Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone

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Hugh O'Neill
Aodh Ó Néill
Earl of Tyrone
PredecessorTurlough Luineach O'Neill
SuccessorHenry O'Neill
Bornc. 1550[a]
County Armagh, Kingdom of Ireland
Died20 July 1616 (aged about 66)
Rome, Papal States
BuriedSan Pietro in Montorio, Rome
IssueHugh, Henry, Alice, & others
FatherMatthew O'Neill
MotherSiobhán Maguire

Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone[b] (Irish: Aodh Mór Ó Néill; literally Hugh the Great O'Neill; c. 1550[a] – 20 July 1616) was an Irish Gaelic lord and key figure of the Irish Nine Years' War. Known as the "Great Earl",[4][5] O'Neill led the coalition of Irish clans against the English Crown in resistance to the Tudor conquest of Ireland under Queen Elizabeth I.

Though primarily raised in the Pale amongst English people, by the 1590s he was openly rebelling against the Crown's advances into Ulster, his province of birth. He formally allied with chiefs Red Hugh O'Donnell and Hugh Maguire via their marriages to his daughters.[6][7]

He also held the title Baron Dungannon, and later became Chief of the Name of the O'Neill clan. O'Neill was decisively defeated at the Battle of Kinsale, and in what is known as the Flight of the Earls, fled with his countrymen to continental Europe. He was granted a small pension by Pope Paul V but died during his exile in Rome.[8]

Family background and early life[edit]

Birth and family[edit]

Family tree
Hugh O'Neill with one of his wives, his father, and selected relatives[c]
1st Earl

c. 1480 – 1559
1st Baron



c. 1530 – 1567
2nd Earl

d. 1562
de jure
3rd Earl

c. 1540 – 1616

d. 1591

c. 1585 – 1649

1st Earl

d. 1636

XXXSubject of
the article
XXXEarl of
XXXEarls of
d.v.p. = decessit vita patris (predeceased his father)

Hugh O'Neill was born c. 1550[a] in northern County Armagh - possibly in a crannog such as Marlacoo.[12] He came from a line of the O'Neill dynastyderbfine—that the English authorities recognized as the legitimate successors to the Chiefs of the O'Neills and to the title of Earl of Tyrone. He was the second son of Feardorcha "Matthew" O'Neill, 1st Baron Dungannon (reputed illegitimate son of Conn Bacagh O'Neill, 1st Earl of Tyrone) and his wife Siobhán Maguire.[8][14]

O'Neill succession conflict[edit]

During Hugh's childhood, a rivalry had formed between his uncle Shane and his father Matthew.[12] Shane, a legitimate son of Conn O'Neill, employed the ambivalent status of Matthew's paternity to affirm his own claim to the title "The O'Neill". This centred on the claim that Matthew was the son of a Dublin blacksmith surnamed Kelly and his wife Alison, whom Conn had had an affair with. This would render Matthew illegitimate in both the Irish and English systems of succession.[15][8] Shane's immediate family became known as the "MacShanes", and Matthew's family as the "MacBarons". The English encouraged this conflict as it weakened the powerful O'Neill clan.[12]

Matthew was killed in 1558[5][8] by the O'Donnelly followers of Shane and Conn, placing his sons Brian and Hugh in a precarious situation. The continuing support for their claims came from the English administration in Dublin Castle, which was anxious to use the support of the sons of Matthew to break the independent power of the O'Neill lords of Ulster. This was part of a general English policy to transform Irish Gaelic titles into feudal titles granted under the Crown that would bring them entirely within the English legal system through a policy known as surrender and regrant, in which the Irish Clan Chiefs forcibly surrendered their lands to the Crown and had them granted back into their keeping as property of the Crown, rather than the property of the sept, or Gaelic extended family.[citation needed]

Raised in the Pale[edit]

