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'The Flight Of The Earls' - Book Reviews
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Review by Dr Maureen E. Mulvihill
Princeton Research Forum, Princeton, New Jersey

Originally published in The Recorder
(American Irish Historical Society, NYC), Autumn 2004
 
  The Flight Of The Earls, By John McCavitt
  Review by Dr Eoin Magennis
  Seanchas Ard Mhacha, Published  2003
  Posted 24th July 2005.
 

The Flight of the Earls - Book Summary
By Dr John McCavitt, FRHistS

The Flight of the Earls in 1607, when Hugh O’Neill, earl of Tyrone and Rory O’Donnell, earl of Tyrconnell boarded a ship on Lough Swilly bound for the continent never to return, is often considered a pivotal moment in Irish history, witnessing the demise of Gaelic Ireland, the onset of protestant ascendancy and penal days for Irish catholics. An event shrouded in controversy, the Flight is typically characterised as mysterious, enigmatic to the point of defying explanation. Even the term, ‘the Flight of the Earls’, conjuring up notions of a precipitate, tragic, perilous escapade tinged with romance and despair, has been the subject of dispute, with some commentators questioning the historical accuracy of terming the departure of the northern earls from Ireland as a ‘Flight’ at all.

The contentious nature of the Flight of the Earls proceeds in no small part from the disputed historical reputation of Hugh O’Neill, earl of Tyrone. Ridiculed by Queen Elizabeth I as a ‘base bush kern (soldier)’, Tyrone, by contrast, had earned himself a reputation on continental Europe as ‘the third soldier of his age’ for the manner in which he regularly trounced Elizabethan royal armies. Tyrone’s self depiction as champion of ‘catholic’ Ireland in the face of the advances of Protestantism is called into question by those who would highlight his collaboration with the protestant English in suppressing the crusade launched by Munster catholics in the 1580s. One of the great icons in Irish nationalist tradition, Tyrone has been gleefully portrayed by his detractors as a violent wife-beating thug and an alcoholic to boot who spent his days in Italy after the Flight wallowing in drunken self-pity. And yet despite flaws in character, there is strong evidence that Irish catholics, facing unprecedented religious persecution, yearned for his return from Rome, casting him in the role of Moses, the Liberator. Following a ‘great meeting’ of Irish catholics in 1611, including senior catholic clergy, a prominent expatriate, William Meade, a Munsterman, was delegated to travel to Italy in a vain attempt to help co-ordinate Tyrone’s return to Ireland as the military figurehead of a revolt against the protestant English. It was be one of the great ironies of the situation that Tyrone was only to become recognised as the ‘leader’ of catholic Ireland in exile.

The Flight of the Earls is a book concerned with contextualising the earls’ departure by highlighting the events that not only preceded the Flight but those that proceeded from it. A narrative steeped in tales of war, passion, betrayal and derring-do, with heroes and villains of every hue, The Flight of the Earls constitutes a fascinating story spiced with references to spies, assassins and outlaws, kidnapping and hostage-taking, even references to contemporaneous Robin Hoods as well as a curious incident involving witchcraft. Extra-marital affairs, rape and suggestions of homosexual liaisons also feature. Such was the degree to which war reduced people to desperation that there were horrific scenes of cannibalism during the Nine Years War (1594-1603), a conflict which witnessed increasingly desperate crown forces resorting in some areas to mass murder tantamount to genocide. That Ireland was once a refuge for pirate fleets as powerful as any that plied the Barbary coast is little appreciated. To a considerable extent too, the Irish ‘diaspora’ originated in this period. The early seventeenth century witnessed Irishmen dispersed as far afield as the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Newfoundland and even the Amazon. As a direct result of the Flight of the Earls, Irish soldiers, the original ‘wild geese’, saw service in Sweden, Denmark, Poland and Russia, many of them having been transported by the English government. So many themes that have resonated throughout much of modern Irish history had distant echoes in events culminating from the Flight. Thus the issue of extradition arose directly from the Flight when the English government sought to force continental powers to repatriate the fugitive earls. The English government attempted to disarm (decommission) potentially disloyal elements in Ireland. Catholic absentionism from political institutions also occurred, and the collection of a ‘Catholic rent was organised. Protestant settlers in Ulster, fearing for their future in the event of the oft touted return of the earls to reclaim their lands by force, soon developed a siege mentality, surrounded as they were by a hostile indigenous population. The in-built ‘apartheid’ complexion of the Ulster colonization project, inspired by biblical teaching that it was fundamentally important to separate the weeds from the good corn, instituted a form of religious segregation in Ulster that far from dissipating with the passage of time is, it seems, becoming ever more prevalent.

