Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/O'Neill, Shane
O'NEILL, SHANE, surnamed an-diomais, or ‘the proud,’ lord of Tyrone (1530?–1567), was the eldest legitimate son of Con O'Neill, first earl of Tyrone [q. v.], by his wife Mary, daughter of Hugh Boy O'Neill, lord of Clandeboye. He was born apparently about 1530. He was fostered among the O'Donnellys, whence his title of ‘the Donnellyan,’ and in 1531, when a mere infant, was carried off by force from Baile-Ui-Dhonnghaile, now Castle Caulfeild, by Niall Og O'Neill. In the settlement of 1542, when his father was created Earl of Tyrone, he was probably, on account of his youth, passed over in favour of his supposed elder brother, Mathew, or Ferdorach O'Neill, or Kelly, created Baron of Dungannon. But being a man of overweening ambition, he refused to submit to his exclusion, and, on reaching manhood, he raised, with his father's connivance, a faction against the Baron of Dungannon. In 1551 government interfered, but Shane nevertheless succeeded in holding his own, though in one of the frequent skirmishes that took place, he narrowly escaped capture by the Baron of Dungannon. Government would have been glad to get hold of him ‘anywise,’ but Shane was too wary to allow himself to be entrapped as his father had been, and an attempt on the part of Sir Thomas Cusack in the spring of 1552 to reduce him by force proved equally unsuccessful. In December the Earl of Tyrone was restored, and things reverted to their old position.
One of the principal motives with the government in consenting to Tyrone's restoration was the expectation of obtaining the assistance of the O'Neills in expelling the Hebridean Scots from their settlements along the Antrim coast. But Shane, whose policy at this time tended to an alliance with the MacDonnells, not only refused when called upon by Sussex in 1556 to assist him, but actually joined his forces with those of James MacDonnell. The allies were defeated, and Shane sued for and obtained pardon. But he continued to intrigue with the Scots, and in the following year he lent underhand assistance to the MacDonnells against Sussex. The same year he expelled his father and the Baron of Dungannon who sought shelter in the English Pale, and at the instigation of Hugh O'Donnell he assembled a large army on the borders of Tyrconnel against Calvagh O'Donnell [q. v.] But he was utterly defeated by O'Donnell in the neighbourhood of Strabane, and Sussex, taking advantage of the opportunity, invaded Tyrone, and restored the earl and the Baron of Dungannon. He was again pardoned, but again in 1558 refused to assist Sussex against the Scots, and ‘dyd cruelly, wylfully, and trayterously murther his brother, the Baron of Dungannon, seke to repossesse himselfe of his father's and brother's estates, and … cause his men to pray and borne dyvers of the possessions of her Majesties true and good subjects in the Englysh pale.’
Notwithstanding his misdeeds, Elizabeth shortly after her accession authorised Sussex to recognise him as his father's legitimate successor. In taking this step she cannot have been unconscious of acting unjustly to the Baron of Dungannon; but her anxiety for peace, and the fact that Shane possessed the suffrages of his clan, and was already in quiet possession, led her to acquiesce in an arrangement which from the standpoint of government was repugnant to decency and honour. At the same time she insisted that Shane should acknowledge her authority, and submit his cause to her deputy, the Earl of Sussex. But Shane flatly refused even to meet Sussex until hostages had been given for his safety, though eventually he repaired to Dundalk, and, ‘after some proud and arrogant wordes spoken,’ consented to refer himself and his cause to her majesty's commissioners. He insisted, however, on the recognition of his claim to dispose of his urraghs or vassal chiefs as he pleased, which was the main point in contention, and Elizabeth, finding after a little time that he was likely to prove unmanageable, in August 1560 revoked her former decision, and authorised Shane's subjugation and the restitution of rights to Mathew's son Brian, the young baron of Dungannon, ‘being ye heyre in right.’ Preparations were accordingly made to invade his country. But he offered to submit, whereupon ‘therle of Kyldare was with others sent to parle with him, who concluded with hym upon artycles, whereunto he subscrybed, and was sworne to observe them, and to repaire with all spede to the Queene's Majestie.’ His demand for a safe-conduct under the queen's own hand, though reflecting on the Earl of Sussex, was conceded, but Shane manifested no inclination to fulfil his promise; on the contrary, he endeavoured ‘by warres and other practicis to drawe O'Donel, O'Raylie, and others … to joyn with him in his damnable and trayterous enterprisys.’ In this he was not very successful, but it was clear that nothing but force would reduce him to submission. Efforts were accordingly made through the Earl of Argyll to detach the MacDonnells from him, while the hostility of O'Donnell and O'Reilly was stimulated by the prospect of a coronet.