Upon his father's murder, Hugh O'Neill became a ward of the Crown. Hugh and his brother Brian were moved into the care of the Anglo-Irish Hovenden family, and were raised at their household in Balgriffin, County Dublin - a property that formerly belonged to Hugh's grandfather Conn.[16][8] Giles Hovenden, Hugh's foster father, was an English settler in Laois.[17] He would remain close with his adoptive family throughout the rest of his life.[8] His foster brother Henry became his secretary and accompanied Hugh on his flight in 1607.[18][19] Henry and his brother Richard led Hugh's troops in the late 1580s.[20]

Growing up in the Pale, amongst English people, Hugh gained a knowledge of English customs and politics, mainly through his attendance at the Irish Parliament and the court in England. He was able to secure allies such as the Earls of Ormonde and Leicester.[17][16]

Early political career[edit]

In 1562, he succeeded Brian, as Baron of Dungannon, when the latter was assassinated by Shane's tanist (heir) Turlough Luineach O'Neill.[21][22] This suddenly made Hugh a significant figure in Ireland's political landscape.[12]

Shane died in 1567. Hugh's wardship formally ended upon his return to Ulster under the protection of Sir Henry Sidney, Lord Deputy of Ireland.[4][8] Turlough had succeeded Shane as chief of the name, but was not recognized by the English as the legitimate Earl of Tyrone. The Crown, therefore, supported Hugh as the rightful claimant and as an ally in Gaelic-controlled Ulster.[citation needed] Sidney granted Hugh territory in Oneilland, County Armagh, intending to keep Turlough from crossing south past the River Blackwater, thus creating further discord within the O'Neill family.[8]

Now returned to his home province, Hugh began engaging the support of neighbouring Irish Gaelic families, including the O'Hagans, the O'Quinns and his own family the MacBarons. According to Sidney, these families "much repined that the great and regal estate of the O'Neill... should be so broken and dismembered". Hugh joined the 1st Earl of Essex in an abortive attack on Turlough, which put him in good standing with Essex. By the early 1570s, Hugh was using his combined support from the Pale and Ulster to put Turlough under heavy pressure.[8]

He also formed an alliance with the O'Donnell clan by marrying Siobhán O'Donnell, daughter of chief Hugh McManus O'Donnell.[8] Essex announced the marriage on 14 June 1574.[23] Hugh's previous marriage had been annulled earlier the same year, on grounds of consanguinity.[1] In 1579, Hugh repudiated his marriage to Siobhán[24] and prepared to wed Turlough's daughter, with the aim of becoming the O'Neill tanist. His plan failed and Hugh reconciled with his wife.[8]

Per an arrangement with the Crown, Hugh agreed to defend the Pale's borders from fellow Ulstermen in exchange for soldiers. This arrangement allowed him to extend his influence over southeastern Ulster.[8] In 1580, during the Second Desmond Rebellion in Munster, Hugh fought with the English forces against Gerald FitzGerald, 14th Earl of Desmond. In 1584 he assisted Sir John Perrot against Sorley Boy, the first Chief of Clan MacDonnell of the Glens.[4][16] Lord Deputy Arthur Grey praised him as "the only Irish nobleman that hath done any service and drawn blood since my coming".[8][4]

Engraving of a portrait

Rise to power[edit]

In 1585 he was summoned to attend the Irish House of Lords in Dublin,[4] and in 1587, he successfully persuaded Elizabeth I in making him Earl of Tyrone.[16] He was also awarded a patent to the lands of his grandfather Conn.[citation needed]

However, with Turlough now having succeeded Shane as The O'Neill, he had yet to choose as tanist. The position was contested by Hugh and Shane's sons, the MacShanes. Due to their father, the MacShanes were favoured within Tyrone, but outside the kingdom, they were disliked because of the cruelty of their father towards the various smaller Kingdoms under the overlordship of the O'Neills. Furthermore, the MacShanes had lost a valuable ally in their kin, the Fitzgeralds of Desmond, following their defeat in the Desmond Wars.[16]

Hugh was able to gain an important ally in the O'Donnell clan of Tyrconnell. His daughter Rose was betrothed to tanist Red Hugh O'Donnell around 1587.[25] From the O'Donnells, Hugh O'Neill was able to secure Scottish mercenaries to fight the MacShanes. In turn, he supported O'Donnell in a succession dispute within his own kingdom.[16]

