This article was first published in the March 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine.


In the dying days of the 16th century, one man drove Elizabeth I to distraction, wrecked the career of one of her most celebrated captains, brought her nation close to bankruptcy, and threw the very survival of her administration in Ireland into grave doubt. That man was Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone. His story is one of the most remarkable in the history of Anglo-Irish relations – and the Nine Years’ War empowered by O’Neill’s uprising threatened England’s hold on the island.

When Hugh was born, in around 1550, Ireland was a divided island, one whose history had been shaped by its English neighbour. Henry II had launched a concerted invasion of Ireland in 1171, setting the scene for four centuries of considerable English influence, culminating with Henry VIII’s decision to have himself declared King of Ireland in 1541.

As Elizabeth I ascended the throne in 1558, there were effectively two Irelands: the ‘English Pale’ around Dublin and the south, containing English-style towns; and the predominately Gaelic west and north, dominated by powerful clans such as the O’Neills and O’Donnells. Suspicious of English attempts to exert control over them, the Gaelic Irish became ever-more restive in the late 16th century.

This unrest was to heavily influence Hugh O’Neill’s early years. His father Matthew, Baron of Dungannon, was assassinated by his own half-brother Shane in 1558, and Hugh’s elder brother Brian was killed by another dynastic competitor in 1562. Hugh, taken into crown wardship near Dublin, was at first happy to work with the English occupiers, accepting the role of maintaining a troop of soldiers to protect the borders of the Pale. But his attempts to increase his power in Ulster soon brought him into conflict with the authorities.

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Double alliance

Hugh’s political ambitions stemmed from the O’Neill family heritage as Ulster overlords. His grandfather Conn O’Neill had been made Earl of Tyrone by Henry VIII, though internecine fighting between Conn’s heirs had temporarily robbed Hugh of power. To remedy this situation, he decided to build an alliance with historic rivals, the O’Donnells of Tirconnell.

In 1574 O’Neill divorced his first wife and married Siobhan, daughter of Sir Hugh O’Donnell. Then, in 1587 – the same year he was confirmed as Earl of Tyrone – he betrothed his daughter Rose to Sir Hugh O’Donnell’s heir, ‘Red Hugh’.

As a strategy for extending O’Neill’s power in Ulster, the double alliance was a masterstroke. However, it signalled a potential threat to English plans to establish control of Ulster. And so, in an attempt to block the marriage, the Dublin authorities abducted Red Hugh (having lured him aboard a ship with the promise of wine) and held him hostage in Dublin.

Hugh O’Neill described his intended son-in-law’s detention in Dublin Castle as “most prejudice that might happen unto me”. Red Hugh languished in the castle for over four years till 1592 when, using a silk rope supplied by accomplices outside, he slipped out through a privy. Back in Ulster with his father-in-law, together they subdued local opponents and began secretly swearing in confederates to thwart English control.

Sleight of hand

Hugh O’Neill was a supremely canny operator – a master at wrong-footing his opponents with sleight of hand – reflected in his initially low-key campaign for the territory of Fermanagh in Ulster. When an English sheriff was imposed there in 1593, O’Neill was determined to resist – but by stealth. He fought a proxy war, pretending to be a supporter of the crown while directing a military campaign against it. When his brother Cormac defeated an English attempt to resupply its garrison at Enniskillen, Hugh absolved himself of responsibility by claiming he was unable to control his followers. Yet he was reported as arriving soon afterwards to divide up the spoils.

Meanwhile, Hugh was in the process of converting the traditional axe-wielding gallowglasses (a class of elite mercenary warriors) into musketeers, and sending Catholic clerics to ask Spain for aid.

Such smoke and mirrors could work for only so long. In June 1595 O’Neill was declared a traitor for conspiring with Spain – and he was forced to swap subterfuge for open conflict. Abandoning pretences of aiding the English, he joined with O’Donnell in leading Ireland’s Gaelic lords in a campaign that later become known as the Nine Years’ War. That year O’Neill launched attacks at Blackwater Fort, an English garrison in the heart of Tyrone, and then against Sir Henry Bagenal, the marshal of the queen’s army in Ireland, at Clontibret in southern Ulster. Veterans in that English expedition were stunned by how well armed and disciplined O’Neill’s army was.

An increasingly anxious Queen Elizabeth now sent in renowned soldier Sir John Norris. He was flushed with recent successes against Spanish armies in Brittany, but was defeated at Mullaghbrack near Armagh. The English, fearing a protracted struggle and Spanish intervention, offered the Irish confederation de facto control of most of Ulster and North Connaught, and tacit toleration of Catholicism (banned since Elizabeth’s accession). But soon after the Irish agreed, Spanish agents arrived in Tirconnell, urging O’Neill to escalate the war.

