A selection of Historical Documents associated with the Flight of the Earls gives the flavour of the romantic, dramatic, often contentious events that both preceded and proceeded from the earls’ departure. Of the longer term issues contributing to the Flight, the earl of Tyrone’s elopement and subsequent marriage in 1591 to Mabel Bagenal, sister of Tyrone’s arch enemy, Marshal (Henry) Bagenal, was to prove an important juncture. This sensational event was a key moment in a series of tumultuous events that culminated with the Flight. News of the ‘late accident’, as the elopement was termed, was broken gingerly to the London government by the Lord Deputy and Council in Ireland. Sir Henry Bagenal, for his part, could not contain his outrage. Referring to his ‘unspeakable grief’, Bagenal vowed to ‘hold a more vigilant eye on that earl’s actions and proceedings’, thereby fuelling a vendetta towards the earl. Tyrone later claimed that Bagenal was the ‘only man’ that provoked him into rebelling against the crown during the Nine Years War, 1594-1603. Considered something of a scandal in royal circles, the protestant Bishop of Meath, who had performed the nuptials with some reluctance, justified his actions ‘chiefly in regard of the danger wherein the gentlewoman’s credit and chastity stood’. The whole affair has been considered so serious by some that Mabel has been labelled the ‘Helen of Troy’ of the Irish wars.
When war eventually broke out, 1594-1603, Tyrone and Bagenal were involved in two major battles, Clontibret, 1595, where Bagenal’s army suffered a bloody nose and the Yellow Ford, 1598, where Bagenal and a large part of his army lost their lives. But the war did not stop, indicating that Tyrone had wider reasons for resorting to arms. 'Articles intended to be stood upon by Tyrone', dating from 1599, included a demand that would have facilitated a well-armed Irish navy, illustrating Tyrone’s uncanny grasp of military affairs as well as a realization that victory against the English required a unified ‘Irish’ effort. Despite inflicting a series of military reverses on the English, the rebellion eventually petered out following the disastrous defeat at Kinsale in 1601. The Treaty of Mellifont, 1603, offered Tyrone and his allies a temporary respite.
Following the appointment of Sir Arthur Chichester as lord deputy in 1605, the royal authorities in Dublin embarked on provocative policies. The earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnell, for their part, having negotiated a ‘treasonable contract’ with the Spanish, promising to renew rebellion in the event of a break-down in the Anglo-Spanish peace in return for a substantial pension, were compromised by the emergence of a well-placed informer. Fearing for their liberty and lives, they departed for the continent in September 1607. The manner of Tyrone’s flight was the subject of a lengthy letter penned by his inveterate enemy, Sir John Davies, the Irish Attorney General. Departing Mellifont in tears, Tyrone began his fateful journey to Rathmullan and ultimately the continent, forced to leave behind his young son, Con, such was the hasty manner of the departure. Just as galling for the earl of Tyrconnell was the fact that he escaped to exile without his pregnant young wife.
Davies’ account of the Earl of Tyrone’s journey from Mellifont to Rathmullan is complemented by
Tadhg O Cianain’s eyewitness account of the earls’ journey from Lough Swilly to the mouth of the Seine in France, offering a vivid picture of the actual departure of the earls for the continent in September 1607. In the first instance, the unseemly pitched battle with local Mac Suibhnes on the shores of Lough Swilly, as the earls departed their native land, undermines Thomas Ryan’s famous portrait of the Flight of the Earls as a source of great regret to the onlookers on the shores of the lough. O Cianain proceeds to document the perilous journey to the continent that was bedevilled by a series of storms as some of the distinguished crew were in danger at times of being swept overboard while the vessel itself came perilously close to being ship-wrecked on several occasions, not least at the Channel Islands where the earls would have fallen into the hands of English ‘inimical merciless heretics’.
Eventually the earls arrived in France, the ship’s complement comprising 99 in total. For many centuries, historians have attempted to name the illustrious 99, none having succeeded. A document printed in the Calendar of State Papers suggests why. Entitled ‘The Fugitives with the Earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnell’, only 37 people are listed as ‘fugitives’. When added to the 60 soldiers and sailors who had travelled from France in the first place, the answer to the puzzle seems to have been found. This does not detract from the contemporary assertion by The Four Masters, however, that this was ‘a distinguished crew for one ship’.
Captain John Rath who captained the ship that
transported the earls to safety was acclaimed for his intrepid actions, though
he was later to experience hardship on the continent pursuing a career as a
soldier of fortune.
Pulpit of The Four Masters - St. Eunan's Cathedral, Letterkenny
The unscheduled arrival of the earls in France, without passports,
unleashed a vicious diplomatic storm on the continent. The earl
of Salisbury, English Secretary of State, vented his fury on the fugitive
party and their supposed allies, particularly the Spanish. Describing the earls
as ‘poor worms upon earth…base, insulting’, Salisbury proceeded to
threaten the Spanish with dire consequences should they provide military
assistance for the earls to return to Ireland. Indeed, the English launched an all-out
diplomatic offensive to undermine support for the earls on the continent. This
was to be typified by the ‘Proclamation
touching the Earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnell’ published by the government
of King James I in London and sent to continental powers which derided the earls
as a ‘packe of Rebels’ who had no justification for fleeing their native
lands. The earls, it perhaps come as no surprise, took a different view. They
published a detailed list of their grievances – grievances which give lie to
the suggestion that the earls ‘abandoned’ their people for selfish reasons.
The earl of Tyrconnell catalogued a host of outrages and provocation, including
how he had narrowly escaped assassination. The Earl
of Tyrone’s articles, it is worth highlighting, begin with allegations
that he had been persecuted on religious grounds, a proclamation forbidding him
and his followers from hearing mass being publicly pronounced in his home town
Following the earls’ departure, the royal authorities in Dublin issued
designed to calm fears in Ulster that the crown would resort to punitive
policies, reassuring the Ulstermen ‘that they will not be disturbed in the
peaceable possession of their lands so long
as they demean themselves as dutiful subjects’. As it turned out, the
proclamation proved to be an empty promise. Sir George Paulet, English governor
of Derry, provoked a rebellion by Sir Cahir O'Doherty, chieftain of Inishowen.
When Oghy Óg O'Hanlon, O'Doherty's brother-in-law - and nephew of the earl of
Tyrone - came to his kinsman's aid the rebellion menaced English control of
Ulster for a time. O'Doherty's death during a skirmish in Co.Donegal effectively
ended the revolt, remaining rebel elements dispersing throughout the province.
Ultimately, the English authorities resorted to a policy of transporting
troublesome 'swordsmen' to Sweden, even sparing Oghy Óg the hangman's noose in
an endeavour to persuade as many as possible to depart with him from southern
Ulster on a ship that left from Carlingford. As it turned out, O'Doherty's
rebellion had a major impact on the Plantation of Ulster when native Ulstermen
received less than
a quarter of the lands. Thus, hankering after the
return of the exiles, far from dissipating, increased. To his immense
frustration, the earl of Tyrone was prevented from capitalising on this burning
resentment, finding himself marooned in Rome, a virtual captive of the Spanish.
The frustrations of this experience have been memorably immortalised in the
poem, ‘O’Neill in Rome’.
Busts of O'Neill
and O'Donnell - St. Eunan's Cathedral, Letterkenny