Overall, the story of the Flight of the Earls is a tale of epic proportions, an enthralling and momentous episode in the history of Ireland that has lost none of its drama and appeal in the passage of time.


Review by Dr Maureen E. Mulvihill
Princeton Research Forum, Princeton, New Jersey
Originally published in The Recorder
(American Irish Historical Society, NYC), Autumn 2004
Posted 3rd December 2004.

Often it is said that a subject summons its author, that a subject owns its author, that the author is but steward and keeper of a legacy … that the author is fingered for the job.

Surely a case in point is Dr John McCavitt of Rostrevor, County Down, a teacher at the Abbey Grammar School, Newry, County Down, and newly-elected Fellow of the Royal Historical Society (London). Over some twenty years, dating from his doctoral studies at Queen’s University, Belfast, under the direction of Dr Mary O’Dowd, McCavitt has probed the immediate causes and long-term ramifications attending the dramatic Flight of the Earls, a flight which left Gaelic Ireland bereft of its mighty chieftains and thus vulnerable to the exploitive Plantation of Ulster by Ireland’s implacable foreign enemy, England.

What was the allure of this historical moment for McCavitt? What beckoned this scholar to parse, deconstruct, and reassemble the complex back story which led to that momentous day in September, 1607, when Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, and Rory O’Donnell, Earl of Tyrconnell, sadly departed their nation for sanctuary in a foreign land? What riveted McCavitt’s interest these many years on that precarious boatload of ninety-nine patriot Irish who departed the northern harbor of Rathmullan in Lough Swilly, Donegal, on the Feast of the Holy Cross, regretful exiles en route to France and then on to Rome?

As he explains in his book’s introduction, McCavitt was beckoned to this defining moment in Irish history by the complexity and importance of its rich historical material, not to mention the charisma of its oversize, colorful players. But, above all, the time was ripe indeed in these opening years of the 21st century for a thoroughgoing reassessment of the entire subject against new historical findings. Thus, standing on the shoulders of earlier historians, primarily the Reverend Charles Patrick Meehan, Member of the Royal Irish Academy (The Fate and Fortunes of Hugh O’Neill…and Rory O’Donel, 1868; 3d ed., 1886) and Sean O’Faolain (The Great O’Neill, 1942), McCavitt engages in far more than a stylish exercise in modern-day ‘new historicism’ or revisionist history; he applies old-style, time-honored classical methods of measured and even-handed historical inquiry to a daunting subject whose long-term repercussions continue to resonate. Over ten closely argued chapters, each finely documented with archival sources and other reliable commentary (Chapter 8, “Plantation and Transportation,” e.g., is supported by 146 endnotes), McCavitt negotiates past and present, Irish and English, monarchy and clan, rumor and fact, all with an eye to a fresh reconfiguration of this critical event of 1607. His detailed canvas is comprised of three linked subjects: (i) the long-term causes which precipitated the Flight of the Earls, being the Nine Years War, 1594 to 1603, during which England’s bloody oppression of the Irish had become patent; (ii) the immediate or short-term causes of the Flight and the circumstances of the earls’ departure, and it is at this juncture that McCavitt brings to bear the fruits of his impressive first book, Sir Arthur Chichester, Lord Deputy of Ireland, 1605-1616 (Belfast: Institute of Irish Stds., 1998), one of few scholarly reconstructions of any lord deputyship; and (iii) the situation of the exiled Irish earls, 1607-1616, showing that the Flight was never intended to be a final, irrevocable step, but that a glorious return and restoration of Irish power had been planned, though negotiations between Hugh O’Neill and the English crown (James I) floundered badly.     

