Open main menu


O'NEILL, CON BACACH, i.e. Claudus or the Lame, first Earl of Tyrone (1484?–1559?), grandson of Henry O'Neill, lord of Tyrone (d. 1489) [q. v.], and youngest son of Con O'Neill and Alice, daughter of Gerald Fitzgerald, eighth earl of Kildare [q.v.], was born about 1484, and succeeded nis elder brother, Art Oge O'Neill, as chief of Tyrone in 1519. His connection with the house of Kildare rendered him naturally hostile to Henry's policy of anglicising Ireland, and immediately on the arrival of the Earl of Surrey in 1520 he invaded the English Pale. His attempt to obstruct Surrey's government was not, however, very successful, owing to the hostility of Hugh 'Black' O'Donnell, and the support which the Earl of Ormonde rendered to the viceroy, and before long he submitted. In the hope of retaining him in his obedience, Henry sent him 'a collar of gold of our livery,' and authorised Surrey to make him a knight, and, if possible, to induce him to repair to England. In the foUowingyear he consented to accompany the viceroy against O'Melaghlin, but was compelled, much to Surrey's annoyance, to return to defend his own country against O'Donnell, with whom his strife was incessant. He retaliated in 1522 by invading Tyrconnel, and was successful in capturing Ballyshannon, Bundrowes, and Belleek; but in a pitched battle at Knockavoe, near Strabane, he was utterly defeated by O'Donnell. In 1524 Kildare succeeded Ormonde as viceroy , and at his installation O'Neill carried the sword of state before him. In 1528, during Kildare's detention in England, O'Neill and Brian O'Connor [q. v.] did their utmost, acting on Kildare's instructions, to obstruct the government of the Earl of Ormonde. Some stronger hand than Ormonde's was needed to suppress them, and in 1530 the deputyship was transferred to Sir William Skeffington [q. v.]

The restoration of Kildare, and his substitution for Skeffington in August 1532, established things on their old footing, and complaints were soon rife that O'Neill was allowed to plunder the Pale at his pleasure. He supported the rebellion of 'Silken Thomas,' but, after the capture of Maynooth, submitted to Skef&ngton at Drogheda on 26 July 1535. He renewed his submission to Lord Leonard Grey in the following year ; but the deputy, though he found him 'very tractable in word,' could not, without employing force, ' whereunto time serveth not,' persuade him to put in hostages for his loyalty. The result was that next year (1537) O'Neill attacked Ardglass. Orey wished to retaliate by invading Tyrone, but he was overruled by the council, and commissioners were sent to treat with O'Neill, who found him 'very reasonable,' but obstinate in his refusal to give hostages for his loyalty. He renewed his assurances of loyalty in the following year, but early in 1539 he concluded an alliance with Manus O'Donnell [q. v.] at Donegal, the object of which was supposed to be the restoration of Gerald Fitzgerald, the young heir to the earldom of Kildare. Failing to induce O'Neill to surrender Fitzgerald, Grey invaded Tyrone, and ravaged much of his country. O'Neill and O'Donnell in the autumn invaded the Pale with the greatest army, as some thought, that had ever been seen in Ireland. After burning Navan and Ardee,and accumulating immense booty, they were on their way homewards when they were overtaken and utterly defeated by 'Grey at Ballahoe. In May 1540 O'Neill consented to parley with the lord justice. Sir William Brereton, at the Narrow-water, and promised to obser'e the conditions of the treaty made with Skeffington in 1535. But his agents were at the time in Scotland negotiating for assistance, and there was a plot on foot to inveigle the lord justice to Fore in Westmeath, under pretence of parleying, preparatory to a general attack on the Pale.

The plot was frustrated by Brereton ; but the hollowness of O'Neill's professions was sufficiently apparent, and after vainly endeavouring 'by all honest persuasions to bring him to conformity,' St. Leger determined to prosecute him with fire and sword. He was fortunate to detach O'Donnell and some of his urraghs or vassal chiefs from him, and in September 1541 he invaded Tyrone. O'Neill made an unsuccessful counter-attack on the Pale, and the lord deputy, after destroying 'miche of his comis and butters, whiche is the grete lyvinges of the said Oneil and his followers,' retired. A few weeks later he again invaded Tyrone, and carried off several hundred head of cattle. A third invasion in December brought O'Neill to his knees. He sent letters to St. Leger at Armagh, offering unqualified submission, and promising, as no O'Neill had ever done before, to surrender his son as hostage for his loyalty. It was doubtful if his submission would be accepted, for the propriety of extirpating him and planting his country with English settlers had been seriously mooted. But the difficulties in the way of such a plan were insuperable, and St. Leger thougnt it wise to accept his offer, and ' to beate him, and siche like as he is, with the same rodde that they have often betenyour subjects here ; that is, to promyse theim faier, to wynne tyme, whereby other enterprises more benificiall for your poore subjectes here mought be acheved.' Accordingly O'Neill, having promised to become a loyal subject, to renounce the pope, to attend parliament, to cut down the woods between him and the Pale, and to rebuild the ruined churches in his country, was received to mercy. He renewed his submission to St. Leger on 19 May 1542, attended a parliament at Trim, and shortly afterwards repaired to England, St. Leger lending him two hundred marks ‘rather to adventure the losse thereof, then he should lette to come to your Majestie.’

