Shane Ó Neill: Wikis


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The coat of arms of the Counts of Tyrone.
Séan Mór Ó Néill
Prince of Ulster, Dominus Tyronis
Reign 1559-1567
Coronation 1559, Tullyhogue (Tulach Óg)
Born c.1530
Birthplace Tyrone
Died June 2, 1567
Place of death Cushendun, County Antrim, Ireland
Buried Ballyterrim, Cushendun, Ireland Possibly reburied at Glenarm Abbey
Predecessor Conn Bacach O'Neill
See Earl of Tyrone and Count of Tyrone
Successor Sir Turlough Luineach O'Neill, The O'Neill Mor
Consort Catherine McDonnell (annulled, 1560)
Margaret O'Donnell (A. 1563)
Countess Catherine MacLean of Argyle & Duart (d 1585).
Offspring Conn, Hugh Gaveloch, Art, Shane Og, Hugh McShane O'Neill, Brian Laighneach, Henry, Rose, Turlough, Naill, Edmond
Royal House O'Neill
Father Conn Bacach O'Neill (d. 1559), Provincial King of, then 1st Earl of Tyrone
Mother Alice Fitzgerald dau. of 7th Earl of Kildare

Séan Mór Ó Néill, anglicised Shane Ó Neill (c. 1530 - 2 June 1567), was an Irish chief of the O'Neill clan of Ulster in the mid 16th century. Shane O'Neill's career was marked by his ambition to be The O'Neill - chief of the O'Neills. This brought him into conflict with competing branches of the O'Neill family and with the English government in Ireland, who recognised a rival claim. Shane's support was considered worth gaining by the English even during the lifetime of his father Conn O'Neill, 1st Earl of Tyrone (died 1559). But rejecting overtures from Thomas Radclyffe, 3rd Earl of Sussex, the lord deputy from 1556, Shane refused to help the English against the Scottish settlers on the coast of Antrim, allying himself instead with the MacDonnells, the most powerful of these immigrants.


Feuding Within the O'Neill Lordship

The English, since the late 1530s, had been expanding their control over Ireland, this century long effort is known as the Tudor re-conquest of Ireland. To incorporate the native Irish Lordships, they granted English titles to Irish Lords - thus making Conn Bacach O'Neill, Shane's father, the first Earl of Tyrone. However, whereas in Gaelic custom, the successor to a chiefship was elected from his kinsmen, the English insisted on succession by the first born son or primogeniture. This created a conflict between Shane, who wanted to be Chief and the Earl's elder but illegitimate son, Matthew or Fear Dorcha O'Neill (the Earl's eldest son Phelim Caoch O'Neill was killed on a raid in 1542).

Shane's mother Alice Fitzgerald, Tyrone's first wife, was born the daughter of the 7th Earl of Kildare, and his stepmother was the daughter of Hugh Boy O'Neill of Clanaboy. She died shortly afterwards and Shane was fostered by the Donnelly family, who raised him until his early teenage years. Conn O'Neill's illegitimate son Matthew was chosen to be raised at the English court and declared heir to Conn over Shane. On his father's death, Matthew would become Baron of Dungannon. However, he was murdered by Shane before their father died, and the title thus passed to Brian, Matthew's son, who was then also murdered by Shane. In 1562, the title passed to Matthew's youngest son Hugh O'Neill who had been taken to safety in the Pale by Sir Henry Sidney in 1559, stayed at the English court and was protected there while Shane established his supremacy in Ulster.

Having eliminated his rivals, Shane had himself elected The O'Neill. While in English law this was an illegal usurpation, according to Gaelic Irish custom, Shane had just as good a claim to be The O'Neill as any of his rivals.

Relationship with the English

Although Shane had allied himself with the Scottish MacDonnell clan, who had settled in Antrim, against the English, Queen Elizabeth I, on succeeding to the English throne in 1558, inclined to come to terms with Shane, who after his father's death functioned as de facto chief of the formidable O'Neill clan. She accordingly agreed to recognise his claims to the chiefship, thus throwing over Brian O'Neill, son of the murdered Matthew, baron of Dungannon, if Shane would submit to her authority and that of her deputy. O'Neill, however, refused to put himself in the power of Sussex without a guarantee for his safety; and his claims in other respects were so exacting, that Elizabeth consented to measures being taken to subdue him and to restore Brian.

An attempt to increase the enmity of the O'Donnells against him was frustrated by Shane's seizure of Calvagh O'Donnell in a monastery some time after O'Neill's invasion of Tír Chonaill became an embarrassing rout of O'Neills forces. Elizabeth, whose prudence and parsimony were averse to so formidable an undertaking as the complete subjugation of the powerful Irish chief, desired peace with him at almost any price; especially when the devastation of his territory by Sussex brought him no nearer to submission. Sussex, indignant at Shane's request for his half-sister Lady Frances Radclyffe's hand in marriage, and his demand for the withdrawal of the English garrison from Armagh, received no support from the Queen, who sent the earl of Kildare to arrange terms with O'Neill. The latter, making some trifling concessions, consented to present himself before Elizabeth.

