Friday 30 December 2016

Hugh O'Neill 400 1616 - 2016: the journey from Dungannon to Rome

The death of Hugh 'The Great' O'Neill on 20th July 1616 in Rome is the final record entered into the Annals of the Four Masters. After a string of victories against Crown Forces during the Nine Years War, O'Neill was to meet with defeat just outside of Kinsale in Co Cork on the Christmas Eve of 1601. What followed was a lenient but untenable peace settlement brokered at Mellifont in 1603 which led in 1607 to what became known as the 'Flight Of The Earls'.
The Dungannon wreath at the 2016 Rose Festival with period artefacts including a matchlock musket, an Irish Gaelic targe and a powder horn
The 1604 Treaty of London which made a peace between Spain and England would frustrate Hugh O'Neill's attempts to return to Ireland. He petitioned Philip III of Spain until his dying day after nine years in Roman exile. His death on 20th July 1616 was indeed the end of an era.
Hill of the O'Neill, Dungannon - these remains post date O'Neill's original castle
Now - obviously the Easter Rising of 1916 was rightfully the most prominent national commemoration of 2016 and Claíomh's Claidheamh Soluis project proudly participated in a great many marches, re-enactments, media, television and educational events to mark this most important of Irish twentieth century historical events. We were however to be somewhat disappointed by a lack of community commemorations - particularly south of the border - regarding Hugh O'Neill asides a few, albeit excellent, academic conferences. Undeterred Will O'Shea and myself decided in his 4th centenary year to commemorate Hugh O'Neill in a meaningful way on the exact date of his death. 

Nine Years War depiction at the Hill of the O'Neill and Ranfurly House Arts & Visitor Centre
The first part of our mission was to procure a wreath - but it could not just be any wreath as we reckoned it fitting that we undertook to procure the flowers in O'Neill's stronghold town of Dungannon in Co Tyrone - Will driving up from Cork, and myself from Galway on Friday 15th July 2016. The wreath depicting the red hand crest of the O'Neills was assembled by Colette of Flowers By Finishing Touches on William Street in Dungannon. While we were in Tyrone we made the usual customary pilgrimages to the O'Neill inauguration site Tullyhogue (near Cookstown) and to the Hill of the O'Neill in Dungannon itself.

Nev and Eoghan provide a 1916 guard of honour to our 1616 commemorative wreath
Our flight (please excuse the pun...) to Rome was scheduled for Monday 18th July but in the intervening weekend we had a 1916 event to deliver at the Rose Festival in Dublin's St Anne's Park.
Will and Dave at the Rose Festival which was organised by Dublin City Council
At this event over the two days the O'Neill wreath was put on display adjacent to our 1916 display for visitors to enjoy and to pay their respects. Over the course of the weekend we found there was plenty of interest from the Irish public in the story of Hugh O'Neill as well as the great characters, stories and material culture of  Easter 1916. Particularly relevant was that there is a connection between the two subjects insofar as Patrick Pearse and others of his generation not only looked to Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone of the republican tradition in Irish history for inspiration but also to the great Irish chieftains of Early Modern times such as Hugh O'Donnell, Owen Roe O'Neill and Owney MacRory O'Moore. One only has to visit the school building at the Pearse Museum at St Enda's Park and prominent in the hallway is a picture of Hugh O'Neill still to be seen there to this day as it was 100 years ago.
Will with Claidheamh Soluis [L-R] Niamh Ní Ruairc, Darren Travers, Nev Swift, Brí Ní hUaine and Eoghan Long

At the door of San Pietro in Montario
The tombs of Hugh O'Neill, Baron Dungannon (son of the Great O'Neill) and Rory O'Donnell Earl of Tirconnell
We finally made landfall in Rome on Monday 18th July from where we made contact with the Irish Embassy who advised us that a service in honour of Hugh O'Neill would be taking place on the morning of Wednesday 20th at the church of San Pietro in Montario just west of the old town. This was exactly what we wanted to hear as this was the final resting place of Hugh O'Neill and of his son as well as Rory O'Donnell, the late Earl of Tirconnell. For both of us this would be our first visit to this unique historical site.
The wreath finally makes it from Dungannon to O'Neill's resting place in Rome
The O'Neill arms

The marble floor of San Pietro in Montario

Red Hugh and Rory O'Donnell of Tirconnell were Hugh O'Neill's confederates during the Nine Years War 
The remembrance service itself was an extremely pleasant affair with a lively narrative of Hugh O'Neill's life and times as well as an opportunity for us to lay our wreath at the grave. It was remarked from the pulpit that the number of people present at the service - ninety-nine - was the same number of people who had comprised the full compliment in the original Flight Of The Earls in 1607. For 'hymns' both 'Come To The Bower' and 'A Nation Once Again' were sung with some gusto.
The resting place of Hugh O'Neill
Our wreath in the foreground with the Irish Embassy wreath in the background
Afterwards we were very kindly invited back to the embassy for refreshments by Consul and Cultural Attaché Sarah Cooney and by the Irish Ambassador Bobby McDonagh.
A cup of tea in heat - makes sense somehow!

L-R: Fr Mícheál MacCraith, Sarah Cooney and Will O'Shea
L-R: Fr Mícheál MacCraith, Dave Swift, Sarah Cooney and Ambassador Bobby McDonagh
Villa Spada: the Irish Embassy in Rome
Over the course of the mornings proceedings we had the good fortune to meet Fr Mícheál MacCraith (who had also been one of three clergy present at the remembrance service) who very generously brought us on a tour of Hugh O'Neill's Rome. Nobody knows the subject better than he. An absolutely splendid end to a great day.
O'Neill's Rome

Where O'Neill lived in Rome - now a hotel

Outside Hotel Columbus/O'Neill's Apartment
In the footsteps of O'Neill

The building where O'Neill actually passed away in July 1616

In concluding this short summary I would point out that neither Will nor myself are genealogically related to the O'Neill tuatha - well, at least not in the last couple of hundred years... we are simply Irish people who wish to remember with dignity one of Ireland's most historically and nationally important Gaelic leaders. Learned folk will continue to debate Hugh O'Neill for as long as there is time left to us as a species. May the debates continue until the next centenary and beyond.

Dave Swift, BÁC, Nollaig 2016

Dave Swift at the 'Claregalway Shield' event in Co Galway, October 2016
Hugh O'Neill: The O'Neill and Earl of Tyrone c. 1550 - 1616

For more information on the interred Irish at San Pietro please click here to read a fascinating History Ireland article by Elizabeth FitzPatrick

Royal Irish Academy seminar audio recordings featuring Professor Nicholas Canny, Dr Ruth Canning, Dr Marc Caball, Dr Hiram Morgan and Professor Ciaran Brady


  1. An-obair a chomrádaithe. Mighty work. Fair play to all involved.

  2. Hmm well I live in New Zealand and I am a direct descendent so thank you so much for all you are doing to keep these memories alive and to honour Hugh.


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