“Red” Hugh O’Donnell (1572-1602) was an Irish chieftain who fought a series of battles against English armies between 1595 and the beginning of 1602 (during the Nine Years’ War which actually ran from 1593 to 1603), one of his less successful opponents being the Earl of Essex. O’Donnell ruled Tir Chonaill in the extreme north-west of Ireland – the modern County Donegal (and, intermittently, also County Sligo). He and Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, were victorious at the 1598 battle of the Yellow Ford, and Red Hugh afterwards won a great victory of his own at Curlew Pass (1599).
Soon after this, however, the tide turned against the Irish confederates, and when reinforcements finally arrived from Spain, they landed at the wrong end of the country. After a decisive defeat at Kinsale on the south coast, Red Hugh sailed to Spain to make a personal plea to the young Philip III for a full Spanish fleet and army to take back with him to turn the tide of their fortunes. King Philip, initially enthusiastic, remained undecided about exactly what help to provide, so in August Red Hugh left the port of La Coruña for another audience with him at the castle of Simancas, twelve miles from Valladolid. However, he arrived gravely ill (possibly poisoned by a Tudor agent), and died at Simancas, having asked in his will to be buried ‘in the church of the monastery of the lord Saint Francis in Valladolid’ (the monastery where Christopher Columbus was also originally buried). He was laid to rest by King Philip with great pomp. Hugh O’Neill and O’Donnell’s brother Rory also sailed to Spain in 1607, bringing an end to Gaelic resistance in Ireland.
Human remains have now been discovered at the site of the monastery and comparisons with Richard III are already being made. The promising-looking large skeleton unfortunately still has the two toes that Red Hugh lost to frostbite, but fourteen other skeletons have also been unearthed in the Chapel of Marvels, any of which might be Red Hugh’s as they are all missing their feet.
It will be interesting to observe whether Red Hugh can be identified and returned to Donegal.
In case anyone is wondering, the ‘Red’ part of Red Hugh’s name refers to his hair colour.
Being half Donegal and part O’Donnell myself, I find the story of the search for Red Hugh every bit as exciting as the dig for Richard III, and there are certain parallels between their two stories. Those who find such parallels interesting can read on; others may wish to stop here.
Both men had October birthdays and died at roughly similar ages leaving no legitimate offspring. Both acquired skeletal idiosyncrasies in their teens. Both participated in two major battle victories. Both might accurately be described as lords of the North. They both came to power through the declared illegitimacy of senior family members (in Red Hugh’s case, his elder half-brothers). They both fought the Tudors and lost (btw, Hugh’s adversary at Curlew Pass was a Clifford, and his centre wing at Kinsale was commanded by a Tyrell).
I’ll leave you with an air supposed to have originated as the younger Red Hugh’s love song to his O’Neill bride: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hzh5uq8rkN0 . (I also used to play it on the tin whistle, but not nearly so well.)
P.P.S. Any readers interested in Red Hugh’s 15th century ancestors, with special emphasis on the Wars of the Roses, should click here.
Darren McGettigan, Red Hugh O’Donnell and the Nine Years’ War, Dublin, 2005
‘The Last Will of Red Hugh O’Donnell’, Ó Domhnaill Abú (O’Donnell Clan Newsletter), No. 16, Summer 1991