303 Shane the Proud

The later Tudors faced a choice in their policy towards Ireland – would they resign themselves to the old ways, ruling through the Old English with minimal control; or would they turn to outright conquest? In the 1560’s Shane O’Neill demonstrated the weakness of Tudor power.

Download Podcast - 303 Shane the Proud (Right Click and select Save Link As)

Shane the Proud – his life in song

Here’s a folk song about the life of Shane – courtesy of Frank.

A Map of Ireland in 1600

I’d paste a map here, but the only one I could find is copyright protected. It’s worth a quick look though, it’ll help everything make more sense. The website hasx also a lot more maps of Irish History so it’s a good resource. So follow the link to Ireland’s History in Maps


I forget, actually, where we got to in our story; my memory, possibly incorrect, is that we had arrived and talked about Cromwell’s promotion of his boss Henry VIII to the king of Ireland, rather than as previously, Lord of Ireland as based on a grant from the Pope – which of course, after the break with Rome was uncomfortable. There were negative and positive reasons advanced for this assumption of kingship; one was that because sovereignty had been rather fudged, this had encouraged licence among the Irish people who had not been obedient

As they of right and according to their bounden duties ought to have been[1]

A more positive approach, or more positive if you were an English Tudor, was to create one kingdom, rather than one separated into Gaelic and English zones, and where all the population would receive the same rights under the crown as the Old English, speaking English language and subject to English law. This was the same approach Cromwell had taken in Wales, though things were to play out rather differently there of course. But Ireland was also very different to Wales, in that although the Irish parliament remained subordinate to the English parliament, it did have its own parliament, its own privy council the theoretical constitutional position was the same as in England, government by consent in parliament. Ireland was a kingdom, parallel to England. That anyway was the hope, and the policy of surrender and regrant was to help implement and embed that policy in Irish soil – that Gaelic chiefs would surrender their lands to Henry, and he would regrant them with an English title and rights, Baron, Earl and so on. There was a fundamental problem with this, in that under Brehon law land was not owned by the individual, but by the Sept, or clan if you like, which would create some serious problems about recognition of the new rights, and the potential for get out clauses. Anyway, surrender and regrant is I am sure where we left it, because I remember that when I said that the failure of accommodation was not as inevitable as hindsight would have it, I received a sarky message. An Englishman telling the history of Ireland expects a sarky message or two. Wait til we get to the other Crommers.

But just to pick up on that again, to show just how recalcitrant even someone as compliant as I can be, the story of Elizabethan Ireland is at least in part the story of how sheer incompetence and viciousness of Elizabethan governance would fritter away the chances for success of that policy, although obviously religion will also have a part to play, but less so in the 16th century than you might think. Let me give you an example. Settle back and prepare to hear about a lot of revolts in Ireland over the next half century or so  – some names to bedazzle you, we’ll have Shane O’Neill, Edmund Butler, the Earl of Thomond, Rory Oge O’More the lord of Laos, the Earl of Desmond, Viscount Baltinglass and then the big one, Hugh O’Neill the Earl of Tyrone. It has been thought that these rebels were always rebels, harbouring their grievances and desire to breathe the air of freedom; but in fact all of them had either served the government or been willing to co-operate with the crown. [2] Hugh O O’Neil was famously no stranger to the English court as a nipper. In the end all of them would feel themselves forced into revolt by loss of status, or ambition – or mostly, by a fear and distrust of the administration.

