Some say that Hugh O'Neill was taken away from Ulster, to London, at the age of nine, in August 1559, and did not return to it until June 1567, aged seventeen.
As he returned to England in October 1567 and spent a last Christmas there, returning finally to Ulster in the new year of 1568, he had actually spent eight-and-a-half years in that powerful atmosphere, his guide was Sidney who had been bedfellow to Edward VI. They say in this time he was brought up in the protestant faith and English culture. The above is not true
If that were not enough, they say there is a good chance, that he wasn't even an O'Neill and his real grandfather not Con, but Kelly a blacksmith from Dundalk. If it were not for the English, Hugh would have never survived in Tyrone more than a week.
Whether he was O'Neill or Kelly we might never know, But one thing we do know, Hugh was an Irish Celt, born in Tyrone and his first nine years there would have been imbedded in his sub-conscious.
As The O'Neill, Hugh proved one of the ablest of the Princes of Ulster; and with his knowledge of the English and their ways, he became one of the most formidable foes that they had yet encountered in Ireland. Hitherto he had seemed to be no more than an instrument in the hands of Elizabeth; and he had played the part so well - without forgetting himself - that she now anticipated little trouble in reducing the province, and making way for her officials and planters.
She was soon undeceived, however; and in the spring of 1595, when assured that Turlough had ceased to interest himself in mundane affairs, Dungannon beheld, says Mitchel, " the Royal Standard of O'Neill displaying as it floated on the breeze that terrible Red Right Hand upon its snow white folds, waving defiance to the Saxon Queen, and dawning like a new aurora upon the awakened children of Heremon," Soon after he was proclaimed by her majesty a traitor, for" aspiring to live like a tyrant over a great number of good subjects in Ulster.
" In order to become Prince of Ulster," we learn further he has partly by force, and partly by persuasion , " allured and drawn to concur with him in rebellion a great of the chieftains" of the Province, especially O'Donnell, "whose father and predecessors have always been loyal"; and whom she had "a disposition to save!" Like Shane, Hugh gave Elizabeth's proclamations little heed; and in September he was called upon by his clansmen to assume that title which English writers tell us he valued so highly. "Old O'Neill is dead," writes Bagennal, "and the traitor is gone to the stone to receive that name.
" The whole Irishrie," writes Thornburgh, Anglican Bishop of Limerrick, "are now taught a new lesson, O'Neill is no traitor; "He is the hope of all," he adds, "if he were not, they should be all overthrown and undone." After much skirmishing, debating, and temporizing, Hugh resolved to try his luck against the Sassenachs, and to measure swords with his old enemy, Marshal Bagenal, who, in August , 1598, came into Ulster against him; and encamped at Armagh with four field-pieces, 4,000 foot, and 320 horse, "the most loyal and best trained in war and most choice companies of foot and horse troops in the English army.
" Hugh had surrounded the Blackwater fort, "swearing by his barbarous hand," says Secretary Fenton, " that he will not depart till he carries it." Between the fort and Armagh he had thrown up earthworks, and " plashed " and dug pits in the roads and forts. Altogether he had 4,500 foot and 600 horse. The English, as usual, had the advantage in arms and armour; but Hugh's troops were aroused to a high pitch of enthusiasm by his stirring address, and a prophecy of victory, invented by O'Donnell's bard O'Clery, and fathered on St Berchan.
On the morning of Monday, August 14th, Bagenal was sighted, leading his men in six division, with intervals of several hundred yards. Colonel Percy's and his own regiment composed the van; those of Cosby and Sir Thomas Wingfield the centre, and those of Cunie and Billings at the rear. The horse, in two divisions, was led by Sir Calisthenes Brook, with Captain Montague as Lieutenant.
On passing the river Callan, at a point where there is a ford with a yellow bottom and yellow banks----Beal-athabuidhe----a volley of musketry swept through their foremost ranks from the thickets on both sides and while O'Donnell's skirmishers drew around the right, those of O'Neill pressed on the left, both being protected by the burshwood. Bagenal with difficulty brought his men into the large marshy plain which stretched up to Hugh's postition, about two miles from Armagh.
After negotiating with considerable loss a ditch about four feet high, he was hotly engaged by O'Donnell, MacDonnell, and Maguire ( Hugh, son of Coconnaught ), and advanced with great difficulty.
Covered by heavy gunfire, the English crossed the trench, when they were set upon by the Irish horse and beaten back with great slaughter, their several colours being taken. Bagenal then came to the rescue; when Hugh himself pricked forward with his guard of forty horse and body of pikemen.
