Ireland’s Wars: The Flight Of The Earls

The Nine Years War was finished, the English triumphant and the Irish rebels defeated. What was left was the aftermath.

In this postbellum period, we must first look to some bizarre happenings further south, a strange half-rebellion that erupted in urban areas upon the accession of James. The towns of Ireland had been routinely loyal, especially in Leinster and South Munster. Places like Drogheda, Cashel and Waterford had maintained faith with the crown throughout the Nine Years War and had done much for the monetary remuneration of the army. Even with the reformation, these areas remained predominantly Catholic in population and ethos, and Mountjoy’s administration was the latest in a long line that was willing to tolerate this as long as the faith was not practised openly and provocatively.

Now, with inaccurate rumours being bandied about that James was a Catholic and that, like in the time of Mary, the reformation would now be finished, the Catholic faith began to be preached openly in these areas with Protestant churches seized for the purpose. Further, thanks to unrest over money issues, several towns refused to proclaim James as was tradition and shut their doors to representatives of the crown.

This sort of hysterical reaction to the new King is hard to quantify and examine because it made such little sense. Mountjoy dubbed it “simplicity” and it does appear to have been a sort of illogically driven action. There was a small amount of violence directed at Protestants, but nothing near the levels that would be recorded later in that century.

Mountjoy was already making plans to return to England when this “revolt” broke out. Other English commanders would probably have gone into the towns – not protected by any military – in force and started hangings. In fact, given what had occurred in Tyrone, this is exactly what you might have expected from Mountjoy. But the devastation in the north had been for a military purpose, and Mountjoy was wise enough to know that such a course was not the solution to this last Irish problem he was presented with. He probably also knew, by now, that using the stick in Munster had provoked rebellion after rebellion.

Instead, he travelled to the areas with a smaller force and engaged with the “leaders” – mostly Catholic clergy – directly. The vast majority of the trouble simmered down due to his mere presence, and his toleration of a Catholic faith practised in a less flamboyant style did the rest. The towns of Ireland acquiesced and Mountjoy had averted a wider problem.

After that Mountjoy had gone back to London, bringing Hugh O’Neill and Rory O’Donnell with him. In London, all three men knelt before the new King for the first time, the agreement at Mellifont was accepted and the new titles for O’Neill and O’Donnell confirmed. James had no fault with the agreement that Mountjoy had reached, deeming it a merciful enough way to begin his reign when it came to Ireland. And, of course, the deal favoured England rather dramatically, as time would tell.

Mountjoy was granted the elite title of Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, an office he was glad to be able to carry out from England, with George Carew rewarded with the more hands-on title of Lord Deputy in Dublin. Mountjoy was well-regarded at court, but wound up being banished from there in disgrace when he married his long-time lover Penelope Devereux, the sister of the Earl of Essex. The two had been involved for years and had several children, but the marriage was unauthorised and threw Mountjoy into disfavour. He and his wife simply retired to their plentiful estates, where Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy and victor of the Nine Years War, died from a bout of pneumonia in April 1606. He had done more than any to bring victory in Ireland, and the peace he had ushered in would last long after he was gone.

The two rebel leaders returned home and settled into a life of peace. And peace it was. The English army was reduced back to pre-war levels, the Irish kerns on both sides, what were left anyway, were sent home. Forces were not trained or raised and save for what little banditry and small-scale squabbling between families remained, warfare ceased in Ireland.

But Hugh O’Neill was ever restless and never happy with his lot in the following few years. Depopulation was much evident and it would take time for people to return, rebuild homes and re-sow crops. For O’Neill, now relegated to the role of a compliant English Earl, this was a probably a morose and lonely period, not helped by the absence of his son, Henry, who entered into foreign service during the war and never returned. Brian O’Rourke had not been included in the Mellifont talks apparently, but the submission there ended his rebellion too, and he died the following year anyway.

He complained about the English presence in his land and how his every move was watched by English spies. The new system of “freeholds” reduced his overall power in Tyrone in line with the English way of land ownership. The reformation continued with varying levels of oppression for the Catholic faith, which O’Neill was now bound not to interfere in. Numerous Acts passed by the crown continued this process, and it, more than anything, enraged local opinion. A war had just been fought, with religious matters at the forefront to much of the presented motivations, and the continuing destruction of the native faith was galling. Tyrone and Tyrconnell also lost access to fishery revenue and grated under the English domination over Irish language and culture. O’Neill was subjected to many irritating legal challenges over the borders of his territory and other matters. There was no call to arms, no genuine signs of plotting, but discontentment and anger were very much evident.