Through his other contacts, Hugh had the support of lords and earls in Ormonde, Leicester and Argyll, and even had the support of Lord Deputy William FitzWilliam, whom he bribed. With this overwhelming alliance, in 1592 Turlough was forced to name Hugh as his tanist. Afterwards, Hugh murdered Hugh Gavelagh MacShane,[16] who had exposed to Fitzwilliam that the Earl was making treasonous dealings with the Spanish.[26] Hugh reputedly hanged Gavelagh over a Hawthorn tree with his bare hands[16] - though one source claims the executioner was a man from County Meath, since the people of County Tyrone were still sympathetic to the MacShanes.[26]

It was during this war of succession that the English administration had begun to become suspicious of O'Neill's ambitions, and in 1587 they kidnapped Red Hugh O'Donnell, holding him in Dublin Castle, along with two MacShanes, Art and Henry. After several failed attempts to break him out of prison, in December 1591 O'Neill was finally able to successfully aid the escape of O'Donnell and the MacShanes.[16][27] According to a 1614 history of Donegal Abbey, O'Neill bribed Fitzwilliam with £1,000[d] to aid in O'Donnell's escape.[28][16] Henry split from Art and Red Hugh in Dublin,[27] and the remaining pair were led south by O'Neill's emissary, O'Hagan.[29]

The two fugitives fled to the Wicklow Mountains, a stronghold of the O'Byrnes, a clan led by O'Neill's ally Fiach McHugh O'Byrne. An O'Byrne search party found the two buried in snow and close to death near Glendalough. Red Hugh famously lost his two big toes to frostbite, but MacShane died. While it is believed MacShane died of exposure, there has been some speculation as to whether O'Neill had the O'Byrnes kill MacShane when they found him, to remove him as a political opponent of O'Neill.[16]

His constant disputes with Turlough were fomented by the English with a view to weakening the power of the O'Neills,[8][12] but the two came to some agreement and Turlough abdicated in 1593. Hugh was subsequently inaugurated as The O'Neill at Tullyhogue in the style of the former Gaelic kings, and became the most powerful lord in Ulster. Turlough died in 1595.[4]


O'Neill's career was marked by unceasing power politics: at one time he appeared to submit to English authority, and at another intrigued against the Dublin government in conjunction with lesser Irish clan chiefs.[4] In keeping with the practice common at the time, he bribed officials both in Ireland and at Elizabeth I's court in London.[30] Though entirely supported by the Dublin administration in his early years, he seems to have been unsure whether his position as Chief of the O'Neills was best secured by an alliance with the English or by rebellion against the advance of their government into Ulster from 1585.[citation needed]

O'Neill ruled as a sort of absolute monarch. Upon claiming the title of the O'Neill, Hugh decided that he needed to increase the revenue he was generating from the taxes on his subjects. Eventually, he was generating £80,000 of revenue. For comparison, in the 1540s the Tudor monarchy in England had been only making £40,000 of revenue. Although that figure had certainly increased since then, in financial terms O'Neill was in a position to challenge the English administration.[16]

He also tied the peasantry to the land, effectively making them serfs, increasing production of materials and guaranteeing his supply of labour. The increased revenue allowed him to purchase muskets, pikes and ammunition from Britain. He also had several Spanish and English military advisors in his pay, the Spanish ones having been sent by Philip II of Spain.[16]

O'Neill, like his predecessor Shane O'Neill, introduced conscription to all men within his country, regardless of their social class. Ultimately, the increased cash flow, coupled with the production of materials from the larger labour force, allowed O'Neill to arm and feed over 8,000 men—quite impressive for a Gaelic lord. The force was trained and equipped with the latest European weapons and tactics.[16]

In the early 1590s, the English government in Ulster took the form of a Provincial Presidency, to be headed by the colonist, Henry Bagenal who lived at Newry.[citation needed] In 1591, O'Neill roused the ire of Bagenal by eloping with his sister, Mabel, but showed his loyalty to the crown with his military support for his brother-in-law in the defeat of Hugh Maguire at Belleek in 1593.[4] After Mabel's death,[citation needed] O'Neill gradually fell into a barely concealed opposition to the crown and sought aid from Spain and the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. In 1595, Sir John Norris was ordered to Ireland at the head of a considerable force for the purpose of subduing him, but O'Neill succeeded in taking the Blackwater Fort before Norris could prepare his forces. O'Neill was instantly proclaimed a traitor at Dundalk.[4] The war that followed is known as the Nine Years' War.

