It is hard to think, looking at the peaceful countryside of modern Donegal, that in days gone by men fought, bled and died on these hills. But the history of Ireland, up until relatively recently, was one of almost constant strife. It was in these times that Iníon Dubh, daughter by name but mother by nature, fought for the children she would ultimately outlive. But to tell her sad story we must begin with the death of her father, James MacDonnell.
In 1565, James MacDonnell, 6th Laird of Dunnyveg, was defeated and captured in the battle of Glentaisie by Shane O’Neill, would-be King of Ulster. Shane had a great desire to head the O’Neill clan, and was a great general but could not unseat the current head. He gained the nickname “Sean an Diomas”, Shane the proud, from his enemies. He had been at one time a great ally of James, and had even been married to James’ daughter Catherine, but he had divorced her in 1560 when the two fell out. Along with James, Shane captured James’ brother, Sorley Boy MacDonnell (Boy coming from the Gaelic Buidhe, meaning blonde) and James’ wife, Agnes Campbell. James soon died of the wounds he had taken in the battle, and Agnes became Shane’s mistress. This was not the first time Shane had made a mistress of a captive’s wife – his current wife Catherine had been the wife of Calvagh O’Donnell, the King of Tyrconnell, when he was captured by Shane. Shane had tortured and tormented Calvagh, but had eventually released him. However his wife had elected to stay with Shane, and had divorced Calvagh to marry him. Agnes too appears to have been enchanted by him. Shane was building a powerbase to become undisputed king of Ulster, but it brought him some unwelcome attention. He was attacked by English troops allied with the O’Donnell clan (known as the Kinel-Connell), and in retaliation he attacked Tyrconnell (as Donegal was known in those days). The battle took place at Farsetmore, near Letterkenny. Unfamiliar with the landscape, the O’Neill armies were drawn across the river Swilly, and then found that the tide had come in and raised the level of the river, cutting off their retreat. The O’Donnells drove them into the sea and a great number of them were drowned. Shane was crushingly defeated and his power was broken, though he somehow managed to escape himself. He attempted to negotiate a new alliance with the MacDonnells, and brought Sorley Boy to a meeting with an army they brought over from Scotland, but the MacDonnells instead turned on Shane and killed him, freeing Sorley Boy. Shane’s death appears to have re-ignited the old alliance between the O’Donnells and the MacDonnells, cousins as they were, and in 1570 the daughter of James MacDonnell and Agnes Campbell was sent from the court of the Stuarts to Donegal to marry Hugh McManus O’Donnell, the man who had so crushingly defeated Shane at Farsetmore. Her name was Fionnuala, but she is better known for the nickname her dark hair gave her, a name that she was known by her whole life. Iníon Dubh – the Dark Daughter.
Iníon Dubh brought a force of a hundred Scotsmen to Donegal to serve as her honour guard, eighty of them from the clan Crawford. She bore Hugh McManus O’Donnell eight children, four daughters and four sons. The land was at that time torn by constant battles between the English, who claimed nominal dominion over Ireland, and the Irish nobles, who often balked in obedience to them. Tyrconnell, however, appears to have been mostly peaceful for the first ten years of their marriage. Hugh had several children from his first marriage, but most died relatively young, and only one son, Domhnall Dubh O’Donnell (Black Donal) survived into adulthood. Iníon’s own children appear to have been remarkably healthy for the time, and all eight appear to have survived into adulthood. In 1581, Hugh’s nephew Con persuaded Turlough O’Neill to support him in rebelling against the O’Donnell, and he dealt his uncle a stinging defeat in a battle near Raphoe. Con died the next year, however, and his rebellion came to nothing. In 1583 the O’Neills once again invaded (in retaliation for a raid on Strabane), but this time Hugh drove them back and routed them. In 1585 the British called on all the chiefs of Ireland to come to a parliament in Dublin, so Hugh and Turlough set aside their differences and both journeyed to the capital. With Hugh went his thirteen year old son, who was also named Hugh. For his red hair, and to distinguish him from his father, he was known as Hugh Rua, Red Hugh. Two years later, Hugh Rua would return to Dublin in chains, and it is there that our story truly begins.
