Tadhg Ó Cianáin’s account of the exile itinerary of the Ulster chiefs, 1607–8

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

The political background

In September 1607 the cream of Ulster’s Gaelic aristocracy, including the earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnell, embarked from Rathmullan, Co. Donegal. Destined for Spain and the court of Philip III, their erstwhile ally, they sought military aid to facilitate a speedy return, the restoration of their estates and the overthrow of the post-war military, political, religious and legal settlement. These hopes rested on continued Spanish support for their cause, but Europe’s diplomatic landscape had been rapidly transformed in the aftermath of the Jacobean succession, European war-weariness and the impending bankruptcy of the Spanish Empire. All antagonists sought to pursue a diplomatic solution to which the Irish could only present an inconvenient impediment. Diplomatic considerations aside, navigational difficulties and hostile winds also hampered their progress and drove the unfortunate Irish into the port of Quilleboeuf, in north-west France.

Sources for our knowledge

This would be the first stop on a tortuous, protracted nine-month journey that can be re-traced in British, Spanish and papal newsletters, diplomatic correspondence and spy networks. The earls’ retinue, however, included a scion of the Gaelic literati whose remarkable insider account of the journey comprises the earliest Irish-language diary and a unique and invaluable source.

The author’s background

Tadhg Ó Cianáin descended from the Uí Chianáin, a learned family associated with the Maguires of Fermanagh, whose names loom large on the pantheon of the Gaelic literati between the coming of the Normans and the end of the seventeenth century. Tadhg and his immediate forebears lived in Armagh and may have received land from O’Neill. Furthermore, seven members of the family received pardons from the crown in 1602. After his departure, the crown sequestered Tadhg’s lands and possessions, although his wife successfully petitioned for their return. Our author effectively disappears from the historical record, although he is mentioned in the context of his brother Cú-Chonnacht’s execution in Derry for participating in the 1615 ‘conspiracy’.

Tadhg’s manuscript and its history

Ó Cianáin’s manuscript (recently moved from the Franciscan Library, Killiney, to the Ó Cléirigh Institute, UCD) is his only surviving testimony—an invaluable account of the earls’ voyage and a remarkable insight into the political, religious and cultural milieu of early modern Ireland and Europe. It is reasonable to presume that he penned the work in Rome, from whence it was subsequently removed to Louvain by John McColgan, the Inishowen cleric, hagiographer and scholar. Here it rested for over 100 years before returning to St Isidore’s in Rome in 1793 to escape the unwanted attention of the soldiers of the French Republic. In 1798–9 it again barely survived French republicans, who invested the Città Eterna and threatened to raze the Irish College. Attempts by Irish scholars and patriots to repatriate it and other invaluable manuscripts during the course of the nineteenth century proved largely unsuccessful until 1872, when Italian unification and fears for the future of St Isidore’s and its library prompted the British ambassador to intervene to ensure their repatriation.

Editions and forthcoming editions

Fr Paul Walsh, the Westmeath-born Irish-language scholar and historian, published the first edition and translation of Ó Cianáin’s text in 1916. In 1972 Pádraig de Barra produced an abridged, standardised and modernised version, prefaced with a comprehensive, 200-page introduction by Tomás Ó Fiaich. Significantly, the authors utilised Imeacht (Departure) as opposed to Teicheadh (Flight), as the latter reflected hostile contemporary English attitudes.

Nollaig Ó Muraíle is a senior lecturer in Irish at NUI, Galway, and is in the final stages of producing a new comprehensive edition of Ó Cianáin’s narrative which will be published in October 2007 by the Irish College in Rome.

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