Talking about England and Ireland’s history and relationship rather tends to be a discussion of politics and distinctly fighty politics at that, and fear not, I shall not deprive you of that – after all I’m a podcaster. But we should also say that it was of course not the intention of the English crown to sink their Irish kingdom in blood and destruction, very much the opposite; they confidently expected that by making Ireland English, the local inhabitants would be helped, improved, and live happier more productive lives within the framework of English law and governance. To many of the English in Ireland, Gaelic lordship was nothing short of Tyranny. This is from a tract produced by Edmund Tremayne in 1573, called the Discourse of Ireland about the Gaelic lord

He useth the inferior people at his will and pleasure. He eateth and spendeth upon them with man, horse and dog. He useth man, wife and children according to his own list, without any means to be withstanded or gainsaid. Not only as an absolute king, but as a tyrant or a lord over bondmen[3]

And by the time Elizabeth came to the throne, it seemed that Gaelic customs and culture, far from being subsumed by Englishness, were actually growing. I think you may be familiar after previous episodes with the groups of people living in Ireland in the 16th century or at least how the human beings were compartmentalised, it being impossible to get through life without neat boxes; the Gaelic Irish, or as they were known to Elizabethans, the ‘Wild’ Irish; the Old English, who were descendants of the original Norman invaders, in the days when the Normans like a rash, pretty much got into every crevice; the New English, people who came over to settle or be part of the administration or set up shop as merchants in the towns and so on.

Now there was relatively little confusion about the cultural orientation of the Gaelic Irish, and nor indeed of the New English. But of the old English there was. By the 1540s, the Englishry of both types had shrunk to around one half of the Island, and the New English were shocked on arrival to discover that the Old English had adopted a sort of hybrid identity. On the one hand, they generally recognised the authority of the Crown, pace the normal sort of rumpuses powerful nobles periodically had with their rulers, they passed on land by primogeniture like the English peerage, and they saw themselves as English. But they adopted much of the culture of Gaelic lords and of their Gaelic tenants; offering hospitality to Gaelic poets, judging their tenants’ grievances according to Brehon law. They spoke an older kind of English, more in tune with Chaucer’s English. There was a difference then and increasingly natural antagonism between the New English and the Old English, especially as the Reformation failed to take deep root in Ireland, and it became possible by the end of Elizabeth’s reign to conceive of the idea of Anglo Irish nationalism, rather than simply English vs Gaelic Irish.

When they came to Ireland, then, the New English of the md 16th century were a bit horrified at what they found; not only were the old aristocracy going native, but the land was going native too; farming forms a sort of metaphor. The English were firmly convinced that productive farmland, or at least lowland champion land, was there to be ploughed, given over to arable. But they found arable lands deserted, given over once more to the Gaelic concentration on cattle rearing, or reverting to Irish forest and scrub; it was a metaphor for cultural degeneracy in the incomprehending eyes of the English, rather than pastural agriculture; and the Irish practice of following their cattle to summer upland pastures convinced many English that parts of Ireland were basically empty; the belief that the Irish inhabitants were basically underusing their land would form an excuse for annexation and plantation. There is a word also of civility that will appear more and more; the English understood Gaelic life and customs not one whit, and they saw it as backward. A part of their mission then, was to bring the Irish to what they termed as civility. It is a process remarkably parallel to Lowland Scots attitudes to the Gaelic Highlanders in Scotland.

This confusing cultural patchwork and the strategy to make Tudor monarchy a reality had created the Tudor crown’s only standing army or at least the only one after Calais fell. By the 1550’s, the army numbered about 2,000. But it is possible to overdo the picture at the start of Elizabeth’s reign of an ungovernable and divided land; large parts of it were actually quite easy to govern. The English Pale on the eastern coast was largely peopled by descendants from medieval English colonists, and remained Anglophile in attitude, though with increasingly strong links with Gaelic society. They were ready to provide military support, and were actually often quite excited at the assertion of royal power – they hoped and expected to win riches and influence through the process, and be involved in the management of the extended royal polity. Other areas were also pretty dependable for the Crown; counties Wexford, Waterford and Kilkenny; the coastal towns Cork, Kinsale, Limerick and Galway. Together these areas were also the most heavily populated of the island.

However, to bring the whole island of Ireland into Cromwell’s original vision of a kingdom conforming to English laws and landownership carried with it an implication, a potential consequence. In the unlikely event that the Irish didn’t want to become English – a distant possibility, obviously, we come with lardy cake after all – but if they did not then they might have to be coerced.

