Four hundred and five years ago on September 4, 1607, the last of Ireland’s great Gaelic Royalty left for the continent and the ancient Celtic system of government came to an end. It was known in history as the Flight of the Earls and it was only supposed to be a temporary abdication. However, it was never redeemed. Most are familiar with the English incursions into Ireland since the Norman invasion and the reaction of the Irish Chieftains to them. Some led rebellions against the invaders while others sought cooperation. A few even tried both.
Up to the reign of Henry VIII (1509-47), most of southern Ireland had been divided into properties ruled by ‘Earls’ created by the Crown and for the most part, they were independent. Henry introduced a new dimension to the status quo when he broke with the Church of Rome in 1534 and declared himself the head of the new Church of England. The Pope excommunicated him and many of Ireland’s Earls sided with the Catholic Church. The earl of Kildare, ‘Silken’ Thomas Fitzgerald, renounced his allegiance to Henry arguing that excommunication had stripped the King of his legitimacy. Henry responded with force and in 1537, Fitzgerald and five of his uncles were executed in London. Henry made the Protestant faith a priority of his reign, a policy continued by his illegitimate daughter Elizabeth. Thus the centuries-old struggle between the Irish and English was revised into a centuries-long struggle between Irish Catholic and English Protestant.
Henry’s attempts to conquer Ireland led to many conflicts. His successors, Edward VI (1547-53), Mary I (1553-58), Elizabeth (1558-1603), James I (1603-25 and Charles I (1625-49) fought many uprisings trying to impose British authority and the Church of England on the Irish Earls. They fought Shane O’Neill from 1560 to 67 and the Desmond Fitzgeralds from 1569 to 73 and again from 1579 to 83. All the while they endured daily violence against Crown supporters.
In 1587, as Spain was preparing her Armada to invade England, Elizabeth realized she could not muster her full resources against the Spanish while the threat of rebellion existed in Ireland. Though Anglo-Normans controlled most of the south, the major clans of the north remained unconquered and she was determined to resolve that issue. The English decided to capture Enniskillen, Hugh Maguire’s fort at the Gap of the North – the main access to Ulster. Hugh O’Donnell, Chieftain of Tyrconnell, answered Maguire’s call for aid and the two Hughs swept across Ulster driving the English before them. They broke through the Gap of the North, recaptured Enniskillen and routed the English at the Ford of the Biscuits.
They next moved on Fort Monaghan and the English sent reinforcements. They met at the Battle of Clontibert where the English saw, for the first time, the Red Hand of O’Neill among the clan standards. Clan O’Neill had taken the field and at their head was Hugh O’Neill, England’s trusted Earl of Tyrone. He had finally taken sides and destroyed an English company in the bargain. The last remaining Irish War Chieftains, the three Hughs of Ulster, were now a national force with O’Neill commanding. They had 1,000 horse-soldiers and 7,000 foot-soldiers at a time when the entire English force in Ireland was less than 2,000. In 1596, O’Neill swept through the north and each blow was echoed by O’Donnell and Maguire in the west. The Nine Years War had begun. O’Neill threw off the title of Earl and took the Celtic title, ‘The O’Neill’ essentially proclaiming himself high king – a position not held since Brian Boru’s death in 1014. His goal, he made clear, was to gain protection for the Catholic religion and to ensure that Ireland would be ruled by the Irish.
The three Hughes scored several victories against Crown forces, most notably at the Battle of Yellow Ford in 1598. However, a huge British force under Lord Mountjoy eventually ended the Nine Years War at the Battle of Kinsale in late 1601 in which Hugh Maguire was killed. O’Neill kept up guerilla raids while O’Donnell went to Spain to negotiate for aid. O’Neill had hoped to outlive the aging Elizabeth who would be succeeded by the Catholic James Stuart. Offers of leniency were refused by O’Neill, but when he learned that ODonnell had been poisoned in Spain, the greatest Irish Chieftain of his age, surrendered on March 30, 1603, to Lord Mountjoy. He pledged obedience before the Irish Parliament on April 3 and then, after the ceremony of submission he was told: Elizabeth of England had died on March 24! James Stuart of Scotland was now James I of England. O’Neill had won and never knew it. He and his nation had outlasted the Queen only to be tricked into submission by Lord Mountjoy before agreements with James could be ratified. The disarmed O’Neill was allowed to keep his land and his earldom, but lost his lordship over Ulster’s Chieftains who were all made Earls of the Crown, ending the Irish title of High King forever.
In the years that followed O’Neill’s rebellion, the restored Earls of Ulster faced a growing number of English settlers and a hostile administration. Then, in 1607, London summoned O’Neill and O’Donnell’s successor to London to answer charges of planning another rebellion. Knowing the perfidious nature of the Crown and that English planters were ready to seize their lands, O’Neill and O’Donnell surmised that their destruction was at hand. Their only course was escape to the continent and raise a force to reclaim their heritage. The hearts of the Irish were broken as the noblest princes of Erin – Ruari O’Donnell and his brothers; Conor Maguire, brother of the slain Hugh; Hugh O’Neill and his three sons and 100 other Earls sailed from Lough Swilly. They eventually landed in the Spanish Netherlands and from there proceeded to Rome. Their hopes of returning to liberate Ireland with a Catholic army soon dissipated and they lived out their years on meager papal pensions. O’Neill died there in 1616.
The Crown seized the opportunity and the Earls who fled were tried in absentia and convicted of treason, the penalty for which was forfeiture of their land. With 500,000 acres of land now in it’s possession, the Crown began a settlement program known as the Ulster Plantation. Its ultimate goal was the creation of a loyal population in Ulster through the settlement of thousands of non-Irish Protestants. Although it took a few decades to take hold, the Plantation of Ulster had a dramatic impact on the course of Irish history. Not only did it wipe out much of the province’s native Irish leadership by eliminating the holdings of the Irish Earls who fled, but it threw open the province to settlement by tens of thousands of English and Scottish Protestants. By the 1630s, in six Ulster counties, loyal Protestants owned 3 million of the 3.5 million acres of Irish land.