Nine Years' War[edit]

O'Neill followed Shane's policy of arming his Clansmen, rather than relying as Turlough had done upon Scots mercenary soldiers, such as redshanks or Irish professionals employed under buannacht. This policy allowed him to field an impressive force, with calivers and gunpowder supplied from Spain and Scotland, and in 1595 he gave the crown authorities a shock by ambushing and routing a small English army at the Battle of Clontibret. He and other clan chiefs then offered the crown of Ireland to King Philip II of Spain who refused it.[citation needed]

In spite of the traditional enmity between his people and the Chiefs of Clan O'Donnell, O'Neill allied himself with Hugh Roe O'Donnell, son of Shane's former ally and enemy Hugh O'Donnell, and the two chieftains opened communications with King Philip II of Spain. In some of their letters to the king—intercepted by the lord deputy, Sir William Russell—they were shown to have promoted themselves as champions of the Roman Catholic Church, claiming liberty of conscience as well as political liberty for the native inhabitants of Ireland. In April 1596, O'Neill received promises of help from Spain and thereafter chose to temporize with the authorities, professing his loyalty to the crown whenever circumstances required.[31] This policy was a success and, even though Sir John Norris sought to bring him to heel, O'Neill managed to defer English attempts on his territory for more than two years.[citation needed]

In 1598, a cessation of hostilities was arranged and a formal pardon was granted to O'Neill by Queen Elizabeth. Within two months he was again in the field, and on 14 August he destroyed an English army at the Battle of the Yellow Ford on the Blackwater river,[32] in which engagement the English Commander, Henry Bagenal, was killed.[33] It was the greatest of all setbacks to English arms in Ireland.[citation needed] If the Earl had been capable of driving home his advantage, he might have successfully upset English power in the country, as discontent had broken out in every part—and especially in the south, where James Fitzthomas Fitzgerald with O'Neill's support was asserting his claim to the Earldom of Desmond at the head of a formidable army of clans loyal to the Geraldines—discontent broke into open rebellion. But Tyrone, who possessed but little generalship, procrastinated until the golden opportunity was lost.[32]

Eight months after the battle of the Yellow Ford, a new Lord Lieutenant, the 2nd Earl of Essex, landed in Ireland[32] with an expeditionary force sent there from England of 16,000 troops and 1,500 horses.[34] After months of ill-managed operations in the south of the country, and the loss of three-quarters of his forces to disease, desertion, and execution of hundreds of troops for cowardice[35] he had a parley with Tyrone at a ford on the Lagan on 7 September 1599, when a truce was arranged.[32][36] Elizabeth was displeased by the favourable conditions allowed to O'Neill,[32] as she pointed out, if she had intended to simply abandon Ireland she would not have needed to send Essex there,[citation needed] and by Essex's treatment of him as an equal.[32] The Lord Lieutenant then travelled back to the Queen's court near London without permission—a desperate move, which culminated, more than a year later, in a failed attempt at an uprising in London, and weeks after, his execution for high treason on 25 February 1601.[37]

The queen was in a tricky situation because political discourse was dominated by the issue of the succession to the throne, just as her most illustrious military commanders were being frustrated by O'Neill in the middle of the Anglo-Spanish War.[citation needed] Tyrone continued to concert measures with the Irish Clans in Munster, and issued a manifesto to the Catholics of Ireland, summoning them to join his standard as he protested that the interests of religion were his first care. After a campaign in Munster in January 1600, during which the Anglo-Irish Plantation of Munster was destroyed, he hastened north to Donegal, where he received supplies from Spain and a token of encouragement from Pope Clement VIII.[32] At this point the controversial Jesuit, James Archer, was effectively operating as his representative at the Spanish court.[citation needed]