Spanish king Philip II, eager to keep England distracted to prevent its resources being committed elsewhere, now provided the Irish with money and munitions to continue the war and spread their actions into other provinces. In a stop-start campaign of truces and talks, O’Neill kept upping the ante. By December 1597 he was demanding “free liberty of conscience” for all Irishmen, and reciting abuses against the Irish going back 30 years. Soon he was calling the entire English presence in Ireland into question.

These escalating demands forced Elizabeth back onto the offensive – with disastrous consequences for the English. On 14 August 1598 O’Neill’s army killed Bagenal and crushed his army at Yellow Ford, the heaviest defeat ever suffered by the English in Ireland.

It’s been argued that this was the moment at which O’Neill should have struck the decisive blow against the English – marching on Dublin, which was virtually defenceless. He didn’t, instead lingering in the north, more concerned with preventing an English amphibious landing behind his lines at Derry.

Nevertheless his confederation extended its control to Ireland’s midlands before entering Munster and overthrowing the plantation there. With only Ireland’s towns in English hands – and their Catholic inhabitants viewed with great suspicion by the crown – Elizabeth’s grip on the island was rapidly being loosened.

The queen’s response was to dispatch the largest English army ever to set foot in Ireland, headed by Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. Elizabeth instructed Essex to confront O’Neill on the battlefield. Instead, he marched his 17,000 men fruitlessly around the Midlands, Munster and south Leinster. Worse still, he resolved to negotiate with O’Neill in person.

Outfoxed by his wily adversary – who ran rings around him in negotiations – Essex agreed a truce that many in England considered not only a humiliation but a gross dereliction of duty. Returning to London in September 1599, Essex’s reputation was severely damaged. He was put on trial and executed for treason in 1601.

Wicked policies

Meanwhile, Hugh O’Neill’s campaign to eject the English from Ireland was going from strength to strength. Having seen off England’s greatest captain, O’Neill made a play that English officials had long been fearing. He could not win the towns by force of arms; instead, he issued a proclamation appealing to their inhabitants as fellow Catholics and Irishmen. “I will employ myself to the utmost of my power in their defence and for the extirpation of heresy, the planting of the Catholic religion, the delivery of our country of infinite murders, wicked and detestable policies by which this kingdom was hitherto governed, nourished in obscurity and ignorance, maintained in barbarity and incivility and consequently of infinite evils which are too lamentable to be rehearsed.”

This remarkable rhetoric turned the language of English colonialism on its head. O’Neill followed up the proclamation with 22 articles that would have converted Ireland into a self-governing Catholic country under nominal English sovereignty. Sir Robert Cecil, Elizabeth’s secretary of state, seeing the proposal on its arrival in London, dismissed it as fanciful with a single word: “Ewtopia.”

Crucially, O’Neill’s exhortation failed to convince Ireland’s English-speaking townsmen, who suspected that he was masking an ambition for kingship with a feigned concern for their immortal souls. When they rejected his overtures, he pleaded unsuccessfully with Rome to excommunicate them. Pope Clement VIII did, though, appoint him ‘Captain-General of the Catholic Army in Ireland’.

Too little, too late

The tide was turning. Essex’s replacement, the more capable Lord Mountjoy, at last brought England’s superior resources to bear. O’Neill’s only hope of realising his ambitions now appeared to be the landing of a Spanish Armada in Ireland. Mountjoy fought a year-round war, using scorched-earth tactics to devastate O’Neill’s agricultural base. Then the long-awaited expedition to Derry finally landed, snatching much of Tyrone and Tirconnell out of the grasp of their lords.

As a result, when Spain did finally commit forces to Ireland, it proved too little, too late. The Spanish landed in Kinsale and Castlehaven, County Cork, which the English had retaken, so O’Neill and O’Donnell had to march the length of the country to join forces with them. When the two sides met in battle at Kinsale on Christmas Eve 1601, the Irish were beaten. It was a decisive blow to O’Neill. “Today this kingdom is lost,” he declared.

The war dragged on for another 15 months, until O’Neill finally surrendered to Mountjoy at Mellifont in 1603, unaware that Elizabeth was already a week dead. His long campaign to oust the English from Ireland was over – a remarkable but ultimately doomed endeavour.

For all O’Neill’s brilliance, the Nine Years’ War ended with Ireland completely under English rule for the first time in its history. Though pardoned at Mellifont, O’Neill was unable to bear the humiliation of English power and the imposition of Protestantism. In 1607, he and the other Ulster lords departed Ireland in the so-called Flight of the Earls. Neither Elizabeth’s successor, James VI and I, nor the Spanish, now at peace with England, had any need of O’Neill, and he died an impoverished exile in Rome.

Like Shakespeare and Cervantes, O’Neill breathed his last in 1616. And though those two writers claimed the lion’s share of public adulation last year, there’s a strong argument to be made that, in his own day, O’Neill was far more important.


Hiram Morgan is an Irish historian who teaches at University College Cork. He is author of Tyrone’s Rebellion: The Outbreak of the Nine Years War in Tudor Ireland (Royal Historical Society, 1993).