Turlough O’Neill had been stoking the English with tales of the rebelliousness of the O’Donnells (as well as that of his cousin Hugh O’Neill, and the risk of the two allying as Hugh McManus’s daughter Joan was married to Hugh O’Neill). At the time, a common tactic among the English was to take the sons of Irish nobles as prisoners and hold them in Dublin Castle, there to execute them if their kin became unruly, or if they felt it advantageous to drive them to open rebellion so they could be crushed. Donegal was far from their centre of power, however, so they decided on a ruse. They loaded a ship with beer and wine and sailed it up the coast to Lough Swilly, putting in to harbour near Rathmullan. There they began to act as merchants selling the wine and beer, drawing in the young Hugh Rua. When he arrived, they told him they had no beer or wine left to sell, but they had a personal store on their ship that they would share with him. As soon as Hugh boarded, however, they captured him and threw him in the hold before immediately departing. The O’Donnells had no boats to pursue them with and so the boat was able to sail back around the coast to Dublin, where Red Hugh was imprisoned.
Iníon Dubh, of course, was not the type of woman to take the imprisonment of her favourite son lying down. To give a measure of the woman, the following year in 1588 Hugh O’Gallagher, one of Turlough O’Neill’s allies who had killed her brother Alexander MacDonnell, rode past her castle at Mongavlin one day. Iníon Dubh immediately roused her Scottish honour guard and led them out in ambush against him. Hugh, who had not expected any threat from a castle commanded by a woman, was caught by surprise and slain. Iníon would need her strength, as her husband Hugh McManus O’Donnell was beginning to succumb to senility. Seeing the weakness of his father his eldest son (from his first wife), Domhnall Dubh O’Donnell, attempted to depose him. In response to this (and with Hugh McManus himself incapable) Iníon Dubh personally assembled his armies to face Domhnall in the field, calling upon her Scottish connections to bring in a large contingent of Scotsmen to bolster her forces. This was to prove a decisive advantage when the two armies met at Kilcar, as the skill of the Scotsmen with the bow inflicted heavy losses on Domhnall’s forces, and he himself was slain at Derrylahan.
While Iníon Dubh was defending his birthright, Hugh Rua himself was not idle. Within his prison of Dublin Castle he recruited a number of others who also looked to escape, and they formulated a plan. First they stole or fashioned a rope, and used it to escape from the castle they were imprisoned in during the early evening, before they were confined to their cells. They then, before fleeing, went around to the gates of the castle (which were kept locked), and wedged their chains with a piece of timber such that they could not be opened from the inside. This gave them a good head-start on their pursuit and they fled to the forest, where a confederate of Hugh’s met them “with two well-tempered swords”, one of which Hugh kept for himself and the other he gave to another prisoner, a renowned warrior of Leinster named Art Kavanagh. By the time the guards noticed the escape and then got past the gate the prisoners had made it over the mountain of Sliabh Rua and away. Hugh, however, fell lame as his prison shoes came apart and his foot was wounded by thorns, and his companions were forced to abandon him. Hugh appealed to a local named Felim O’Toole who had been a friend of his, but since it was clear that Hugh could not be concealed O’Toole instead turned him over to the authorities. The other prisoners were not recaptured, but Hugh was returned to the prison where he was hereafter kept manacled to prevent a repeat of his escape attempt.
