The Memory of the last chief Donnell Ballagh O'Cathain.


               The Memory of  Donnell Ballagh O'Cathain


In the following account I wish to outline why I am investigating Donnell Ballagh O'Cathain and why it is important that we remember him.


I joined the O'Neill Summer school in Ireland in September 2007 to remember the Earls (O'Neill of Tyrone, O'Donnell of Tyrconnell and Maguire of Fermanagh ) and their flight from Ireland with their families in 1607. This was a tragic event for the Earls, their families and Ireland and it was to shape the future of Ulster to the present day and into the future.  Their disappointment at the loss of their status, homes and territory after a long and bitter war against a determined and ruthless enemy must have been emotionally shattering and now their futures uncertain. The Summer school was an incredible experience where the emotions and privations of the Earls and their followers were laid bare and fully felt. O'Neills from many part of the world attended the school; it was just such an amazing experience. Nevertheless at the end of the 'School' I felt something was missing and this to me was 'what happened to other leaders and supporters of the Earls and who did not go away'? Furthermore, the more I investigated the situation in Ulster in the early years of the 17th century and the deteriorating military situation for the Gaelic lords I am of the opinion that Donnell Ballagh O'Cathain, an important supporter of O'Neill in the resistance against the tudor forces has not been well served by many historians . I will return to this later.


 I was particularly interested in Donnell Ballagh O'Cathain who was the chief of the  O'Cathain clan and  became chief  in1598 at the height of O'Neill's rebellion. The O'Cathain territory is in north east Ulster and their origins can be traced back to the 11thcentury.




They were a warrior clan and an important supporter of the O' Neill lordship. The Gaelic tradition was that the O'Cathain chief was the principal urragh (sub chief) to O'Neill and conducted the inauguration of O'Neill at Tullaghogue, the inauguration site of the 'O'Neills'.  O'Cathain's territory was in a strategic military location in north east Ulster. This resulted in them being involved in frequent disputes with the neighbouring clans. It controlled the routes south into Tyrone, west into Donegal, east in to the glens of Antrim and defending these routes were a series of castles. It also gave access to the sea through Lough Foyle and to Scotland. There was very strong links between the O'Cathain clan and Scotish clans. This proximity to the sea proved its achilles heel in the war with the Tudor armies in the early 17th centuary. A dispute between O'Cathain and O'Neill over ownership of O'Cathains  territory  was a factor in O'Neill's decision to leave Ireland in 1607. 

My family name is O'Kane which is the English derivative of  O'Cathain. Since then I have conducted considerable research into O'Neill's rebellion (1593-1603), the Clans of Ulster, the O'Cathain clan. Donnell Ballagh was O'Neill's principal urragh(sub chief) and supported him in his rebellion. My research included the Calendar of State Papers, the internet, the National Archives at Kew, the Public Records in Belfast, A New History of Ireland Vol3, various journals and references and visiting Dungiven ( O'Cathain country ) to get a feel for his domain and to talk to some of the local people. One reference that was particularly useful and which gave a very graphic account of the O'Cathain Clan and conditions in Ulster before, during and after O'Neills rebellion was The Clans of Ulster by T.H Mullin and J.E. Mullan. This book had a deflating effect on me and in fact I stopped working on the subject for some time. The degree of treachery and disloyalty within families and clans and between clans was bewildering.  Ulster was truly feudal where individuals and clans were totally self interested and always at the disadvantage of the wider society. O'Neills great achievement was that for a time he achieved some form of unity between disparate clans and Gaelic lords within Ulster and beyond (Leinster, Munster and Connacht). For this achievement he surely earned the honour 'The Great O'Neill'. Ireland was not the land of 'saints and scholars' that I had romanced. It also made me realise that O'Neill never had a chance of success. Ireland's greatest enemy was the Irish themselves, their lack of national identity, their treachery and desire for personal gain and power served them badly. How true were the words of the bard:


        Let Erin remember the days of old

        Ere her faithless sons betrayed her

        When Malachi wore the colour of gold

        Which he won from her proud invader


I still could not get out of my mind what had happened to O'Cathain and the other leaders who remained in Ireland and consequently I returned to the investigation with a renewed vigour and determination.


