Into Exile

Rathmullen, County Donegal

Photo of The Flight of the Earls by Rhodora, licensed under Creative Commons

4th September 1607

The French ship bobbed in the moonlit waters of Lough Swilly. Hugh O’Neill felt like he had reached the end of the world.

He was uncertain whether he would sail today. Born to the powerful family that were descended from Niall of the Nine Hostages, he was still Earl of Tyrone, precarious though that position might be in these troubled times. He had played the political game, at times fighting with the English and at other times against them, but perhaps the game had finally caught up with him.

6 years earlier, he had been at the other end of Ireland, fighting alongside his good friend Red Hugh O’Donnell and a battalion of Irish and Spanish soldiers. But the Battle of Kinsale had ended in defeat, and Red Hugh died on his way to Spain to gather more support.

Rory O’Donnell had inherited the title of Earl of Tyrconnell from his older brother. He no more wanted to leave Ireland than O’Neill did, but the English authorities were tightening their grip and he saw no other choice. His wife had accompanied him, together with a retinue of servants. He looked towards his son — not yet a year old, named Hugh after his grandfather and uncle. The small boy grizzled at the lateness of the hour — it was near midnight — hiding his face in his nursemaid’s shoulder.

“A clear night, thank God,” said O’Neill, touching the gold cross that hung around his neck. It contained a relic of the True Cross, and he prayed now that it would give him guidance for making the right decision.

“You can’t rely on King James to pardon you again,” said O’Donnell. Following the Battle of Kinsale, O’Neill had pleaded his case in London. The Scottish king of England had shown mercy on the Irishman, but this had not been a popular move in his Parliament, and the recent Gunpowder Plot meant that Catholics were on shakier ground than ever.

Catherine O’Neill took her husband’s hand. He was startled — theirs was a political match and she wasn’t much given to public displays of affection. Their 7-year-old son Shane stood beside her, trying his best to look grown-up and unafraid.

“Ireland is no longer safe for us,” she said. “But we will return.”

“It will be a good day in Ireland when we do,” said her husband.

He decided to board the ship and sail from Rathmullan towards Normandy. The event would later be known as The Flight of the Earls and be seen as the death knell of the old Gaelic order in Ireland. O’Neill and O’Donnell never returned to see that “good day in Ireland”. They died abroad and were buried together in the San Pietro di Montorio church in Rome.

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Among Savages

Streedagh Strand, County Sligo

Illustration of Irish warriors by Albrecht Dürer in 1521, public domain

In 1588, Captain Francisco de Cuéllar sailed with the Spanish Armada, no doubt expecting victory over the English and a triumphant return to Spain. Instead, his fleet received a crushing defeat and he attempted to sail his galleon, the San Pedro, home via Scotland and Ireland. Off the coast of County Sligo, the San Pedro floundered and met its end on Streedagh Strand.

I escaped from the sea and from these enemies by having commended myself very earnestly to our Lord, and to the Most Holy Virgin, His Mother; and with me three hundred and odd soldiers, who also knew how to save themselves and to swim to shore. With them I experienced great misfortunes: naked and shoeless all the winter: passing more than seven months among mountains and woods with savages.

— Captain Francisco de Cuéllar

His travels through Connacht and Ulster brought further adventure and hardship. He walked barefoot and wounded along a stony road, and was robbed of all his belongings. Fortunately, some of the locals were kind enough to provide him with food and dress his wounds.

De Cuéllar and some of fellow Spaniards found themselves in County Leitrim, living with a man named MacClancy, “a savage gentleman, a very brave soldier and great enemy of the Queen of England and of her affairs”. The English governor was not happy that MacClancy was providing shelter to the Armada survivors, and attacked the castle.

After MacClancy and his clan hid up a mountain, De Cuéllar and his countrymen held off the governor and his forces for 17 days, until “our Lord saw fit to succour and deliver us from that enemy by severe storms and great falls of snow”. MacClancy declared the Spaniards as his “most loyal friends, offering whatever was his for our service”, suggesting that his sister would marry De Cuéllar. The captain turned down this enticing offer, and travelled to Antrim where he found passage to Scotland and eventually back to Spain.

De Cuéllar’s letter about his experiences provide a valuable picture, if not always a flattering one, of Tudor Ireland:

The custom of these savages is to live as the brute beasts among the mountains, which are very rugged in that part of Ireland where we lost ourselves. They live in huts made of straw.

— Captain Francisco de Cuéllar

He describes the men as “large bodied, and of handsome features and limbs”, wearing “tight trousers and short loose coats of very coarse goat’s hair” and with “their hair down to their eyes”. The women are “very beautiful, but badly dressed”. He notes sniffily that “these people call themselves Christians” but “the chief inclination of these people is to be robbers, and to plunder each other” and concludes that “in this kingdom there is neither justice nor right, and everyone does what he pleases”. But he also acknowledges that “if it had not been for those who guarded us as their own persons, not one of us would have been left alive”.

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A slightly longer version of this story was originally published on my other blog, A traveller from an antique land.

The Year of the French

Killala, County Mayo

 Map of Battle of Ballinamuck 1798 from National Library of Ireland

 O! the French are in the bay,
They’ll be here without delay,
And the Orange will decay,
Says the sean bhean bhocht.

— The Sean Bhean Bhocht (Poor Old Woman), traditional song

When General Jean Joseph Humbert sailed into Killala Bay in County Mayo in August 1798, it was his second time to see the Irish coast but it would be his first time to land. Two years before, bad weather and the British Navy had prevented his fleet from landing at Bantry Bay in County Cork, but today the fickle weather was on his side and the British were nowhere to be seen.

