O'Neill, Hugh, Second Earl of Tyrone

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O'Neill, Hugh, Second Earl of Tyrone

Hugh O'Neill (1550–1616), the second earl of Tyrone and last inaugurated chief of the O'Neills, was the major Irish leader of the Counter-Reformation period. An able soldier and wily negotiator with a charismatic personality, he was summed up by the English historian William Camden as a man "born either to the very great good or the great hurt of Ireland." After the assassination of his father Matthew by Shane O'Neill in 1558, he was fostered in the Pale by the Hovendens, a New English settler family, and not brought up at court in England as mistakenly asserted by his mid-twentieth-century biographer Sean O'Faolain.

In 1568 Hugh O'Neill was reestablished in Ulster by Lord Deputy Sidney, and for the next twenty years he was the English Crown's agent there against the pretensions of Shane's sons and his eventual successor Turlough Luineach O'Neill. By 1585 he controlled half of Tyrone and in 1587 was acknowledged by the Crown as earl of Tyrone. He had achieved this power not only by English connections and support but also through an extensive network of marriage alliances and fosterage arrangements. The Crown set out to contain this power by kidnapping and jailing Red Hugh O'Donnell, his sonin-law and the heir apparent of Tirconnell. Then followed Lord Deputy Fitzwilliam's attempt to reform Ulster by dismantling the power of the great lords generally, which was inaugurated by the execution of Hugh MacMahon and the partition of the lordship of Monaghan in 1589 and 1590. The major beneficiary of this process was O'Neill's opponent, the prospective governor of Ulster, Sir Henry Bagenal.

O'Neill's countermeasures included murdering rival O'Neills, bribing Crown officials, liberating Red Hugh from prison in Dublin, and opening up channels of communication with Spain. Less successfully, he eloped with Mabel Bagenal, which embittered relations with her ambitious family. When the Crown attempted to replicate the Monaghan settlement in County Fermanagh, O'Neill organized his relatives and adherents in a proxy war, but to allay suspicion, he fought on the government side, even getting himself wounded at the battle of the Erne (1593). Eventually, he was proclaimed a traitor by the Crown in 1595, and in the same year he succeeded Turlough Luineach as holder of the banned Gaelic title of "The O'Neill."

In the so-called Nine Years War O'Neill gained a Europe-wide reputation as a soldier. He won great victories over English armies at Clontibret (1595) and the Yellow Ford (1598), and he exploited these victories to extend his oath-bound confederacy throughout Ireland in an Irish Catholic revolt against English Protestant colonial domination. O'Neill also proved an astute diplomat in negotiations with the state. By 1596 he had secured a compromise peace with England but decided instead to take up an offer of support from Spain. His most famous such negotiation was his encounter with the earl of Essex at the Ford of Bellaclinthe on the borders of Ulster (1599). His departure left O'Neill in charge of most of Ireland outside the towns. Yet O'Neill's increasingly overt Catholic stance and propaganda in Ireland failed to win over the Old English Catholics of the towns, who did not trust his threats and blandishments.

In 1600 Spain made a decisive commitment to the Irish struggle, and O'Neill sent over his second son Henry as a hostage. But O'Neill and his allies were already on the defensive in Ulster when in the following year a relatively small Spanish expeditionary force landed at Kinsale in the extreme south of the country. He and O'Donnell marched their armies south to relieve the Spaniards besieged in Kinsale but were decisively defeated. O'Neill's hitherto victorious army was smashed in an English cavalry charge that resulted in the death of one Englishman and 1,200 Irish. Deserted by his allies and with Ulster reduced to starvation, O'Neill surrendered to Lord Deputy Mountjoy at Mellifont in March 1603.

Although he was restored to his earldom, interference from English officials, soldiers, and churchmen soon began in earnest. In 1607 O'Neill and a large entourage fled to the Continent. This departure, romanticized as the Flight of the Earls, opened the way for land confiscation and plantation in Ulster. Spain, at peace with England, did not want O'Neill and pensioned him off to Rome.

SEE ALSO English Political and Religious Policies, Responses to (1534–1690); Nine Years War; Primary Documents: Ferocity of the Irish Wars (1580s–1590s); Accounts of the Siege and Battle of Kinsale (1601); Tyrone's Demands (1599); English Account of the Flight of the Earls (1607); Irish Account of the Flight of the Earls (1608)


Morgan, Hiram. "Hugh O'Neill and the Nine Years War in Tudor Ireland." Historical Journal 36 (March 1993): 21–37.

Morgan, Hiram. Tyrone's Rebellion: The Outbreak of the Nine Years War in Tudor Ireland. 1993.

O'Faolain, Sean. The Great O'Neill. 1942.

Walsh, Micheline Kerney. "Destruction by Peace": Hugh O'Neill after Kinsale. 1986.

Hiram Morgan