In May 1600 the English achieved a strategic breakthrough, when Sir Henry Docwra, at the head of a considerable army, took up a position in O'Neill's rear at Derry; meanwhile, the new lord deputy, Sir Charles Blount, 8th Baron Mountjoy (a protégé of Essex[38]), marched in support from Westmeath to Newry, compelling O'Neill to retire to Armagh. A large reward was offered for the rebel's capture, dead or alive.[32]

In October 1601, the long-awaited aid from Spain appeared in the form of an army under Don Juan de Aguila, which occupied the town of Kinsale in the extreme south of the country.[32] Mountjoy rushed to contain the Spanish, while O'Neill and O'Donnell were compelled to hazard their armies in separate marches from the north, through territories defended by Sir George Carew, in the depths of a severe winter. They gained little support en route.[citation needed] At Bandon they joined, and then blockaded the English army that was laying siege to the Spanish.[32] The English were in a poor state, with many of their troops disabled with dysentery, and the extreme winter weather made life in camp very difficult. But owing to poor communications with the besieged Spanish and a crucial failure to withstand the shock of a daring English cavalry charge, O'Neill's army was quickly dispersed. The Irish clans retreated, and the Spanish commander surrendered. The defeat at the battle of Kinsale was a disaster for O'Neill and ended his chances of winning the war.[citation needed]

O'Donnell went to Spain to seek further assistance, where he died soon afterwards (there was evidence to show poisoning by Anglo-Irish double agent James "Spanish" Blake was suspected, however, he most likely died of the flu).[32] With a shattered force, O'Neill made his way once more to the north, where he renewed his policy of ostensibly seeking pardon while warily defending his territory. English forces managed to destroy crops and livestock in Ulster in 1601–1602, especially in the lands of O'Neill's principal vassal, Donal O'Cahan. This led to O'Cahan's withdrawal from O'Neill, and fatally weakened his power. In June 1602 O'Neill destroyed his capital at Dungannon and retreated into the woods of Glenconkeyne.[39] Early in 1603, Elizabeth instructed Mountjoy to open negotiations with the rebellious chieftains, and O'Neill made his submission in the following April to Mountjoy, who concealed the news of the queen's death until the negotiations had concluded.[32]

Peace settlement[edit]

O'Neill went with Mountjoy to Dublin, where he heard of the accession of King James I. He presented himself at the court of the king in June, accompanied by Rory O'Donnell, who had become chief of the O'Donnells after the departure of his brother Hugh Roe. The English courtiers were greatly incensed at the gracious reception accorded by James to these notable rebels.[32]

Although O'Neill was confirmed in his title and core estates, upon his return to Ireland he immediately fell into dispute with Chichester's Dublin administration.[32] Under the 1603 peace agreement most of his land had been given to his former Brehon law tenants. in the case of the Bann Fishery, the government eventually established that his entitlement to the benefit of that property was nullified on account of the original Anglo-Norman conquest in 1172, a precedent of significant implications for the former Gaelic polity.[e] In the meantime, it was the dispute over O'Neill's rights concerning certain of his former feudatories—Donal O'Cahan being the most important—that led to his flight from Ireland. They were now freeholders of the Kingdom of Ireland, with new legal rights, but O'Neill expected them to support him as in the past, which they declined to do. In O'Cahan's case, the Ó Catháin clan had traditionally inaugurated the O'Neill kings in the past. Chichester considered O'Cahan's case to be pivotal, as if he caved in to O'Neill then other Ulster chiefs might also be persuaded to give up their freehold rights, and another war might follow.[citation needed]

This dispute dragged on until 1607, when O'Neill was invited by King James to go to London to argue his case. Warned, however, that his arrest was imminent[citation needed] (and possibly persuaded by Rory O'Donnell, 1st Earl of Tyrconnell—whose relations with Spain had endangered his own safety) the decision was made to flee to Spain.[32]