The scheme failed, for O'Neill by a cleverly contrived stratagem succeeded in getting hold of O'Donnell, and though Sussex proclaimed him a traitor, and harried his country with fire and sword, he managed not only to avoid capture, but also to keep a tight hold of his prisoner. Feigning an air of injured innocence, he charged Sussex with hindering his approach to the queen by beginning ‘an unjust war’ against him, and swore roundly that until the garrison Sussex had placed in Armagh Cathedral was withdrawn he would not go near Elizabeth. Nor did he confine himself to mere protests, and though never venturing into the open, he succeeded by watching his opportunity in so harassing the army that Sussex was compelled to withdraw to Newry. Fixing the blame entirely on the lord-lieutenant, he expressed himself willing, if the garrison at Armagh was withdrawn, to give hostages to the Earl of Ormonde for his speedy repair into England, and, in order to demonstrate his appreciation of English civilisation, he at the same time preferred a request for the hand of Sussex's sister. Sussex, who must have regarded his request as an insult, was not deluded by his professions, and insisted that his excuses were of ‘the nature of Sir John Gaskon's tales, who devysing them himselfe, beleved by often tellying of them that they were true in dede.’ Thinking himself justified in using every weapon, Sussex, while preparing to take the field once more, tried to bribe O'Neill's messenger to assassinate him. The attempt, if made, failed, and, compelled to resort to more legitimate methods, Sussex inflicted considerable damage on O'Neill's territory, when to his chagrin the Earl of Kildare arrived as the envoy of the government in Dublin with authority to treat. Shane, who was master of the situation, declined to treat unless his demands, which included the evacuation of Armagh, were conceded. The Earl of Kildare, who was blamed for having too little regard for the honour of the crown, yielded, though he subsequently induced Shane to waive his demand for the withdrawal of the garrison, and on 18 Oct. 1561 a treaty was arranged, and Shane, having first obtained good security for his safe return, consented to go to England.
The expenses of his journey were defrayed by government, and accordingly, accompanied by the Earls of Kildare and Ormonde, and with a train suitable to his pretensions, he sailed from Dublin on 3 Dec., arriving in London on 4 Jan. 1562. His appearance at court and in the streets of London, attended by his bareheaded gallowglasses in their saffron-coloured shirts and shaggy frieze mantles, caused an immense sensation. On 6 Jan. he publicly submitted to Elizabeth, prostrating himself before her, and confessing his crime and rebellion ‘with howling,’ as it seemed to the bystanders, who did not understand Irish. Being interrogated as to his claims, he insisted that he was the eldest legitimate son of Con O'Neill, and by joint consent of the nobility and people designated O'Neill. The surrender made by Con he maintained was invalid, ‘forasmuch as Con had no estate in that which he surrendered but for life, nor could surrender it without the consent of the nobility and people by whom he was elected to the honour of O'Neill.’ For the crown it was argued that Mathew, the late baron of Dungannon, and his son Brian claimed by letters patent and not by legitimation, and that the arrangement arrived at was by right of conquest. It was hopeless to attempt to reconcile views so diametrically opposed. But the question that chiefly concerned Elizabeth was whether it was expedient or not under the circumstances to recognise Shane's claims. Her word had been passed for his safety, but nothing had been said about the length of his stay, and accordingly he was under one pretext and another detained in England, in the vain hope that something would turn up to rescue government from its dilemma. But his detention was not without risk. On 3 April de Quadra wrote to Granvelle that Shane and ten or twelve of his principal followers had received the sacrament at the Spanish embassy in secret, and had promised to be perfectly steadfast on the question of religion, and de Quadra, though he looked on him as little better than a savage, was not without hope that Philip when he saw fit to interfere in English affairs would find a useful instrument in him. Something of this seems to have come to Cecil's ears, and the murder of Mathew's son Brian by Turlough Luineach O'Neill [q. v.] on 12 April furnishing a reasonable excuse to get rid of him, he was allowed to return to Ireland about the middle of May. He was acknowledged as actual captain of Tyrone, with a general reservation of the rights of Mathew's younger son Hugh, afterwards earl of Tyrone [q. v.] In return he promised to keep the peace with his neighbours, to submit his grievances to arbitration, and not to molest the garrison at Armagh.
