Séan Ó Néill

For other people named Shane O'Neill, see Shane O'Neill (disambiguation).
Seán Donnghaileach Mac Cuinn Bhacaigh Ó Néill
Prince of Ulster, Dominus Tyronis
Dux Hibernicorum
Reign 1559–1567
Coronation 1559, Tullyhogue (Tulach Óg)
Predecessor Conn Bacach Ó Néill
Successor Sir Turlough Luineach O'Neill, The O'Neill Mor
Born c.1530
Died 2 June 1567(1567-06-02)
Modern-day Cushendun, County Antrim, Northern Ireland
Burial Ballyterrim, Cushendun, Northern Ireland. Possibly reburied at Glenarm Abbey
Spouse Catherine McDonnell (annulled, 1560)
Margaret O'Donnell (died c. 1563)
Countess Catherine MacLean, daughter of Hector Mor Maclean, 12th Chief (died 1585).
Issue Conn, Hugh Gaveloch, Art, Seán Óg, Hugh McShane O'Neill, Brian Laighneach, Henry, Rose, Turlough, Níall, Edmond
House O'Neill
Father Conn Bacach Ó Néill (d. 1559), King of, then 1st Earl of Tyrone
Mother Alice Fitzgerald dau. of 8th Earl of Kildare

Séan Ó Néill (Shane O'Neill in English) c. 1530 – 2 June 1567, known as Seán Donnghaileach Mac Cuinn Bhacaigh Ó Néill (and in English sources as 'Séan an Díomáis'/'Shane the Proud') , was an Irish king of the Ó Néill of Ulster in the mid 16th century. Séan Ó Néill's career was marked by his ambition to be the Ó Néill – sovereign of the dominant Ó Néill Mór family of Tír Eoghain—and thus head overking or ruirech of the entire province. This brought him into conflict with competing branches of the Ó Néill family and with the English government in Ireland, who recognised a rival claim. Séan'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 Ó Néill lordship

The English, since the late 1530s, had been expanding their control over Ireland, this century-long effort is known as the Tudor conquest of Ireland. To incorporate the native Irish lordships, they granted English titles to Irish lords – thus making Conn Bacach Ó Néill, Séan's father, the first Earl of Tyrone. However, whereas in Gaelic custom the successor to a lordship was elected from his kinsmen in the system of Tanistry, the English insisted on succession by the first-born son or primogeniture. This created a conflict between Séan, who considered it his natural right to be head of his clan and an "affiliated son" or adoptee[1] of his father Conn Bacach, Matthew O'Neill or Fear Dorcha who was 'conveniently mistaken' as the offspring of Conn when he travelled to London in 1542 to be invested with the Earldom of Tyrone. Feardorcha had accompanied Conn's entourage as the Earl's eldest son Phelim Caoch O'Neill had been killed by his enemy Gillespic MacDonnell[2] during a raid in Ulster shortly before Conn's inauguration visit. Gillespic MacDonnell's family were noted as committed adherents of Feardorcha and his descendents.

Séan's mother Lady Alice Fitzgerald, Tyrone's first wife, was the daughter of Gerald FitzGerald, 8th Earl of Kildare, and his stepmother was the daughter of Hugh Buidhe O'Neill of Clandeboy. She died while Séan was young and Séan, following Gaelic custom, was fostered by the Donnelly (Ó Donnaile) family, who raised him until his early teenage years. During his trip to the English court to receive the title of earl of Tyrone, Séan's father Conn 'Bacach' (Limping), who had just lost his eldest son and was in open conflict his surviving sons, was accompanied by the fosterling Feardorcha (translated into English as 'Matthew'), a youth who, until he was sixteen had been acknowledged as the son of a Dundalk blacksmith.[3] Feardorcha's mother Alison Kelly was Conn Bacach's lover.

