The Flight of the Earls

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2005), Reviews, Volume 13

The Flight of the Earls 1The Flight of the Earls
John McCavitt
(Gill and Macmillan, €12.99, £9.99)
ISBN 0-7171-3936-0If an academic historian wanted a subject that might reach out to a readership beyond his peers it would be hard to think of a better story than this. For a popular audience this skilfully written book is a rollicking good read, laced with intriguing characters and a plot laden with twists and turns. It comes as no great surprise to learn that the author has also written a play on the subject. Full credit is due to McCavitt for successfully combining the skills of a rigorous academic historian and a good storyteller.
The narrative demonstrates the crucial influence on events of both the macro socio-economic context and the individual personalities and predilections of the key figures of O’Neill, Chichester and James VI and I. The role of the former, particularly, in dictating the course of events reflects our greater understanding today of the wider world in which these figures operated. For instance, we find here a greater recognition of the role of famine and plague in shaping the course of warfare. Such was the extraordinarily heavy toll inflicted by disease and hunger amongst impoverished recruits in the English army that both Essex and Mountjoy were seriously constricted in their military strategy. Mountjoy’s ‘scorched earth’ policy, likewise, received a good deal of natural assistance from inclement weather and the spread of disease.
This work reminded me particularly of the centrality of finance to the waging of war or the pursuance of peace. This factor crucially influenced the decision-making of the earl of Tyrone, the government in London and, indeed, the king of Spain in a major way. Empty coffers and sheer exhaustion discouraged a return to the battlefield. We should not neglect the real difficulties O’Neill would have faced in sustaining or recommencing a war effort that cost him £80,000 per annum in the 1590s.
In his first paragraph McCavitt deals with an important point in making it clear that the departure from Rathmullen (specifically Portnamurray, just south-west of the town) on 4 September 1607 was indeed referred to by contemporaries as the ‘Flight of the Earls’. But this book ranges considerably more widely than the specific events of late 1607, considering this crucial episode within the context of the career of Hugh O’Neill as earl of Tyrone. Nonetheless, McCavitt explores this epic exit and journey in greater detail than heretofore. Acknowledging the ground-breaking work of Micheline Kerney Walsh, he develops further the analysis of the events that led to and sprang from the sailing for the Continent of these 99 passengers.
Many intriguing questions remain and may never be satisfactorily answered—all this, of course, adds to the attraction of the narrative. Excepting the work of Walsh and Murray Smith in the 1990s and Nicholas Canny in the 1970s, specific examination of the flight had not been undertaken for a remarkably long time. In 1916 an edited version of Tadhg Ó Cianáin’s account of the journey was published, and 40 years previously, in 1886, Revd C.P. Meehan published Fate and fortunes of Hugh O’Neill, earl of Tyrone, and Rory O’Donel, earl of Tyrconnell; their flight from Ireland, and death in exile. In this light it is not altogether surprising that one might deem McCavitt’s text to be revisionist with a ‘small r’.
The portrait of the departing earls is significantly different from that offered by Meehan at the time of the first Home Rule bill. Mindful of popular perceptions of the event’s meaning, it is also distinctly different from the impressive, if romantic and stylistically old-fashioned, painting produced by Thomas Ryan in 1958. Yet there is no hint that the author has any desire to use greater charge than absolutely necessary in order to explode certain ‘mythologies’.
It is interesting to compare the interpretation of the relationship between the earls and the inhabitants of their territories here with that set out in Marianne Elliott’s The Catholics of Ulster: a history (2000). Elliott is quite clear in setting out her view that the Nine Years’ War was in no way a popular rebellion and that quietude after the earls’ removal reflected this. McCavitt, on the other hand, stresses the extent to which the threat of transportation cowed the native populace and how increasing religious persecution saw the collection of ‘the first Catholic rent’ and the prospect of a real alliance behind O’Neill of Old English and Old Irish forces.
Many words and sentences in this text resonate with that wider world with which the author (and the reviewer) grew up in Northern Ireland, and at a deeper level it is hard not to sense some parallel between the periods that immediately followed the Treaty of Mellifont (30 March 1603) and the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (10 April 1998). Many bitter servitors in Jacobean Ulster no doubt questioned whether the bogeyman O’Neill and the wood kern would ever really go away.
The second point that struck me was McCavitt’s claim that ‘to a considerable extent the Irish “diaspora” originated in this period’. Teaching a masters degree in Irish migration studies beginning in 1600, I would largely agree with this but remain conscious that the earls joined others already expatriated on the Continent, and that themes of departure and exile would already have been familiar to O’Neill, O’Donnell and their followers.
Nonetheless, as we look forward to 2007 and the commemoration of these events, it is worth bearing in mind the power of this departure as an iconic moment marking the beginning of a process that would scatter some ten million souls from this island around the globe and in so doing serve to construct the modern Irish Diaspora. Perhaps, too, thinking about these distant ‘refugees’ and ‘asylum-seekers’ whom McCavitt so vividly portrays in this volume might in some way serve to assist us in meeting the challenge offered by those who seek refuge amongst us here today.
Patrick Fitzgerald


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