The path O'Neill and O'Donnell took from Rathmullan to Rome

"The Flight of the Earls" occurred on 14 September 1607, when O'Neill and O'Donnell embarked at midnight at Rathmullan on Lough Swilly on a voyage bound for Spain. Accompanying them were their wives, families and retainers, numbering ninety-nine persons. Driven by contrary winds to the east, they took shelter in the Seine estuary and were told by the Spanish to pass the winter in the Spanish Netherlands and not to proceed to Spain itself. In April 1608, they proceeded to Rome, where they were welcomed and hospitably entertained by Pope Paul V.[32] The journey to Rome was recorded in great detail by Tadhg Ó Cianáin.[40] In November 1607 the flight was proclaimed as treasonous by James I.[41] A bill of attainder was passed against O'Neill by the Parliament of Ireland in 1613.[32]

The hopes of the earls for military support foundered as Philip III of Spain wanted to maintain the recent 1604 peace treaty with James I of England, the Spanish economy had gone bankrupt in 1596 and its European fleet had been destroyed some months earlier by the Dutch Republic at the Battle of Gibraltar. This suggests that the Flight was impulsive and unplanned.[citation needed]

Inscription on O'Neill's tomb - "Deo optimo maximo, Prince Hugh O'Neill, skeleton"

In late 1615, O'Neill fell ill with a fever and never recovered.[42] He died in the city of Rome on 20 July 1616 and was interred in the church of San Pietro in Montorio.[32] Throughout his nine-year exile he was active in plotting a return to Ireland, toying variously both with schemes to oust English authority outright and with proposed offers of pardon from London. When the former Crown loyalist Sir Cahir O'Doherty launched O'Doherty's rebellion by the Burning of Derry in 1608, it raised hopes of a return, but the rebellion was quickly defeated. Oghy (Eochaidh) O'Hanlon was Hugh's nephew and played a leading role in O'Doherty's rebellion. As a principal rebel leader, O'Hanlon had been stripped of his inheritance by Sir Arthur Chichester, and he may have been taken into protective custody before his exile to Sweden. O'Hanlon was pressed into Swedish military service and threatened with execution if he resisted.[43][44]

Upon news of his death, the court poets of Ireland engaged in the contention of the bards.[citation needed]

Status in Ireland[edit]

In 1598 O'Neill appointed James FitzThomas FitzGerald, the so-called Sugán Earl, as Earl of Desmond. Two years later in his camp at Inniscarra near Cork city, he recognized the celebrated Florence MacCarthy as The MacCarthy Mor or Prince of Desmond.[45] The fiasco of the 1599 campaign by Essex in Ireland added to the power vacuum in most parts of Ireland.[citation needed]

O'Neill had little influence on the Lords of the Pale in Leinster, and his army had to feed itself by plunder, making him unpopular. He made enemies of some lords by interfering in their traditional autonomy if they did not give him their entire support. These included Lord Inchiquin; Ulick Burke, 3rd Earl of Clanricarde; the Magennis of west County Down and Tiobóid na Long Bourke.[citation needed]

O'Neill issued a proclamation to the Pale Lords on 15 November 1599, many of whom were Roman Catholic, protesting that his campaign was not for personal power but only for the freedom of the Catholic religion.[46] This was unconvincing to them, as before 1593 he had practised as an Anglican, and was not known for having any great interest in religion.[citation needed]

At the international level, O'Neill and O'Donnell had offered themselves as vassals of King Philip II of Spain in late 1595, and suggested that Archduke Albert might be crowned Prince of Ireland, which was declined. In late 1599, in a strong position after Essex's failed campaign, O'Neill sent a list of 22 proposed terms for a peace agreement to Queen Elizabeth, including a request on the status of future English viceroys. This amounted to accepting English sovereignty over Ireland as a reality while hoping for tolerance and a strong Irish-led administration. The proposal was ignored.[47]

Personality and character[edit]

