‘Red’ Hugh O’Donnell is one of the most romantic figures in Irish history. Also known as Hugh Roe O’Donnell (Aodh Ruadh Ó Domhnaill), he was a sixteenth-century Irish nobleman who brought his country to the very brink of expelling the English occupation.
A team undertaking archaeological works in Valladolid, Spain is currently said to be close to locating his resting place, and there are hopes his remains can be brought back to his native Donegal.
In 1588, at about 17, Hugh was snatched away from his family and held hostage by the English in Dublin Castle to insure the good behavior of his Gaelic clan. After three years O’Donnell escaped the Castle in the dead of a bitter winter; one of his companions in that escape, a son of Shane O’Neill, died of exposure and “Red” Hugh suffering severe frostbite in the process.
A year later the 21 year old Hugh became head of the O’Donnell clan. For the next ten years he would lead his clan in a desperate, and ultimately unsuccessful fight to save the Gaelic culture of Ireland.
Along with his father-in-law Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone he led a rebellion against the government in Ireland from 1593 and fought the Nine Years’ War from 1595 to 1602.
At Yellow Ford, in 1598, they would hand the English their worst defeat ever on Irish soil, but England superior resources of men and equipment would eventually win out.
After a disastrous defeat or the Irish and their Spanish allies at Kinsale in 1602, Red Hugh was dispatched to Spain in an attempt to win further aid from the King Philip.
At Simancas, O’Donnell suddenly fell ill; there is evidence to suggest that an English agent poisoned him.
On September 10, 1595, Red Hugh O’Donnell breathed his last; his death pushed the Gaelic culture of Ireland to the brink.
The Spanish king honoured the Irish rebel with a royal funeral and burial, an account of which is given in the Annals of the Four Masters, the chronicles of medieval Irish history.
The text says: “His body was conveyed to the king’s palace at Valladolid in a four-wheeled hearse, surrounded by countless numbers of the king’s state officers, council, and guards, with luminous torches and bright flambeaux of beautiful wax-light burning on each side of him.
“He was afterwards interred in the monastery of St Francis, in the chapter precisely, with veneration and honour, and in the most solemn manner that any of the Gaels had been ever interred in before.”
Digging is continuing at the monastery, and there are hopes his remains may soon be located.
Sinn Féin TD for Donegal, Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, has urged Ireland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs to make contact with the Spanish Government and offer Irish assistance to identify and potentially repatriate the remains of the historic war hero.
“I heartily commend Valladolid City Council and the archaeological team, currently searching for the resting place of the legendary Donegal Chieftain Red Hugh O’ Donnell. This is a tremendous initiative but the team involved have noted that their resources are limited,” he said.
“The Irish government should offer financial and any other assistance to them. It is incumbent that no financial barrier is put in the way of DNA testing the mixed remains that are being uncovered at this site to hopefully pinpoint the remains of this great man in Irish history.”