SHANE O'NEILL   1530 - 1567

 

The romantic images of our Irish and Scottish Chieftains likened to 'braveheart' characters, fighting for justice and freedom with two wolfhounds beside them could not be further from the truth. These were barbaric times where the value of life was extremely low and barbarism was the chosen method of dealing with any opposition.

 

Shane O'Neill was no different in this respect, he ordered the death of his own brother and nephew, fought with and against his father to further 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 refrain from seeing them as mythical figures so often sought by the imagination.

 

Shane O'Neill was born in around 1530 to Sorcha O'Neill, 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 teens. He came to be known through his rebellion against his father Conn and the infighting of the family for power and titles in Ireland.  He fought the English, Irish and Scottish to defend what he saw as his right, he felt completely betrayed by his father and resented him for accepting an English title and also for 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 anyone that opposed that gained him respect amongst his allies and also his enemies. He was a fierce opponent, barbaric and ruthless in battle and led his army from the front.

 

His father had allied with the English to put down a rebellion in Ireland, in return he received the title Baron of Dungannon, First Earl of Tyrone. This did not go down too well with Shane or his supporters, he was maddened when his younger brother Matthew, an illegitimate son raised and educated at the English court was 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, Matthew 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 Matthew's eldest son Brian who subsequently met the same fate as his father. In 1562 the title past to Matthew'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.

 

After his father's death Shane crowned himself King of Ulster and demanded his father's title from the English (Earl of Tyrone), they refused and mounted a campaign to unseat him which failed. Shane was already recognised in Ireland as the Gaelic Lord of Ulster and almost untouchable in his power base.

 

The English needed his allegiance as he was seen as the main threat. The English and Shane finally agreed to meet after the death of Brian. Shane went to the English court on January 1562 and left in April, he was reputed to have got on well with the Queen and gained favours and guarantees which would eventually lead to the English crown recognizing him as the Earl 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, began stirring discontent and re-arranging clan allegiances against him in Ireland.

 

 On his return to Ulster he was back into factional fighting and 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. Queen Elizabeth was pre-occupied with France and entered into an agreement with Shane which resulted in a year or so of peaceful allegiance. During this time Shane turned his sights on the MacDonnell's whom he seen as the only 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 English.

 

The English played Sorley Boy MacDonnell and Shane O'Neill against each other, the English had over many years tried everything to get rid of Shane O'Neill including attempts to poison him with gifts of wine, 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. Shane sealed his own fate in turning against the English, although he had some spectacular victories his allies where declining and enemies who were once against each other where allying against him, eventually after his defeat at the hands of the O'Donnell's in Donegal, he was 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, here at a banquet and meeting that had been arranged by the McDonnell's to discuss and seal a new era for the two clans, he was murdered. There are two accounts, one refers to his body being exhumed by English soldiers 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. The agent is reputed to have received a large bounty from the English treasury for the act - given by Sir Henry Sidney.