Turning his full force against the Marshal's person," says Moryson," he had the good furtune to kill him, fighting valiantly among the rebels." His men took flight, when they were put to the sword without mercy.
Thus O'Neill triumphed, says Camden," according to his heart's content over his adversary, and abtained a remarkable victory over the English, between killed, wounded, and missing, they lost 34 officers and 2,000 men; and the spoils included 12 colours one gun, and all the musical instruments, commissariat, and 12,000 gold crowns.
Everywhere the Irish took advantage of the victory; and the country was in a blaze. In O'Neill's name an Earl of Desmond was installed in Munster by his Captains, Nugent, and Burk, Baron of Leitrim; "and there was not a single son of a Saxon," say the Annalists," whom they did not kill or expel."
In the following year Essex and his 20,000 horse and foot were baffled; and Hugh, marching triumphantly through Leinster and Munster, swept all before him
Had the promised Spanish aid now arrived, the English would have been wiped out; but though Philip promised much he gave little; and Hugh, after six years, found himself, like Shane, at the end of his resources.
Time after time Philip disappointed, making plain Hugh afterwards declared, that he had a contemptible opinion of himself and O'Donnell; for when we expected a royal aid and a store of crowns to supply our wants, the priests and friars that came unto us brought us hallowed beads and counterfeit jewels, as if we petty Indian kings that would be pleased with threepenny knives and such like beggarly presents."
At lenght Elizabeth mustered another army of 13,000 horse and foot, the command of which was entrusted to Mountjoy, who bethought of occupying Lough Foyle and of thus crippling Hugh as Sidnei had crippled Shane, without artillery , Hugh could do nothing but threaten.
Everywhere the English were thus making progress; and early in November, 1600, Mountjoy succeeded in penetrating to Armagh. On his way back, however, he was intercepted by Hugh near carlingford, and lost 600 of his men, he himself had a narrow escape.
A Spanish fleet had landed in Cork, Hugh was grievously disappointed, for he had already explained to Philip that if such a small force were landed outside of Ulster or Connaught it would be useless as he could give no assistance, having more than enough to do to hold his own.
With a mighty effort, and after some delay, he and O'Donnell mustered an army of about 5,600 foot and horse, leaving Ulster entirely ay the mercy of the English, he appeared before the camp of Mountjoy, who had completely invested Kinsale. His camp was strongly fortified, and Del Aguila was pressing hard for relief. O'Donnell, impressed by his appeals, held they should attack Mountjoy at any cost. But Hugh maintained they should run no risks, as Del Aguila was safe from attack, and Mountjoy's men were suffering greatly from want and sickness, which had carried off hundreds.
O'Donnell, however, having a majority in his favour, carried the day; and , assured that a clean sweep would be made of the English. At midnight, on December 22nd, 1601, the Irish advanced in three divisions. Hugh commanded the centre, O'Donnell the rear, and Captain Tyrrell and O'Sullivan Beare the van.
O'Donnell was led astray by his guides; but Hugh with the van and centre, marched to within a short distance of the English camp, wondering why Aguila did not appear and give the signal for battle he ascended the hill and surveyed the English camp. Finding that preparations had been made to receive him, he decided on putting off the enterprise to another time; and ordered his divisions to retire. Having fallen back about a mile, they met O'Donnell's forces; and at the same time the English cavalry turned up. They were easily drivan back by O'Donnell, who thinking he could destroy them between himself and the ford of an adjoining stream, which they had crossed, gave ground a little. Some of his men, however-probably partisans of Niall Garve, wheeling right around, bore down on his foot, who thereupon broke and fled. Hughs troops followed their example; and thus, adds O'Sullivan Beare, all were panic-stricken, or rather scattered by Divine vengeance."
Hugh was so disgusted and indignant that he there and then made proposals to Mountjoy; while O'Donnell, who "it was thought would kill himself did not sleep for three nights and three days.
Hugh thinking better of his resolve, suggested, as a last resort, that O'Donnell should set out for Spain, and explain, and seek further aid from Philip. He agreed; and Rory his brother then took command of the Cinel, and returned to Ulster with Hugh, who held out in Glenconkene and other fastnesses till the deth of O'Donnell, who was poisoned by an English agent in Spain, and till all hope of succour had vanished.
With his submission, in March, 1603, practically termintaes the story of the O'Neill princes, whose defeat completed the conquest of Ireland; so that henceforward the Celtic land tenure, Brehon laws, and the language, customs, and traditions of the defeated race were doomed seemingly to extinction.