O'Neill was a skilled negotiator[8] and a consummate liar. He consistently deceived government officials, whether via bribes or simple bluffing. According to Hiram Morgan, O'Neill is an enigma to historians due to the successful and "elaborate campaign of disinformation he waged."[48] His wide range of contacts, which included Old English, Gaelic Irish and "New English" figures, and made him one of the most accomplished Irish politicians of his day.[8]

D'Alton believes that Hugh O'Neill lacked the magnetism of his son-in-law Red Hugh O’Donnell,[49][50] though Morgan believes he was "possessed of a charisma which captivated the men and women who came in contact with him".[8] At the very least, O'Neill compensated with his caution and restraint, "laying his plans with care and refusing to be led by impulse or passion".[49][50]

Nevertheless, he was not opposed to murdering his opponents for political gain, as evident by his ordering the death of Gavelagh. He was also willing to put himself in danger during his many travels to Dublin. Ultimately, O'Neill's political ambitions were not achieved, per the outcome of his rebellion.[48]


Hugh O'Neill was married four times:

Katherine O'Neill[edit]

He married a daughter, probably Katherine, of Brian MacPhelim O'Neill of Clandeboye. In 1574, the marriage was annulled on grounds of consanguinity,[1][23] and Katherine subsequently married Niall MacBrian Faghartach.[51] Their children include:

  • Conn (died c. December 1600)[23][13]
  • A daughter who married Sir Ross McMahon in c. 1579[23][13]
  • A daughter who married "M'Art"[23]

Siobhán "Joanna" O'Donnell[edit]

He married Joanna O'Donnell (Siobhán Ní Domhnaill;[f] died c. January 1591[g]) on 14 June 1574.[53][13][23] Their marriage was repudiated in 1579, when he planned to marry a daughter of Turlough O'Neill, but shortly afterwards they were reconciled.[8] They had two sons and multiple daughters:

Mabel Bagenal[edit]

Hugh was betrothed to Mabel Bagenal (c. 1571 - December 1595) in July 1591.[23] They married on 3 August 1591,[54][23] and had no offspring together.[13]

Catherine Magennis[edit]

Hugh married Catherine Magennis (died 15 March 1619)[62][13] sometime before September 1597.[23] She accompanied O'Neill on his flight, and had three sons:[51]

  • Shane (October 1599 - 27 January 1641)[60][51][23] who called himself the 3rd Earl of Tyrone. He entered the Spanish army, was called "El conde de Tyrone", and was killed in Catalonia.[51]
  • Conn Ruadh[l] (born c. 1601 - in or after 1622), also known as Conn na Creige. He was left behind at the time of the flight, was educated at Eton College as a Protestant, and was committed to the Tower of London on 12 August 1622.[23][51]
  • Brian (died 16 August 1617)[23][51] - also known as Con Brian. He either was murdered or committed suicide in Brussels.[51]

Possible fifth wife[edit]

It is probable O'Neill married a fifth time,[51][23] for mention is made of a young Countess of Tyrone during his residence in Rome.[51]

Other children[edit]

O'Neill also had many illegitimate children, or children of unknown maternal origin:

Portrayals in culture[edit]


On screen[edit]


  • O'Neill is the central character in Brian Friel's play Making History (1989), which is concerned largely with his third marriage to Mabel Bagenal: Friel describes the marriage as a genuine if ill-fated love affair.[70] In the original production, O'Neill was played by actor Stephen Rea.[71]
  • Running Beast (2007), a musical theatre piece by playwright Donal O'Kelly with music by the composer Michael Holohan, is based on O'Neill's career. It commemorated the 400th anniversary of the Flight of the Earls.[72][73][74]