Donnell Ballagh O'Cathain became chief of the O'Cathain clan in 1598 in the period of O'Neill's rebellion in Ulster against religious and political pressures from the administration in Dublin and England. Ulster was the traditional territory of the O'Neill lordship and could be traced back before the 11th century. Ulster was also the last Gaelic area in Ireland not under English control. The origins of the rebellion started in 1593 When Hugh Maguire (Lord of Fermanagh) mounted a campaign to resist the English officials that were trying to displace him. The capture of Enniskillen castle buy the English and the encircling garrisons of  Carrickfergus, Newry, The Blackwater, Monaghan and Sligo represented a growing threat to the Ulster Gaelic Lords and their traditional sovereignty. Hugh O'Neill was to take the  leadership of the confederation of Ulster lords to resist this encirclement and threat to their lordships. He was able to achieve some unity amongst the clans and as a united force they represented a formidable resistance. They used the natural terrain of Ulster and tactics of a guerrilla war against the English armies sent against them in the following years.


The English tactics were to attack Ulster from the south (Munster) and the west (Connacht). Campaigns were also carried out in the summer so that the Irish had time to regroup and improve their defences. The English forces had to pass through territory that was easily defended and consequently they suffered serious defeats. The Irish won major battles in the early years of  the rebellion the most notable being Clontibret in1595 and the Yellow Ford in 1598. The demise of Robert Devereaux (2nd Earl of Essex) with the largest army ever dispatched from England (16000 men) in1599 was a great humiliation to the English and gave the Irish further encouragement. The Irish could not win outright victory because the rebellion was principally a defensive campaign by O'Neill to prevent the submission of Ulster to the crown and to assert the traditional rights of the Ulster Lords.


The military situation changed in 1600 in favour of the English. Charles Blount (Lord Mountjoy) was appointed lord lieutenant. He was a man of considerable ability and the military strategy was changed. Instead of as previously striving to break into Ulster from Munster and Connacht which was easily resisted by O'Neill, Mountjoy planned to applied pressure from all sides particularly from the coast such as Derry, Carrickfergus, Newry and latterly Coleraine which could be supplied and reinforced from the sea.   Campaigns were also to continue throughout the year giving no opportunity to the Irish to regroup and rest. The Irish were not equipped for winter fighting. Another element of this new strategy was a decision to waste the land and all human resources as a weapon of war. No consideration was to be given to noncombatants.  Chichester was to report to Sir Robert Cecil (Secretary of State) 'a million swords will not do them so much harm as one winters famine'. In pursuit of this strategy an army of 4000 men sailed into Lough Foyle in 1600 and lead by the English commander Sir Henry Docwra took up position in Derry. The aim of this force was to divide Tryconnell from Tyrone and to attack O'Neill from the north east (Map 1). O'Cathain's territory was his focus of attention in the following two years.


Here again the selfish interest of individual Irish lords surfaced. Docwra was joined and supported by Sir Arthur O'Neill, a rival to Hugh O'Neill for the Lordship of Tyrone and Niall Garbh O'Donnell a rival to Red Hugh O'Donnell for the lordship of Tyrconnell. It was ironic that Niall Garbh was interned in the Tower with O'Cathain and died still a prisoner in 1626. The O'Dohertys of Inishowen also came over to the English and campaigned against O'Cathain . Greencastle on Inishowen on the mouth of the Foyle was used as a staging point to raid into O'Cathain territory. Docwra was to record in 1601 that a raiding party from Greencastle consisted of 2000 men of which 200 were English. Of this raiding party Docwra was to report "for four daies we traversed throughout the countrie spoiling and burning such a quantity of corn and numbers of houses as I should have barley believed so small a circuit of ground could have afforded if I had not seen it."