    McCavitt’s achievement is especially apparent when compared to a parallel product, Jerome Griffin’s Flight of the Earls (Upfront Publishing UK, 2002; 192 pp). Griffin’s is not a scholarly treatment, but rather an historical novel, written in the narrative voice of Hugh O’Neill. Griffin’s principal concern is historical contextualization; indeed, most of the novel (pages 13-187) centers on the period preceding and precipitating the Flight, the years 1587 to 1603. The actual Flight of 1607 receives but a few concluding pages. While surely a worthy piece of work in its own right --- indeed, some readers may prefer Griffin’s romanticized approach to McCavitt’s scholarly rigor --- Griffin’s book fails to take in the total picture, especially the consequences of the Flight for Irish history, one of McCavitt’s chief concerns as in his book’s concluding chapter, “The Sword Passes On” (pages 200-222). 

In the judgment of this reviewer, there is but one weakness in McCavitt’s book: its conspicuous absence of essential illustrations. Readers hope to see contemporary renderings (all fully available) of Hugh O’Neill, Lord Mountjoy, James I, and Sir Arthur Chichester, as well as contemporary maps of Ireland during the Nine Years War and the Ulster Plantation. And surely missed are facsimiles of selected 17th-century documents, such as James I’s proclamation against the earls, important Public Record Office data, and letters --- all or any of these would have served as a desirable complement to the book’s (dense) text. But this omission was doubtless a decision at the publisher’s end, not McCavitt’s, whose scholarly methods certainly acknowledge the power of the pictorial. His first book, on Sir Arthur Chichester, mentioned above, includes as many as eleven archival images (portraits, maps, manuscript records).   

McCavitt’s abiding interest in the 1607 Flight of the Earls has not come full circle with his book of 2002, by no means. With admirable commitment, he and his talented Irish circle – Maura Erskine, Cecile la Rochelle, Miles Jones, Billy Finnegan, Mark Hughes, and McCavitt’s quiet collaborator, his wife Siobhánn – have produced several new products on the Flight saga, each in varying stages of development: there is a scripted play, with interludes of original music; there is an audio book, with incidental music, narrated by McCavitt himself and recorded at Annahaia Records, Newry, County Down (http://www.annahaiarecords.com/); and there is an online multimedia archive on the subject, complete with music, maps, images, and text (http://www.theflightoftheearls.net).

The culmination of Dr John McCavitt’s heroic investment in this subject will be the 400th year commemoration of the Flight of the Earls in 2007, a series of events on both sides of the Atlantic, currently in the planning stages. To date, response and especially funding have been encouraging. For details on this festive enterprise, interested parties may contact McCavitt via his website.

By Maureen E. Mulvihill, PhD
Princeton Research Forum
Princeton, New Jersey

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Reviewer’s Note
An abridged version of this review was published in the Autumn 2004 edition of The Recorder, the publication arm of the American Irish Historical Society, New York City. Unfortunately, a  typesetting and editorial oversight resulted in the misrepresentation of the review's important lead sentence. I am grateful to Dr John McCavitt for rectifying this error by restoring my original wording, as it now appears here. MEM
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  The Flight Of The Earls, By John McCavitt
 
Review by Dr Eoin Magennis
  Seanchas Ard Mhacha, Published  2003
Posted 24th July 2005.

 One hundred and fifty years ago Thomas D'Arcy McGee wrote that his contemporaries saw the Flight of the Earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnell as rash and an abandonment of Ireland. McGee tentatively concluded that the jury was still out on the thinking concerning their action in 1607. Since he wrote, there has been much more written about the event and in particular about Hugh 0' Neill, Earl of Tyrone. Some of this has been hero worship and some, perhaps in reaction, has attacked O' Neill for character flaws and cast doubt on his motives in 1607. More recently, Nicholas Canny, Hiram Morgan and, above all others, Micheline Kerney Walsh, a late patron of Cumann Seanchais Ard Mhacha and its journal, have completely transformed the way that the period should be seen. John McCavitt has drawn on these historians and added his many skills to give us a superb book. This may not be the last word on the ‘Flight of the Earls’ but readers will be enlightened on the reasons for the departure and how it was never intended to be irreversible.

     The story of the ‘Flight’ is not as well known as you might think. John McCavitt certainly does not make the mistake of complicating the story so that it becomes difficult to follow – and this is a feat given that the number of characters would do Dickens proud. However, he does not oversimplify the context of 1607. Readers are taken across the courts of Europe and back and are taken through the various factions among the Gaels of Ulster, the New English in Dublin Castle, the Old English of the Pale and the towns, and, crucially, introduced to the advisers of James I. The amusing and/or tragic stories that are used to illustrate the mentality of these parties prevent the book becoming bogged down in the details of personal, religious and political divisions, making it at the same time comprehensive and readable.

