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The Flight of the Earls (Irish: Imeacht na nIarlaí) took place on 4 September 1607, when Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone and Rory O'Donnell, 1st Earl of Tyrconnell, and about ninety followers left Ulster in Ireland for mainland Europe.
After their defeat at the Battle of Kinsale in 1601, and the end of the Nine Years' War in Ulster in 1603, Tyrone and the Prince of Tyrconnell, Lord Tyrconnell's elder brother and predecessor, had been forced into exile in January 1602 by the victorious English government of Ireland under the leadership of the Lord Mountjoy. They retained their lands and titles, although with much diminished extent and authority. However, the countryside was laid bare in a campaign of destruction in 1602, and induced famine in 1603. O'Neill was pardoned under the terms of the Treaty of Mellifont in March 1603 and submitted to the crown.
When King James I took the throne in 1603, he quickly proceeded to issue pardons for the Irish lords and their rebel forces. As king of Scotland he had a better understanding of the advantages from working with local chiefs in the Scottish Highlands. However, as in other Irish lordships, the 1603 peace involved O'Neill losing substantial areas of land to his cousins and neighbours, who would be granted freeholds under the English system, instead of the looser arrangements under the former Brehon law system. This was not a new policy but was a well-understood and longstanding practice in the Tudor conquest of Ireland.
On 10 September 1602, the Prince of Tyrconnell had already died, allegedly assassinated, in Spain, and his brother succeeded him as 25th Chieftain of the O'Donnell clan. He was later granted the Earldom of Tyrconnell by King James I on 4 September 1603, and restored to a somewhat diminished scale of territories in Tyrconnell on 10 February 1604.
In 1605, the new Lord Deputy of Ireland, Sir Arthur Chichester, began to encroach on the former freedoms of the two Earls and The Maguire, enforcing the new freeholds, especially that granted in North Ulster to the Ó Catháin chief. The Ó Catháins had formerly been important subjects of the O'Neills and required protection; in turn, Chichester wanted to reduce O'Neill's authority. An option was to charge O'Neill with treason if he did not comply with the new arrangements. The discovery of the Gunpowder Plot in the same year made it harder for Catholics to appear loyal to both the crown and the papacy. As the Dublin administration sided with Ó Catháin, O'Neill was invited by King James to make his case in 1607 to the Privy Council in London, which he never did.
By 1607, O'Neill's allies the Maguires and the Earl of Tyrconnell were finding it hard to maintain their prestige on lower incomes. They planned to seek Spanish support before news of the Battle of Gibraltar arrived. When their ship dropped anchor, O'Neill seems to have joined them on impulse. He had three options:
Fearing arrest, they chose to flee to the Continent, where they hoped to recruit an army for the invasion of Ireland with Spanish help. However, earlier in 1607 a Spanish fleet had been destroyed by the Dutch in the Battle of Gibraltar. Also as the Anglo-Spanish War (1585–1604) had ended in 1604, King Philip III of Spain wanted to preserve the recent peace with England under its new Stuart dynasty. As a part of the peace proposals, a Spanish princess was to marry James' son Henry, though this never happened. Tyrone ignored all these realities, remained in Italy, and persisted with his invasion plan until his death in exile in 1616.
The earls left from the town of Rathmullan with some of the leading Gaelic families in Ulster; they travelled down Lough Swilly on a French ship. Their departure was the end of the old Gaelic order, in the sense that the earls were descended from Gaelic clan dynasties that had ruled their parts of Ulster for centuries. The Flight of the Earls was a watershed in Irish history, as the ancient Gaelic aristocracy of Ulster went into permanent exile. Despite their attachment to and importance in the Gaelic system, the Earls' ancestors had accepted their Earldoms from the English-run Kingdom of Ireland in the 1540s, under the policy of surrender and regrant. Some historians argue that their flight was forced upon them by the fallout from the Tudor conquest of Ireland, others that it was an enormous strategic mistake that cleared the way for the Plantation of Ulster.
From 1616 a number of bards outside Ulster had a poetic debate in the "Contention of the bards", and one of the arguments celebrated King James's Gaelic-Irish milesian ancestry through Malcolm III of Scotland. So it is debatable whether the Gaelic order had ended or was evolving.