Mere manacles, however, were clearly not going to keep Hugh Rua down. Two years later, in 1592, he and two of his fellow prisoners, Henry and Art O’Neill, managed to overpower their guards and get their chains off. They had once again managed to get hold of a rope, but rather than go out this window this time they escaped by lowering themselves down the privy and into the trench that surrounded the castle. Clearly Hugh Rua was a man of extreme courage. They met a confederate who had supplies, and the four of them retraced the route of Hugh’s previous escape over Sliabh Rua. The crossing was much harder, as this was in the depths of winter, and in the night Henry was separated from them and lost. The next day Art’s strength began to give out, forcing Hugh and the unnamed confederate to support him. Making it over the mountain, Hugh sent the servant to contact a local lord who was in rebellion against the English, and he rescued them, although Art did not recover from the strain of the escape and died. Hugh Rua made contact with Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone and his sister’s husband, who sent down a messenger (reading between the lines of the annals, a spy) to escort the young O’Donnell home. They gradually made their way up the country, staying with friends and occasionally sneaking past English patrols, until he made it back to Donegal.
Donegal in 1592 was in a pretty sorry state. Despite Iníon’s best efforts, the English were harrying the south of the county and had seized the town of Donegal, driving out the monks and making the monastery their base. (It should be pointed out this was not officially an invasion, but rather the leader of the English, Captain Willis, had been declared “royal sheriff” of the northwest – part of the ongoing attempt to assert English control over the unruly and independent Irish chieftains.) The arrival of the young heir escaped from captivity, however, was exactly the sort of thing to rally the dispirited Kinel-Connell. Hugh Rua led the armies to drive the English out of Donegal, and the monks were able to return to their monastery. He then returned to Ballyshannon where he was treated for injuries to his feet, which appear to have come from his escape, and he lost both his big toes. In the spring, however, he called an assembly of the O’Donnell clan in Barnesmore Gap. There his father elected to give up his rule, (such as it was), and, Iníon Dubh having paid off the only other serious candidate (a cousin named Niall Garve O’Donnell) Hugh Rua (who was was this time only 20 years of age) was declared head of the O’Donnell clan and King of Tyrconnell.
Hugh Rua would lead the Kinel-Connell for ten years, spending most of it in war with the English. His expulsion of the royal sheriff was seen as an overt act of rebellion, and sparked what became known as the Nine Years War, the largest conflict fought by the English in the Elizabethan era. He and Hugh O’Neill became the leaders of the Irish side in the rebellion (Hugh Rua having put military pressure on Turlough O’Neill to force him to abdicate leadership of the O’Neill clan). The two of them conquered most of the northwest of Ireland, but in the end they could not stand up to the superior military might of Queen Elizabeth’s army once it was brought to bear upon them. In a last desperate attempt in 1602 they made a deal with Spain, who landed a force at Kinsale. They managed to link up with the rebels, but were defeated by the English army led by Lord Mountjoy. Hugh Rua fled to Spain, and though he attempted to organise a new invasion, he died in 1602 before it could come to pass. Coded letters between Mountjoy and Sir George Carew, deciphered using modern techniques, make it clear that Hugh Rua was poisoned by one of their agents acting at their order. So died the last King of the Kinel-Connell.
With Hugh’s departure, his former rival Niall Garve O’Donnell (who had sided with the English in the war) attempted to take the leadership of the O’Donnell clan, but was opposed by Hugh’s brother (and the last surviving son of Hugh McManus) Rory. The dispute was taken to the court of James I, who decided in favour of Rory and granted him an English title as the 1st Earl of Tyrconnell. There was a great deal of resentment in England over the pardons that he and Hugh O’Neill received for their part in the Nine Years War, however, and in 1607 they discovered that an order had been issued for their arrest. In what has become famous as “The Flight of the Earls”, they fled from Ireland to Flanders, the last two Irish nobles leaving their country behind. Rory would die the next year, leaving Iníon Dubh to outlive her sons.
She retired to obscurity, and her last known action was to arrange a suitable fate for Niall Garve O’Donnell, who not only had challenged her son Rory, but who attempted (unsuccessfully) to take her castle at Mongavlin for his own. In an ironic twist, she framed him for treason and had him taken to the Tower of London, where he was imprisoned until his death. Perhaps this little bit of final revenge gave her some comfort. She was the last Queen of Tyrconnell, the dark daughter who came across the water, and though all her plots for her sons came to naught still she left an impression on history that few women of the day could boast.