Irish Historical Mysteries: The Flight of the Earls

The Flight abroad in 1607 of the Earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnell and their followers is generally reckoned to mark the end of Gaelic Ireland as a distinct political system. Yet there has never been agreement on the reasons why the Earls fled at that particular time, and today the debate is still ongoing. Before examining the various accounts of the Flight, let us first look at the historical background.

It was Henry VIII and his Tudor successors, Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth I, who completed the conquest of Ireland begun by the Anglo-Normans four centuries before. Prior to the time of the Tudors, most parts of Ireland lay outside English control, being dominated either by Gaelic lords such as O'Neill and O'Donnell, or descendants of the Anglo-Norman conquerors such as Fitgerald and Butler. Following the destruction of the Leinster Fitzgeralds in 1535 in the wake of the revolt of Silken Thomas, Henry was in a position to try more conciliatory methods, designed particularly to persuade the Gaelic and Gaelicised Anglo-Norman lords to give up their distinctive ways and submit to the Crown. The policy of 'Surrender and Regrant', whereby Irish lords submitted to English control and received English titles in return, was a considerable success, examples being Burke, created Earl of Clanrickard, O'Brien, created Earl of Thomond, and O'Neill, created Earl of Tyrone. Yet Henry's second great campaign, a religious one to extend the Protestant Reformation to Ireland, enjoyed little success in Gaelic areas. (1)

Under Henry's daughter Elizabeth the policy of subduing Ireland was pursued with determination, but she was also prepared to ally persuasion with force when she deemed it appropriate. In 1570 the establishment of Presidencies in Munster and Connacht brought English government to these areas. The Munster Rebellion of 1579-83 was put down with great severity, and was followed by a plantation, while in 1585 the lords and landowners of Connacht accepted English land tenure under the 'Composition of Connacht'. Ulster remained the exception to this record of success, and the English moved to confront the northern Gaelic lords in the 1590s. In 1595 Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, openly joined Hugh O'Donnell, Earl of Tyrconnell, and Hugh Maguire of Fermanagh in resisting English encroachments with force. Thus began the Nine Years War, the final contest which would decide the future of Gaelic Ireland and the Tudor Conquest. O'Neill's extension of the conflict outside his territories, his acceptance of Spanish assistance, and his promotion of Catholicism, all combined to persuade the English of the critical importance of defeating him and his followers.

O'Neill's military tactics were primarily defensive but extremely skilled, and in 1598 he won a great victory over the English at the Battle of the Yellow Ford. The English under Lord Deputy Mountjoy responded with a scorched earth policy. When the Spaniards arrived in Kinsale in 1601, the Irish risked an offensive march south, but this led to the disastrous defeat at Kinsale in that year. O'Neill, O'Donnell and their allies retreated, and the English over-ran Ulster. Hugh O'Donnell departed to Spain, and on his death there, his brother Rory became Earl of Tyrconnell. O'Neill himself surrendered in 1603 and signed a Treaty at Mellifont, Elizabeth unknown to him having died shortly before. It is a measure of O'Neill's continuing strength that he had not been forced to surrender unconditionally, but had in effect secured a negotiated settlement, and both he and Rory O'Donnell were allowed to return to their lands. Elizabeth's successor, James VI of Scotland and I of England, was anxious to maintain O'Neill's renewed loyalty, while O'Neill for his part was prepared to try to work within the new system. However, for reasons which we will now explore, O'Neill was soon to decide that he could not live with the new order and that flight abroad was preferable.

It is worthwhile looking at the differing circumstances of O'Neill and Rory O'Donnell in the aftermath of the 1603 settlement. O'Neill was master within his Earldom, whereas O'Donnell had to contend with the rival claims of Niall Garbh O'Donnell. The main concern of both O'Neill and O'Donnell was the attitude of the Lord Deputy, Sir Arthur Chichester, and his Solicitor General, Sir John Davies, who resented the Gaelic lords' continuing privileged position in the north, and sought to use institutions of English law to undermine them. Fearing that Chichester was to be appointed Lord President of Ulster, O'Neill appealed directly to James VI in 1606 against what he saw as the imposition of an overlord. James remained committed to conciliating O'Neill, and he was assured that 'the King had no thoughts of establishing such a government' as the Presidency of Ulster. In contrast, the positions of O'Donnell and Maguire of Fermanagh were worsening, and the evidence indicates that they were planning to abandon Ireland and enlist in the army of Archduke of the Netherlands, then a Spanish possession. (2)

Another opportunity to weaken O'Neill was presented by a territorial dispute in 1607 between him and his son-in-law, the chieftain Donal O'Cahan. Davies encouraged O'Cahan to file a suit against O'Neill, which the Solicitor-General saw as a useful test case to assert royal control over O'Neill's lands. King James had invited O'Neill to submit his grievances directly to him, and O'Neill acted on this invitation. Although the Privy Council in Dublin favoured O'Cahan, the King ordered O'Cahan and O'Neill to present themselves before the English Privy Council in order to decide the case.