The tactic was to break the outer defences of Ulster and ultimately O'Neill at the centre. This campaign was brutal and a war of scorched earth was conducted in which nothing and no one was spared. The aim was to destroy all material and human resources that could give aid to the rebellion. Docwra was to state, 'The strength of this war consisteth in the man. Their maintenance dependeth on cattle and corn therefore all our counsils should be directed to the destruction of these commodities'. The country was to be totally wasted.


The Irish had looked to Spain for help throughout the campaign and at last a Spanish fleet arrived in Kinsale in 1601. Unfortunately Kinsale is at the opposite end of Ireland in an area now controlled by the English and they were immediately beseiged in Kinsale and requested O'Neill to come to their aid. O'Neill and Red Hugh O'Donnell marched their forces from Ulster to Kinsale and faced the English in terrain unsuitable to their military capabilities. They could not succeed in an open battle against forces superior in tactics, military equipment and cavalry. The Irish were defeated and this represented the end of O'Neill's rebellion and the unity of the disparate groups that supported O'Neill. The fact that O'Neill and O'Donnell could march their forces across the length of Ireland pays tribute to their leadership and the loyalty of their supporters. 


 After Kinsale Ulster was still to be subdued. The Irish success up until Kinsale was due to the fact that they were secure in their territory of Ulster while the English were trying to break in and were suffering the consequences of a well organised defence and guerrilla campaign. The country was also rich in food such as cattle, corn and fish so there was a good supply of food for O'Neill's forces. The English now increased their pressure from the coast (Docwra from Derry and Chichester from Carickfergus) and Mountjoy from the south towards Dungannon the centre of O'Neill's power by breaking the outer defences and destroy the food supply (Map 1). Mountjoy was to record 'when the plough and the breeding of cattle cease then will the rebellion end'. The slaughter of the people, the destruction of crops and animals was total such that Ulster was laid to waste. This campaign was carried on long after resistance had ceased. A terrible famine followed and the last Gaelic resistance to the English was broken and all Ireland was now under subjugation to the crown.


O'Cathain's territory was in the north east corner of Ulster adjacent to Derry and was the focus of Docwra's campaign to break  O'Cathain and open the way to O'Neill from the north. As in other parts of Ulster the country was laid to waste. Crops were destroyed, animals killed and the people exterminated. A report from Docwra to Sir Arthur Chichester (Governor of Carrickfergus) graphically describes conditions 'the country is brought to such famine by our raids that the misery of the people is indescribable and the rich are so reduced that were they not buoyed up by hopes of Spanish succors they would soon submit or at worse be compelled to do so by a couple of months campaigning against them'. Fynes Moryson (Mountjoys secretary) was to report that there was no more frequent spectacle in the ditches of the towns especially in districts that had been devastated, than to see multitudes of these poor people dead with their mouths all coloured green by eating nettles and docks. In such conditions O'Cathain had no option but to submit to Docwra in July 1602 as O'Neill had to shortly after.


 The terms of the submission were not unsympathetic to O'Cathain. He was able to retain large parts of his traditional territory under the crown and free of subjugation to O'Neill. It was an important policy on the part of the English that the traditional subjugation of clans to a higher Gaelic Lordship should be broken and replaced with submission to the crown. The proclamation after the rebellion was 'The Irish at large were free,natural and immediate subjects of his majesty and were not to be reputed or called the natives or natural followers of any other lord or chieftain'. O'Neill agreed to the condition that O'Cathain should be free from him and hold his land in his own right if a surrender by him (O'Neill) would be accepted. No authoritative letter specifying these terms was ever produced by the crown and ultimately the agreement were broken in favour of O'Neill. This caused a dispute between O'Cathain and O'Neill which ultimately was a factor in the flight of O'Neill from Ireland in 1607 and O'Cathain's imprisonment firstly in Dublin castle and then in the Tower of London in 1609.