Even in the 1570s when Tremayne wrote his discourse this was a live issue. As Tremayne put it, Elizabeth needed to decide whether she should

Govern Ireland after the Irish manner as it hath been accustomed, or to reduce it as near as maybe to the English government

Tremayne uses the word reduce in the Elizabethan manner, so rather than a negative lessening, a restoration to a more normal state of being. This issue had for decades been recognised – that it might be necessary to abandon the attempt to reconcile and bring Gaelic lords with them, and instead embark on conquest. Indeed, in 1562, the then viceroy the Earl of Sussex had written a plan which called for the conquest and colonisation of Gaelic Irishry, including the implementation of English style local institutions, a plan which his successor Henry Sidney would also pursue. It’s important to note that conquest never meant replacement of the ruling class or genocide, the latter an option consciously rejected on the rather callous ground that a prince was dependant for her glory on the number of people in her kingdom, and England could not be drained to populate Ireland. Nor did conquest mean the replacement of the Irish Gaelic ruling class – but it did mean all would be coerced into government in the English way.

On the balance of probabilities, it seems that Elizabeth supported this plan for conquest; but it’s a bit confusing because at the same time, because one of the first things Elizabeth actually did when she became queen was adopt another strand of her policies – government on the cheap. And so she ordered the standing army in Ireland to be cut by a fifth. But despite this, it seems Elizabeth believed conquest would be necessary and beneficial, but was to proceed slowly, bit by bit.

Conquest and Anglicisation offered Ireland better governance and as I have mentioned, what the Elizabethans called civility – which essentially meant being more English. While the ability to turn the world English may not be considered an obvious benefit, it’s just worth noting that before we descend into the warfare in their own minds at least the English thought the Irish would be better off by the end of it – they would cultivate their land more productively and be more prosperous, be governed through principles of consent, be closer to God. But there were other considerations of course. One was religion; the Reformation had proceeded rather poorly so far, especially outside the Pale, and the conversion from the old religion needed to be accelerated. As it happens, though, here Elizabeth and her Council were reluctant to push reformation too hard, which they thought might needlessly inflame relationships. So harsh religious repression such as executed in the Netherlands by Spain did not yet occur in Ireland, or even the level of repression that occurred in England.

The second was security. The English was constantly worried that Ireland would give their enemies a door into Elizabeth’s kingdoms. And while conflict and religious difference existed in Ireland that danger was enhanced still further; as the war between England and the Catholic world burned hotter, and as English fears turned out to have foundation, the search for security became more pressing.

Gap here


So while again we’ll spend most of our time talking about violence, and that indeed ended up being something of the focus of the period in Ireland, the English did spend time and effort trying to bring what they saw as better governance to Ireland. The basis of that governance would be the shire – the division of the Ireland into 32 counties of territorially based units of Administration; each would have identical judicial, administrative and fiscal structures. This was not new; some shires had been successfully established in Norman days, but from 13th century had been allowed to decline. In their place, Lordship had re-established its hold, with the practices associated with the term coign and livery; lordships defined by power relationships rather than based on property. As historian Ciaran Brady writes, this system was unstable, violent and wasteful; a morass of shifting allegiances, faction and clientage[4].   Even the winners in the process, including Old English earls such as Ormond and Kildare, recognised this, and were actually quite receptive to reform. So what was the Earl of Sussex’s plan?


The Earl of Sussex’s plan to revive and extend shiring and administration, then, was based on what he described as ‘constitutions’. In each of the shires, fundamental judicial principles were to be asserted – such as, defining stealing, burning, murder to be capital offences; accessories to theft and other crimes were to be prosecuted and punished; trial by jury was to be established empanelling freeholders or simply ‘honest men’. The practice of retaining, livery as it were, was to be tolerated but must be regulated by ‘booking’ any such retainers with the provincial governor and council. Irish lawyers, or the Brehons, could plead and be paid for under English law or ‘after the order of the Brehon law or allowed customs’. It’s a conciliatory approach; but in there lay a fatal contradiction, since in places Brehon law was fundamentally opposed to English law.

