From the files of the DIB…: Women in Flight

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Gaelic Ireland, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2007), News, Volume 15

Nuala O’Donnell, sister of Red Hugh, with her nephews, the two Hughs, sons of her other two brothers, Rory and Cathbar. (John Conway)

Nuala O’Donnell, sister of Red Hugh, with her nephews, the two Hughs, sons of her other two brothers, Rory and Cathbar. (John Conway)

O’DONNELL, Nuala (c. 1575–c. 1630), refugee, was born in Tír Conaill, the daughter of Hugh O’Donnell, lord of Tyrconnell, and his second wife, Fionnuala (Iníon Dubh) MacDonnell of the Isles. Nuala was a sister of Red Hugh O’Donnell and two of the participants in the 1607 Flight of the Earls: Rory O’Donnell, first earl of Tyrconnell, and Cathbar O’Donnell. She was educated and reared in a manner befitting the daughter of the lord of Tyrconnell, and her affiliations with the Franciscans suggest that they were responsible for her education. In 1591 she fulfilled family expectations by marrying her first cousin, Niall Garbh O’Donnell, but she ended their ten-year marriage when Niall signed a separate peace with the English government during the Nine Years’ War. Unmarried and without children, she lived with her younger brother Rory, the new earl of Tyrconnell. In September 1607 she accompanied her brothers, as well as Hugh O’Neill, earl of Tyrone, and Cuconnacht Maguire, in their flight to the Continent.
Though Nuala, together with her sister-in-law Rosa O’Doherty, Cathbar’s wife, was responsible for the two young Hugh O’Donnells, the sons of Rory and Cathbar, both boys were left in Louvain under the protection of the Franciscans. Nuala and the other refugees were directed to Rome and away from the port towns of the Spanish Netherlands. Living on an inadequate Spanish pension, the exiles subsisted in a sparsely furnished residence provided by the pope. Seeking a respite from this condition, the O’Donnell brothers and Hugh O’Neill’s son came down with a violent fever after spending a few days in the mosquito-ridden marshlands outside Rome. Within a few months Rory and Cathbar died, leaving Nuala to speak for the O’Donnell cause.
Appreciating the plight of Nuala and her young widowed sister-in-law, the Spanish ambassador petitioned Phillip III to grant Nuala her late brother’s pension. He also pleaded that both women be permitted to return to Flanders, where they could look after the young O’Donnell heirs. The pension was not a problem, but the Spanish did not want to provoke the English authorities by allowing the refugees access to a western port. Nuala was not deterred. She complained about the Roman climate and solicited the king to reconsider his travel prohibitions. On 26 August 1610, Phillip III relented and granted Nuala permission to go to Flanders. She was given 300 crowns for expenses and her pension was transferred to a secret Spanish Netherlands’ army fund. It was to be paid ‘as long as she may live or as long as I may wish’ (Phillip III to archduke, 20 Nov. 1610).
Accompanied by Dr Eugene Matthews (MacMahon), the Catholic archbishop of Dublin, who had a special papal commission to reconcile the fractious Irish Catholic community in the Spanish Netherlands, Nuala travelled to Flanders. Once there, she gave her attention to the well-being of her young fatherless nephews, who had been turned over to the Franciscan superior, Hugh MacCaughwell (Aodh Mac Aingil), at the Irish College of Louvain. Here they were reunited with Hugh O’Neill’s two sons, John and Brian. In March 1614 Nuala’s efforts took an unexpected and desperate turn. Under the pretext of going on a pilgrimage to the Lady of Hal, she went to Brussels and set up a clandestine meeting at her lodgings with the English ambassador, William Trumbull. He reported that the young earl of Tyrconnell’s guardian had professed loyalty to King James I and offered to withdraw the youngster from Flanders; she wanted the king’s ‘grace and pardon . . . together with the restoring of his father’s [Rory’s] lands’. The astonished Trumbull could give no assurances of the king’s favour because of the late earl’s ‘ingratitude and offences’, but suggested that Nuala return to England with her nephew and plead for ‘bounty and clemency’ from James I (Trumbull to James I, 7 Apr. 1614). Without guarantees of safe passage, Nuala’s desperate proposals were stillborn.
Her greatest challenges were now the ever-threatening cuts to the O’Donnell subsidies, including her own secretly funded pension. Successful in averting reductions, she saw her position change as her nephew, Rory’s son, matured and took over the direction of the O’Donnell claims. She eventually became his dependant, and on occasion required the support of Florence Conry (Flaithrí Ó Maolchonaire), the Catholic archbishop of Tuam, to vouch for her personal needs. She died around 1630 and was interred in the chapel of the Irish Franciscan College at Louvain.

Jerrold Casway teaches history at Howard Community College, Columbia, Maryland, USA and is a contributor to the Royal Irish Academ

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