It is thought that on this day in 1602, at a dinner in Spain far away from his beloved Ireland, Red Hugh O’Donnell took a sip of his wine. That last indulgence ended the life of one of the most famous and admired chieftains in Irish history.
Red Hugh O’Donnell did not have a peaceful life. At age 15 he was the heir to Tir Cannail and was kidnapped while inspecting (ironically) Spanish wine and fancy fabrics on a ship in the harbor. He was held hostage by the crown in an attempt to suppress the rebellious nature of his clan and was imprisoned in Dublin castle for many years.
During that time, many huge things happened in the world. The Spanish launched an armada against the British and many of the survivors were scattered all over the north of Ireland. Some chieftains helped the Spanish escape, including the O’Donnell. Red Hugh’s father was sorely tempted to offer those found on his lands up to England so he could get his son back, but instead, he listened to others who reminded him that he and the Spanish had a common foe and may need each other some day. It was wise counsel.
Five years after he was taken prisoner Red Hugh became one of the only people in history to escape from Dublin Castle. His journey home was not easy – but he made it through the Wicklow Mountains in winter, and luckily was found before he froze to death by Fiach McHugh O’Byrne – the chieftain of Munster. His escape sent waves of excitement through Ireland, and became an instant legend. In May of 1593, he was crowned the Prince of Tir Cannail.
Meanwhile the English were not thrilled with his escape, nor the continuing brazen behavior of the Ulster Chieftains in general and they attacked The Maguire, Lord of Fermanagh, who had aided Red Hugh during his final leg of the journey home from Dublin Castle. When he called for aid, Red Hugh could not resist. So began the Nine Years War.
The chieftains pushed the English all the way back to Blackwater Fort and on August 14th, 1598, history was made. The Irish decimated their foes. They not only defeated the British army – they destroyed it. The humiliated queen immediately started recruiting and rebuilding her army. She promised to retake Ireland and spent a fortune to do so. She ordered numerous attacks and was further dismayed when the Earl of Essex offered a truce, instead of a battle to the Irish chieftains.
The queen was old after all and everyone thought she would be gone shortly. The Earl, the Spanish, and the Irish were already in talks with who they thought would replace her – James Stuart of Scotland. Unfortunately, for the Earl of Essex she was not as frail as she appeared and he was executed for treason. His replacement was a new and more bloodthirsty pet, Lord Mountjoy, who was immediately sent to brutalize Ireland. His tactics were cruelly effective and he laid waste to everything in his path. When the chieftains called out to the Spanish for aid, they sent ships but Mountjoy had them blocked. The fight went on for 3 months and was known as the notorious Battle of Kinsale.
Just as the Irish chieftains had done at Blackwater Fort, so did Mountjoy at Kinsale. Thousands died, including the Maguire. Thousands more were captured or hanged and that battle was the end to the brief moment of Irish freedom. Some say it was the end of Gaelic Ireland altogether. However, Red Hugh escaped and did not give up. He went to Spain to continue regrouping and plotting against the English, still waiting for Elizabeth to die. When Mountjoy learned where he was, he sent an assassin and on September 10th, 1602, Red Hugh was cowardly murdered with poison in his wine. He was just 30 years old and it was an unfitting death for such a fierce warrior. When he died, any Spanish plans to send further assistance to the Irish were abandoned. Mountjoy continued to plunder Ireland and eventually, it once again belonged to the Crown.
However, centuries later when the Irish rebelled again and some of it became a republic, they needed to pick a National anthem. It boiled down to a contest between two songs and the vote was pretty close. Ultimately, leaders chose a Soldier’s Song, but the runner up was was a song about the last Gaelic War Chieftains and it was called O’Donnell Abu.
Red Hugh O’Donnell was buried in in a Franciscan Monastery in Valladolid, Spain. It was demolished sometime in the 19th century and since there was no marker, the exact location of the Irish Prince’s tomb is unknown.
Loudly the war cries arise on the gale;
Fleetly the steed by Lough Swilly is bounding,
To join the thick squadrons in Saimear’s green vale.
On, ev’ry mountaineer,
Strangers to flight and fear;
Rush to the standard of dauntless Red Hugh!
Bonnaught and Gallowglass,
Throng from each mountain pass;
On for old Erin, “O’Donnell Abu!”
With many a chieftain and warrior clan;
A thousand proud steeds in his vanguard are prancing,
‘Neath the borders brave from the banks of the Bann:
Many a heart shall quail,
Under its coat of mail;
Deeply the merciless foeman shall rue
When on his ear shall ring,
Borne on the breeze’s wing,
Tír Chonaill’s dread war-cry, “O’Donnell Abu!”
Fearless the eagle sweeps over the plain,
The fox in the streets of the city is prowling –
All, all who would scare them are banished or slain!
Grasp every stalwart hand
Hackbut and battle brand –
Pay them all back the debt so long due;
Norris and Clifford well
Can of Tirconnell tell;
Onward to glory – “O’Donnell Abu!”
The altars we kneel at and homes of our sires;
Ruthless the ruin the foe is extending –
Midnight is red with the plunderer’s fires.
On with O’Donnell, then,
Fight the old fight again,
All valiant and true:
Make the false Saxon feel
Erin’s avenging steel
Strike for your country!