When Conn was created earl of Tyrone, Feardorcha was declared to be Conn's heir in English law, disinheriting all of Conn's surviving sons, including Séan. Under English law, Feardorcha, titled Baron of Dungannon from Conn's principal house in Tyrone, was intended to succeed him as 2nd Earl of Tyrone. However, Feardorcha was ambushed and killed by Séan's foster brothers, the Ó Donnaile, in 1558, some months before the death of Conn Bacach, and the claim to the earldom passed to Brian, Feardorcha's eldest son, who was later killed in 1562 in a skirmish with Turlough Luineach.

The claim to the earldom now passed to Feardorcha's next son Hugh O'Neill who had been removed to the Pale by Sir Henry Sidney in 1559 and was brought up there while Shane established his supremacy in Ulster.

Becoming the Ó Néill

Séan was inaugurated as the Ó Néill. In English law this was an illegal usurpation of the rulership of Ulster. But according to Gaelic Irish law (derbfine), Séan had every claim to be chief of the name. The case for Feardorcha's disqualifying status under both English and Irish law, as an affiliated member of the family rather than as an actual son of Conn Bacach,[4] was carefully stated by Shane when he made his own claim to the title of Earl of Tyrone both before and during his visit to Queen Elizabeth in 1562,[5] and restated in some detail by the English authorities when Hugh O'Neill was outlawed during the Nine Years War.

Relationship with the English

Even though the Ó Néill had allied himself against the English with the Scottish MacDonnell clan, who had settled in Antrim, Queen Elizabeth I, on succeeding to the English throne in 1558, was inclined to come to terms with the Ó Néill, who after his father's death functioned as de facto head of the dynasty. She accordingly agreed to recognise his claims to the lordship, throwing over Brian Ó Néill, son of the assassinated Feardorcha, Baron of Dungannon, if the Ó Néill would submit to her authority and that of her deputy. Ó Néill refused to put himself in the power of Sussex without a guarantee for his safety; and so Elizabeth decided to establish Brian in his place.

An attempt by Sussex to increase the enmity of the O'Donnells against the Ó Néill was frustrated by his seizure of Calvagh O'Donnell in a monastery. Elizabeth, whose prudence and parsimony were averse to so formidable an undertaking as the complete subjugation of the powerful Ó Néill, desired peace with him at almost any price. Elizabeth's faith in Sussex's aggressive strategy diminished when the repeated annual devastations of Ó Néill's territory by the Lord Deputy with sizeable and expensive armies failed to bring him to submission.

The Ó Néill destroyed the greater part of Sussex's invasion army at the Battle of the Red Sagums, 18 July 1561, while Sussex was deep in Ó Néill-controlled territory garrisoning Armagh with a small body of men. Afterwards Elizabeth sent the Earl of Kildare to arrange terms with the Ó Néill, who was demanding a complete withdrawal of the English from his territory. Unable to succeed against Ó Néill in battle, Sussex tried in 1561 to assassinate him using poisoned wine. The Ó Néill now called the lord deputy to account for his unnatural enmity, as displayed in this most recent of many attempts on his life.

Elizabeth consented to treat, and hostilities ceased on terms that gave the Ó Néill practically all his demands. The Ó Néill offered some concessions, most significantly consenting to present himself before Elizabeth in London to argue his case against Sussex and the Baron of Dungannon in person. The Ó Néill requested the hand of Sussex's half-sister Lady Frances Radclyffe in marriage as an earnest of future friendship.

Accompanied by the Earls of Ormonde and Kildare as surety for his safety, the Ó Néill reached London on 4 January 1562. William Camden describes the wonder which his 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 saffron-dyed shirts of fine linen.

Elizabeth was less concerned with the respective claims of Séan Ó Néill and the Baron of Dungannon, the former resting on Gaelic law, the latter on an English patent, than with the question of policy involved. Characteristically, she temporised; but fearing that Séan could become a tool of Spanish intriguers, she permitted him to return to Ireland, recognising him as The Ó Néill. (Elizabeth's recognition of his claim to the title The Ó Néill was meaningless, except symbolically, as she had no authority to confirm a title conferred under Brehon law.)

