Tales from Irish History - Alice Birkhead

The Flight of the Earls

The last revolt against Elizabeth in Ireland was one that shook the English power to its foundations. It was led by Hugh O'Neill, son of the O'Neill who had been dispossessed by Shane. He was a very different man from his relative—a courtier and a favourite of Elizabeth, who allowed him to assume the title of Earl of Tyrone. He had served in the English army with Lord Grey, and knew something of English affairs from long residence in that country. Two grievances urged him to rebel. His brother-in-law, Hugh O'Donnell, had been treated with the utmost cruelty and treachery by the English government, and he was himself persecuted by the accusations of Bagnall, the Lord-Marshal, because he had carried off Bagnall's sister as a wife.

A fierce battle was fought at Yellow Ford, on the Blackwater, a river bounding the territory of O'Neill.

It was a victory for the rebels, and added many followers to their ranks. It really seemed as if the Irish were to cast off English domination in that year of triumph, 1598.

Elizabeth, much alarmed, sent out her best generals, and she grudged neither money nor men in her old age to Essex, one of the favourites of the court. Many think Essex failed to subdue the Irish because he was too merciful to starve them into surrender, the only course likely to be followed with success. Lord Mountjoy came to take his place when he went home in disgrace, and the reign of severity began. The English army marched through Ireland, burning, destroying, putting to the sword. Old and feeble, women and children were killed as well as soldiers. Hardly a speck of green was left, hardly a single blade of corn. The people became gaunt scarecrows, too weak to oppose the invader now that they cared more for food than deliverance from servitude.

Tyrone's might declined as Mountjoy retook town after town that had fallen into the hands of the rebels. When the Spanish landed at Kinsale, hope rose for a brief moment, but Mountjoy surrounded the town with all his forces and it was given up to him after a short struggle. It was the end of the rebellion. Tyrone had to accept terms dictated by the English and was never satisfied with them, though he was allowed to keep his lands and titles on condition that he would form no further alliance with foreign powers.

On Elizabeth's death, her successor, King James I., invited Tyrone to the English Court. He sailed with Mountjoy, in 1603, and had a narrow escape from shipwreck off the Skerries. He was not well received in England by the country people, who blamed him for the deaths of brave young English soldiers devoured in great numbers by the Irish war. Many a bereaved parent came out to hurl missiles or abuse at him as he drove through villages where there had been heavy loss. He was not warmly welcomed at the court by the nobles who had spent hard days in his pursuit. They did not care to have a former enemy as their companion, and Sir James Harrington was bitterly affronted when he saw the Irish chief sitting at table in a place of honour. "How did I labour after that knave's destruction!" he cries. "I adventured forth by sea and land, was near starving, ate horse-flesh in Munster, and all to quell that man, who now smileth in peace at those who did hazard their lives to destroy him."

Tyrone had fallen on evil days. He returned to Ireland to find himself unpopular as a defeated rebel. When he quarrelled with other chiefs, those in authority managed to put him at a disadvantage, for there was a strong suspicion that he would rebel again. "Artful Cecil" is said to have coveted the possessions of Tyrone, and in 1607, a plot was discovered in which the old chief was implicated by a document dropped at the door of the Dublin Council-chamber.

After a quarrel with O'Cahan, the English government ordered the foes to come to court for trial. Tyrone dared not face the hostility of foreign nobles, and resolved to take refuge in another country which he had not cause to shun. His son served in the Spanish army, so it was easy to hire a ship with Spanish gold. The ship, laden with salt, was brought to the Irish coast on a pretence of fishing.

Tyrone was paying a farewell visit to a friend, and took leave of the whole household so tenderly that they marvelled, for he was not a kindly man and had told nobody of his intended voyage. He went to his own house of Dungannon for two nights, and took his wife with him when he set out for the ship in waiting near the coast. She slipped from her horse in the wild flight and declared that she would go no further, but the Earl drew his sword and swore he would kill her if she did not come and that with a more cheerful countenance! The chief, Tyrconnell had already arrived at Rathmullen when the Earl came up with his reluctant partner. About one hundred persons embarked with the chiefs, chiefly from the families of O'Neill and O'Donnell. Lady Tyrone went with her husband, but Lady Tyrconnell refused to leave Ireland, and steadily repudiated all share in the disloyalty of the fugitives. She was sent to England as a prisoner, and her beauty roused such admiration there that King James was heard to wonder how Tyrconnell could have left so fair a face behind.

The ship was crowded and provisions soon ran short, while the fugitives were pursued by English cruisers. They reached France, but were not allowed to enter Paris. At the same time the French King, Henri IV., refused to surrender the Irish chiefs, for he was of the same religion and would not help the Protestants.

At Douai a warm welcome awaited the exiles, Tyrone's son meeting them with all the captains under his command. The Irish students of the University were ready to feast their countrymen with an accompaniment of Greek and Latin speeches. Tyrone received the younger men into his own regiment, but the old Earls had to wander into Spain, where they could not find a refuge. They crossed the Alps to Italy, and were entertained by the Governor of Milan till they found a more permanent resting-place at Rome. Here the Cardinals treated them as men who had done well for the Roman Catholic cause. Tyrone had always made a brievance of Protestant persecution, though he was only religious when it suited him. Unlike some of the Irish chiefs, he was able to restrain himself from rushing out of church "like a wild cat" as soon as the sermon began, but that restraint was probably due to his civilized life at the English Court rather than to a desire to hear preaching. James I. issued a proclamation for the benefit of foreign potentates, stating that Tyrone and Tyrconnell had fled from the con sequences of their crimes, and had not the slightest reason to pose as Catholic martyrs.

The Earls lived at Rome in a palace that was given them by Paul V. They had every honour, but did not thrive away from their own country. After a few years' foreign residence they died, and were buried in the Franciscan Church of St Peter at Montorio. "Rome, indeed, was dear to them, but Ireland was still dearer, and the exiled Celt, whether expatriated through force or stern necessity, lives only to long for the old home or die weeping for it."