SHANE O'NEILL  1530 -1567

 

We often find romantic images about our Irish and Scotch Chieftains appearing,  likened to some braveheart character fighting for justice and freedom with two wolfhounds beside him - the reality could not have been further from the truth. These were barbaric times were the value of life was extremely low,  like many of the Irish, Scotch and English power brokers in Ireland, barbarism was the chosen method of dealing with opposition or differing opinions. Shane was no different in this respect -  he initiated his own brother and nephew's death, fought with and against his father, all in pursuit of his ambitions. He became extremely rich, owned vast lands, herds of cattle and many castles including Dundrum. He was reputed to have been cruel in his relationships and spared no mercy to his enemies, there are accounts of him keeping his mistress the Countess of Argyle chained in a cellar because she annoyed him, this is the context of our past and we should never liken them to the mythical figures so often sought by  imagination and associations with our roots.
Shane O'Neill was born in around 1530 to Sorcha O'Neill who was the daughter of Hugh, chief of the Clanaboy O'Neill's, his mother died shortly after his birth and Shane was given over to the O'Donnelly family who raised him into his early teenage years. Facts or accounts of his early youth is very sketchy in details but we find him coming to prominence through his rebellion against his father Conn and the infighting of the family and their allies in quest of power and titles in Ireland. Shane at one time or another, fought the English, Irish and Scottish to defend what he saw as his right - he had felt completely betrayed by his father and took great exception to his acceptance of an English title and also to his choice of heir to the O'Neill crown, though he fought against him, he also fought with him on occasions when it suited their mutual objectives. Shane's sense of right and his willingness to take on all that opposed that gained him respect amongst not only his allies but also his foes. He was a fierce opponent as a soldier, barbaric and ruthless in battle, he led his army from the front and engaged in many bloody duels against other Chieftains to assert his power.
 His father had allied with the English crown to put down a rebellion in the south of Ireland and in return received the title  Baron of Dungannon, First Earl of Tyrone - to accept such from the English did not go down too well with Shane nor his supporters but what enraged him more was the fact that his younger brother Mathew, an illegitimate  son had been chosen to be raised and educated at the English court and declared heir to the O'Neill crown over Shane.  These facts more than anything marked the path of  Shane's life of conflict and rebellion both with his father and with anyone who stood in the way of what he seen as his rightful place. On his father's death,  Mathew became the Baron of Dungannon and  heir to the O'Neill crown, in 1558 he was murdered under instruction from  Shane which led to the title being passed to Mathew's eldest son Brian who subsequently met the same fate as his father. In 1562 the title  past to Mathew's youngest son Hugh who had been taken to England by Sir Henry Sidney in 1559, he had stayed at the English court and was educated there, protected from the effects and possible murder in the factional fighting that was occurring in Ulster as Shane established his supremacy.
After his father's death Shane crowned himself King of Ulster and demanded his father's title, Earl of Tyrone from the English, they refused and mounted a campaign  to unseat him which failed. Shane was already recognised in Ireland as the Gaelic Lord in Ulster and was almost untouchable in his power base -  the English needed  his powerful allegiance as he was perceived as the main threat to their power in Ireland. The crown and Shane finally agreed to meet and bury their differences after the death of Brian. Shane went to the English court on January 5th 1562  and left in April, he was reputed to have got on well with the Queen and gained some favours and guarantees which would eventually led to the English crown officially, if reluctantly recognising him as the Chieftain of Tyrone. The two powers embarked on an uneasy and doomed alliance - meanwhile and behind the scenes, the Earl of Sussex who detested Shane, having been defeated twice in battle by him, had been stirring discontent and re-arranging clan allegiances against him back in Ireland. On his return Ulster was back into factional fighting and Shane forced into another campaign to re-assert his authority, during this period the English under Sussex seized their chance to once again try and unseat him. The challenge resulted in a  third defeat for the Earl of Sussex at the hands of Shane and subsequently led to his resignation.
 Elizabeth was becoming more pre-occupied with France than Ireland and entered into an agreement with Shane which resulted in a year or so of peaceful allegiance between the two. During this time Shane turned his sights on the MacDonnell's whom he seen as the only real threat to his power base, this campaign went on for nearly three years and saw many battles and massacres - it also led to the breakdown of any agreements between Shane and the crown.  The English played the two cards, one with Sorley Boy MacDonnell and the other with Shane - it is fair to say that that the English had over many years tried everything to get rid of Shane O'Neill including attempts to poison him with gifts of wine - to which he was extremely partial, he had even been lured by the promise of a safe passage to Dublin and marriage to the sister of  the Earl of Sussex whom he had met at court and was attracted too - this had been another ploy by the then Lord Deputy to capture him.
 Shane sealed his own fate in turning against the English, although he had some spectacular victories such as the 'Battle of the Redcoats'  his allies where declining and enemies who were once against each other where to allying against him, eventually after his defeat at the hands of the O'Donnell's in Donegal, was left very weaken and forced to make a stark decision for his own survival - to either submit to English demands or make his peace and allegiances with the Scottish McDonnell and negotiate with them for  rule in Ireland. He chose the latter and returned to Ulster and the north Antrim Glens - here a banquet and meeting had been arranged by the McDonnell's to discuss and seal a new era for the two clans. He was subsequently murdered and his head sent to Dublin, there are two accounts of how this came about - one refers to his body being exhumed by English soldiers a few days after its burial and the head cut off and taken to Dublin. The other, to an agent who was under the pay of the Lord Deputy and attending the same banquet - while enjoying the drinking and merriment, he was murdered and  his head taken to Dublin and displayed on a pike outside Dublin Castle, the agent is reputed to have received one thousand marks from the crown  treasury for the act - given by Sir Henry Sidney.   

 

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