He landed at Dublin on 26 May 1562, but, hearing that ‘not iii dayes before hys landyng’ Turlough Luineach had caused himself to be created O'Neill, he declined to make any stay in the city, and having caused the queen's proclamation in his favour to be published, he departed the same day with a guard into Tyrone. Boasting of the victory he had obtained over Elizabeth, he soon made it apparent what value he attached to the concessions extorted from him in England by breaking them in every single particular. When Sussex landed about the end of July, he had a long story to tell of Shane's lawless behaviour in harrying Maguire and the Scots, and in levying forces against Con O'Donnell. Determined to catch him by fair means or foul, he reminded him of his promise to submit his grievances to arbitration, and sent him an ambiguously worded safe-conduct, appointing a meeting at Dundalk. But Shane was too wary to be entrapped after that fashion, and Sussex was fain to content himself with reminding him of his promise not to go to war without license. For answer Shane attacked O'Reilly, plundered Tyrconnel, and reduced Maguire to the direst extremities. Maguire warned the lord lieutenant that unless O'Neill was effectually subdued, he would be ‘the strongest man of all Erlond.’
Sussex and Fitzwilliam, the latter of whom was despatched to England to report personally on the situation, were convinced that nothing but force would bring Shane to his senses. Meanwhile, until Elizabeth's consent could be obtained to that course, the lord lieutenant was obliged to act on the defensive. He managed to detach Turlough Luineach from Shane, which somewhat crippled him; but, hearing that he was meditating a fresh attack on Con O'Donnell, he determined, if the report proved correct, ‘to drawe downe tharmy to Armaghe agynst the full moone, wch will staie him from goyng into eny other countrie while I wth the Armye shalbe in his countrie.’ Moved by Sussex's representations, Elizabeth reluctantly consented to the employment of force, and preparations were made to take the field against Shane early in April 1563. On 6 April the army encamped at Armagh, but so badly equipped and provisioned that before three weeks had elapsed or a battle had been fought Sussex was obliged to withdraw into the Pale. A fortnight later he again took the field, and, crossing the Blackwater at Braintree, penetrated as far as Clogher. A thousand of Shane's cattle were captured; but they barely sufficed for the needs of the army, and ere long the second expedition ended, like the first, in failure. Orders were given for a general hosting; but the gentry of the Pale showed no willingness to respond to the call, and, obliged to acknowledge himself beaten, Sussex retired to Drogheda.
Force having failed, Ormonde and Kildare were sent to try what could be effected by diplomacy; but Shane stoutly refused to abate one jot of his pretensions as O'Neill, and the negotiations were broken off. But for the shame of it, Elizabeth would have consented to purchase peace even at his own price. She knew that to yield to his demands would touch Sussex to the quick; but she implored him to further Sir Thomas Cusack's proposals for an agreement rather than to force her to grant Shane an unqualified pardon. Accordingly, early in September Cusack and the Earl of Kildare met Shane at Drumcree. Professing his willingness to observe his faithfulness to her majesty, he laid the blame of his recent behaviour on Sussex, whom he charged with persistent attempts to assassinate him. He could not, he declared, omit the statutes and ordinances of his predecessors, as neither he nor his subjects were skilled in the English law; but, understanding that it was not her majesty's intention to deal sharply with him, he was content to consent to a treaty, by which he gained everything and yielded nothing (see the form of peace made at Drumcree 11 Sept. 1563, in Cal. Carew MSS. i. 352). The surrender on the queen's part was complete, and though Sussex contrived to put a good face on it, he felt the disgrace keenly. Even Elizabeth, when she saw the conditions of the treaty, was moved to anger, and with her own hand struck out a clause exempting Shane from attendance on the viceroy ‘antequam intelligat an is est illi amicus et favorabilis an non,’ and referring any differences that might arise between him and the government to arbitration. Shane was of course indignant, and insisted on having the original treaty signed, or none at all. But the queen thought she had yielded enough, and Shane, who had other projects on hand, agreed to a temporary cessation of hostilities.