Sussex’s plan was not, however, a one size fits all approach. In the Pale, no greater local administration was needed in his view – the viceroy would take part in the meetings of Sheriffs, magistrates and officers. In some places, he advocated new Provincial Councils to govern regions covering numbers of shires. This was a practice already used in England and Wales, with the Council of Wales and the Council of the North, run by a government appointed President, working with a council of local lords and interests. President’s roles were administrative and military, and proposed for Munster, Connacht and Ulster; even there, there were nuances, with the proposed president in Ulster to be specifically military. Such Councils would be unnecessary in areas such as Leinster, where the O’Byrnes, O’Tooles and other Gaelic dynasties were already operating a shire system.

To a degree, by the turn of the century, the English could claim that the policy of shiring had been completed successfully, and Provincial councils established in Munster and Connaght. A new court to deal with petitions and infringements of public order; the Irish Privy Council remained and in theory contained both old and new English lords – and in the early years, in practice two. The parliament was to meet as called by the viceroy. However, the reality was that events badly affected the character of what was planned to be a civil administration; increasingly Irish administration became militarised under the pressure of conquest, violence and rebellion, so that shires were often only in place on paper. Courts beset by disorganisation and lack of comprehension.  The policy of colonisation adopted in Munster, Laix and Offaly were imposed from Westminster rather than growing out of local support, and so the viceroys universally hated the schemes, and cut across shiring and administration, as well as generating massive local resentment and resistance as we’ll see. But the most vicious and corrosive development was probably driven by martial law.






The original source of this problem also lay with Sussex. Martial law in England was deployed during rebellion; in Ireland Sussex adapted the law to allow it to be used prior to rebellion. More than a little different in spirit as well as practice. So, if the Viceroy issues a commission of martial law, the recipient English military captain was able to kill pretty much anyone they liked, with the exception of the greater lords; they were entitled to danger money in the form of 1/3rd of the goods and possessions of anyone they killed. Partly the expansion of the use of martial law was driven by the Elizabethan demand for savings and economy in the military; here was a system by which troop captains could have their salaries supplemented, how private individuals could be issued commissions therefore acting as soldiers that didn’t have to be paid by the state. Viceroys also consistently failed to prosecute captains that had exceeded their commissions; Under Sussex, the use of commissions had largely been confined to the east; but the viceroys Sidney and Fitzwilliam that followed Sussex used the mechanism of martial law with increasing regularity – Henry Sidney issued at least 90 during 1565-1571, and the rate increased to the end of Sidney’s second term of office in 1578. The rewards encouraged adventurers to come to Ireland to seek not the delivery of good governance for the betterment of the people, but to enrich themselves by imposing the power of the Queen’s government at small cost to the state. The result, in the words of historian David Edwards, was that ‘Ireland was increasingly in the grip of military and security agents of the Crown authorised to carry out killings and punishments with impunity and seek enrichment in the process.’[5] Unsurprisingly, often Gaelic lords and chieftans struck back at their tormentors, which in a gruesome sense simply justified the idea of pre-emptive martial authority.

To give some credit, when Elizabeth became aware of the problem she did take action; in 1585 she ordered a reduction in the use of martial law; in 1591 she abolished its use completely. But the damage had been done; the ‘cailleach’ as she was called in Gaelic Ireland, or the hag, was seen as a tyrant, and things were little better among the Anglo Irish.

