The Last Irish Rebellion Against England


By Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D., Catholic University of America

The O’Neill family was the most important family in Ulster, in Northern Ireland. Conn O’Neil, the lord of Tyrone, was one of the most important Irish nobles to accept English rule. But this family was tied with the later Irish rebellions against the English.  

Sculpture of a Gaelic chieftain.
The O’Neill brothers were rival claimants to their father’s Earldom, but neither was successful. (Image: Gavigan 01 at English Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

The Fate of the O’Neill Brothers

In 1559, after the death of Conn O’Neil, the lord of Tyrone, his two sons became claimants to the earldom. With both of Conn O’Neil’s son’s trying to claim his title, the elder son, Mathew, was supported by the English, and the younger one, Shane, was supported by the Irish. Although Shane was a great diplomat and military leader, the English couldn’t recognize him due to his close ties to the Scots. He was a threat to the English as he was apparently arming local peasants for rebellion.

In 1561, Shane went to London to negotiate with the English government, which was a success due to his bicultural nature. But the imminent peace slipped away with the sudden and unexpected assassination of Mathew O’Neil, his biggest rival. His killers had announced their support for Turlough Luineach O’Neil, who was another claimant in the family.  So, he had to return to Ireland to claim his earldom. Also, he was now considered an enemy to the English because he had broken peace with them.

After five years, when Shane reluctantly turned to  Alexander Óg MacDonnell, a local Ulster lord with Scottish connections, he managed to suppress the rebellion. But he was killed in a banquet as a result of conspiracy with the English.

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The O’Neill Story Continued

Conn's grandson Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone.
Hugh O’Neill was Conn O’Neill’s Grandson and the heir to Earldom (Image:Irish History links /CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

But, it was not the end of the O’Neills. Hugh O’Neill, Conn O’Neills grandson, was a key figure in the last major Irish rebellion during the reign of Elizabeth I. As Mathew O’Neill’s son, he became claimant to earldom at 12. He was fully bicultural and bilingual as he was raised in the Pale, which was culturally English.

He wanted to combine both Irish and English elements in his life by combining the English title (Earl of Tyrone) and the Irish chieftaincy (head of the O’Neills). But Turlough Luineach O’Neill was still supported widely, and Hugh had a difficult time making both the Irish and the English recognize him, a gruesome task that took him 30 years.

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An Unplanned Rebellion

But the Nine Years War, starting in 1593, destroyed all his efforts. Some northern lords and some distinguished Catholic clerics made an alliance and waged a rebellion. Hugh did not know which side to take; should he support his Irish compatriots or the English, who had supported him against his Irish rivals?

But the English could not trust him entirely because he had close ties with the Spanish court through one of King Philip’s agents. They were right because, in 1595, Hugh took over the rebellion from Red Hugh O’Donnell, who remained friends with Hugh until the end.

The rebels wanted autonomy of their homeland, something like Home Rule, and not complete independence. Also, they wanted the Pope to take full charge of the Church of England. These demands were considered treason according to Elizabethan law. It led to the most significant rebellion in the 400-year English rule over Ireland.

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The Fate of the Irish Rebels

The rebellion was so alarming for the Queen that she sent Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, to put an end to the rebellion. With full vice-regal authority and 16,000 troops, instead of crushing O’Neill, he made a truce with him and accepted his submission.

Elizabeth turned to Charles Blunt, Lord Mountjoy, who was much better than the Earl of Essex. In 1600, he isolated O’Neill in his Ulster base by besieging him and building forts at crucial places along the border of the province. His plan was to starve O’Neill and make him surrender.

Portrait of Sir Charles Blount (1563-1606), later 8th and last Lord Mountjoy.
Charles Blunt was sent to suppress the rebellion. (Image: Unknown artist, English school/Public domain)

Knowing that Mountjoy was not like Essex, O’Neill asked for more help from Spain. In January 1601, Philip III of Spain agreed to send 6,000 soldiers to Ireland. But the men arrived at Kinsale too late because the local rebels had already been defeated.

Although O’Neill tried to perform a maneuver to attack Mountjoy, his troops could not carry out his orders. Finally, Mountjoy won the battle, and the Spanish forces surrendered on January 2, 1602.

After the Kinsale defeat, things started to unravel for Hugh O’Neill. Although he accepted Mountjoy’s offer of life, freedom, and pardon granted by Elizabeth, and survived for four years, he was sent into exile in 1607 and never returned.

He was under the careful watch of English agents, and every night after dinner, he would talk about his dream of living in Ireland. He finally died in 1616 and was buried in the Church of San Pietro di Montorio in Rome, beside his compatriot, O’Donnell. He had gone to Spain to get more help, but he failed and finally died in 1608, supposedly of poison.

Common Questions about the Last Irish Rebellion Against  England

Q: Who was Hugh O’Neill?

Hugh O’Neill was Conn O’Neill’s grandson and the heir to his earldom. He managed to make both the Irish and the English recognize his position. But he was dragged into a rebellion he had not planned, which put an end to the Irish rebellions.

Q: Did the Earl of Essex crush the Irish rebellion?

The Earl of Essex had full authority by Queen Elizabeth I to crush the Irish rebellion. Although he had 16,000 soldiers, he decided to make peace with Hugh O’Neill, which made Queen Elizabeth angry.

Q: What was the Nine Years’ War?

The Nine Years’ War was a rebellion of the Irish against Tudor England. At first, it was led by Red Hugh O’Donnell, and then by Hugh O’Neill. It finally ended with the defeat of the rebels after O’Neill’s exile.

Q: Who ended the Nine Years’ War?

Charles Blunt, known as Lord Mountjoy, was Queen Elizabeth’s chosen man to crush O’Neill’s rebellion. He planned to besiege O’Neill and starve him into surrender. He finally managed to defeat the Irish, and send O’Neill into exile.

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