The Earls set sail from Rathmullan, a village on the shore of Lough Swilly in County Donegal, accompanied by ninety followers, many of them Ulster noblemen, and some members of their families. Several left their wives behind, hoping either to return or retrieve them later. The late Tomas Cardinal O’Fiaich, Archbishop of Armagh, gave a lecture at Rathmullan in September 1988 and recounted that the Earl of Tyrone allegedly “had a gold cross which contained a relic of the True Cross, and this he trailed in the water behind the ship, and according to O’Ciainain, it gave some relief from the storm” during the crossing to Quillebeuf-sur-Seine in Normandy, France. They finally reached the Continent on 4 October 1607. The act was significant as the date of the exile from Rathmullan was the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. This supposed relic of the True Cross was probably a minor relic taken from that kept at Holy Cross Abbey, which they had previously visited en route to Kinsale in 1601.
Their destination was Spain, but they disembarked in France. The party proceeded overland to Spanish Flanders, some remaining in Leuven, while the main party continued to Italy. They planned to return to Ireland and campaign for the recovery of their lands, with the support of Spain, but both died in exile. Tadhg Ó Cianáin subsequently described the journey in great detail.
King James issued "A Proclamation touching the Earles of Tyrone and Tyrconnell" on 15 November 1607, describing their action as treasonous, and therefore preparing the ground for the eventual forfeiture of their lands and titles. No reply that is known of was made to the proclamation
Their titles were attainted in 1614, although they continued to be recognised on the Continent. The attainders were not considered legitimate in continental Catholic countries of the day. Even within the context of English and colonial Irish rule, the attainder came about six years after Rory, 1st Earl of Tyrconnell, had already died. As accused, for him to have been properly tried, he should have been tried by his peers in the Peerage of Ireland, under the presiding authority of the Lord High Steward of Ireland. However, he was already dead, unable to stand in his own defence, and his title already inherited by his son Hugh “Albert” O'Donnell; therefore in order to attaint the title, the trial would have to have been of Hugh “Albert”, who had in fact committed no crime.
The attainder was therefore considered by his supporters as a travesty of justice and was considered null and void by many on the Continent. The succession of the Earl of Tyrconnell's son, Hugh “Albert” O'Donnell, as 2nd Earl of Tyrconnell (1st creation) was therefore recognized as valid in the Spanish Empire, as a Spanish title.
Under English legal theory the title had potentially lapsed as soon as he embarked on the ship without his king's permission to leave Ireland, and when it lapsed it could not then pass to his descendants without some special waiver. Hugh Albert was never issued with a Writ of Summons to sit in the Irish House of Lords as his father's heir. Hugh Albert also never came to Dublin in 1614 to argue his case for a waiver, so far as is known. Until he did so, his title was considered to be in abeyance.
These attainders had a much greater impact on the people of Ulster. The 1603 peace arrangement with the three lords was ended, as they had broken its conditions by leaving the kingdom without permission, and their remaining freehold lands were confiscated. Chichester proposed a new plantation of settlers from England, Wales and Scotland, sponsored in part by the City of London merchants, which became known as the Plantation of Ulster. This had an enormous negative impact on the lower class Gaelic-culture inhabitants of Ulster.
In the Papal bull Ilius of 1555, the Pope had conferred the title King of Ireland on King Philip II of Spain when he was married to Queen Mary. Philip II made no claim to the kingship of Ireland after Mary's death in 1558. He engaged in a lengthy war from 1585 with her sister Elizabeth I, and he and his successor Philip III supported the Irish Catholic rebels up to the siege of Kinsale in 1601. He had been offered the kingship in 1595 by O'Neill and his allies, but turned it down. Given this lengthy support it was reasonable for Tyrconnell and Tyrone to try to solicit help from Philip III, but Spanish policy was to maintain the recent (1604) Treaty with England, and its European fleet had been weakened from several conflicts, and destroyed at the Battle of Gibraltar by the Dutch over four months earlier. Therefore by mid-1607 Spain had neither the desire nor the means to assist an Irish rebellion.
There are two possibilities at the time of the Flight:
The 400th anniversary of the Flight of the Earls was marked on 14 September 2007, throughout Donegal, including a regatta of tall ships, fireworks, lectures, and conferences. The President of Ireland Mary McAleese unveiled a statue depicting the Flight at Rathmullan. There is a permanent exhibition dedicated to the Flight of the Earls and the subsequent Plantation in Draperstown in Northern Ireland and at the "Flight of the Earls Centre" in the Martello tower at Rathmullan.
In 2008 there were also celebrations to mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Earls in Rome, with a celebratory performance by the Cross Border Orchestra of Ireland in Sant'Ignazio Church in Rome.
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