The Flight of the Earls: Imeacht na nIarlaí

Published in Book Reviews, Hugh O'Neill, Issue 4 (July/August 2011), Reviews, Volume 19

The Flight of the Earls: Imeacht na nIarlaíDavid Finnegan, Éamonn Ó Ciardha and Marie-Claire Peters (eds) (Guildhall Press, £40) ISBN 9781906271329

The Flight of the Earls: Imeacht na nIarlaí
David Finnegan, Éamonn Ó Ciardha and Marie-Claire Peters (eds)
(Guildhall Press, £40)
ISBN 9781906271329

The very title of this beautiful monumental book reflects attitudes of different scholars regarding the story of Hugh O’Neill and Rory O’Donnell. Was it a departure, a logical planned stratagem that envisaged a comeback and victory ahead with Spanish help? That would have been the attitude of Micheline Kerney Walsh and Tomás Ó Fiaich, shining authorities on the O’Neills. Was it a ‘flight’, given the grinding inroads made by the British administration in the post-Battle of Kinsale period? David Finnegan writes in his essay:

‘While he [Hugh O’Neill] had undoubtedly used middlemen to engage in treasonable transactions with the Spanish as well as within Ireland, events proved that it was not that sufficient evidence had been amassed to proceed against the earls on a charge of treason that caused them to become uneasy and take flight; rather it was the apprehension that such a case had been compiled that proved decisive. This, converging with the news of Maguire’s arrival with shipping at Lough Swilly, persuaded Tyrone successively to take fright and take flight.’

One can, I think, intermingle the two themes, as also the afterthoughts that on the one hand it proved a disaster for the Gaelic clans, their culture and political system and their natural evolution, and on the other hand it set in motion a ‘nationalism’ that would lead to a long history of armed revolutions and agrarian agitation. Arguments for British dynasty, colonialism and empire clash with the strength of Irish nobility and dynasty, born to govern, and an emerging love of family, faith and fatherland.
The Flight of the Earls (and sometimes the Battle of Kinsale) has been looked upon as a turning point in Irish history. No wonder that the quatercentenary of the earls’ departure aroused an amazing burst of scholarship. Micheline Kerney Walsh’s revolutionary work ‘Destruction by peace’: O’Neill after Kinsale (1986) and Pádraig de Barra and Tomás Ó Fiaich’s Imeacht na nIarlaí (1972) heralded the future intense interest in the O’Neills and O’Donnells. Those popular works have now been crowned with two more magnificent productions: Turas na dTaoiseach nUltach as Éirinn edited by Nollaig Ó Muraíle (2007) and now The Flight of the Earls: Imeacht na nIarlaí (2010).
Donegal was also to the fore in commemorative events, and this publication is the fruit of an international conference in Letterkenny. The introduction by David Finnegan and Éamonn Ó Ciardha succinctly surveys the ‘flight’, its contexts and its consequences, and summarises the contributions of the 35 essayists, eight of which are in Irish. Scholars have contributed essays to five sections: Causes; Course; Contexts; Consequences; and Commemoration. The ‘Course’ section visits fairly familiar ground: insights into and explanations of the earls’ experience on the European mainland as related in Tadhg Ó Cianáin’s narrative. Mary Ann Lyons portrays the sympathy of the friendly duchy of Lorraine. Éamon Ó Ciosáin helps us to understand the attitude of France in his essay ‘French policy and Irish emigration, 1607’. The horizon is widened by the ‘Contexts’ section: studies of the chiefs’ noble genealogy, fact and fiction; English attitudes towards Ireland; the O’Donnell overlord and the gallowglass clan, the Mac Sweeneys; a focus on the Irish dynastic nation; the view from Scotland; the flight’s Spanish context; the Catholic atmosphere and culture of Rome. Mícheál Mac Craith gives a fascinating account of the role of the Counter-Reformation and, in particular, the subject of canonisation in Ó Cianáin’s diary. The earls attended the canonisation of Francesca Bussi. Wonders never cease. Fr Mac Craith provides a picture of O’Neill sitting behind Pope Paul V during the canonisation, a mural in the Paul V Gallery. Speaking of pictures, this book is enhanced by illustrations from documents, manuscripts, old drawings and books. Modern murals and sculptures feature, and one is uplifted by the lifelike pictures of Seán Ó Brógáin and Brian Vallely’s aesthetic bright paintings.
Katherine Simms and Bernadette Cunningham in recent years have opened up for us more and more the importance of Gaelic sources, with directions and cautions as to how to use them. The contemporary native feeling regarding the departure of the taoisigh expressed in the Annals, bardic poetry and works of piety are not neglected in this book. The articles of Breandán Ó Buachalla, Diarmaid Ó Doibhlin and Máire Nic Cathmhaoil certainly balance the racist contempt of state documents. Although the English conquest shattered the professionalism of Gaelic poetry, sráid-éigse took its place. The aspirations of the O’Neills survived in the literature of Oirghialla in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Vincent Morley covers that in his essay ‘The earls in popular memory’), and indeed Aodh Rua Ó Dónaill still throbs in Donegal folklore. Owen Roe O’Neill, however, has featured more in popular pride than the Great O’Neill. Commemoration has educated the popular mind and is recounted in an essay on the Flight of the Earls in Irish traditional music and dramatic documentaries on screen and in television programmes. Elizabeth Fitzpatrick covers the story of the Irish monuments in San Pietro in Montorio, their fate and restorations.
The commemoration of the earls has led inevitably to the commemoration of the Franciscans who played such an extraordinary part in Ireland, Spain, Rome and Louvain in Counter-Reformation action, notably in their Irish devotional literature issuing from their new printing press. A figure like diplomat Florence Conry stands out. Benjamin Hazard fills in the background of the assistance he gave to Red Hugh O’Donnell in seeking Spanish help and his continuous action after Red Hugh’s death. Mícheál Mac Craith completes the story of the work of the Franciscans in Ireland, Louvain and Rome, going into detail on their priestly work in promoting catechetics and the spiritual life in their publications. Bonabhentura Ó hEodhasa’s An Teagasc Críosdaidhe prepared the way for the copious Christian doctrine books and little catechisms of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. We are indebted to the modern Franciscan scholars at Killiney for the editing and re-publication of the Franciscan religious literature of the seventeenth century.
What, then, of the consequence of plantation? David Finnegan draws our attention to the anti-Catholic attitude of James Stuart regarding Ireland and his growing policy of ‘British Empire’, shown in the appointment of the ruthless Sir Arthur Chichester as lord deputy of Ireland. A ‘scorched-earth’ policy and genocide of the Irish were ardent policies of Chichester and Lord Mountjoy. Darren McGettigan, in his essay ‘Exempt from the authority of the earl: the failure of the second-rank nobles of Tír Chonaill in post-flight County Donegal’, shows how the strength of Gaelic local governance was fast weakening. Cathair O’Doherty’s disastrous revolt is the high illustration of that. It accelerated conquest, and one could say that the story of Donegal/Derry is indicative also of the situation in central and south-east Ulster. English legal proceedings to gain control moved fast. Chichester’s 1608 commission of a survey initiated plans for plantation. Other surveys followed. Annaleigh Margey writes:

‘The surveys commissioned at regular intervals during the early years of plantation in 1611, 1614, 1618–19, and again, in 1622, present much detailed evidence as to how the Ulster landscape changed during the plantation’s infancy . . . Given the extent of the British plantation and settlement in Ulster during the early years of the project, there can be little doubt that the flight of the earls left the lands open to such change, and that by 1622, the Ulster landscape had been completely and utterly transformed.’

Alison Cathcart gives the sideline view on reform and Britainisation in the Scottish context. An insight into the English attitude towards Ireland is illustrated in Kevin De Ornellas’s appraisal of the drama Captain Thomas Stukeley (London, 1605).
And what of the Catholic faith? After outlining the career of Sir Cathair O’Doherty and explaining how ‘his Irishness and Catholicism proved grave liabilities in post-flight Ulster’, Henry A. Jefferies shows how George Montgomery, the first Protestant bishop of Clogher, Derry and Raphoe (1605–10), emerged as one of the leading benefactors of the subsequent plantation. This heralded the Church of Ireland’s possession of the church lands. Montgomery’s plans when fulfilled ‘copper-fastened the association of the Church of Ireland with the process of colonization and dispossession in Ulster, and prevented it from establishing itself as the church of the Irish people over the centuries that followed’. Tadhg Ó hAnnracháin studies the Catholic Church in its time of crisis in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Peter Lombard, archbishop of Armagh (though he never resided in Ireland), assisted the earls and pursued his policy of rapprochement through the medium of David Rothe, whom he appointed vice-primate in 1609. Ó hAnnracháin writes:

‘Central to the revival [of Catholicism] was the leadership of continentally trained clerics. Despite his different cultural background, as vice-primate Rothe neither ignored the needs of Gaelic Ulster for religious leadership nor attempted to create the momentum for reform through Old English delegates. This was of crucial importance, for it ensured that, unlike its Protestant rival, Catholic reform in Ulster could present itself as internal regeneration rather than external imposition . . . by the 1620s it seems clear that the Catholic hierarchy had established the outlines of a functional diocesan system which acted as a surprisingly efficient structure for the diffusion of a renewed Catholic identity.’

The book, all in all, is a symphony of moods generally dominated by a theme of sadness, expressively so in the story of the fate of the women in the earls’ party and the suffering of Irish prisoners in the Tower of London. The essays envelop the reader in a concordance of heart and mind. There is a consolation. The Irish diaspora gives way more to a sense of pride. The editors remark:

‘The flight precipitated the emergence of an Irish Catholic military, religious and intellectual diaspora in continental Europe which made enormous contributions to the military, academic, political and diplomatic life of seventeenth-century Ireland, Britain and Europe’.  HI

Réamonn Ó Muirí is a poet, historian and editor of Seanchas Árd Mhacha.


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