Flight of the Earls

Irish history is full of myths. An enduring one is that the two noblemen who left Ireland in 1607 fought for a free Ireland against the tyranny of the English conquerors; and defeated in battle, were forced to escape.

This is bollocks.

Flight of the EarlsFor one thing, they weren’t escaping hot-foot from battle. Major hostilities against he English had ended in 1601, six years previously. Both the Earls had been pardoned and confirmed in their “British” titles as Earl by King James.

For another, they were about as Irish as Morris Dancing. Although both had impressively ethnic monikers, Aodh Mór Ó Néill and Rudhraighe Ó Domhnaill, both had strong English connections, and both were supported by the English authorities in their disputed claims to leadership of their clans. O’Neill had been brought up by English foster parents. O’Donnell named his two daughters Elizabeth and Mary…

They did raise armies and fight the English, but that was just a power grab. It was exactly the sort of thing that had happened in earlier centuries in England itself, as powerful barons tried to carve out their own little kingdoms, or supported rival claimants to the throne. With England a stable nation state under a centralised monarchy, that could no longer happen, but in unruly, uncivilized Ireland there was still something to play for.

I remember being in the Ulster Museum and seeing a display case full of objects related to the fugitive Earls. There was one small item that seemed to me to say everything about who they really were. It was O’Neill’s son’s account book from school, recording his allowance and expenses. He’d been at Eton.


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