Four hundred years ago the last of Irish royalty left Ireland and the Gaelic system of government came to an end. It would be known in history as the Flight of the Earls and it happened on September 4, 1607. Most are familiar with the English incursions into Ireland over the years since the Norman invasion and the opposition of the Irish Chieftains. Some led rebellions, others sought cooperation, and a few tried both.
Up to the reign of Henry VIII (1509-47), southern Ireland had been divided into properties ruled by ‘earls’ created by the Crown. They were mostly independent but Henry VIII introduced a new dimension to the status quo when he broke with the church in 1534 and declared himself the head of the Church of England. The Pope excommunicated him and many of Ire-land’s earls sided with the Catholic Church. The earl of Kildare, “Silken” Thomas Fitzgerald, denounced his allegiance to Henry, arguing that excommunication had stripped him of legitimacy. Henry responded with force and in 1537 Fitzgerald and five of his uncles were executed in London. Henry made the Protestant faith a priority of his reign, a policy continued by his successors. Thus was the centuries-old struggle between the Irish and English transformed into one between Irish Catholic and English Protestant.
Henry’s plan for Ireland led to many conflicts. His successors, Mary (1553-58) and Elizabeth (1558-1603), fought many up-risings trying to impose British authority and the Church of England on the Irish earls. They fought Shane O’Neill (1560-67) and the Desmond Fitzgeralds (1569-73, and 1579-83), as well as daily violence against Crown loyalists. In 1587, Spain was preparing her Armada to invade England and Elizabeth realized she could not muster her full resources against the Spanish while the threat of rebellion existed in Ireland. Though Anglo Normans con-trolled the south, the major clans of the north remained un-conquered, and she was deter-mined to resolve that issue. The English decided to capture Enniskillen, Hugh Maguire’s fort at the Gap of the North the main access to Ulster. Hugh O’Donnell, Chieftain of Tyrconnell, answered his call for aid, and the two Hughs swept across Ulster driving the Eng-lish before them; they broke through the Gap of the North, and recaptured Enniskillen, then routed the English at the Ford of the Biscuits. They next moved on Fort Monaghan, and the English sent reinforcements. They met at the Battle of Clontibert, where the English saw, for the first time, the Red Hand of O’Neill among the clan standards. Clan O’Neill had taken the field, and at their head was Hugh O’Neill, England’s trusted Earl of Tyrone. He had announced at last, destroying an English company in the bargain. The last remaining Irish War Chieftains, the three Hughs of Ulster were now a national force with O’Neill commanding; he had 1,000 horse soldiers and 7,000 foot soldiers at a time when the entire English force in Ireland was less than 2,000. In 1596, O’Neill swept through the north and each blow was echoed by O’Donnell and Maguire in the west. The Nine Year’s War had begun. O’Neill took the title, “The O’Neill,” essentially proclaiming himself high king – a position not held since Brian Boru’s death in 1014. His goal, he made clear, was to gain protection for the Catholic religion and to ensure that Ireland be ruled by the Irish.
The three Hughes scored victories against Crown forces, most notably at the Battle of Yellow Ford in 1598. But a huge British force under Lord Mountjoy eventually ended the Nine Years War at the Battle of Kinsale in late 1601 in which Hugh Maguire was killed. O’Neill kept up guerilla raids while O’Donnell went to Spain to negotiate aid hoping to outlive the aging Elizabeth who would be succeeded by the Catholic James Stuart. Offers of leniency were refused by O’Neill, but when he learned that O’Donnell had been poisoned in Spain, the greatest Irish Chieftain of his age came in, on March 30, 1603, to surrender to Lord Mountjoy. He pledged obedience before the Irish Parliament on April 3. Then, after the ceremony of submission he was told: Elizabeth of England had died on March 24! James Stuart of Scotland was now James I of England. O’Neill had won and never knew it. He and his nation had outlasted the Queen only to be tricked into submission by Lord Mountjoy before agreements with James could be ratified. O’Neill was allowed to keep his land, and his earldom, but lost his lordship over Ulster’s chieftains who were all made earls of the Crown, ending the Irish title of High King forever.
In the years that followed O’Neill’s rebellion, the restored earls of Ulster still possessed clan lands, but faced a growing number of English settlers and a hostile administration. Then, in 1607, London summoned O’Neill and O’Donnell’s successor to answer charges of planning another rebellion. Knowing that English planters were ready to seize their lands, O’Neill and O’Donnell surmised that their destruction was at hand. Their only course was escape. The hearts of the Irish were broken as the noblest princes of Erin Ruari O’Donnell and his brothers; Conor Maguire, brother of the slain Hugh; Hugh O’Neill and his three sons and 100 other earls sailed from Lough Swilly in what became known as The Flight of the Earls. The last Irish defense against English tyranny went with them.
They eventually landed in the Spanish Netherlands and from there proceeded to Rome. Their hopes of returning to liberate Ireland with a Catholic army soon dissipated and they lived out their years on meager papal pensions. O’Neill died there in 1616. The English government seized the opportunity and the fleeing earls were tried in absentia and convicted of treason, the penalty for which was forfeiture of their land. With 500,000 acres of land now in its possession, the Crown began a settlement program known as the Ulster Plantation. Its ultimate goal was to create a loyal population in Ulster through the settlement of thousands of non-Irish Protestants. Although it took a few decades to take hold, the Plantation of Ulster had a dramatic impact on the course of Irish history. Not only did it wipe out much of the province’s native Irish leadership by eliminating the holdings of the 101 Irish Earls who fled, but it threw open the province to settlement by tens of thousands of English and Scottish Protestants. By the 1630s, in six Ulster counties, Protestants owned 3 million out of the 3.5 million acres of land.