Notes and references[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Early historians assumed O'Neill's birthdate to be within the 1540s. Modern historians believe he was born circa 1550, based on references in the state papers. Paul Walsh placed O'Neill's birthdate between July 1550 and July 1551.[11] Sources that give a c. 1550 birthdate: [12][8][13][5][1]
  2. ^ Hugh is usually referred to as the 2nd Earl of Tyrone,[1] but if his elder brother Brian is counted, Hugh is 3rd. By the patent of the earldom, Brian was de jure earl between their grandfather's death in 1559 and his own assassination in 1562. He never claimed the earldom and did not call himself earl. He may not have been of age to take his seat in the Irish House of Lords, and he certainly did not control Tyrone.[2][3]
  3. ^ This family tree is based on genealogies of the MacDonnels of Antrim[9] and the O'Neills of Tyrone.[10] Also see the lists of children in the text.
  4. ^ Worth £287,000 in March 2024
  5. ^ See Peter Carew for similar legal moves in support of colonial policy
  6. ^ Concannon believes Siobhan was born c. 1569.[52] However, Siobhán's marriage to O'Neill in 1574 makes that date of birth unlikely.
  7. ^ In a letter dated 31 January 1591, O'Neill references Siobhan's recent death.[23] Other sources that corroborate this: [13][53][54][51]
  8. ^ Her death date has alternately been given as 1639, 26 April 1640, or sometime after 31 March 1642.[23]
  9. ^ Dunlop believes that her mother was Catherine Magennis.[51] Casway and Cokayne believe her mother was Siobhan O'Donnell,[13][56] which, based on Alice's birthdate, is more likely.
  10. ^ Most sources give her a birthdate of c. 1583,[57][56][13] though Walsh has demonstrated that a birthdate of c. 1588 is possible.[23]
  11. ^ Sources disagree on Henry's date of death: 1610,[13] c. 1620,[60] or c. 1626.[51] It is clear that he died sometime before the publication of Philip O'Sullevan's Historia Catholica in 1621.[23]
  12. ^ Dunlop believes Conn Ruadh was illegitimate,[51] though Walsh believes Conn Ruadh's mother was Catherine Magennis.[23]
  13. ^ Dunlop believes that Rose's mother was Catherine Magennis[51] - however, since Rose was betrothed to Hugh Roe O'Donnell in the late 1580s, and Magennis married Rose's father in the 1590s, this is unlikely. According to Niall Garve O'Donnell, she is not a daughter of Siobhan O'Donnell.[23]


  1. ^ a b c d Canny 2004.
  2. ^ Christopher Maginn, O'Neill, Shane (c.1530–1567), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008, accessed 25 April 2011
  3. ^ O'Byrne, Emmett (October 2009). "O'Neill (Ó Néill), Brian". Dictionary of Irish Biography. Retrieved 3 May 2024.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i McNeill 1911, p. 109.
  5. ^ a b c The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (12 April 2024). "Hugh O'Neill, 2nd earl of Tyrone". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 11 May 2024.
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  15. ^ Brady 2015, p. 29. "The eldest, Feardorcha, was the most controversial. Shane, notoriously, charged that he was not an O'Neill at all, but the son of Alison and John Kelly, a blacksmith of Dundalk ..."
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  33. ^ Lennon 2005, p. 298. "... the vanguard suffered severe losses including that of the marshal himself ..."
  34. ^ Strachey 1930, p. 199.
  35. ^ Strachey 1930, p. 202. "... he executed a lieutenant, and he had every tenth man in the rank file put to death."
  36. ^ Strachey 1930, p. 209. "The two men met alone, on horseback, at a ford on a river ..."
  37. ^ Strachey 1930, pp. 239–263.
  38. ^ Strachey 1930, p. 180. "Thus Mountjoy, doubly bound to the earl, had become—or so it seemed—the most faithful of his adherents."
  39. ^ McCavitt 2002, p. 44.
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  57. ^ Hill 1873. "Sir Randal Macdonnell was married about the year 1604 to Ellis or Alice O'Neill, the third daughter of Hugh earl of Tyrone. This lady, who was born in 1583, was in her twenty-first year at the time of her marriage, and was younger than either of her sisters, lady Macmahon or Lady Maginnis. She was older than her brother Hugh, the baron of Dungannon."
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Further reading[edit]

Secondary sources[edit]

Primary sources[edit]

External links[edit]

Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone
Regnal titles
Preceded by Ó Néill
Peerage of Ireland
Preceded by Earl of Tyrone