Right, well that’s enough preamble I think; let us start to talk about what actually happened, and see how far we get this week. It might be best just to nibble a corner of Mary in a manner of speaking, to return to 1556 and the appointment of Thomas Radclyffe as Governor of Ireland; Radclyffe was soon in 1557 to succeed his older brother as Earl of Sussex. So, Sussex we are going to call him. As already described, Sussex was a man with a plan; of the two strategies, accommodation or conquest, Sussex favoured an aggressive assertion of his monarch’s rights in Ireland. He faced a problem though in the form of an almost equally ambitious man, one Shane O’Neill, a Gael who sought to enhance his power in Ulster, in the north of the island. For whose background we need to go a step further back to explain that as well as being controlled by a number of Irish lords, parts of Ulster were also being settled by Scots from the western isles of the MacDonalds. The reasons why the MacDonalds had started to settle in the area is obscure, but probably encouraged by the marriage of a MacDonald to the Bissets, supporters of the dominant Ulster O’Neill clan. In the early 16th century infiltration of the MacDonalds increased into an area of Antrim called the Glynns, and onto Rathlin Island. In the reign of James V, it seems that English fears of a Scottish invasion of Ireland, in the style of Edward Bruce, would be a reality again, fears put off by defeat of a combined Scottish and Irish army in 1539. The fear though, remained – and with the arrival of the 1550s, the fear of Scottish involvement came all tied up with fear of encirclement by the French, now of course led by the regent of Scotland, the French Mary of Guise, and her daughter and queen to be Mary I. So hold that thought.

Back to Shane O’Neill then, the son of Conn O’Neill, Leader of the Clandeboye O’Neills. He was fostered out to another powerful Ulster clan, the O’Donnells, in his youth, and survived abduction by a rival who challenged Conn O’Neill’s leadership of the O’Neills – unsuccessfully as it happens. In 1542, Conn O’Neill went in for the surrender and regrant offer from Henry VIII, and his eldest son Matthew O’Neill was simultaneously made Baron of Dungannon. Young Shane was left out in the cold.

You can’t keep a man like Shane the Proud down though; in 1548 he defeated the O’Neill clan in battle, ostensibly to re-assert his Father’s control over a clan being undermined by those MacDonalds taking over in Antrim. In this end of keeping the Scots at bay, Tyrone’s aims co-incided with those of the English who built a garrisoned fort at Newry in south East Ulster to assert more control in Ulster. As Shane sought to build his power in Ulster, the struggle became a triangular one between Dungannon, his brothers, and Shane and Tyronne. The net result was that Tyronne was driven out and would die in the Pale in 1559, and Shane, despite not being the Earl of Tyronne de jure, was Earl of Tyronne de facto, and he achieved this in part by securing the support of the MacDonalds.

Part of the problem here was that we now had two competing methods of claiming lordship – the Gaelic system by which Shane claimed to be Tánaiste AW-nish-tə, or heir,  and the English descent by primogeniture, by which, after Tyronne’s death, Brian O’Neill should have been Earl, not Shane. The English tended to misinterpret Shane’s motives,  seeing him as simply refusing to accept the right of the earl; The English Chancellor from the Pale, Thomas Cusack, went there to try and understand the tangle, and clearly found against Shane, reporting back of him that his ‘pryde, stubbornes, and all bent to do what he coulde to distroy the pore countrey’. O’Neill burned the Earl of Tyronne’s house as Cusack left, which I guess was another way of flicking the Vs.

This was the crisis Sussex inherited when he arrived in 1556. English intervention had not been consistent or forceful; they rather accepted Shane’ O’Neill’s defacto control and failed to adequately support the Earl; the interplay of the traditional shifting alliances and factions also played its part as the Old English Earl of Kildare supported Shane against his father. It’s a bit of a mess, and frankly Sussex fluffed his lines from the start – he was furious at Shane’s alliance with the MacDonalds, but agreed to pardon him, and simply ignored the succession issue. Encouraged by this, O’Neill attacked the O’Donnells, and the scale of his ambition became clear; he sought to extend the power of the O’Neills ‘so that there should be but one king in Ulster for the future’.