His prisoner, Calvagh O'Donnell, who for nearly three years had preferred to suffer the most exquisite tortures rather than yield to his demands, submitted about this time, and was liberated, on condition that he surrendered Lifford, together with his claim to the overlordship of Inishowen, and paid a heavy ransom. But O'Donnell, instead of fulfilling his part of the bargain, appealed to the government for assistance, and Shane was obliged to enforce his demands with the sword. He managed to get hold of Con O'Donnell, Calvagh's eldest son, and shortly afterwards captured Lifford. For some time past Shane had regarded the encroachment of the Scottish settlers on the Antrim coast with distrust. The growth of a strong independent power in that quarter would, he felt, prove fatal to his design of extending his dominion over the whole of Ulster, and he was therefore anxious to take advantage of his truce with the government to expel the intruders. A letter from Lord Robert Dudley, urging him to do something to merit the queen's favour, arrived opportunely, and Shane naïvely replied that he knew of no better service he could render than to expel her majesty's enemies the Scots. His intention was applauded by the government, and in September he attacked the Scots under Sorley Boy MacDonnell [q. v.] in the neighbourhood of Coleraine. Neither side could claim the victory, but Shane was able to point to it as an earnest of his good intentions. Shortly after Easter in the following year, 1565, he again invaded Clandeboye, and proceeding from Edenduff Carrick northward by way of Broughshane and Clogh, he destroyed almost every trace of the Scottish settlements along the Antrim coast. On 2 May he encountered the MacDonnells in the neighbourhood of Ballycastle. Outnumbering his enemies by more than two to one, he gained a complete and bloody victory. Among his prisoners were James MacDonnell and his brother, Sorley Boy.
His victory caused a great sensation, and produced a feeling something akin to consternation in government circles, especially when it was known that he had already commenced colonising those parts with his own people. Master of the north, he was less inclined than ever to treat with Elizabeth except on equal terms. It was clear that Sir Nicholas Arnold's policy of setting the Irish by the ears was producing disastrous results, and in June Elizabeth had made up her mind to entrust the government of Ireland to Sir Henry Sidney [q. v.] It was not till January 1566 that he landed at Dublin. Notifying Shane of his arrival, he called on him to appoint a parley at Drogheda or Dundalk. Shane replied by fixing a meeting at Dundalk on 5 Feb. The date was inconvenient to Sidney, and Shane, either knowing it to be so, or because he had thought better of it, refused to meet him at all until the peace concluded with Cusack at Drumcree on 11 Sept. 1563 was confirmed, and his additional petitions, including the hand of Sussex's sister, were granted. He reminded the deputy of Sussex's treacherous behaviour towards him, and of the frequent attempts made to assassinate him. He knew Sidney's ‘sweetness and readiness for all good things,’ but his ‘timorous and distrustful people’ would not, he declared, suffer him to run the risk. He eventually condescended to offer to meet the deputy in the open fields, and Sidney, though he thought proper to decline the proposal as incompatible with the dignity of the crown, promised to send commissioners to the borders to treat for a ratification of Cusack's peace.
