"The Flight of the
Earls and its Consequences"
by Ruairí Ó Bradaigh, Uachtarán, Sinn Féin Poblachtach, at Seminar
in Central Hotel, Donegal on September 8, 2007
A Chathaoirligh is a chairde
At the outset I would like to take issue with the expression "Flight of the Earls". One dictionary explains "flight" as "to run away, as from danger." I agree with Prof John McGurk of the University of Ulster when he spoke at Letterkenny on August 19 last.
Naming the event as a "flight' was "pandering to the English interpretation" of what happened. He suggested that the departure of the Earls - who had intended to return - could have been termed a "strategic regrouping". Cardinal Ó Fiaich, who was Professor of Modern Irish History at Maynooth at the time with Pádraig de Barra, entitled their book in 1972, Imeacht na n-Iarlaí. (The Departure of the Earls). Ó Fiach stated: "Every schoolchild knows it as The Flight of the Earls, a phrase which deserves to be expunged from our vocabulary".
The historian Micheline Kerney Walsh in her work "Destruction by Peace: Hugh O'Neill after Kinsale" published in 1986 writes "It has been generally assumed that he accepted defeat and, in despair, had gone into voluntary exile", but this is not so. She states that according to recent research, his principal objective in leaving for Spain in 1607 was "to return at the head of an army designed to break English power in Ireland."
Nollaig Ó Muráile, senior lecturer in Irish at NUI, Galway, is completing a new comprehensive edition of Tadhg Ó Cianáin's account at the time of the exile itinerary of the Ulster chiefs, Ó Neíll, Ó Dónaill agus Cúchonnacht Maguire of Fermanagh. He points out that Ó Fiaich and de Barra's use of Imeacht (Departure) as opposed to Teiceadh (Flight) was because "the latter (term) reflected hostile contemporary English attitudes" and McGurk writes: "O'Neill's correspondence from Rome gives the lie to the interpretation that he never intended to return."
The 99 Irish exiles who sailed from Rathmullen, Co Donegal on September 14, 1607 were on a French ship procured for them by Cúchonnacht Maguire, chieftain of Fermanagh. They sailed for Spain and were within sight almost of the Spanish coast when an almighty storm blew them off course and back across the Bay of Biscay to France, where they landed on October 4.
Their journey from there to Rome took nine months, on foot, on horseback, by boat and coach. It was, Ó Muraíle writes "a tortuous, protracted journey that can be retraced in British, Spanish and Papal newsletters, diplomatic correspondence and spy networks." It included crossing lakes in Switzerland and the mighty Alps where O'Neill lost his money in an accident.
Many honours were bestowed on them on the continent of Europe where they were well known and renowned. The Irish Press column "This Happened Today" by MJ McManus on September 4, 1957 records their journey. Nowhere were they received more warmly than by the Irish Franciscans at the College of St Anthony, Louvain in what is now Belgium. Founded the previous year, 1606, it offered schooling and practical hospitality to the younger generation of O'Neills, O'Donnells and Maguires, giving them back a new sense of belonging and a mission for the future. But within months in 1608 Maguire died in Genoa, Italy and the brothers Ruairí, Earl of Tírchonaill and Cathbhárr Ó Dónaill, as well as Hugh (Óg) O'Neill passed away in Rome. Supported by
pensions from the Papacy and Philip III of Spain, the Great Ó Neill himself survived until 1616, still holding out for a renewal of armed conflict in Ireland. They were all buried in San Pietro di Montorio where Cardinal Ó Fiaich laid a commemorative slab to Hugh O'Neill in 1989. Irish tourists from all over the world visit the Church of San Pietro, ask to have the rug on the floor withdrawn and pay their respects to them all. Of all his titles, that preferred by Hugh O'Neill was the Irish one "The O'Neill" or
simply "Ó Néill" as he signed himself.
At home in Ireland, the consequences of their departure from the scene were many and varied. With the Plantation of Ulster from 1608, the Gaelic order was eclipsed, and the great Irish Diaspora began. With that emigration to the continent over succeeding decades of tens of thousands of Irish people, was written "one of the most splendid pages of Irish history", that of the Irish Abroad. In France, Spain, Austria and Prussia they rose to eminence in church, state and in the professions.
Also in Ireland began a great renaissance of culture and learning, in the Irish language of course, "Anocht is Uaigneach Éire" (Ireland is desolate tonight), by Aindrias MacMarcais is a poem famous for its description of the Irish following the Departure. "C'áit ar Ghabhadar Gaoidhil? (Where will the Irish go?) by Lochlainn Ó Dáligh is another. "Mo Thruaighe mar táid Gaoidhil" (My Pity of the situation of the Irish) by Fear Flatha Ó Gnímh is another still. Poets: Fearghal Óg Mac a'Bháird, Eochaidh Ó h-Eodhasa, Eoghan Rua Mac a'Bháird and many others stand out.
But the big contribution was in prose. "Ánnála Rióghachta Éireann" (The Annals of the Four Masters), a history of Ireland up to the death of O'Neill in 1616 was compiled from 1632 to 1636 in Donegal Abbey and along the banks of the Drowes River which marks the border between counties Leitrim and Donegal. Franciscan lay brother Mícheál Ó Cléirigh and three assistants did
the work. This was a massive contribution to the history of the Irish people.