In 1557, Sussex called for the O’Neills to support him as he carried the war to the MacDonalds. Shane contrived not to reply, and when Sussex attacked into Ulster he also put Armagh to the sword, to weaken Shane’s grip on lordship. Sussex’s campaign was accompanied by brutal scorched earth, burning crops and slaughtering cattle, with resulting famine. His campaign included Rathlin Island, which would suffer 3 massacres – this one in 1557, by the Earl of Essex in 1591, and one by the Campbells of Scotland in 1642.

Sussex increasingly tried to bring O’Neill to book, fearing his network of support that stretched from Kildare to the Earl of Argyll in the Scottish Isles; but continually failed to bring his defeat; on one occasion, he attempted to build an alliance of minor septs of O’Neils against Shane – only for Shane to march through Ulster intimidating the Septs back to his side. And initially at least, and to Sussex’s despair, when Elizabeth came to the throne she was rather inclined to accept Shane O’Neill’s de facto supremacy. But Sussex talked her out of it – and in a way you have to think there was no point with the old surrender and regrant if folks like Shane could just replace Tyronne, who had accepted the deal. But try as he might, Sussex could not bring Shane O’Neil to heel; he once again tried to build an alliance based on the O’Donnells – but O’Neil got in first and defeated them and took O’Donnell prisoner. This didn’t present alliance with English viceroys in a particularly positive light. Ulster had been militarised for a long time now, and added to his local warriors Shane also had contingents of the famed gallowglasses.

Have we talked about Gallowglasses? I feel we might have done so, since the gallowglass had been a feature of Irish history since maybe the 13th century. We are talking here of a breed of professional mercenaries, the name comes from an anglicisation of gallóglach (roughly pronounced GAHL-o-glukh), since they came originally from the western Isles of Scotland. They came to Ireland to fight, either as freelancers, or as part of a lord’s household, although generally, it was only the greater lords who afford a permanent addition to their household – either by paying in coin, or kind, or by settling them on land. Smaller lords tended to hire in when needed. The role of gallowglass became often hereditary, and retained a clan structure from the Gaelic Highlands. Over time, then, many gallowglass clans became embedded into Irish society, joined by local Irish wanting to escape the life of a peasant. Some Clans became well known in specific areas, like MacSheehy and Macsweeny in Munster, Macdonell in Munster, Macsweeny in Ulster. I’m sure my mate Frank McClintock told me the McClintocks also emigrated to Ireland, but I could find a reference, so maybe they went to Ireland in peace. Certainly Frank is a peaceable birding sort of chap, with a wonderful hotel in Portugal called Paradise in Portugal by the way, you could go there. Back to English atrocities which are very much part of the Tudor Ireland story of course, but over the centuries the Gallowglass wasn’t a great deal better, dedicated to war, with a less than generous attitude towards the peasantry given their constant closeness to death. But they could form the backbone of both Gaelic and Anglo Irish armies and were a formidable enemy.

Twice more Sussex invaded Ulster, twice more he failed to beat Shane the Proud – even trying in August 1561 to have him assassinated. Nothing seemed to work, and the relationship between Sussex and O’Neill descended into a slanging match by correspondence. O’Neill stoutly defended his right to Ulster

You began with a conquest in my land without cause, and so long as ther be any Englysh man in my contre against my wyll, I wyll not send agreement nor message unto you from hence, but wyll send my complaint in another way to the Quenes Majestie to declare unto her Grace howe youe interrupted my going

True to form, by 1562, Elizabeth lost confidence in Sussex – and contacted Kildare to strike a deal with O’Neil; under this, O’Neil came to London to submit to the queen and discuss terms, with Sussex scuttling over to make his case as well. Shane’s arrival at court at Westminster was recorded by William Camden.

Shane O’Neill came out of Ireland that year as promised, surrounded by Galloglass for security, with bare heads, ash-coloured hanging curls, golden saffron undershirts, if not the colour of infected human urine, loose sleeves, short tunics, and shaggy lace: the English nobility followed with as much wonderment as if they had come from China or America.

