Aodh Ruadh - A magnificent Gaelic leader

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By Matt Treacy (for the Pensive Quill)

“Pitiful, indeed, the state of the Gaels of Ireland after the death of the true prince, for they changed their characteristics and dispositions. They gave up bravery for cowardice, courage for weakness, pride for servility. Their hatred, valour, prowess, heroism, triumph, and military glory vanished after his death.”

Thus ends Lughaidh Ui Chleirigh’s Beatha Aodha Ruaidh Ui Dhomhnaill, the biography of Aodh Ruadh, Red Hugh, the last of the great Gaelic leaders of Donegal who had left Ireland in January 1602 following the defeat of the combined Irish and Spanish forces at Kinsale

Saturday marks the 420th anniversary of his death on September 10, 1602. He died in Simancas castle, Valladolid, and is buried in the Franciscan cemetery there. The event is being marked by a weekend hosted by the Mayors of Simancas and Valladolid, and the Irish Ambassadors to Spain and Portugal will attend the unveiling of a plaque at the San Francisco convent on Monday afternoon. There will also be a Mass as Gaeilge, a re-enactment of Aodh Ruadh’s funeral and what sounds like some impressive music sessions, featuring amongst others famed Belfast flute-player and Gaeilgeoir, Marcas O Murchu.

Aodh Ruadh certainly led an interesting life. His father had temporised with the English in an attempt to preserve his power but when Aodh Ruadh made a marriage alliance with Rose, the daughter of Aodh Mor O Neill, he was kidnapped and placed in Dublin Castle. He escaped in January 1592 along with two of the O Neills and made an epic journey through the Dublin mountains to be given sanctuary by Fiach McHugh O’Byrne at Glenmalure.

Aodh had been held by the English since before his 16th birthday and was never subsequently tempted to trust them. He made alliance with his father-in-law Aodh Mor, who he helped to take the leadership of the O Neill, and they embarked on the most concerted effort in the history of the English conquest to drive the settlers and their army and preachers from the land.

They smashed an English army of 4,000 under the command of Bagenal at Beal an Atha Bui in August 1598 and appeared to be on the verge of having the whole of Gaelic Ireland rise with them. That met with some resistance and they were forced to solicit the help of the Spanish who sent thousands of troops who surrendered as victory slipped away at Kinsale. Aodh Ruadh sailed almost immediately to Corunna and went to live at Valladolid where King Philip III promised to assist the exiled Gaels with a new expeditionary force.

While impatiently awaiting progress Aodh Ruadh died at Simancas. Although the former Lord President of Munster George Carew had sent an agent named James Burke to Spain with orders to kill him, and later boasted that Burke had succeeded in poisoning him, it was recorded at Simancas that Aodh Ruadh had died as a result of being infected with tapeworm. His death dealt a powerful blow to the hopes of an invasion backed by the Spanish.

The Battle of Kinsale marked the effective end of the Gaelic order in Ireland. Although there was another rebellion in the 1640s and the remnants of that order attempted to rally one last time during the war of the two kings that followed the overthrow of James II in 1688, the Old English lords were the dominant element on both occasions and while the Old English descendants of the original Norman invaders were committed to the defence of the Catholic religion, it was an uneasy alliance whose internal weaknesses doomed it to defeat.

One hundred years after Imeacht na nIarlai, the Flight of the Earls, when the last O Neill, O Domhnaill and Mag Uidhir lords and their followers left Rathmullen in Donegal to follow Aodh Ruadh into exile, the Protestant settlers had seized 90% of the land of Ireland, over 40% of the population had been put to death, starved or been forced into exile or servitude, and the English were intent on eradicating all aspects of Irish identity and culture including our language and the religion of the vast majority of our people.

In his Tuireamh na hEireann, written around the year 1657, the poet Sean O Conaill lamented the plight of the country and believed that the failure of the 1641 rebellion due to internal divisions within the Confederation and the subsequent decimation of the land by the scum of the Cromwellian army was “an cogadh do chriochnaigh Eire,” the war that finished Ireland as a nation.

Following their exile the Gaelic lords were treated well by their hosts and received apparently sympathetic hearings from the continental enemies of the English although the Spanish enthusiasm had been greatly diminished by their humiliation at Kinsale. In any event, Spain had signed the Treaty of London with the English in 1604 which formally ended their 19-year war.

Popes Clement VIII and Paul V did support the Irish, but the Church itself led by Archbishop of Armagh Peter Lombard began to seek an accommodation with the English in an attempt to safeguard the church in Ireland and indeed the Old English after the death of Aodh Mor O Neill in 1616.

O Conaill was not correct about Ireland being finished off by Cromwell. We survived that and several subsequent attempts. Most of the history of that resistance was the quiet defiance of a people who refused to completely surrender. Most of it has also remained unknown because it has by and large been ignored by the Irish historiographical establishment. Much of that due to their ignorance of and/or derision for the tradition as it was preserved in the Irish language both written and oral.

That deliberate neglect persisted despite the ground breaking book by Daniel Corkery, Hidden Ireland, published in 1941. Corkery’s work has been taken up in more recent times by historians who continue to explore the once neglected and still under-researched and vast archive of manuscripts written in Irish over the centuries. Prominent among them have been the late Brendan O Buachalla and Vincent Morley.

And of course the huge number of people who have preserved the living tradition in song, and those like Seamus Ennis and Sean O Suilleabhain and many others who recorded thousands of hours of people passing on the oral memory of our people to the collectors of the Folklore Commission.

The fragility of that tradition, and indeed an indication of what has been lost, is illustrated by the fact that the poetry and songs of one of the greatest poets of the early 19th century, Antaine O Raiftearai, might all have been lost had it not been for people like Douglas Hyde who wrote them down 50 years and longer after his death.

One of Raiftearai’s great epic poems, Seanchas na Sceiche, was written down in the 1880s from the recitation of Micheailin Ui Chonghaile. As Morley notes, it is proof that the supposedly ignorant “peasant masses” (as one contemporary Sinn Féin “historian” has described them), had retained not only a rich oral tradition but one that was part of an unbroken memory that went back to the 17th century historians like O Conaill and Seathrun Ceitinn.

Indeed, it often went back into the written history as it had been preserved since medieval times and all of which were familiar to a blind poet born in Mayo in in the darkest years of the 1700s. His words recalled our great victories and defeats including of the time of Aodh Ruadh.

A fictionalised account of the time following the death of Aodh Ruadh and before Aodh Mor O Neill died in Rome is found in Liam Mac Coil’s brilliant trilogy; An Litir, I dTir Strainseartha, and Bealach na Spainneach. It begins with the execution of Bishop Conchobar O Duibheannaigh in Dublin in February 1612. It is every bit the equal of Hilary Mantel’s fictionalised history of Thomas Cromwell.

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