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Flight of the Earls - Overview

Early seventeenth century depiction of Rathmullan

On the 14th September 1607 (New Style, 4th September Old Style), the earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnell, along with a close circle of family and associates, boarded a ship at Rathmullan on Lough Swilly, bound for Spain. (At great personal risk the vessel had been procured by their ally, Cú Chonnacht Maguire). This event was known both at the time and ever since as ‘The Flight of the Earls’ and is widely regarded as one of the most enigmatic events in Irish history, virtually defying explanation. Even the designation of the earls’ departure as a ‘flight’ has been contested, though the fact that the earls left in such a hurry that the earl of Tyrone’s young son, Con, was left behind, while the earl of Tyrconnell departed without his pregnant young wife, should dispel lingering doubts in this regard. Symptomatic once again of the intrigue that swirled around the flight both at the time and over succeeding generations is the continuing fascination with the identities of the ‘noble shipload’ of ninety nine people that departed Lough Swilly, the so-called cream of Gaelic Society. Many attempts have been made to resolve this ‘mystery’, though they have all been in vain, not least, as it turns out, because the ship was not so jam-packed with the Gaelic nobility of Ulster after all. Some sixty people on board may be accounted for as the crew who had travelled from the continent.

A view of Lough Swilly taken from the ancient circular stone fort, Grianan Aileach. Note the island of Inch in the middle connected to the Inishowen peninsula on the right by a causeway. A controversy surrounding ownership of Inch played a key role in contributing to the O’Doherty rebellion of 1608. Ironically, on the very same day that Sir Cahir O’Doherty launched his revolt the English privy council ruled in his favour in this matter.Thus the Inch controversy adds to the list of the great ‘might have beens’ of Irish history. Would O’Doherty have revolted had he known of the privy council’s decision? The question is important because the plantation of Ulster was greatly enlarged as a result of the revolt.

      Why the northern earls took flight has also been a matter of considerable debate, leading to accusations by hostile commentators that the earls were up to their necks in treason while their apologists portray them as offended innocents, badgered into departing their homeland in fear of their lives. As often happens in such circumstances, it emerges that the earls were as much sinned against as sinning. Crown officials in Ireland in the wake of the Nine Years War (1594-1603), led by the lord deputy, Sir Arthur Chichester, and ably assisted by the new Irish Attorney General, Sir John Davies, maintained a vendetta against the northern earls after the conflict ended with the so-called Treaty of Mellifont, 1603. During the prolonged period of hostilities, Irish forces led by Tyrone and Red Hugh O’Donnell brought English rule in Ireland to the brink of extinction following their spectacular victory at the battle of the Yellow Ford, 1598. It was only with much good fortune that the English, led by Mountjoy, managed finally to subdue the Irish revolt, inflicting what turned out to be a decisive defeat on the rebel forces at the battle of Kinsale, 1601.

     Lingering bitterness from the war was to play a key role in the events which eventually culminated in the Flight of the Earls. Having lost his brother during the hostilities, Chichester had additional personal reasons for despising the northern earls. Not surprisingly, as a result, there is evidence that the crown authorities in Ireland resorted to provocative tactics, not the least of which turned out to be a campaign of religious persecution aimed initially at the Old English. As the self-proclaimed champion of Catholicism in Ireland, the earl of Tyrone became involved in renewed conspiratorial machinations with a view to overthrowing the protestant administration in Dublin. Their anger fuelled by resentment at the manner in which the royal authorities in Ireland were mounting legal challenges to their territories, the northern earls became ever more embroiled in treason, seeking and ultimately obtaining a Spanish pension in return for treasonable promises. Fearing that they had been compromised by the information of an informer (who turned out to be Lord Howth), the earls were advised by influential contacts on the continent that their lives were in danger and that a ship would be sent to convey them to safety. Thus the earls departed Rathmullan, though they never reached Spain. Stormy weather resulted in landfall being made in France. The diplomatic furore which followed instigated a major international crisis involving the English, French and Spanish governments. The French government rejected calls for their extradition, whereas the earls’ allies during the Nine Years War, the Spanish, were anxious to avoid causing offence to England in the wake of the Anglo-Spanish peace treaty of 1604. As a compromise the earls ended up dwelling in Rome where they ended their days, Tyrconnell dying prematurely in 1609 while the older earl of Tyrone lived until 1616.

      The departure of the earls to the continent, far from calming the conspiratorial mania sweeping Ireland, accentuated it. For Chichester, the Flight vindicated his concerns that the Irish could not be trusted. It was in these circumstances that even Sir Cahir O’Doherty, an erstwhile ally of the crown, was provoked into resorting to rebellion by distrustful English officials. No longer protected by the former governor of Derry, Sir Henry Docwra, who had recommended him for his knighthood, O’Doherty launched a desperate rebellion in April 1608, sacking the ‘infant’ city of Derry. Thus, the Flight of the Earls, followed so soon afterwards by O’Doherty’s revolt, propelled the English government, led by James I, into launching the plantation of Ulster. (Listen to audio clips from BBC Plantation of Ulster website): (BBC Plantation of Ulster webchat). The punitive nature of the settlement played no small part in the events which culminated with the 1641 rebellion. And it was the O’Neill family who were to play a decisive role then too. The revolt having been launched by Sir Phelim O’Neill, it was to be his illustrious expatriate kinsman, Owen Roe O’Neill who was to become the figurehead of the confederate Irish forces. Like his uncle (the earl of Tyrone) before him, Owen Roe, won a major battle on the banks of the river Blackwater, at Benburb, 1646. In an act of symbolism, the earl of Tyrone’s sword, having been transported from Rome, was presented to Owen Roe. The sword had passed on.

Reputed portrait of an elderly earl of Tyrone – note the Red Hand of Ulster on the top right (by permission of Benedict Fearon)

See Historical Documents for transcripts of documents illustrating key aspects of the Flight of the Earls