Meanwhile, Maguire had left Ireland, and O'Donnell was preparing to do likewise. O'Neill was also to make a decision to go into exile, for reasons which we must now examine. While Nationalist historians have presented O'Neill and his followers as having been persecuted into exile, Unionist historians of course have viewed their flight as evidence of their treasonable intent. Inevitably, the Revisionist historians took a look at the case, and in the early 1970s Nicholas Canny presented a new account of the Flight. According to Canny, it was Maguire's intention to hire a ship on the Continent and return to Ireland to collect O'Donnell and their families and followers. Though he left in the Summer, Maguire returned with a ship with unexpected speed in August 1607. In Canny's account, Maguire's unexpectedly early return must have come as a shock to O'Neill, so that on 4 September 1607 'the usually calculating Tyrone panicked, and joined Tyrconnell and Maguire in voluntary exile'. (3)

Are there any surviving documents which might give an account of the Flight from O'Neill's and the Gaelic point of view? It turns out that there are, and these were unearthed by Micheline Kerney Walsh in Continental archives, principally the Archivo General de Simancas in Spain. These sources, letters of O'Neill, O'Donnell and others, had been unknown to or little used by earlier historians, and were referred to only briefly by Canny. Kerney Walsh translated a selection of these documents and published them with a scholarly introduction under the title Destruction by Peace, thus making them available to the non-specialist as well as the scholar. Kerney Walsh's apt title came from a comment of O'Neill in 1615: 'They [the English] themselves . . . teach us this manner of feigned friendship and of destruction by peace'. (4)

Using the largely untapped sources she had uncovered, Kerney Walsh showed that O'Neill believed his position in Ireland was becoming untenable, and that the invitation to London was a prelude to arrest and execution. O'Neill therefore, and not in any panic, decided to retreat to Spain and appeal to King Philip for military assistance. If successful in overthrowing English rule, the plan was to annex Ireland to the Spanish Crown, and here the legend that the Milesians came from Spain would of course have made this more plausible. (5) O Neill explained his predicament thus to King Philip:

. . . in order to save our lives, there was no other remedy but to take up arms, or to escape from the Kingdom. We chose to escape rather than stir the whole Kingdom to rebellion without first being assured of the help and assistance of Your Majesty.

Depending on your point of view, this was either treasonable plotting or a perfectly understandable attempt to circumvent your enemy's attempts to destroy you. As a result of bad weather, O'Neill and his party had to land first in France, and due largely to English intrigue eventually ended up in Rome without being able to make immediate contact with King Philip. However, Kerney Walsh convincingly paints a picture of O'Neill as a man neither defeated nor in permanent exile, but merely having tactically retreated abroad in the hope of returning with Spanish military assistance. Unfortunately for O'Neill, he was never to realise this hope and would die in exile in Rome in 1616.

It would be fair say that although Kerney Walsh's account is carefully researched and severely dents Canny's, it is essentially Nationalist in interpretation. Inevitable, Kerney Walsh's account has itself come under scrutiny, most recently in an article by John McCavitt in 1994. McCavitt conceded that Kerney Walsh had undermined Canny's account in a number of respects, but insists that the new material she uncovered simply reinforces the view that O'Neill and his supporters had been engaged in 'conspiratorial machinations'. Like Canny, McCavitt based his account principally on English State Papers, and he did not engage in new research in the Spanish documents, relying instead on Kerney Walsh's calendar. To a rather comical degree, McCavitt effectively puts the Earls in the dock, and finds O'Neill in particular guilty of various 'treasonable practices'. Yet he concludes that O'Neill's flight abroad was a misjudgment, as the English might not in fact have moved against him. (6) Like 'what if', 'might not' is a speculative phrase which historians ought to avoid, especially when coming to conclusions. Furthermore, 'treason', like 'heresy', is one of those hopelessly value-laden terms which should never be employed descriptively by historians claiming objectivity.

No doubt there will be further re-examinations of the Flight of the Earls, with sympathetic Nationalist accounts claiming a tactical temporary retreat in the face of intolerable persecution, and hostile Revisionist and Unionist accounts claiming a precipitate flight arising from fear that treasonable plotting was about to be discovered. What is at stake here is nothing less than the legitimacy of the dispossession of the Gaels of Ulster and the plantation of their lands by Scots and English. This is a subject still surrounded by debate four hundred years later, but perhaps less bitter in tone, no doubt reflecting the fact that the ongoing Peace Process has produced a Protestant-Catholic power-sharing administration in Northern Ireland. Though he classes himself as a 'Post-Revisionist', the writer makes no secret of the fact that he tends towards the Nationalist interpretation of the Flight of the Earls as no mere cowardly flight, and he believes that Kerney Walshs's account portraying a tactical withdrawal accords best with the available evidence. Indeed, in the course of the 400th anniversary of the event in 2007 the harsh 'Revisionist' interpretation is less in evidence, and there is a growing consensus that the departure of the Gaelic lords in 1607 was more a 'strategic regrouping' than a flight of traitors. (7)

Sean Murphy
1999, last updated 7 September 2007



(1) T W Moody and F X Martin Editors, The Course of Irish History, Cork 1994 Edition, pages 174-88.

(2) N P Canny, 'The Flight of the Earls 1607', Historical Revision XVI, Irish Historical Studies, 17, 1970-71, pages 382-7.

(3) Canny, 'Flight of the Earls', page 399.

(4) Micheline Kerney Walsh, Destruction by Peace: Hugh O Neill after Kinsale, Monaghan 1986, page 350.

(5) Kerney Walsh, Destruction by Peace, pages 3-4 and passim.

(6) John McCavitt, 'The Flight of the Earls 1607', Irish Historical Studies, 29, 1994, pages 160, 172-3. See also the author's more measured and less unsympathetic The Flight of the Earls, Dublin 2005 Edition, which makes more use of the Spanish documents, but still via Kerney Walsh's calendar.

(7) 'Flight of Earls was more a "strategic regrouping"', Irish Times, 20 August 2007.

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