O'Neill went to London with Mountjoy and was pardoned by James 1 such that his traditional powers and lands not greatly reduced. Mountjoy supported this arrangement believing that Ulster could be better controlled through O'Neill. He still had control of large parts of his traditional territory and in the following years he strove to assert his traditional authority . The fact that he was pardoned after such a long and bitter struggle that had been very expensive to the English and again able to establish his authority gives testimony to his extraordinary abilities. It was a great loss to Ireland that he should decide to leave when he was most needed.


Part of his agreement of surrender to Mountjoy and subsequent pardon was that he could retain authority over his chief urragh, O'Cathain. That O'Cathain had been given freedom from O'Neill by Docwra caused O'Neill to make claim on  O'Cathain's territory resulting in dispute between them. This dispute could not be resolved in Ireland so both Chiefs were called to London for judgement on their claims. O'Neill was informed secretly that if he came to London he would be arrested and probably executed. O'Neill was also under intense pressure from the English administration in Ireland who were  determined to destroy him and his position was becoming increasingly insecure. At this time he must have realised that he could not survive much longer and suddenly and unexpectedly he left Ireland in September 1607 with the intention of reaching Spain. It is assumed that he wanted to petition the king of Spain for military help and return to Ireland and continue the war. This was not to happen. The political situation had changed in Europe. Spain and England were now at peace. Spain was also militarily weak and had no desire of further war with England. To give shelter to O'Neill would have been politically controversial and a source of dispute with England as it was feared that he might return to Ireland with aid from Spain. O'Neill was diverted to Rome and lived under the protection of the Pope. He was not allowed to leave Rome where he remained until he died in 1616. His flight from Ireland had tragic consequences for his own family, his supporters left behind in Ireland and for Ireland to the present day.


While recognising and honouring O'Neill it is equally important to remember the other Chiefs and people who were involved in the rebellion and did not leave Ireland. Some were executed, others imprisoned and their property confiscated and the people impoverished. The memorial ceremonies in Ireland in 2007 for the 'Flight of The Earls' did not give recognition to these Chiefs. O'Cathain was imprisoned in Dublin Castle in 1608 and then to the Tower of London in 1609 where he remained without trial until he died in 1616.




 No record of his burial seems to exist. Once in prison he was forgotten by his kinsmen and it would appear that members of his own family conspired to keep him there. The authorities were also determined to keep him in the Tower as plans were being made and implemented to seize his lands and plant them with settlers from Scotland and England. O'Cathain was a tragic and lonely figure who deserves to be remembered and honoured by his kinsmen.To accuse him of deserting O'Neill gives no consideration to the devastation that had taken place and he was in no position to resist further. There is little information about the condition and the extent of his forces and one would expect that they would be in a pretty poor state. The Irish forces must have been totally exhausted after such a long and brutal campaign. A good chief  had a responsibility to his people and he had a duty to save what was left. I have found no consideration of this in any treatment of his surrender other than he left O'Neill and went over to the English. I do sense that there is a great loyalty to O'Neill by historians and not an objective view of O'Cathains constraints and certainly not stated. The ensuing dispute between them was largly driven by O'Neill attempting to assert his traditional rights over O'Cathain. He had taken a large part of O'Cathain land into his estate and was charging a rent of 160 cows on the remainder. He treated O'Cathain as a tenant and little regard was given to the support that he had received throughout the rebellion. I think that this showed a lack of political judgement on the part of O'Neill who now was more concerned with asserting his traditional authority without regard to the possible consequences. Both seemed to be oblivious to the reality that they were now in and were being played by the English authorities in Ireland that wished to destroy them. The ultimate consequence was that both lost out, O'Neill took flight to the Continent in 1607 and O'Cathain was interned firstly in Dublin castle and then in the Tower of London in 1609 and remained there until he died in 1616.


 The Memory of Donnell Ballagh O'Cathain


In the previous pages I have tried to outline my understanding for O'Neill's rebellion, relationships between the Clans and the ferocity of the English conquest. I also have identified the need to remember the Forgotten Ones who paid a momentous price for their support for O'Neill.