During this visit Séan's legal claim to his father Conn Bacach's earldom was verbally confirmed and Séan was led to believe that he would be recognised as the 2nd Earl of Tyrone, though some reservation was made of the possible future rights of Hugh O'Neill, who had succeeded his brother Brian as Baron of Dungannon. Brian had been killed in a skirmish in April 1562 by Séan's Tanaiste, Turlough Luineach O'Neill.

However, confirmation of the grant of the earldom was never delivered, and the Ó Néill was compelled to defend his hegemony in Ulster when his onetime supporter Sir Henry Sidney was appointed Lord Deputy and resurrected Sussex's policy of undermining the Ó Néill's authority.

War in Ulster

There were at this time three powerful contemporary members of the Ó Néill dynasty in Ireland – Séan Ó Néill himself, Sir Turlough and Brian, 1st Baron of Dungannon. Turlough had been elected Tánaiste or Tanist (second-in-command and successor) when Séan was inaugurated as the Ó Néill, and hoping to supplant him. During Séan's absence in London, Turlough assassinated his principal rival, Feardorcha's eldest son Brian, during the Ó Néill's absence when rumours of his imprisonment began to circulate. On return to Ireland, the Ó Néill quickly re-established his authority, and, in spite of Sussex's protestations, renewed his battle with the O'Donnells and the MacDonnells to force them to recognise Ó Néill hegemony in Ulster.

In turning his hand against the MacDonnells, Séan Ó Néill claimed that he was serving the Queen of England in harrying the Scots. He fought an indecisive battle with Sorley Boy MacDonnell, which is to say Somhairle Buidhe ('Yellow-haired Sorley') near Coleraine in 1564, and the following Easter hosted his entire army at Feadan above Newry.

Marching north at unprecedented speed, the Ó Néill surprised the MacDonnells, who had expected him to intervene against an incursion by James MacDonnell of Dunnyveg's own household troops who had landed in Lecale. While James MacDonnell of Dunnyveg and his brothers rapidly assembled an army in Scotland, the Ó Néill defeated Somhairle Buidhe MacDonnell's local levies at Knockboy above Broughshane, crossed the Antrim mountains by way of Clogh and after burning James's new castle at Redbay, pursued the remains of Somhairle's army and the recently landed army under James to the neighbourhood of Ballycastle, where he routed the MacDonnells at the Battle of Glentasie and took Somhairle Buidhe and his badly wounded brother James prisoner.

This victory greatly strengthened Séan Ó Néill'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". The Ó Néill 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 invaded Donegal and restored O'Donnell.


The custom amongst the nobility of sixteenth-century Ireland was for marriage to be undertaken to cement political alliances between powerful or enemy families. If the alliance fell apart, the wife could return to her father in a form of political divorce. All Séan's marriages were of this type. His first wife was Catherine, the daughter of James MacDonald of Dunnyveg, Lord of the Isles. The Ó Néill married Catherine while the MacDonnells were providing him with military support during the 1550s to contest the Lordship of Tyrone with his father Conn Bacach, at the time The O'Neill.

The Ó Néill divorced Catherine to forge an alliance with the O'Donnells of Tyrconnell. He married Mary, a daughter of the Lord of Tyrconnell, Calvagh O'Donnell. Mary's brother's open hostility to the alliance led to the Ó Néill rejecting Mary, whom he is said to have treated with studied cruelty in revenge. In the ensuing conflict, the Ó Néill captured and imprisoned her father Calvagh O'Donnell.

