Ireland’s Wars: The End Of Shane O’Neill

When we last left the story of Shane O’Neill, the Tyrone leader had just won a rather large diplomatic victory, having faced down English armies before facing down the English monarch directly. Returning home after his momentous meeting with Elizabeth, O’Neill was at the height of his notoriety.

But he still had many enemies. Tyrconnell, to the west of Tyrone, would always be a bitter foe of Shane, especially with Calvagh O’Donnell at the helm. The man was unlikely to forget his time in Shane’s captivity, or the fact that he wife had left him for his great rival. To the east of Tyrone were the Scottish colonists, the MacDonnell’s of Antrim being among the most prominent. The Scots were expansionist and a danger to Shane’s ambitions of greater control in Ulster. Then there were the English and Anglo-Irish in the Pale, who could not possibly have been so deluded as to think that a meeting with Elizabeth would make Shane a more peaceful person.

Peace did not last very long in the north. Shane wanted Ulster, not just Tyrone. The English wanted Shane out of the picture. The O’Neill leader was soon raiding into the territory of his neighbours, and the English were soon back at their diplomatic game, encouraging Shane’s neighbours to rise up against him. It did not take much prodding. If anything, Shane was doing all of the work on that score himself. Reasserting his authority in Tyrone upon his return would have been necessary, and attacks on neighbouring states would have been an important part of this.

O’Neill remained an aggressive chieftain – except when it came to numerically superior English armies – and within a short time of his return to Tyrone he was leading fully fledged armies east. In 1564 he campaigned throughout Ulster against the Scots and the following year was able to bring the MacDonnell’s to open battle at Glentasie, near Ballycastle, North Antrim. The result was a decisive victory for O’Neill, as he killed the MacDonnell clan leader, and took his immediate heir, Sorley Boy MacDonnell, prisoner.

Such victories illustrate the power that Shane was now able to showcase. His activities against the Scottish were done, by his own claim, on behalf of the English government, but Elizabeth was growing tired of Shane’s continued warring and the lack of accountability that he represented.

A new Lord Deputy, Henry Sidney, was in place in Dublin, with Elizabeth’s authority to deal with Shane in a military fashion if necessary. Such hopes must have come with a forlorn feeling, as leading armies into Tyrone had proved all too useless a way to bring Shane to heel. Shane himself was in a much stronger position militarily than he had been during his last great confrontation with the English, with more land, more troops and more horse at his back and call. Unhappy at the constant English attempts to provoke him and rile up anger from his neighbours – a brutal raiding campaign in Fermanagh was an apparent result of this – O’Neill resolved to head south in force.

It was a dangerous gambit, answered aggressively by Sidney, who had his own army. But aside from some small contact between the two forces near Dundalk in July 1566, battle never occurred. Perhaps Shane thought better of his plan, which carried such a large risk. Sidney would have been delighted with the prospect of a conventional showdown with Shane, after this option had been so readily unavailable to the English in years previous.

O’Neill’s army did raid the Pale as best they could, but the sources indicate that this campaign was less successful than previous ones. The Pale was better garrisoned, and Shane was harried all the way back to Tyrone by forces from Tyrconnell. Sidney pursued, but Shane went to ground as soon as he got back home. The Lord Deputy was able to march throughout Ulster and back without brining Shane to an engagement, as was expected. The English didn’t need to be too aggressive with Shane, just give him enough rope to hang himself with.

While Shane had lost nothing of consequence on the field, there must have been some embarrassment at the course things had taken. His attempts to intimidate and pillage the Pale had largely failed and Tyrconnell was becoming a greater threat day by day. Shane could not possibly hope to control Ulster unless he dealt with Tyrconnell decisively, as he failed to do earlier in his reign.

By 1567 Calvagh was dead, replaced as leader of Tyrconnel by his brother, Hugh (not the same Hugh who had previously taken shelter in England from Shane). Hugh had previously been an ally of Shane, and had aided his early invasion of Tyrconnell due to a dynastic dispute with his brother. Ironically, he would now prove to be Shane’s downfall.

The raiding between the two countries had never really ceased. But as Hugh was inaugurated as the new leader of Tyrconnell, he started his reign with a series of very aggressive and large scale expeditions into Tyrone, which brought matters to a head. Having beaten the Scots and faced down the Englhs numerous times, Shane was ready to make a play for Tyrconnell yet again. The humiliation of his earlier defeat there would surely have been on his mind. By now Shane had broken nearly all his ties to England, determined to hold Ulster by the sword and claim a more Kingly title.

In early May of 1567, Shane gathered his forces, probably about 2’000 men, and headed west. His army would have included a substantial amount of cavalry, gallowglass, and light Irish infantry. Seeking a decisive engagement, his forces turned northward and on the 8th forded the River Swilly at Farsetmore, just east of the modern day town of Letterkenny, close enough to the sea. He was able to do so as it was low tide, and was perhaps hoping to surprise his opponent by choosing such a place to cross the rover.

Hugh was waiting for him, albeit with a drastically inferior force, little more than his personal guard. With this he was able to harry and pick at O’Neill’s army as it crossed the Swilly, with the intention of waiting until his own army assembled to aid him. Hugh’s interference did the trick apparently, as Shane made no overly-aggressive move on him while he forded the river and made ready his own forces.

Hugh soon retreated a short distance to meet up with 400 gallowglass that had come together at Magherennan, little less than a few kilometres from where Shane now encamped his forces, perhaps expecting battle the following day.

Mindful of the past and what had been achieved with a daring all-out assault on Tyrone invaders, Hugh gambled on the dangerous course. He must have known that his numerical inferiority would cost him if he hesitated, and that he could not wait for further reinforcements to arrive. If Hugh was defeated and killed, Shane could easily have gone on to dominate Tyrconnell. But Hugh also had the knowledge that Shane did not deal well with the unexpected. So, Hugh attacked the same day with his force of what could not have been more than 500 men.

Seeing this army approach his position, Shane allegedly thought that they were coming to surrender and pay homage to him. This little bit of historical trivia could very well be just an exaggeration, meant to play up Shane’s vain personality. But either way, he was not expecting the sudden charge and attack that took place.

The surprise attack worked spectacularly. Shane had failed to learn the lesson of Carrigliath. His army, encamped and unprepared for the assault, were routed quickly and with huge loss. Many tried to swim back across the Swilly, with disastrous results – the river was now at high tide. Losses are difficult to determine, but may have been as high as 1400. Whatever the numbers were exactly, the defeat was decisive.

Shane survived, getting across the Swilly to relative safety, but he was living on borrowed time. His army was largely destroyed, and numerous enemies now waited to take advantage. O’Neill had few friends he could turn to, having warred with all of neighbours at some point.

In desperation, Shane turned to his old enemies, the MacDonnells, hoping for an alliance that could reverse the dire situation he now faced. As an incentive, he offered the release of Sorley Boy MacDonnell. A meeting was arranged between the two sides in Antrim, but whatever took place there – prearranged or spontaneous – the MacDonnell’s struck down and killed Shane, the final ignominious end to his ambitions.

Shane O’Neill was another larger than life personality in Irish history. He succeeded brilliantly in parts of his military endeavours, but failed totally in others. His efforts at alliance making and diplomacy were total failures, which ended him more than anything else – his final defeat was at the hands of one of his only previous allies. He failed to learn the lessons of past defeats twice undone by surprise attacks just within the border of Tyrconnell. He was unable to curtail his ambitions, to accept what he had without risking it all to gain just a little bit more.

Shane is remembered, depending on who you believe, as an Irish hero or as a total villain. His achievements were impressive for a person in his position, but his downfall was inevitable.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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