Then from 1620 to 1634 Seathrún Céitinn (Goffrey Keating) composed his "Foras Feasta ar Éirinn" (A Basis of Knowledge about Ireland), described as the first narrative history of Ireland in Irish. To these poets and writers, Louvain was a second home. The Irish Franciscans there printed, published and circulated their work. The Irish College there also trained seminarians
and sent them back to Ireland. It was a "power-house of the Counter-Reformation," more accurately described as the "Catholic
The Plantation of Ulster, begun in 1608, was the greatest consequence of the Departure of the Earls. Their lands were confiscated by the English Crown. The revolt of Sir Cahir O'Doherty of Innishowen in January 1608 was initially successful in that he captured the city of Derry. But in July he was shot at Kilmacrennan, Co Donegal and his lands too were confiscated. Sir Arthur Chichester, ancestor of Captain Terence O'Neill, was Lord Lieutenant in Ireland of the English government and he now planned the plantation of Six Ulster Counties: Derry (known as Coleraine) Tyrone, Fermanagh, Armagh, Cavan and Donegal. Antrim and Down had earlier been saturated by settlers from England and Scotland.
Chichester and Sir John Davies, the Attorney-General at Dublin Castle felt that war would never be at an end until there was "one king, one allegiance and one law". The king would, of course, be the king of England and English 'common law' would replace the Irish Brehon code. This would be the new framework for Ulster. The crown escheated, or confiscated the lands of the six counties, declaring the earls to have laid down their loyalty to the king (of England) by leaving the kingdom without his permission.
The scheme adopted was not simply to redistribute the land seized but to build a new society - an exercise in social engineering. This is how the Ulster Plantation differed from earlier plantations elsewhere in Ireland and why it lasted so much longer. A homogeneous society at all levels was to be created, with English law, English courts and an English army in the background.
"Undertakers" received 40% of the land. These were English and Scottish gentry in equal numbers who were required to remove the native Irish and introduce settlers onto their lands within two years, and to erect a castle on their holding before 1613. Towns and villages were to be created. 'Servitors' or former soldiers and English government officials received 13% and these men, unlike the 'undertakers', could employ native Irish as tenants - paying substantial rents of course. English and Scottish tenants
were in the low rent category. Thirdly, the established state Church of Ireland acquired 18% of the confiscated land to support their ministry.
Finally 1% of land was assigned to support schools to educate the sons of settlers and to 'civilise' the sons of the surviving native elite. I should add that 14% went to native free holders, including some who had remained loyal to the English Crown, and others who became prominent following the Departure of the Earls. Estates were parcelled out in holdings of 2,000, 1,500 and 1,000 acre lots. Co Derry in its entirety was given to the City of London and would be managed by a new body to be known as the Irish Society. Estates here would be 3,000 acres each in the renamed county of Londonderry and the land would be divided among twelve groups of London trade guilds.
In 1641 and again in 1689 the Irish rose up in support of the worthless Stuart kings, only to find themselves left on their own to face Cromwell, the Williamite onslaught and the long night of the Penal Laws. The settlers and colonists and their descendents at ordinary level proved industrious with the full support of the English State. They too had their diaspora in the 18th Century, in their case to North America. The Presbyterians, who were the majority in that community, also suffered disabilities on account
of their religion. Their marriages were not recognised, for instance. Inspired by the American and French Revolutions, Protestants, Catholics and Dissenters came together in the 1790s as the United Irishmen. A democratic programme and independence from England were their objectives. However with the defeat of the United Irish movement and the Act of Union in 1800, the English government were more clever. The disabilities on Presbyterians were removed and a 'regium donum' was paid directly to their ministers. The 'Ulster Custom' as developed meant that the tenant's saleable interest in his holding was recognised. Land agitation was, as a result, lesser in that province and with greater stability capital accumulated. The Industrial
Revolution therefore, took place in Ulster which markedit out from the rest of Ireland.
The present Belfast and St Andrews Agreements are just that - agreements. They are not a settlement. An artificial arrangement at Stormont gives us temporary and enforced vertical power-sharing, but under English rule. The alternative is a nine-county Ulster which would give the unionist-oriented population a clear working majority but with the nationalists within reach of power. Strong regional councils and powerful local councils would be controlled according to local majorities, with maximum devolution of power and decision-making. This would give natural horizontal power-sharing.
It could be permanent within a four province federation where all power would be exercised at provincial level - or beneath - except foreign affairs, national defence and overall financing. This proposal, known as ÉIRE NUA - a New Ireland - was outlined face-to-face at confidential meetings with all shades of unionism in the 1970s. In all cases the reaction was the same. If the English government disengaged from Ireland, then our proposal would be the second choice of unionists. Their first choice would be an independent Six-County state. We felt that that model would not be viable.
Nationalists have never sought to undo the Plantation of Ulster which next year will be four centuries old. They seek equal rights and equal opportunities within an Ireland where there is room for all - where all its inhabitants can feel comfortable and have their place in the sun. Such an Ireland has been outlined here tonight.
A final word on the Earls: Maguire did not have a chronicler. Aodh Mór Ó Néill was fortunate in that Tadhg Óg Ó Cianaín accompanied him all the way to Rome and recorded his story. Aodh Rua Ó Dónaill died at Simancas Castle, near Valladolid in north central Spain in 1602. He had sought renewed aid but was poisoned by an English agent, Blake from Galway. He was 29. Red Hugh was a superb soldier. Pádraic Pearse wrote of the Great O'Neill: "Ní raibh le thaoiseach ná de threóraí ag Gaeil riamh ó theacht do na Normánaigh fear a b'inchurtha le Wolfe Tone ach Aodh Ó Néill" (Príomh-alt An Barr Buadh 25
(The Irish never had a leader or a guide since the coming of the Normans who was comparable to Wolfe Tone except Hugh O'Neill).