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Updated on March 23, 2013


It is tragic when the history of one’s country is so intertwined with that of another, but for Ireland this has been the case. The decision by King Henry VIII of England to break with the Catholic Church in the 1530’s created reverberations that would haunt the Emerald Isle down the centuries, even until today. With the English now a Protestant people, that meant the Irish were not only rebellious subjects, but heretic papists as well, whose suppression was all the more warranted. Bitter and cruel warfare would surge up and down the island as the English sought to subjugate their pesky neighbor, while the Celtic nobility rallied for one final attempt at expelling the hated oppressor from their land.

The climax of this brutal struggle came at the end of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, during the 1590’s and early 1600’s. Leadership for the Irish uprising emerged from the north in Ulster, in the persons of Red Hugh O’Donnell and Owen Roe O’Neill-

Ho! Saxons, tyrants, spoilers, by Liffey, Foyle, or Margue

Where’er you’re found, Owen’s heavy hand shall scourge you as a plague

Oh, hellish memories steel our hearts, our every sense be numb!

Up Gaels! Up Gaels! Revenge! Revenge! Owen Roe, Owen Roe is come!

- “The Coming of Owen Roe”- Seamus MacManus

Red Hugh and Owen Roe trounced any and all English forces sent against them, creating a panic in London, while seeming to be the very embodiment of the fabled Celtic warriors: “Victory lies not in senseless armor, nor in the vain din of cannon, but in living and courageous souls”- Red Hugh O’Donnell (1598). As would happen numerous times in the Irish tragedy, false reliance on a supposed ally doomed the rebellion. Spain, which had been having her own quibbles with England (the Armada-1588), sent a fleet and 3,000 troops to Cork in 1601. The Spanish allowed themselves to be trapped on the Kinsale Peninsula by the English, whereupon, against better judgment, the Ulstermen began an epic march south to relieve their embattled allies. Decimated and worn-out by the journey, the Irish arrived just in time to share in the Spanish defeat.

O’Donnell and O’Neill, along with many of their comrades, fled Ireland for continental Europe, in what became known as the “Flight of the Wild Geese.” Red Hugh went to Spain, where he was murdered by English assassins. Owen Roe lived out his days as an exile in Italy. Many of the Wild Geese offered their services to the king of France, joining the French army, for any chance to strike a blow at the reviled English. Another consequence of the failed rising was the Ulster Plantations. In an effort to prevent future outbreaks, while further marginalizing the native Irish, thousands of Presbyterians from Scotland and England were settled in the northeast corner of the island, thus beginning the Protestant-Catholic dynamic forever fueled by the English government. One more chapter in the Irish tale had ended in agonizing defeat:

Will you come again, O Hugh, in all your golden power

In all the strength and skill we knew, with Rory, in that hour

When the sword leaps from the scabbard, and the night has passed away

And Bunba’s battle-cry rings loud at dawning of the Day

- “Princes of the North”- Ethna Carberry

The toppling of Charles I from the English throne in 1641 perhaps presented the Irish with an opportunity to break their shackles. Alas, it was not to be, and the retribution visited upon Erin was the worse yet, descending in the fire and brimstone form of Oliver Cromwell. After winning the English Civil War, Cromwell launched a campaign to punish Ireland whose barbarity would make him the most hated figure in the country’s history. The ferocity of the depredations committed by the Puritan Avenger are confirmed by his own words regarding the infamous Drogheda Massacre- “It has pleased God to bless our endeavor at Drogheda. The enemy were about 3,000 strong in the town. I believe we put to the sword the whole number. This hath been a marvelous great mercy.”- (1649) The “enemy” included women, children, and the aged, along with combatants.

Countless towns received the same fate. It is estimated that Cromwell slaughtered close to 400,000 people during his rampage, out of a total population just over 1 million in Ireland at the time. Shocked survivors were herded by the English to the desolate wastes of Connaught in the west of the island. The barrenness of their new homes inspired the following saying concerning the region- “Not enough wood on which to hang a man, water enough to drown him, nor earth enough to bury him.” The misery of the Irish continued, leaving those who remained to lament the might-have-beens and the loss of their heroes-

We thought you would not leave us, we were sure you would not go

And leave us in our utmost need to Cromwell’s cruel blow

Sheep without a shepherd when the snow shuts out the sky

Oh! Why did you leave us, Eoghan? Why did you die?

- “Lament for the Death of Eoghan Ruadh O’Neill- Thomas Davis


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