The Flight and After - 23rd Feb. 1946


The Flight and After: Text Version

Feb. 23 1946


All through the night of the 13th September, 1607, weary groups had been converging on the little town of Rathmullen on the Lough Swilly shore. They came quietly like fugitives fleeing from justice, and all were weary and travel-stained and bowed with the load of an unbearable sorrow. At day-break next day they boarded the ship that lay at anchor off the old Carmelite Priory. There had been heart-rending scenes as they set out: those on the shore clinging to them as if they'd never let them go. The breeze freshened, and the great white sails of the ship bulged, and slowly, ever so slowly, as if loath, to part, she moved out along the shining Lough and headed for the open sea. Then arose from the men of Ulster gathered on the coast such a terrible cry of grief and lamentation as had never pierced the Irish sky before, and never since. Their Princes were going; the Earls were in flight.

That ship held the last of the O'Neills and O'Donnells to hold sway in Ulster. It held Hugh, the Great O'Neill, he who had re-established for a little while the Gaelic nation, and wielded power greater than any Irish king since Brian Boru; it held his three sons, and the two young brothers of brave Hugh O'Donnell, cut down in his prime by a poisoner, while he pleaded for help at the court of far-off Spain. 'Mor an lucht arthaigh Eire,' wrote the old chronicler. 'A great company Ireland itself is that ship's load.. .. 'Her very soul has gone from her.'


After the overthrow of the Gaelic nation at Kinsale the Northern Princes had retreated to their homes in Ulster, and concluded peace with the victor. Worn out by the supreme effort of the nine years war, they asked for nothing better than to be left live in peace in their ancient patrimonies. But the English did not feel secure while an O'Neill reigned in Tyrone or an O'Donnell in Tyrconnell; so, after a few years their agents got busy in an effort to discover a plot that would implicate the Ulster Chiefs, and, failing that they were ready to invent one. Their intention was to connect the Chiefs with plans for another rebellion, arrest them, find them guilty and confiscate all the broad lands of the North. Word of this was brought to O'Neill. He did not wish that he and his friends should be seized, and made to stand a mock trial among their enemies in England, the result of which would be an ignominious, or long years of pining in the dungeons of London Tower. Their safety lay in flight; and so on the morning of the 14th of September, 1607, they boarded the white sailed ship off Rathmullen, about fifty souls in all, and bade farewell forever to the lands that had been theirs from time immemorial.


'It is certain,' says the Four Masters, 'that the sea has not borne and the wind has not wafted in modern times, a number of persons in one ship more ent, illustrious, or noble in point of genealogy, heroic deeds, valour, feats of arms, and brave achievements than they. Would that God had but permitted them to remain in their patrimonial inheritances until the children should arrive at the age of manhood. Woe to the heart that meditated, woe to the mind that conceived, woe to the council that recommended the project of this expedition, without knowing, whether they should to the end of their lives be able to return to their ancient principalities and patrimonies.

The wave of despair that swept over Ulster at the going of the Princes finds expression in the following lines which are a translation of a Gaelic poem by Andrias MacMarcuis:-

'Lo, our lands this night is lone!

Hear ye not sad Erin's moan?

Maidens weep and true men sorrow,

Lone the Brave Race night and morrow.

Lone this night is Fola's plain-

Though the foemen swarm amain-

Far from Erin, generous hearted.

Far her Flower of Sons is parted.'


After the flight the foreign vultures descended on Ulster and prepared to tear it asunder. The confiscated territories were parceled out among English and Scotch 'undertakers' and adventurers. Trade companies of London get one hundred and ten thousand acres of the richest lands of the O'Neills and O'Donnells. The shadow of that injustice still lies heavily on Ireland, and has created her greatest and still unsolved problem. The land of the O'Donnells has been redeemed but the broad acres of the O'Neills and of many more who fled are still part of unredeemed Ireland.

The Chieftains landed in France and journeyed on to Rome, being received with royal honours in all the Courts of Europe on their way. On their arrival in the Eternal City the Pope Pius the Fifth, was visibly touched at the sight of these illustrious exiles, who had lost everything in the cause of Faith and Fatherland. In conjunction with the King of Spain he granted them a yearly pension befitting their princely station. But the young Princes longed for the freedom of the Ulster hills, and one by one they pined away and died. Before two years had passed Ruari and Caffar O'Donnell and young Hugh O'Neill – all youths in their early twenties – had been laid in foreign graves.

'O'Donnell, Dunnasava's chief,

Cut off amid his vernal years,

Lies here a corse.

Beside his brother Cathbar, whom

Tirconnell of the Helmets mourns

In deep despair-

For valour, truth and comely bloom,

For all that greatness adorns,

A peerless pair.

If at Athboy, where hosts of brave

Ulidian horsemen sank beneath

The shock of spears,

Young Hugh O'Neill had found a grave,

Long must the North have wept his

With heart-wrung tears.'

The aged Prince of Ulster lived on, hoping to lead an expedition to Ireland some day. But no expedition sailed, and the hills of Ulster saw him no more. Blind and aged and bowed down with sorrows he survived until 1616. Then the great Hugh O'Neill was laid to rest beside his son Hugh, and the two young Princes of Tyrconnell in the Franciscan Church of San Pietro di Montorio. England felt more secure. She always feared and d the name O'Neill. Perhaps that is why a little later Hugh's son, Henry, was found one morning strangled in his bed in Brussels. Such was the fate that awaited the illustrious families who boarded that white sailed ship as dawn broke over Rathmullen that fateful morning long ago, when they left behind them forever the green hills of Tyrconnell and the fair lands of Tyrone.

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