Calvagh was married to Catherine, the dowager Countess of Argyle and daughter of Hector Mór MacLean of Clan MacLean and the Scottish island of Duart. Catherine was also the former wife of Archibald Campbell, 4th Earl of Argyll, whose favour could ensure Shane a ready supply of Highland "redshank" mercenaries. Séan kept Calvagh imprisoned at Benburb and his island stronghold of Fuath na nGall on the shore of Lough Neagh for many years. During Calvagh O'Donnell's imprisonment, this Catherine willingly became the Ó Néill's lover. Upon Calvagh's eventual negotiated release, Catherine refused to accompany him, electing to stay with Séan. Her father, Hector Mór MacLean, came to Ireland and blessed her marriage with the Ó Néill in 1563.

During the Ó Néill's visit to London in 1563, he requested that Queen Elizabeth should find him a "proper English wife". This may have been a facetious request, however.

Between May and June 1567, while the Ó Néill was attempting to negotiate a military alliance with the MacDonnells in the wake of his catastrophic defeat at battle of Farsetmore, he discussed the possibility of divorcing Catherine MacLean to marry his current lover, Agnes Campbell, widow of James MacDonald; the Ó Néill had captured her with her husband at the Battle of Glentasie in 1565. Agnes was the illegitimate sister of Catherine's earlier husband, the Earl of Argyll.

The Ó Néill was, however, still married to Catherine on 2 June 1567, the day of his assassination at Castle Cara, Cushendun, at the hands of a MacDonnell group with whom he was negotiating possible military aid. Catherine and her children had accompanied the Ó Néill and his entourage to the MacDonnell camp at Castle Cara below Ballyterrim, and after his assassination they fled across the river Bann to the forest of Glenconkeyne, where they were protected by a lord of the Clandeboye O'Neills. Catherine made her way to safety at Duart Castle, where her brother fostered the youngest of Shane's children, those who had been born to his sister, while offering protection to the other MacShanes.

Descendants: the Mac Shanes

Shane had at least ten sons by his wives, as well as possible other offshoots. Many of them were fostered in Ó Néill relations and vassals after their father's death, and they became the rival force to Hugh O'Neill in his climb to power in the 1580–1600 time frame.

His known children were:

Defeat and death

Failing in an attempt to arrange terms, and also in obtaining the help which he solicited from France, the Ó Néill 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, he was killed by the MacDonnells, and his headless body was buried at CrossSkern Church at Ballyterrim above Cushendun. His body was possibly later moved to Glenarm Abbey. William Piers, Seneschal of Clandeboye and commander of the English garrison at Carrickfergus, travelled to Cushendun to take Shane's head and send it to Dublin Castle.

In his private character Séan Ó Néill was presented by the English as a brutal, uneducated savage. However, Irish history is often written by English historians. The Ó Néill had talent as a politician and tactician. Calvagh O'Donnell, when Séan's prisoner, claimed he was subjected to continual torture. However, Calvagh's wife, Catherine, the dowager Countess of Argyle, became his lover; Séan married her in 1563 and had several children by her. He frustrated his English opponents with his ability to defeat them in the field and then again at court. His death was greeted with delight by his enemies in London.

Séan was succeeded as the Ó Néill by his Tánaiste, Turlough Luineach O'Neill who married Séan's lover, Agnes Campbell, a natural daughter of Archibald Campbell, 4th Earl of Argyll some months after the assassination. Two of his sons became tanists to Turlough Luineach in his attempts to neutralise Hugh, Earl of Tyrone. The Bishop of Clogher, Miler Magrath, said "the people[ of Ulster] adhere to the MacShanes, whom they consider the true branch of Conn Bacach's line", but with their arch-enemy Hugh O'Neill, 2nd Earl of Tyrone, entering into warfare with the outbreak of the Nine Years' War the MacShanes were compelled to support Hugh's enemy, the Dublin administration, and their support in Tyrone withered.

'Séan an díomáis' or 'Seán Donnghaileach'

Although known throughout history as Séan an Díomáis, or 'Shane the Proud', this was an abusive nickname developed in the writings of hostile sources such as The Annals of the Four Masters, whose authors had as patrons the Ó Néill's enemies the O'Donnell lords of Tyrconnell.

