Flight of the Earls special issue

Published in Book Reviews, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2008), Letters, Letters, Volume 16

Sir,

—I am grateful to the Revd Canon and Dr Silke for his historiographical criticism of the special Flight of the Earls issue of History Ireland (15.4, July/August 2007) as a whole and for his comments on my own offering to the journal. What a pity that the internationally recognised authority on Kinsale and on the O’Donnells, Dr Silke, did not favour us with an article to redress the imbalance of too much attention paid to O’Neill. Unfortunately, and with much regret now, I did not have the benefit of his ‘Outward bound from Portnamurry’ in E. García Hernan et al. (eds), Irlanda y la monarquía 1601–2001 (Madrid, 2002)—not because I ‘did not think it worthy of comment’ but simply because I did not find the work. I would not dare to think, let alone write, that any publication by such an eminent historian as Dr Silke is unworthy of a mention.
It is often said that history does not repeat itself but that historians repeat one another, and we should now all be grateful to Dr Silke for putting us right about the non-marital status of Red Hugh O’Donnell. I am also particularly aware of not giving due attention and weight to the roles of Rury O’Donnell and Cuchonnaught MacGuire in organising that unnamed ship, or to their efforts to gain further help from Spain. I thought that it was at Dungannon, not Dungiven (pace Canon Silke’s comment), that Red Hugh nominated Maguire—to indicate his and not O’Neill’s overlordship of the Maguire? Dr Hiram Morgan may have something more to add to the significance of that event. On the other hand, I am grateful to Dr Silke for the correction that Moyglare, not Maynooth, was one of Tyrconnell’s residences. However, was not Rury O’Donnell’s wife, Bridget, then with her FitzGerald mother at the latter’s residence in Maynooth?
The persistence of O’Neill in his letters to Spain and his mere longevity compared to both the O’Donnells and MacGuire would dictate that we award O’Neill the lion’s share in efforts to stir Philip III to send further aid to his cause or, as the English commentators have it, ‘trafficking with Spain’. Both sides, of course, broke solemn promises after Mellifont; the 1604 peace treaty with Spain was fragile; both Spain and England were bankrupted by the war, and Lerma and Olivares in Madrid were lukewarm as regards further aid to Ireland. But as we know from Dr Silke’s work, hopes of help for Ireland were kept alive in the late 1620s and would materialise again when O’Neill’s nephew, Owen Roe, landed with ‘sword in hand’ at Doe Castle on 8 July 1642.
Finally and personally I would not like to be cast in the role of advocatus diaboli for the canonisation cause of Red Hugh O’Donnell so eloquently begun by the O’Clerighs in the Annals of the Four Masters. Infanticide, proxy murders of potential rivals to leadership and assassinations of leaders are surely a grim feature of early modern history. My evidence for the murder of Nuala O’Donnell’s child, Red Hugh’s nephew, rests on a report in one of Sir Henry Docwra’s letters (PRO.SP.63/208/pt 1, f. 122v), which says:

‘O’Donnell hath of late hanged many of good account . . . he dasht owt the brains of Neil Garve’s childe (of iiij yeares olde) againste a post, beinge in the mother’s custody, his owne naturall sister.’

I may have stretched the evidence somewhat by saying that Nuala ‘witnessed’ the awful deed, but I assumed that an infant of four years would not have strayed far from his mother, especially under threatening circumstances. I have had much reason in the past in writing his biography to question the veracity of some of Docwra’s reports, but generally I found him to be a plain blunt soldier without much of the sophistication that we find in so many of his colleague commanders in the Nine Years’ War, hence I took his report here at its face value. As Thomas Carlyle cautions all biographers, ‘A well-written life is as rare as a well-spent one’.

—Yours etc.,
Prof. JOHN McGURK
Tourmakeady
Co. Mayo

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