Shane clearly made a massive impression, but he came not just to submit, but to treat, and in his arguments were exposed that fundamental flaw in surrender and regrant. Because Shane O’Neill, amongst other arguments, claimed that Tyrone could not have been made earl, because he did not own the land as an individual, it was owned by the sept; O’Neill claimed his authority by Brehon law – and as we’ve seen, that was incompatible with English law.  Even Elizabeth, keen to resolve the violence, could not make O’Neill lord in Ulster without completely torching the power of the Crown to award Earldoms. O’Neill left, disillusioned by the potential to reach agreement. He was simply confirmed as captain by Elizabeth not hereditary Earl which was a fudge that achieved precisely zip.

So, Nothing was resolved at the visit, but once again Kildare intervened, agreeing a treaty with Shane that effectively gave O’Neill all he wanted and made him an almost independent ruler of Ulster. Shane then ruled with a cruelty and waged war with a viciousness that competed with any of his peers and the English which kind of complicates any purely story Irish Nationalist story, but the English could only put up with his de facto control – and there were potential benefits, persuading Shane for example to attack the Scots in Antrim, though he had little success. But it was increasingly clear that Shane’s rule in Ulster was incompatible with either peace or English rule.

However, O’Neill’s story would end not under Sussex, but under his successor Henry Sydney. Sussex had done his best to establish English rule through the rest of Ireland too, travelling energetically to impress and overawe Gaelic chiefs. But his performance against the O’Neill fatally weakened his position. His fall from grace and recall to England came about as Robert Dudley corresponded with Kildare and with O’Neill, and undermined Sussex’s position; and it’s a feature of the English Viceroys that court faction played a greater part in their success or failure than in English politics – viceroys had to watch their back at court, all of which undermined their ability to pursue consistent objectives in Ireland.

When Sydney took over in 1566 he made the defeat of O’Neill his priority. O’Neil was too powerful to be tolerated in his view; as Sydney wrote to Dudley

I believe Lucifer was never puft up with more pryde nor ambytyon than that Onelr [O’Neill] ys … he continually kepyth 600 armed men … about him, he ys able to bring to the field a thousand horsmen and 4,000 footmen;

O’Neill was declared a traitor and Sydney marched into Ulster; now at last O’Neill was challenged, and drew on all his resources – seeking help from the Earls of Desmond in Munster, from Mary in Scotland, and asking for 5,000 men from France. But in the end it was not Sydney, but Shanes’s old enemy, the O’Donnell of Tyrconnel that ended Shane the Proud’s career, defeating him on the River Swilly and by so doing Shane’s supporters leaked away. O’Neill escaped, but his reputation was irreparably damaged, and in desperation he sought help from the Scots, the Macdonalds of Antrim. Given his up and down relationship with the MacDonald this was brave, brave very much in a Yes Minister sort of way. The result was that his throat was cut along with those of his advisers, and his head sent to Sydney as a nice present. Sydney stuck it on a pole outside Dublin castle as you do.

O’Neill’s reputation suffered at the hands of English contemporaries and historians, seeming to leave no legacy except violence, ambition and instability. Even Irish nationalist historians struggled to incorporate him into the Gaelic tradition, repelled by his ambivalent attitude to his fellow Gael and pursuit of English recognition. But he organised and harnessed the power of Ulster and Gaelic Ireland as never before, and for many years balked the extension of English political power and culture in the north of Ireland.

[1] Guy, J Tudor England p358

[2] Edwards, D ‘Ireland: Security and Conquest’ in Doran,S Ed The Elizabethan World p196

[3] Cooper, J The Queen’s Agent p240

[4] Brady, C Politics, Policy and Power, 1550– 1603, in Ohlmeyer, J Ed:  The Cambridge History of Ireland: Volume 2, 1550–1730 p 27


[5] Edwards, D ‘Ireland: Security and Conquest’ in Doran,S Ed The Elizabethan World p191








Leave a Reply