The name, usually translated as Shane the Proud, in the word, díomás, contains the extra meaning of an irrational vanity and overbearing narcissism rather than any natural pride in the subject's self and abilities. It was a convenient epithet for his detractors, and the myth of the Ó Néill's devilish pride was a convenience for later English historians wishing to explain why such effort should have been expended to destroy him and his reputation.

Where any additional name is added to the Ó Néill in contemporary political correspondence, anglicisations of Donnghaileach such as Donnolloh are used.[6]

Notably, the first Irish historian to compose a non-Gaelic full length history of Ireland, Abbé Jaques McGeoghegan, in his Histoire de l'Irlande Ancienne et Moderne, notably uses "John, or Shane Doulenagh O'Neil",[7] where English historians to that date have consistently used "Shane the Proud".

Séan Ó Néill should more accurately be known by the name that would have been used by his contemporaries, Seán Donnghaileach Mac Cuinn Bhacaigh Ó Néill. Donnghaileach refers to his fosterage among the Donnellys, and may be compared to similar usage in the formulation of the name of his successor Turlough Luineach mac Néill Chonnalaigh Ó Néill, where Luineach refers to his fosterage amongst the O'Lunney (Ó Lúinígh) family of the Glenelly Valley, in the Sperrins. Thus, "Seán 'Donnelly', son of Conn the Maimed O'Neill", and "Turlough 'O'Lunney', son of Neill Connallach O'Neill" (Turlough's father's own name and nickname would be "'Neill of Cénell Conaill') O'Neill".

Cultural recognition

Antrim GAA has a Gaelic football club named in his honour, Shane O'Neill's GFC, founded by the solicitor and antiquarian Francis Joseph Bigger. It is situated in the outskirts of Glenarm village in Feystown and has over 100 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. There is also a Shane O'Neill's GAC in Camloch, County Armagh.

A cairn was raised at his reputed burial place above Cushendun by the antiquarian Francis Joseph Bigger in 1908 and yearly commemorations held in Shane's honour between that date and 1914. The poet Robinson Jeffers visited the site in 1929 and refers to Shane's Cairn in several poems in the sequence Decent to the Dead, inspired by his pilgrimage to Ireland.[8]


  1. Morgan, Hiram Tyrone's Rebellion (1993) pp. 86–7. The genealogy of the O'Neills that Hiram Morgan has prepared notes Matthew as "affiliated".
  2. Donald M. Schlegel, "The MacDonnells of Tyrone and Armagh: A Genealogical Study", Seanchas Ardmhacha, vol. 10, no. 1 (1980/1981), p. 205
  3. Richard Bagwell, Ireland Under the Tudors, (3 Vols) London, vol ii, pp. 2–4.
  4. Sean Ghall, "An Historical Note on Shane O'Neill", The Catholic Bulletin, vol XIII, April–May 1923, pp. 311–314.
  5. JS Brewer and W Bullen, (eds), Calendar of the Carew Manuscripts Preserved in the Archepiscopal Library at Lambeth, 1515–1624, (6 vols), London, vol. i, pp. 304–8; Ciarán Brady "The Government of Ireland, circa 1540–1583' PhD Trinity college, Dublin, 1981, pp. 153–4, 180–5.
  6. For an example, see: Brewer, JS and William Bullen [ed] Calendar of the Carew Manuscripts preserved at the Archiepiscopal Library at Lambeth, vol i, 1515–1574, Longmans, Green, Reader & Dyer (Lindon, 1867), p. 268
  7. MacGeoghegan, Abbé Jaques, [trans. Patrick Kelly] History of Ireland, Ancient and Modern, Taken from Authentic Records, by the Abbé Mac-Geoghegan, and Dedicated to the Irish Brigade, Duffy, (Dublin 2nd edn. 1844) p. 442.
  8. Spottiswoode, Roland At the Grave of Shane O'Neill, Commemorations at Shane's Cairn Cushendun, 1908–1914" in Dúiche Néill no 18 2010, pp. 9–28.
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