Accompanied by the Irish Earls of Ormonde and Kildare, he reached London on 4 January 1562. William Camden describes the wonder which O'Neill's wild gallowglasses occasioned in the English capital, with their heads bare, their long hair falling over their shoulders and clipped short in front above the eyes, and clothed in rough yellow shirts. Elizabeth was less concerned with the respective claims of Brian and Shane, the one resting on an English patent and the other on the Gaelic custom, than with the question of policy involved in supporting or rejecting the demands of her proud suppliant. Characteristically, she temporised; but finding that O'Neill was in danger of becoming a tool in the hands of Spanish intriguers, she permitted him to return to Ireland, recognising him as "The O'Neill" and chief of Tyrone; though a reservation was made of the rights of Hugh O'Neill, who had meantime succeeded his brother Brian as baron of Dungannon, Brian having been murdered in April 1562 by his kinsman Turlough Luineach O'Neill. At that time he was even designated the 2nd Earl of Tyrone, but the grant was never delivered, as Shane went back into rebellion.

War in Ulster

There were at this time three powerful contemporary members of the O'Neill family in Ireland - Shane, Sir Turlough and Brian, 1st Baron of Dungannon. Turlough had been elected Tánaiste or tanist (second and successor) when his cousin Shane was inaugurated as The O'Neill, and he schemed to supplant him in the higher dignity during Shane's absence in London. The feud did not long survive Shane's return to Ireland, where he quickly re-established his authority, and in spite of Sussex renewed his warfare against the O'Donnells and the MacDonnells to force them to recognise O'Neill supremacy in Ulster. Elizabeth at last authorised Sussex to take the field against Shane, but two separate expeditions failed to accomplish anything except some depredation in O'Neill's country.

Sussex had tried in 1561 to procure Shane's assassination via poison wine, and Shane now laid the whole blame for his lawless conduct on the lord deputy's repeated alleged attempts on his life. Force having ignominiously failed, Elizabeth consented to treat, and hostilities ceased on terms that gave O'Neill practically all his demands.

O'Neill now turned his hand against the MacDonnells, claiming that he was serving the Queen of England in harrying the Scots. He fought an indecisive battle with Sorley Boy MacDonnell near Coleraine in 1564, and the following year marched from Antrim through the mountains by Clogh to the neighbourhood of Ballycastle, where he routed the MacDonnells at the Battle of Glentasie and took Sorley Boy prisoner.

This victory greatly strengthened Shane O'Neill's position, and Sir Henry Sidney, who became lord deputy in 1565, declared to the earl of Leicester that Lucifer himself was not more puffed up with pride and ambition than O'Neill. Preparations were made in earnest for his subjugation. O'Neill ravaged the Pale, failed in an attempt on Dundalk, made a truce with the MacDonnells, and sought help from the Earl of Desmond. The English, on the other hand, invaded Donegal and restored O'Donnell.


As was the custom of the day, marriages were normally arranged for political alliances. If the alliance fell apart, then the husband could send the wife back to her father in a political type divorce. Such was the case in more than one of Shane's marriages. His first wife was Catherine, the daughter of James MacDonald (McDonnell in Irish), Earl of the Isles. He divorced her, and treated his second wife, Mary, a daughter of Calvagh O'Donnell, with cruelty in revenge for her brother's hostility. She soon died when Shane captured and imprisoned her father who was his enemy. Calvagh was married to Catherine MacLean Campbell, the dowager Countess of Argyle and daughter of Hector Mór MacLean of Clan MacLean and the Scottish island of Duart and former wife of Archibald Campbell, 4th Earl of Argyll. Shane kept Calvagh imprisoned at Dungannon for years. In that time, he took Calvagh's wife as a mistress. Upon Calvagh's negotiated release, Catherine decided to stay with the much younger Shane. Her father came to Ireland and blessed the marriage between the two in 1563. During his time in London, he asked Queen Elizabeth to find him a "proper English wife". Toward the end of his life, as Shane was trying to negotiate a settlement, he agreed to send Catherine MacLean back to her father and marry the widow of James MacDonald, who was also the base sister of the Earl of Argyle. He did not end the marriage with Countess MacLean, as she was with him at his death in Antrim. Catherine and her children fled into the nearby forest of Glenconkeyne and were protected by the O'Neill clan therein. She eventually made her way to safety at the Castle of Duart where her brother put the youngest of Shane's children into his care. Catherine MacLean, Countess Campbell, then Lady O'Donnell, then Princess O'Neill eventually married a minister of the Scottish throne and died in Scotland.