We cannot be sure as to what policy the English intended to pursue, long-term, towards Tyrconnell and Tyrone, but it was certainly not a positive one. A rebel was a rebel, and only a fool would have trusted O’Neill again. Such persecutions as were being meted out may all have been part of a co-ordinated effort to get him to show his true colours and thus provide a convenient means of eliminating him as a threat, but this cry of conspiracy has little to back it up. At least one source mentions a “sham plot” enacted by English spies meant to entrap O’Neill and O’Donnell and others into declarations of disloyalty to the crown, but as it happened, these were unnecessary.

Tired of the persecution, distrusting invitations to London to try and sort them out and fearing further attacks due to their Catholic faith – the recent Gunpowder Plot had made Catholics a prime target for many – by 1607 Hugh O’Neill, Rory O’Donnell and many others suffering under the new English regime, had had enough.

With no way of raising a viable army in their own lands anymore, lacking the manpower or the money, their only hope was foreign support. Fearing that their own arrests would shortly come, they decided that the only way to achieve the expulsion of the English from Ireland, and the return of all their old rights and privileges, would be to take sail and travel to those potential allies directly.

Thus, on the 14th of September 1607, Hugh O’Neill and Rory O’Donnell, along with a host of lesser Gaelic chieftains and family members, boarded a ship provided by Maguire of Fermanagh. There are some suggestions that Hugh did this in a panic, worried he was about to be arrested, but more reliable sources deny this. From Rathmullen on Lough Swilly, they set sail for France.

“The Flight of the Earls”, as this event has become known, was a true watershed moment in Irish history. Gaelic life in the island didn’t die instantly, any less than complete domination by the English was assured. But the best hope for legitimate resistance was gone and would not come back. This moment, this flight, can be accurately called the end of an era, and the beginning of a whole new one. Up until the Nine Years War and its immediate aftermath, Ireland had been an island characterised by the military competition between the native Irish Kingdoms and the Anglo-Irish Earldoms/Pale, as well as the near constant warfare between the Irish Kingdoms themselves. After the Flight of the Earls, with the strongest Irish chieftains having surrendered their titles and their place in Ireland, the old system can be seen to have been dying out completely. Earls, loyal to the crown and to its strict instructions regarding internecine fighting, were now the order of the day, true Earldoms, not like the faux ones that Tyrone had been in the past.

As for the Earls in flight, theirs was a sorry tale. They travelled first to Normandy, then Flanders, before finally heading for Rome, seeking support for another invasion of Ireland backed by foreign troops. But Spain, now at peace with England after a treaty worked out by James in 1604, wasn’t interested in upsetting the new status quo, at least not then. Empty handed, the Earls and their retinues settled in the Holy City, living on the charity of the Pope and Philip III who, while at peace with England, still had sympathy for the rebels. In 1608 a large amount of them died around the same time, probably from a bout of disease, including Rory O’Donnell, Maguire and Hugh O’Neill’s eldest son and namesake.

Hugh himself lingered on, already in his 60’s, never ceasing his attempts to get backing for a military return to his homelands. Some sources say he lost his sight before the end, and on the 20th of July 1616, he finally passed.

James had declared the actions of the Earls in leaving Ireland treasonous several years before this, and by 1614 they had been attainted once more, their titles revoked and lands confiscated, further diminishing the failing power of the old Gaelic system. Much worse than that, the Earls’ action allowed the English to declare the Treaty of Mellifont a null and void agreement, paving the way for much of the hardships that Ulster would soon endure.

I think this is as good a place as any to call a temporary halt. My “coverage” of the Nine Years War has stretched to more posts than I thought it would and its conclusion marks a significant period of peace followed by warfare of a slightly different bent.

So, for the next entry I’d like to do a general wrap-up post on the Nine Years War, discuss critical points, overall strategy, commanders, successes, failures and all of that kind of thing. At some point I’m hoping to write a piece on the counter-insurgency policy of the English in Ireland, and how that changed and adapted over time. Until then.

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

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