But to Leicester, Sidney opened his mind more freely. ‘I believe,’ he wrote, ‘Lucifer was never puft vp wth more pryde nor ambytyon than that Onele ys.’ Far from being sorry for his rebellious behaviour, he had told the commissioners that ‘if yt wear to do agayn I would do yt, for my ancestorys wear kyngys of Vlster, and Vlster was thearys, and Vlster ys myne, and shalbe myne.’ ‘He contynually kepyth 600 armed men, as it wear his Janyzery about hym; he ys able to bring to the field a thousand horsmen and 4,000 footmen; he hath alredy in Dundrum, as I am credybly aduertysed 200 toon of wyne and mutch more he lokyth for; he ys the only strong man of Ireland; hys cuntre was neuer so rytch nor so inhabyted; he armyth and weaponnyth all the peasantes of his cuntre, the fyrst that ever so dyd of an Iryshman; he hath agentys contynually in the coor of Scotland and wth dyuers potentates of the Irysh Scottes.’ ‘Trust me, my lord,’ Sidney concluded, ‘he ys able if he wyll to burn and spoyle to dublyn gates and go away vnfoght.’ Sidney's letter was submitted to the queen, and afterwards laid before the privy council. Every one, Cecil wrote, was inclined to the extirpation of the proud rebel, and the queen, perhaps with a view to minimise the expenditure, proposed to send over Sir Francis Knollys [q. v.] to consult with Sidney as to the best course to pursue. Knollys arrived in April, and confirmed Sidney's proposal for a winter campaign. After some hesitation Elizabeth yielded her consent, and preparations were made for Shane's extirpation.
Meanwhile Shane, thinking, in the insolence of his pride, that Elizabeth, because she hesitated to strike, was really afraid to do so, had been busily intriguing in support of Mary Queen of Scots. The reconciliation of Mary and Argyll had greatly encouraged him in the belief that one determined effort would lead to the emancipation of Ireland, and in April he addressed letters to Charles IX and the cardinal of Lorraine, calling on them to assist him in expelling the English, and promising for himself and his successors to become the humble subjects of the crown of France. Elizabeth had rightly conjectured that on hearing of the preparations that were being made against him, he would ‘break his bryckle peace.’ About the middle of July he invaded the Pale with fire and sword, but an attempt to capture Dundalk was repulsed with heavy loss. He was proclaimed a traitor on 3 Aug. 1566, and, probably feeling that the outlook was critical, he burned Armagh, razed most of his castles, entered into negotiations for a reconciliation with Alexander Oge MacDonnell, and sent a pressing message to the Earl of Desmond, urging him to join with him against the English. It was September before Colonel Edward Randolph [q. v.] landed at Derry, and the middle of the month when Sidney entered Tyrone. Pursuing his usual tactics, Shane, though able to muster four thousand foot and seven hundred horse, evaded a battle, contenting himself with hanging on the rear of the enemy and cutting off stragglers. At Lifford Sidney effected a junction with Randolph, and, leaving reinforcements with him, crossed the Foyle into Tyrconnel. Donegal, Ballyshannon, Belleek, and Sligo were captured, and having re-established O'Donnell in his former possessions, the deputy continued his journey into Connaught.
Beyond the loss of some corn and cattle, the usual results of a raid, Shane had suffered comparatively little, and, the death of O'Donnell in the hour of his triumph affording him apparently an opportunity to recover all that he had lost, he invaded Tyrconnel. He was defeated by Randolph, but the death of the English commander speedily gave him all the advantages of a victory. At first being harassed by the attacks of the Scots under Alexander Og MacDonnell, he wrote to the lord deputy and council, expressing his readiness to agree to the articles of Sir Thomas Cusack's peace. But his overtures meeting with no response, he renewed his application for assistance to the court of France, and endeavoured to secure the support of the Earl of Argyll, sending him as a propitiatory offering, among other things, the robes of state given by Henry VIII to his father Con. In May the garrison at Derry was withdrawn, and Shane at once seized the opportunity to invade Tyrconnel. He was defeated, and his army almost annihilated by the O'Donnells in the neighbourhood of Letterkenny. Riding for his very life, he managed, ‘under the guidance of a party of the O'Gallaghers,’ to reach his own country in safety. For a moment he thought of appealing to Sidney for mercy with a rope round his neck, but was ultimately persuaded to appeal to the MacDonnells for assistance.