On 24 Sept. he submitted to Henry at Greenwich, and a week later was created Earl of Tyrone for life, with remainder to his supposed son Mathew, alias Ferdorach O'Neill, alias Kelly, who was created at the same time Baron of Dungannon, with remainder to the eldest son of the Earl of Tyrone for the time being. The expenses of his installation were borne by Henry, who also gave him a gold chain of the value of ‘three score pounds and odde,’ and one hundred marks in ready money. Subsequently, on 7 May 1543, Tyrone was admitted a privy councillor of Ireland, and on 9 July received a grant of lands in Dublin for his maintenance during his attendance on parliament. His submission produced a profound sensation in Ireland, and St. Leger was in hopes that, if the arrangement could only be continued for two generations, the country would be for ever reformed. It was afterwards urged by Tyrone's eldest legitimate son, Shane, that, in surrendering his lands and consenting to hold them by English tenure, Tyrone exceeded his rights as chief of his clan; and it was doubtless true that, in theory at least, an Irish chief possessed merely a life interest in the lands of his tribe. But it pleased Shane to forget that the arrangement was one established at the point of the sword, and that Tyrone's submission implied the submission likewise not only of his immediate followers, but of his urraghs as well. It was not here that the real difficulty lay, but in the attempt to substitute succession by primogeniture for that by tanistry, and in the unfortunate accident that led to the choice of Mathew as Tyrone's heir. Still, his acceptance of an English title did unquestionably impair Tyrone's authority. It was felt to be a degradation, and it only wanted that some ambitious rival, such as ultimately presented himself in Shane O'Neill, should arise to oust him from his position, and restore things to their old footing.

For some time, however, the arrangement worked fairly well, and in 1544 Tyrone furnished ninety kerne to the Irish contingent for service in France. But rumours were rife of intrigues with Rome; the claims of Tyrone over his urraghs led to constant breaches of the peace, and there were not wanting signs that Tyrone himself was growing discontented with his position, to which he was not reconciled by the impolitic behaviour of subordinate officials, like Andrew Brereton, in calling him a traitor. The government fixed its hopes on the Baron of Dungannon, but it was inevitable that as power slipped from Tyrone's grasp, it should fall into the hands of Shane. Still the result was not at first so apparent, and the baron was by no means a despicable rival. One consequence of the struggle was that the country suffered severely. ‘The contre of Tyrone,’ Cusack wrote on 27 Sept. 1551, ‘is brought throughe warre of the Erle and his sonnes (oon of them silves against other) to suche extream myserie as there is not ten plowes in all Tyrone.’ ‘Hundreddis,’ he calculated, ‘this last yere and this somer died in the field throghe famen.’ At the request of the Baron of Dungannon, Tyrone was persuaded to go to Dublin, and an attempt was made to restore the country to some sort of order. But even with the assistance of government, the baron was barely able to hold his own against Shane, and after a year's trial Tyrone was, in December 1552, restored, in the vain hope ‘that quiet and tranquillity would follow, and that the Scots could be the more easily expelled from the northern parts.’ But practically Shane was master of the situation, and in 1557 Tyrone and the Baron of Dungannon were obliged to seek shelter in the Pale. After Shane's defeat by Calvagh O'Donnell [q.v.] , they were restored by the Earl of Sussex; but in 1558 the baron was murdered by Shane's orders, and Tyrone once more fled for safety into the Pale, where, worn out with age and injuries, he died, apparently, in 1559.

Con O'Neill married, first, Mary, a daughter of Hugh Boy O'Neill, lord of Clandeboye, who was mother of Shane [q.v.] ; secondly, a daughter of O'Byrne, by whom he had a son, Niall Riach, the father of Turlough Breaslach. In addition to his putative son Mathew or Ferdorach, he had among other illegitimate children Henry, Con, a priest, and Shane Glade, and two daughters, one of whom was married to Sorley Boy MacDonnell, and the other to Hugh Oge MacMahon, lord of the Dartrie.

[State Papers, Henry VIII (printed); Cal. State Papers, Irel. ed. Hamilton; Cal. Carew MSS.; Ware's Annals; Annals of the Four Masters, ed. O'Donovan; Annals of Loch Cé, ed. Hennessy; Marquis of Kildare's Earls of Kildare; Irish Genealogies, Harl. MS. 1425.]

R. D.