(2nd E. Tyrone)

Born: ABT 1550, Dungannon

Died: 1616, Rome, Italy

Buried: San Pedro, Rome, Italy

Father: Mathew O'NEILL (1° B. Dungannon)

Mother: Joan McGUIRE

Married 1: Joan (Judith) O'DONNELL ABT 1583


1. Alice O'NEILL (b. 1583 - d. ABT 1663)

Married 2: ¿?

Married 3: Mabel BAGENAL 3 Aug 1591

Married 4: Catherine MAGENNIS

Third Baron Dungannon and Second Earl of Tyrone, second son of Matthew, reputed illegitimate son of Conn, 1st Earl of Tyrone.

At nine he was taken by Sir Henry Sidney to his castle at Ludlow, Shropshire, and brought up there, at Penshurst in Kent, and in London. Described by a contemporary, Sir John Dowdall, as ‘a little rascal horse boy’, he was reared by his English patrons in ‘the new religion’. He succeeded his brother, Brian, when the latter was murdered by Turlough in 1562, as baron of Dungannon. He was brought up in the Pale, by a family named the Hovenedans, but returned to Ulster in 1567 after the death of Shane, under the protection of Sir Henry Sidney. He served with the English during the Earl of Desmond Rebellion in 1580, and assisted Sir John Perrot against the Scots of Ulster in 1584. In the following year he was allowed to attend parliament as Earl of Tyrone, though Conn's title had been for life only, and had not been assumed by Brian Hugh's constant disputes with Turlough were fomented by the English with a view to weakening the power of the O'Neills, but after Hugh's inauguration as the O'Neill on Turlough's resignation in 1593, he was left without a rival in the north.

His career after his return to Ireland in 1568 reflects the chaotic state of affairs. At first he remained loyal to his English connections and led a troop of horse in the Queen’s pay during the Desmond rebellion of 1569; but in 1588 he gave succour in Inishowen to survivors from the wreck of the Spanish Armada and awakened in the English suspicions of his loyalty.

In 1590 he was involved in the killing of Hugh Geimhleach (Fettered Hugh), son of Shane O’Neill, but after a visit to London received the Queen’s pardon. He divorced his first wife in 1574; his second wife died in 1591, and in Aug of that year he eloped with Mabel Bagenal, daughter of Marshal Bagenal, who refused to give her her dowry and thus became O’Neill’s implacable enemy. The marriage came under strain because, O’Neill said, ‘I affected two other gentlewomen,’ and Mabel left him and made public complaint against him to the Council. In the same year he engineered the escape of Red Hugh O’Donnell from Dublin Castle.

In 1595, on the death of Turlough O’Neill, he was inaugurated as the O’Neill in traditional fashion. He was publicly proclaimed a traitor in Newry in Jun 1595 but in the autumn sued for peace and pardon. From subsequent events it would seem that he wanted temporary peace merely to gain time until Spanish aid should arrive. In Dec his wife died at Dungannon, and in the spring of 1596 he married his fourth wife, Catherine Magennis.

The unrelenting enmity of Bagenal and his own ambition to regain all the hereditary powers of his family in Ulster gradually drew him to take arms against the English. In 1595 he defeated Sir John Norreys in the Battle of Clontibret. As yet there was no open war, and O’Neill and other chiefs engaged the English in parleys and truces while opening secret communication with Spain. They demanded liberty of conscience, full pardon, and restoration of their titles and lands. Towards the end of 1596 an uneasy peace was arranged.

In 1597, with the arrival of a new Lord Deputy, Lord Thomas Borough, hostilities broke out again, culminating in the Battle of the Yellow Ford, near Armagh, in Aug 1598, in which the English suffered a heavy defeat and their commander, Marshal Bagenal, was killed. O’Neill came to be spoken of as Prince of Ireland, and in great alarm the queen sent over Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, in 1599, providing him with an army of twenty thousand men and giving him almost as much power as if he had been made King of Ireland. O’Neill asked for a parley, and the two leaders met in the middle of a river near Dundalk in Sep 1599. They agreed on a truce until 1 May 1600, and Essex returned to England, where Elizabeth’s displeasure resulted in his disgrace and execution.