The Sons of Shane - The Mac Shanes

Shane had at least ten sons by his various wives. All of these ten are considered legitimate, but there may be others of a base origin. Many of them were later fostered in various O'Neill clans after their father's death, and eventually became the rival force to Hugh O'Neill in his climb to power in the 1580-1600 timeframe. His known sons are:

  • Shane Og, mother was Catherine MacDonnell. He died in 1581 on a raid, was O'Neill tanist in 1579.
  • Henry, mother was Catherine MacDonnell, died 1622. Father of Sir Henry O'Neill and perhaps the most famous of Shane's sons. Possessed a large grant of land.
  • Conn, died in 1630. Mother was Catherine MacDonnell. Was Tanist of The O'Neill in the 1580s. Played a part in Ulster politics until his death in 1631.
  • Turlough, mother was Catherine MacDonnell of the Route. Died 1598.
  • Hugh Gaveloch, died in 1590, most popular of the Mac Shanes. Led an army of Scots to invade Ulster to claim O'Neill Mór title. Retired and was captured and hung by his 1st cousin, the Earl of Tyrone.
  • Naill, mother thought to have been Catherine O'Donnell.
  • Art, mother was Catherine MacLean, died escaping from Dublin Castle with Red Hugh O'Donnell.
  • Brian Laighneach, mother was Catherine MacLean, died after 1598.
  • Edmond, died fighting against his cousin Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone.
  • Hugh McShane O'Neill, mother was Catherine MacLean, died in 1621. Became Chief of the O'Neill sept inside Glenconkeyne forest and known from that point on as the "MacShanes".
  • Cormac, mother was Catherine MacLean, died after 1603. Stayed with brother Hugh MacShane as did his son Cormac Boy.
  • Rose married into the MacDonnell clan.

Defeat and Death

Failing in an attempt to arrange terms, and also in obtaining the help which he solicited from France, O'Neill was utterly routed by the O'Donnells again at the battle of Farsetmore near Letterkenny; and seeking safety in flight, he threw himself on the mercy of his enemies, the MacDonnells. Attended by a small body of gallowglass, and taking his prisoner Sorley Boy with him, he presented himself among the MacDonnells near Cushendun, on the Antrim coast. Here, on 2 June 1567, whether by premeditated treachery or in a sudden brawl, he was slain by the MacDonnells, and was buried at CrossSkern Church at Ballyterrim above Cushendun. His headless body was possibly later moved to Glenarm Abbey. William Piers, Senechal of Clandeboye and commander of the English garrison at Carrickfergus, travelled to Cushendun to take Shane's head and send it to Dublin Castle as proof of his death.

In his private character Shane O'Neill was perceived by the English as a brutal, uneducated savage. However, Irish history is often written by English historians. Shane was tough, but a brilliant politician and fighter at times. Calvagh himself, when Shane's prisoner, claimed he was subjected to continual torture. Calvagh's wife became his mistress. He married her in 1563 and had several children by her. He frustrated the English to no end with his ability to defeat them in the field and then again at Court. His death was greeted with great pleasure in London.

Shane was succeeded as The O'Neill by his tanist, Turlough Luineach O'Neill who was married to Agnes Campbell a natural daughter of Archibald Campbell, 4th Earl of Argyll. Shane had many sons, who were known as the "Mac Shanes" - or Irish for the sons of the Shane. Two became tanists to Turlough Luineach in his attempts to neutralise Hugh, Earl of Tyrone. The Bishop of Clogher, Miler Magarth, claimed 'the people[ of Ulster] adhere to the MacShanes whom they consider the true branch of Conn Bacach's line,' but with Hugh's Hugh O'Neill, 2nd Earl of Tyrone, entering into open rebellion in the Nine Years War they were forced to side with the Dublin administration and their local support withered.


There is a Gaelic Football Club made in his honour, Shane O'Neill's G.F.C. It is situated in the centre of Camlough village and has over one hundred members. Shane O'Neill's hurling club was the first official GAA club in Glenarm founded in 1903 using land donated by the Gibson family of the Libbert, Glenarm. Arthur and Dan Gibson went on to represent County Antrim.


  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
  • Calendar of the State Papers of Ireland, 1509-1573, pg.172,178, 230, 296, 444,
  • Calendar of the State Papers of Ireland for King James I, 1615. pg. 77, 41-42.
  • Calendar of the State Papers of Scotland, 1547-1603. Vol. I & II pg. 203, 677-678
  • Duiche O'Neill, Journal of the O'Neill Country Historical Society. Vol. 11 & 13.
  • The Ancient and Royal Family of O'Neill, by Desmond O'Neill
  • Conspiracy, by Raymond Gillespie. pg. 18.
  • The Great O'Neill, by E. Boyd Barret
  • A Military History of Ireland, by Bartlett & Jeffery. pg. 136-138, 143, 145-146


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