John McCavitt makes four key points. First, the 'Flight' did not mean that the earls had abandoned Ireland. He approaches this in an intuitive manner. If Tyrone had believed that all was lost. he would have left before the Treaty of Mellifont in 1603 and not in 1607 when matters did not appear just as bleak. Then there is the evidence unearthed by Micheline Kerney Walsh in the European archives and published by Cumann Seanchais Ard Mhacha in her book 'Destruction by Peace'. In these letters it becomes clear that the Spanish were keen to encourage the Earls to continue resistance to English rule and that a deal may have been struck as early as 1603, Of course the deal fell through after 1607. What both Kerney Walsh and McCavitt show is that Tyrone continued to lobby the Spanish from Rome to get their assistance for a return to Ireland - indeed by 1613 he appears to have given up on the Spanish and was looking elsewhere for assistance. Rather than the tragic-comic picture of 0'Neill painted so absurdly by Brian Friel in his play Making History, Tyrone appears as one who never intended the 'Flight' to be a one-way trip.

The second point is that the machinations of the English government were crucial to the 'Flight'. For those who champion the study of the earls' thinking this may come as no surprise, but what the author shows is that policies in London and Dublin Castle were sometimes in conflict and often in a muddle. He is right not to trust the evidence of the State Papers alone and exposes the bombastic self-importance of Attorney­ General Sir John Davies' account. Instead Chichester is moved centre circle, although his consistent aggression towards the Earls was only supported by James I right at the last moment in the summer of 1607. Before that the king was not sure which way to turn and whether or not to take on O'Nei11. Indeed O'Neill intended to go to London to appeal a land case and only abandoned this idea when word came from London that the king intended to arrest him. It was this sudden shift in fortune that seems to have inspired the 'Flight'.

The third point made by John McCavitt is that both Earls were clearly involved in conspiracy before they left for Europe. There is clear evidence of Spanish money on its way to them. Then there are the many plots and conspiracies that could be traced back to Tyrconnell and Maguire. As in the 1590s Tyrone cannot be directly tied to these but, as then, he is sure to have known (and most likely approved) of their actions. Another point which is developed here for the first time, is the role of the Old English. They had, with few exceptions, stood aloof from the Nine Years War believing that loyalty to the crown would protect the Catholic religion. This was a policy that rebounded disastrously in the reign of James I as Chichester’s ‘Mandates’ policy persecuted Catholics and initiated the attempt to drive them from all government office. By 1606 the Old English were looking to Tyrone for assistance and this was the source of the many domestic plots against the Castle administration that finally seems to have persuaded the king that Tyrone would have to be removed from the picture.

 Fourthly, there is the context for the ‘Flight of the Earls’ and it never slips from the sight of the author throughout the book. At the same time he does not let it get in the way of the story, particularly in the central chapter which tells of the journey from Mellifont to Rathmullan, the crash landing on the French coast and the journeys through Europe to Rome. The reception afforded the earls in Lorraine, Milan and Rome shows the international importance of the 'Flight". The reactions of European governments - from the panic of the English to the ambivalence of the French to the embarrassment of the Spanish - all tell their own story about power politics in the 1600s. ­

The version of the story told here by John McCavitt is the product of twenty years hard work in archives and the close study of secondary accounts. An earlier book on Sir Arthur Chichester, was, as he tells us here, his PhD thesis rewritten for an academic audience. It was well received by fellow historians, particularly those sections on government finance, the extension of English law and the failure to 'protestantise' Ireland. That book is probably not very well known beyond students of early modern Irish history. This book is deliberately aimed at a wider audience and skilfully combines an exciting story with a very easy-to-read style. It cannot be too strongly recommended to that wider readership.  


Other Reviews Of "The Flight of the Earls"

As ‘full of plots as a Marlowe play…This is drama, all tragic drama, no matter how it is looked at’, (Books Ireland, May 2003).

For the Tyrone Herald, it is a ‘fascinating narrative…a compelling historical account’.

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