O’Neill, now at the summit of his power, asked in effect for autonomy, and Cecil, the English Secretary, said: ‘He means to be head and monarch of Ireland’. O’Neill made a royal progress through Ireland, taking submissions and preaching a holy war. Elizabeth then sent over Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy, as Deputy, with Sir George Carew as president of Munster. Mountjoy proposed ringing Ulster with forts and using famine ‘as the chief instrument of reducing this kingdom. Sir Henry Dowcra persuaded Niall Garbh O’Donnell and Sir Art O’Neill to join him, and many Irish chiefs deserted O’Neill to side with Mountjoy. In Sep 1601 the long-awaited Spanish force arrived at Kinsale under Don Juan del Águila. O’Neill decided to harass Leinster and the Pale in order to lure Mountjoy from the south, but he would not be moved from his determination to attack the Spaniards, and he proceeded to besiege Kinsale.

O’Neill arrived at Kinsale with Red Hugh O’Donnell in Dec 1601. Mountjoy rushed to contain the Spanish, while O'Neill and O'Donnell were compelled to hazard their armies in separate marches from the north, through territories defended by Sir George Carew, in the depths of a severe winter. The English supplies were precarious, their army had already been greatly reduced, and O’Neill’s first plan was to avoid direct confrontation and wear down the enemy. The traditional view is that he was overruled by the impetuous O’Donnell and by Don Juan del Águila, who believed that the English would be no match for the combined Spanish and Irish forces. They decided to attack on 24 Dec 1601. At Bandon they joined together, and then blockaded the English army that was laying siege to the Spanish. The English were in a poor state, with many of their troops disabled with dyssentery, and the extreme winter weather made life in camp very difficult. But owing to poor communications with the besieged Spanish and a crucial failure to withstand the shock of a daring English cavalry charge, O'Neill's army was quickly dispersed. The Irish army retreated, and the Spanish commander surrendered. The defeat at the battle of Kinsale was a disaster for O'Neill and ended his chances of winning the war.

Kinsale marked the end of the Gaelic order. O’Neill retreated to Ulster and was harried there by Dowcra while he waited for further aid from Spain. In Dec 1602 he offered his submission, but this was rejected by Mountjoy. Early in 1603, Elizabeth instructed Mountjoy to open negotiations with the rebellious chieftains, and O'Neill made his submission to Mountjoy in the following Apr at Mellifont, Counth Louth, unaware of Elizabeth's death. When he learned in Dublin in Apr that the Queen had died he wept for rage.
In the years following his submission he was baited by the Dublin government, which took from him great tracts of his lands and forbade him to practise his religion. Abandoning hope, he sailed from Lough Foyle with other chiefs in Sep 1607. The Flight of the Earls, one of the most celebrated episodes in Irish history, occurred on 14 Sep 1607, when O'Neill and O'Donnell embarked at midnight at Rathmullen on Lough Swilly, with their wives, families and retainers, numbering ninety-nine persons, on a voyage for Spain. Driven by contrary winds to the east, the refugees took shelter in the Seine estuary and passed the winter in the Netherlands. In Apr 1608, they proceeded to Rome, where they were welcomed and hospitably entertained by Pope Paul V. O'Donnell died there the same year.

O'Neill was received with honour and given a Papal pension. The distinguished émigré, in Ó Faoláin’s words, became ‘habituated to melancholy and homelessness and the routine of idle days.’ He died on 20 Jul 1616 and was buried with great pomp in San Pietro beside his son.

O'Neill was four times married, and had a large number both of legitimate and illegitimate children. One of his sons was Sean or John O'Neill and was recognized by King Felipe III of Spain as the 4th Earl of Tyrone in 1616. This John spent his life in the service of Spain as a Regimental commander in the Spanish Netherlands.

Source: A Dictionary of Irish Biography, Henry Boylan (ed.), Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, 1998

to Bios Page

to Home Page