The Flight of the Earls

Image of Flight of the Earls stamp, superimposed on sepia painting

There have been many pivotal moments in this nation’s history and one such event which changed the social and political landscape for the whole of Ireland was the Flight of the Earls in September 1607.  This signalled the end of the old Gaelic Order when Rory O Neill and Hugh O Donnell sailed from Rathmullan with over ninety of their followers.

The earls left the Lough Swilly village on a French ship with some of the leading Gaelic families in Ulster. The Flight of the Earls was a watershed in Irish history, as the ancient Gaelic aristocracy of Ulster went into permanent exile. Despite their attachment to and importance in the Gaelic system, the Earls' ancestors had also accepted their Earldoms from the English rulers in the 1540s paving the way for Plantation of Ulster. 

Who were these men and women whose departure changed the face of Ireland for the next 600 years?  Hugh O’Neill, (The Great O’Neill), came from the line of the O’Neill dynasty and controlled Ulster in the 16th century.  Throughout his tenure he was involved in conflict with the English crown for supremacy in his territory.  He aligned himself with Hugh O’Donnell despite the enmity between the two families.  In April 1596, O'Neill received promises of help from Spain, and thereafter chose to temporize with the authorities, professing his loyalty to the crown as circumstances required.  O'Neill managed to defer English attempts on his territory for more than two years.

In October 1601, the long awaited aid from Spain arrived in Kinsale.  However, the Irish were defeated in Kinsale and this disaster for O’Neill ended his chances of winning the war.  O’Donnell died in Spain while O’Neill tried to regain control of Ulster by seeking pardon from the British crown.  Internal disputes about land erupted and the English ruling masters in determined not to give into O’Neill.  He was in imminent danger of being arrested and made the decision to flee to Spain along with Rory O’Donnell, Hugh’s successor.

O'Neill and O'Donnell embarked at midnight at Rathmullan on a voyage bound for Spain. Accompanying them were their wives, families and retainers, numbering ninety-nine persons.  Driven by contrary winds to the east, they took shelter in France and were told by the Spanish to pass the winter in the Spanish controlled Netherlands and not to proceed to Spain itself. In April 1608, they proceeded to Rome where they were welcomed and hospitably entertained by Pope Paul V. Shortly after O’Donnell died in Rome probably due to malaria.   O'Neill never realised his hope of returning to Ireland to regain his position and died in exile in Rome in 1616.

The 400th anniversary of the Flight of the Earls was marked on 14 September 2007, throughout Donegal, with a huge programme of events including a regatta of tall ships, fireworks, lectures, and conferences. The President of Ireland Mary McAleese unveiled a statue depicting the Flight at Rathmullan.