At the end of the 18th century, revolution was in the air, bringing independence to the American colonies and upheaval to Humbert’s native France. Now revolution was arriving in a most unlikely location, far removed from any center of civilization. The people of North Mayo were rural and poor, disenfranchised by law and religious discrimination, speaking a language that few outsiders understood. The United Irishmen Rebellion had swept across the east and south of the country throughout the spring and summer of 1798, but the west remained in its usual languor. Until now.

But, hark! a voice like thunder spake,
The West’s awake! the West’s awake!

— The West’s Awake, Thomas Davis (1914-1845)

General Humbert must have seemed a strange sight, with his tri-cornered hat and his buttoned blue coat. He disembarked with a thousand French soldiers; they were met by local United Irishmen and paraded through the streets of Killala. The Mayomen were promised that more French troops would follow, and so they answered the revolutionary call. Peasant farmers stepped forward to receive arms and training. With not enough guns to go around, many lifted their pikes in the air as they roared the battle cry.

Few could have expected success from such a mob, but they routed the British militia of Castlebar; indeed, their enemies ran away so fast the event became known as “The Castlebar Races”. Captain John Moore, a merchant’s son, was proclaimed “President of the Government of the Province of Connacht”.

The army went on to further success at Westport and Newport, but both Irish and French were to have their expectations shattered. The promised reinforcements never arrived from France, and the Irish troops had neither the combat experience nor the artillery for a prolonged fight. They marched together towards the midlands in an attempt to join with other United Irishmen, grumbling in their own languages about the folly of the other.

At Ballinamuck in County Longford, they were surrounded by British troops. General Humbert surrendered after just half an hour, knowing that as prisoners of war his French troops would be well treated. The Mayomen were shown no such leniency; they were slaughtered where they stood. Any Irish leaders were tried for treason and hanged. Captain Moore died in captivity.

Humbert returned to France where he had a successful military career and, it is rumoured, an affair with Napoleon’s sister Pauline. His failed rebellion became known in local history as Bliain na bhFrancach, the Year of the French. Humbert Street in Ballina is named after him and contains a monument in his honour. The Mayomen who followed him to be slaughtered at Ballinamuck might wonder at that.

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Casement’s Last Stand

Banna Strand, County Kerry

Photo of Roger Casement from National Library of Ireland

As the sun rose on Good Friday, April 21st 1916, three soaking men pulled a wooden rowboat to shore at Banna Strand in County Kerry. Roger Casement and his companions had been set down by a German U-Boat but their dinghy had overturned in the waves.

The sandhills were full of skylarks, rising in the dawn, the first I had heard for years – the first sound I heard through the surf was their song as I waded in through the breakers, and they kept rising all the time up to the old rath at Currahane.

— Roger Casement in a letter to his sister, 1916

51-year-old Casement was exhausted and unwell. When he collapsed on the sand, the two other men — Robert Monteith and Daniel Bailey — realised he could travel no further.

They had come from Germany, by way of Northern Scotland and Rockall, a long and dangerous route during wartime. But Casement had travelled still farther in his life. When he’d been born into a prosperous Anglo-Irish family at Sandycove in Dublin, most would have assumed he’d have a comfortable future. But Casement’s restless nature would not let that happen.

Most Europeans who went to work in the Congo Free State were able to ignore the atrocities that made their lives there possible. Casement could not. Initially employed as a clerk, he was later commissioned by the British Government to investigate exactly how King Leopold had been running his fiefdom in central Africa. The truth was more shocking than anyone had imagined. His report outlined the “enslavement, mutilation, and torture of natives on the rubber plantations“, and the international pressure eventually forced Leopold to relinquish his personal holdings.

He’d first contracted malaria in the Congo. As he struggled onto Irish shores for the first time in many years, he was suffering a relapse of that disease. His companions left him in the shelter of an ancient rampart known as McKenna’s Fort, and they went to find the local branch of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

As he curled in on himself, shivering with cold and fever, did he think about those days in the Congo? Did he also recall his later investigations into the abuse of the Putayamo Indians in Peru? He was known as a great campaigner whose searing words brought injustice to light. Would his admirers see him the same if they knew of his other activities, of the furtive pleasures he took with young men he met on his travels?

When did his razor-sharp sense of injustice begin to focus on his native land? He must have known, when he tried to persuade German government officials to provide arms and training for the IRB, that the British authorities would seen him as the worst kind of traitor. But the Germans provided far less equipment than was needed, and now his main aim was to contact the Irish rebels and advise them to call off the uprising.

He waited, surrounded by 2000 German rifles, listening to the skylarks, watching the primroses and wild violets that bloomed in the prehistoric ring fort. Did he wonder about the strange, circular fate that had brought him to this place?

Now the R.I.C. were hunting
For Sir Roger high and low,
They found him in McKenna’s fort;
Said they: “You are our foe”,
Said he: “I’m Roger Casement,
I came to my native land,
I mean to free my countrymen
On the lonely Banna Strand”.

— Lonely Banna Strand, song by The Wolfe Tones

The local Irish constabulary arrested Casement at McKenna’s Fort. The uprising took place on Easter Monday without the German weapons, and ended after six days with the surrender of the leaders.

Casement was tried for treason in London. His impassioned speech from the dock gained him new admirers around the globe, including in other parts of the British Empire who saw parallels in their own national situations. But during the trial, the British Government circulated passages from the “Black Diaries”, accounts of Casement’s homosexual activities in Congo and Peru. Nationalists protested that these diaries must have been faked, but they succeeded in their aim of tarnishing Casement’s reputation and turning off would-be supporters.

Roger Casement was hung at Pentonville Prison on August 3rd 1916. His remains were returned to Ireland nearly 50 years later.The old fort by Banna Strand has been renamed Casement’s Fort.

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