Tales from Irish History - Alice Birkhead

Shane the Proud, Hero of the North

The O'Neills were among those noble Irish families compelled to give up their lands to Henry VIII. and receive them again in feudal tenure. The title of Earl of Tyrone was granted to Con O'Neill, the Lame, on the understanding that it was to pass to his son Matthew Kelly, then Baron of Dungannon. But Con had another son, who disputed Matthew's rights, declaring that he was only a blacksmith's boy and could not rule all Ulster. Shane O'Neill was beloved by the people, and after Matthew was killed, the chief took him into favour though he suspected that he had brought about Matthew's death for reasons of jealousy. Shane repaid his father's confidence by driving him out into the Pale, where he died, a deposed ruler. Still the hero of all Ulster, Shane then placed his foot upon the royal stone, and out on the mountain side, he was proclaimed O'Neill.

In 1560, Elizabeth, Queen of England, had grave cause to fear danger to her power. Her general reported from Dublin that it was almost impossible to keep the field against soldiers who lived on food "that would satisfy none others of God's making." The English had been trying to set up the O'Donnells against O'Neill, a plan that was frustrated by Shane's capture of Calvagh O'Donnell and his sister.

Sussex, the Lord-Deputy, managed to take Armagh but came very near to losing it again. Shane appeared outside the walls quite suddenly with the army led by a procession of monks. Each soldier carried a faggot in order to burn the cathedral over the heads of the English, and the Primate urged on the attack, lauding the piety of Shane, their leader. The mass sung by the monks was drowned by screams and battle-cries—"Strike for O'Neill!" The Bloody Hand!"—as the soldiers rushed upon the English. Sussex drove them back after hard conflict and lost many men in his skirmish with O'Neill. He was afraid to tell Elizabeth how difficult a task she had set him in Ireland, and tried to induce Neil Grey to murder Shane. The queen determined to summon the Irish chief to her court to explain his right to the throne of Ulster, while Matthew's son still lived. O'Neill showed remarkable prudence, refusing to cross to England before he was paid all travelling expenses and insisting on the escort of the Earl of Kildare. He finally set sail from Dublin with a train of gallow-glasses, and was received in state by Elizabeth at her court on January 2nd, 1561.

"Now was Shan O'Neill come out of Ireland to perform what he had promised a year before, with a guard of axe-bearing gallow-glasses, bareheaded, with curled hair hanging down, yellow surplices dyed with saffron, long fleeces, short coats, and hairy mantles."

The council, the bishops, and the ambassadors had assembled to gaze at the Irish chief as though he were some wild animal, and when Shane threw himself at Elizabeth's feet, crying for pardon in the Irish tongue, his hearers thought the sound was like the howling of a dog!

Shane was detained in England on all kinds of pretexts, for the queen felt that she was safer while he was apart from his clan. He spent his time in the English pursuits of hawking and hunting and was regularly admitted to the council of the queen. He took the opportunity of begging for a wife "some gentlewoman of blood," though he had an unfortunate captive countess, who was always chained to a foot-boy in his absence, and he does not seem to have been a tender husband. The English wits dubbed him—

"Shane O'Neill, Lord of the North of Ireland;

Cousin of St. Patrick. Friend of the Queen of England;

Enemy of all the world besides."

At last Elizabeth could find no excuse for keeping Shane at Court any longer. Matthew's son was to have come to state his claim in Shane's presence, but he was murdered by Tirlogh O'Neill and nobody could question Shane's succession. Elizabeth tried to bribe her rebel by giving him all he asked, and Shane returned home with a purse full of money and the title of Captain of Tyrone. He summoned the chiefs of Tyrone before him and ordered them to acknowledge him their lord. When the O'Donnells refused, he called his men to arms and marched into Tyrconnell.

The chief still hankered after an English wife, preferably the sister of Lord Sussex, who tried to use the lady as a means of subduing Shane, but never intended to give her to him. Failing in this scheme, Sussex wrote to the queen that there was every chance of O'Neill being accepted king by the four provinces, unless English forces were sent against him.

Con O'Donnell added a complaint that Shane had carried off his father and mother and demanded the surrender of his castles. When O'Donnell had held out from loyalty to the English, Shane had burnt his farms, destroyed his cattle, and brought about his utter ruin.

Sussex was allowed to make war, but all his efforts were unsuccessful. He had ill-armed men and scanty supplies of food, and, above all, a certain belief that he could never conquer his enemy. He made very bitter excuses for his failures, bewailing his lack of money and tools for fortification. These laments made Elizabeth impatient, and she merely gave fresh concessions to O'Neill, who was, in reality, the ruler of all Ulster. Again, Sussex tried to get rid of his foe by foul means, sending a cask of poisoned wine to O'Neill's household. The scheme was discovered and the chieftain clamoured for redress, suggesting that the queen should give him Sussex's sister in order to humble the proud earl.

Shane had to content himself without his English bride, but took vengeance on Sussex by assuming the sovereignty of Ulster. He was only opposed by the Scots Lords of Antrim, and became so powerful that he set free O'Donnell, who fled from his dungeon to the English Court and sought for shelter. Shane was now firmly established as a chief, and grew rich on the spoil of his enemies. He built a fort on an island of Lough Neagh, and named it Foogh-ni-gall, or Hate of Englishmen; he ruled well and maintained a kind of savage splendour in his dwelling with pipes of wine in his cellars and hundreds of men-at-arms feasting at his table. To show the chief's respect for religion, there was always a royal banquet for beggars at the gate.

In the North, Shane had no rival. Ulster was at peace while Munster was torn by a conflict between the Butlers and Geraldines, so fierce that through Tipperary, Kilkenny, and Cork, "a man might ride twenty or thirty miles nor ever find a house standing." In 1565, Sir Henry Sidney came to Ireland with the intention of crushing O'Neill, now grown bolder by success. He marched across Ulster, entered Tyrconnell, and restored the O'Donnells, leaving them to hold the North, while he passed into Connacht. So many English soldiers perished from disease that Shane decided to meet the native chiefs in battle, without fear of their new allies. He was defeated by the O'Donnells near Letterkenny, losing part of his army in Lough Swilly as they tried to escape, among these being O'Donnelly, his foster-brother, and the man "most dear and faithful to him throughout his whole existence."

Shane fled by lonely passes to Tyrone and threw himself on the mercy of the Macdonnells. He brought them the wife he had captured, hoping to find favour with the lady's kinsmen, but they greeted her with the resolve to avenge her cruel treatment at his hands. Pretending friendship, they entertained Shane as a guest till two days had passed, when they bade him welcome at a supper in the camp of Cushendun. Then a warrior rose and flung a taunt at a follower of O'Neill. The chief sprang to his feet to answer the insult, and, hearing the slogan of the isles, sought madly for his weapon. The enemy fell upon him before he was prepared, and all around the dirks did their deadly work beneath the cold moonlight. Shane himself, gashed with fifty wounds, was wrapped in an old shirt and flung into a pit at Glenarm. Afterwards his head was hacked from his body and carried on the point of a spear from Drogheda to Dublin, where it was left to bleach on the battlements of the Castle.