryan painted The Departure of O’Neill out of Ireland (1958) [front cover], a reflection of the artist’s belief that the ‘Flight’ was a cardinal date in Irish history, and in order to fill the gap created by the absence of any Irish school of historical painting. The painting’s nationalist message is clear when we look at the groups of figures on either side of the descending figure of O’Neill, surrounded by his entourage: on the left are a group of static figures, the main one a Dominican friar giving his benediction to O’Neill, symbolising those who stayed in Ireland, the friar symbolising the Catholic Church; the moving, soldierly figures on the right symbolising the start of the Irish Brigades on the continent. The traditional style of painting, no less than its subject matter, ensured that it was, according to its author, received with indifference by the Irish art establishment. The modernists’ rejection of Ryan’s painting and the establishment’s blackballing of the artist himself in many respects presages the debate over ‘revisionism’ in Irish history-writing itself.

Murray Smith is a research assistant in the Department of Teacher Education at Trinity College, Dublin.

Further reading:

J. Curry, An historical and critical review of the civil wars in Ireland (Dublin 1786).

C.P. Meehan, The fate and fortunes of Hugh O’Neill, earl of Tyrone, and Rory O’Donnell, earl of Tyrconnel (Dublin 1868).

N. Canny, ‘The flight of the earls, 1607’, Irish Historical Studies XVII (1971).

M. Kerney Walsh, ‘Destruction by Peace’: Hugh O’Neill after Kinsale (Armagh 1986).


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