Matthews: The O'Neills Of Ulster

Pdf Thomas, Matthews, The O'Neills Of Ulsters: Their History and Genealogy, Vol 1, Dublin : Sealy, Bryers & Walker, 1907
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Pdf Thomas, Matthews, The O'Neills Of Ulsters: Their History and Genealogy, Vol 2, Dublin : Sealy, Bryers & Walker, 1907
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Pdf Thomas, Matthews, The O'Neills Of Ulsters: Their History and Genealogy, Vol 3, Dublin : Sealy, Bryers & Walker, 1907
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The O'Neills Of Ulster: Their History And Genealogy by Thomas Matthews (1676-1751) is a three volume account of the powerful Gaelic O'Neill dynasty. The Gaelic O'Neill chieftains were the dominant Gaelic Irish clan in the province of Ulster from pre-Christian Celtic times until the 17th century 'Flight of the Earls.'

The historical origins of the O'Neills is difficult to separate from myth. The red hand became the symbol of their dynasty and eventually the symbol of the province of Ulster. It is alleged that the first swimmer to touch the shores of Ireland would become the ruler of the island. An ancestor of the O'Neills was losing the swimming race when he cut off his hand and threw it on the shore thereby touching Ireland first. It is said that the King of Ireland, Niall of the Nine Hostages had seven sons. The first three sons founded the Northern O'Neill dynasty while the remainder became the Southern O'Neill dynasties.

The Northern O'Neills had their capital at Ailech on the Inisowen peninsula and controlled western Ulster. The High King of Ireland ruled from Tara in Meath and this kingship rotated between the northern and southern branches of the O'Neill clan for centuries. Ireland was never truly a unified country but instead was in perpetual civil war between rival kings, chieftains and families. The various branches of the O'Neill were also in constant warfare with each other. Meanwhile the Irish raided Britain and carried home Christian slaves such as St. Patrick who spent years of captivity in Ulster.

In 1066, French Normans conquered Anglo-Saxon England and in 1169 the Normans began the conquest of Ireland. The Normans became concentrated in the Pale, an area surrounding Dublin while powerful Norman families such as the Fitzgeralds captured territory in Leinster and Munster. The O'Neill clan retained their power in Ulster and intermarried with many of the Norman families. The kings of England were nominally lords of Ireland while the Norman and Gaelic lords were in theory their subjects. However most of the country was effectively independent.

Nonetheless the O'Neills and other Gaelic clans provided Irish soldiers to the English kings during the Crusades, the conquest of Scotland and various civil wars. After Robert de Bruce, King of Scotland defeated the English at Bannockburn in 1314, his brother Edward invaded Ireland and briefly became King of Ireland with the support of the O'Neills and other Irish clans until his defeat by the English in 1318. The Black Death (1348-1350) decimated the Normans in the towns but left most of rural Gaelic Ireland untouched.

After the Tudor victory in the War of the Roses, the English sought to re-conquer and colonise Ireland. The Protestant Reformation complicated matters as the Gaelic Irish and many 'Old English' Norman families remained Roman Catholic and sought help from Spain and France. The Geraldine and Desmond rebellions ended in the defeat and execution of the heads of the Catholic Fitzgerald families in Leinster and Munster during the reign of Henry VIII.

The O'Neills, the O'Donnells and their allies with Spanish support rebelled in the 1590s and were defeated at Kinsale in 1603 by the forces of Elizabeth I. By 1603 the rebellion was defeated and in 1607 the Earl of Tyrone, Hugh O'Neill and the Earl of Tyrconnell, Rory O'Donnell fled Ireland for Rome. 'The Flight of the Earls' cleared the path for the colonisation of Ulster by Scottish and English Protestant settlers during the reign of the Stuart King James I beginning in 1609.

In 1641, the Gaelic Irish rebelled in Ulster and massacred Protestant settlers. Later during the period of the English Civil War, the O'Neills and other Irish clans united with 'Old English' Catholic gentry and Protestant Royalist supporters of Charles I against the Parliamentarians led by Oliver Cromwell. The Parliamentarians executed Charles I, defeated British Royalist forces and invaded Ireland. Between 1649-53, war, disease and famine decimated Gaelic Ireland. The lands of the Catholic Gaelic clans and Norman families were confiscated and given to Protestant landowners.

The restoration of the British monarchy under Charles II, was followed by the reign of his Catholic brother James II. James was deposed by the Protestant William III of Orange. In Ireland the O'Neills supported the Jacobite cause but the Williamites were victorious at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. The penal laws were introduced which persecuted Catholics and Presbyterians. A Protestant Ascendancy dominated Ireland until the late 19th century. Stripped of their power, land and wealth, the O'Neills and other Gaelic Irish clans ceased to be a serious threat to British rule in Ireland .


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