Spain and Ireland: ‘Red’ Hugh O’Donnell (1571-1602)

Spain and Ireland: ‘Red’ Hugh O’Donnell (1571-1602)

Ongoing excavation by Spanish archaeologists in Vallalodid in north-west Spain has made recent headlines since the Mayor of the city announced they were confident to have uncovered the remains of the church where the sixteenth century Irish nobleman is believed to have been buried in 1602. He wrote “In the Chapel of Wonders, in the exact place where Red Hugh O’Donnell is believed to have been buried as well as Christopher Columbus, some remains and two coffins have appeared”. The photograph shows a human skull with what appear to be two wooden coffins. However, extensive scientific and other research still remains to be done. The project is being conducted under the joint stewardship of Spain and the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, Ireland.

Red’ Hugh and his father-in-law, Hugh O’Neill, fought the Nine Years’ War (1593-1603) against the English and sought aid from Spain. Their forces were defeated at the Battle of Kinsale in 1601. Following the catastrophic defeat and departure of the Spanish forces in its aftermath, O’Donnell travelled to Spain in a desperate bid to rally further Spanish assistance from Philip III where he died. Such was his perceived menace to English interests in Ireland that it was widely rumoured at the time that he was poisoned by a hired assassin. He was buried in Valladolid, then capital of Spain, although he had always planned to return to Ireland.

Brief Profile

From the Irish Gaelic dynastic families in the north, he is famed for the qualities of his military leadership and for his exploits in escaping from Dublin Castle. Kidnapped as a youth under the orders of Lord Deputy Perrot in 1587 so that leverage could be exercised on the great families of the north, O’Donnell was to languish in Dublin Castle until 1591 when he effected an intrepid escape from Bermingham Tower. Harbouring deep antipathy towards the growing power of the English Crown in Ireland, he was to the fore in seeking to confront it by force. While his ally, Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, was less willing to commit himself openly to the rebel cause in the early stages of the war, O’Donnell played a prominent role in the conflict from the start and in Irish military successes not least at the Battle of the Yellow Ford, fought in County Armagh, on 14 August 1598.

Although he was ultimately defeated at the Battle of Kinsale in 1601, the intrepid O’Donnell’s forced march along virtually the entire length of Ireland from Donegal to Kinsale in an attempt to establish liaison with his Spanish allies earned great contemporary admiration.

The Annals and historical accounts of the hurried departure and exile of the dynastic families from Gaelic Ireland who became established in Europe and beyond is considered on a par with the Norman invasion for its huge impact on Ireland and Ulster’s fall from grace.  Known as “The Flight of the Earls” in 1607, with its tragic and romantic connotations, it is considered one of the most enigmatic events in Irish history paving the way, as it did, for the Plantation of Ulster and its future course on Irish history. Traces are to be found in historical archives, public places, spaces, statuary and portraits as witness to their status and wide influence that spread to the highest realms in different countries of Europe and continents far and wide. Their names are carried by many descendants today.

  • Ita Marguet, June 2020

Note:  Acknowledgement is given to encyclopaedic and additional sources in preparation of this text. It follows several published articles by the author on Ireland and its connections to the wider world. A related text is titled Inishowen Peninsula: Ireland and Spain by Ita Marguet, dated September 2013.

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