Consequences of the Flight of the Earls

Ruairi O Bradaigh, President, Sinn Féin Poblachtach, delivered this talk at a conference in Donegal Town on September 7.

At the outset I would like to take issue with the expression “Flight of the Earls”. One dictionary explains “flight” as “to run away, as from danger.” I agree with Prof John McGurk of the University of Ulster when he spoke at Letterkenny on August 19 last. Naming the event as a “flight’ was “pandering to the English interpretation” of what happened. He suggested that the departure of the Earls - who had intended to return - could have been termed a “strategic regrouping”.

The historian Micheline Kerney Walsh in her work “Destruction by Peace: Hugh O’Neill after Kinsale” published in 1986 writes; “It has been generally assumed that he accepted defeat and, in despair, had gone into voluntary exile”, but this is not so. She states that according to recent research, his principal objective in leaving for Spain in 1607 was “to return at the head of an army designed to break English power in Ireland.”

The 99 Irish exiles who sailed from Rathmullen, Co Donegal on September 14, 1607 were on a French ship procured for them by Cuchonnacht Maguire, chieftain of Fermanagh. They sailed for Spain and were within sight almost of the Spanish coast when an almighty storm blew then off course and back across the Bay of Biscay to France, where they landed on October 4.

At home in Ireland, the consequences of their departure from the scene were many and varied. With the Plantation of Ulster from 1608, the Gaelic order was eclipsed, and the great Irish Diaspora began. Also in Ireland began a great renaissance of culture and learning, in the Irish language of course, “Anocht is Uaigneach Eire” (Ireland is desolate tonight), by Aindrias MacMarcais is a poem famous for its description of the Irish following the Departure. The plantation of Ulster, begun in 1608, was the greatest consequence of the Departure of the Earls. Their lands were confiscated by the English Crown. The revolt of Sir Cahir O’Doherty of Innishowen in January 1608 was initially successful in that he captured the city of Derry. But in July he was shot at Kilmacrennan, Co Donegal and his lands too were confiscated.

Chichester (ancestor of Captain Terence O’Neill) and Sir John Davies, the Attorney-General at Dublin Castle felt that war would never be at an end until there was “one king, one allegiance and one law”. The king would, of course, be the king of England and English ‘common law’ would replace the Irish Brehon code. This would be the new framework for Ulster.

The scheme adopted was not simply to redistribute the land seized but to build a new society - an exercise in social engineering. This is how the Ulster Plantation differed from earlier plantations elsewhere in Ireland and why it lasted so much longer. A homogeneous society at all levels was to be created, with English law, English courts and an English army in the background.

The present Belfast and St Andrews Agreements are just that - agreements. They are not a settlement. An artificial arrangement at Stormont gives us temporary and enforced vertical power-sharing, but under English rule. The alternative is a nine-county Ulster, this could be permanent within a four province federation. This proposal, known as EIRE NUA - a New Ireland - was outlined face-to-face at confidential meetings with all shades of unionism in the 1970s. In all cases the reaction was the same. If the English government disengaged from Ireland, then our proposal would be the second choice of unionists. Their first choice would be an independent Six-County state. We felt that that model would not be viable.

Nationalists have never sought to undo the Plantation of Ulster which next year will be four centuries old. They seek equal rights and equal opportunities within an Ireland where there is room for all - where all its inhabitants can feel comfortable and have their place in the sun. Such an Ireland has been outlined here tonight.

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