Taking with him his captive, Sorley Boy, and Catherine MacLean, formerly wife of Calvagh O'Donnell, subsequently O'Neill's mistress, but now his wife, and attended by a few retainers, he made his way to Cushendun. It was a foolhardy step, but possibly, if he could have kept a civil tongue in his head, the MacDonnells might have consented to a reconciliation on his own terms of restoring Sorley Boy, surrendering Clandeboye, and paying a heavy fine. It is doubtful whether his assassination was premeditated, but his injuries to the MacDonnells were too fresh in their memory to be easily forgotten, and it is probable that when heated with wine he may have irritated them by his insolent behaviour beyond endurance. He met his death on the evening of 2 June 1567. He was literally hacked to pieces, and his body, ‘wrapped in a kerne's old shirt,’ was thrown into a pit near the place of his assassination. A reward of 1,000l. had been offered by the state for his body, one thousand marks for his head, and 500l. ‘to him that shall kill him, though he bring neither heade nor bodie.’ Of this his murderers seem not to have been aware; but the governor of Carrickfergus, Captain William Piers, ‘by whose devise the tragedie was practised,’ having managed to get hold of his head, and sent it, ‘pickled in a pipkin,’ to Sidney, obtained the promised reward. It was stuck on a pole over Dublin Castle, where it was seen by Campion in 1571. Shane's body is said to have been privately buried in the Franciscan monastery at Glenarm. A local tradition (Hill, MacDonnells of Antrim, p. 145) states that soon after his burial there a friar from Armagh appeared at the gate of the monastery to claim it. ‘Have you,’ asked the friar, ‘brought with you the remains of James MacDonnell, lord of Antrim and Cantire, who was buried among strangers at Armagh?’ The monk confessed that he had not. ‘Then,’ replied the friar, ‘whilst you continue to tread on the grave of James, lord of Antrim and Cantire, know ye that we here in Glenarm will trample on the dust of your great O'Neill.’ Shane O'Neill was attainted by act of parliament in 1569, and his lands declared forfeit to the crown, but no advantage was taken of the act till after the flight of Hugh, earl of Tyrone, in 1607.
O'Neill married, first, Catherine, daughter of James MacDonnell, lord of Cantire, and by her, whom he divorced, he had two sons, Shane Oge, who was slain in battle by Philip O'Reilly in 1581, and Henry, for some time a prisoner in Dublin Castle, who escaped with Hugh Roe O'Donnell [q. v.] in 1592, and was alive in 1615. By Catherine MacLean, wife of Calvagh O'Donnell, whom he apparently married in 1565, he had at least two sons—Art, sometime a prisoner in Dublin Castle, who, escaping in 1592, was frozen to death among the Wicklow mountains; and Hugh Geimhleach ‘of the fetters,’ who is said to have been hanged by Tyrone with his own hand in 1590. He had also a son Con by a daughter of Shane Oge Maguire, who was alive in 1614. Other sons of doubtful origin attributed to him are Brian, Cormac, Edmund, Niall, and Turlough. Judged even by the lax standard of his age, he was a bad man—a glutton, a drunkard, a coward, a bully, an adulterer, and a murderer. He could speak no language except Irish, and was unable even to sign his own name. His views were limited to the aggrandisement of his power in Ulster, but within those limits he displayed some of those qualities that go to make a great ruler. He was treacherous, vindictive, and cruel, but in these respects he was as much sinned against as sinning. His diplomacy was the diplomacy of the age of Catherine de'Medici, but in that diplomacy he was a past master. Coming at a later time, he might have proved a dangerous enemy to England. As it was, the poverty of the crown and the unwillingness of Elizabeth to fritter away her strength in petty quarrels gave him an importance which he would otherwise not have possessed.
[Cal. State Papers, Eliz., Ireland, Foreign and Spanish; Cal. Carew MSS.; Annals of the Four Masters, ed. O'Donovan; Ulster Journal of Archæology, i. 160, ii. 218, iii. 259, vii. 45, ix. 122; Irish Statutes, Dublin, 1765, i. 322; Catalogue of Cottonian MSS.; Irish Genealogies in Harl. MS. 1425; O'Sullivan-Beare's Historiæ Catholicæ Iberniæ Compendium; Hooker's continuation of Holinshed; Hill's MacDonnells of Antrim; Froude's Hist. of England; Bagwell's Ireland under the Tudors; Kilkenny Archæol. Soc. Journal, 4th ser. viii. 449, ix. 53.]