Red Hugh O’Donnell was born in 1573 in his ancestral castle at the mouth of the River Eske on Donegal Bay. His mother was Iníon Dubh, had a reputation as “a great bringer of the Scots”, who had a large retinue of Scottish Gallowglass warriors to call upon. This she did, ensuring, often with violence that Hugh made it to the top of the succession ranks. As a young man, Red Hugh O’Donnell was tricked onto a galley off the Donegal coast with a promise of Sack, a sickly-sweet wine the Gaelic Irish were particularly partial to. Brought to Dublin he was incarcerated with Art O Neill another Irishman of noble birth held as Hostage by the crown. They soon made their escape through a chute emanating from the latrine. On one of the coldest nights of the year they fled through the Wicklow mountains before Art succumbed to the cold. Red Hugh would make it back North to his home and in time lead the greatest army ever seen in Ireland, one that would very nearly drive the English out of Ireland.

He is the stuff of legend and his exploits are memorialised by a sculpture on the N4 Bypass North East of Boyle in Co. Roscommon. It commemorates the battle of the Curlew Pass in 1599 between the forces of Gaelic Irish led by Red Hugh O’Donnell and an English force led by Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. The Irish engaged the Queens troops in close quarter combat as they campaigned through the Curlew Mountains in Northern Connacht. The Irish used the rough terrain to their advantage and by using close quarter combat it rendered their musket and canon less effective. Among the implements the Irish used were darts or short javelins which were thrown a short distance to great effect.

The Battle was a part of a greater conflict called the Nine Years War which culminated in the Battle of Kinsale in 1601. The combined forces of Red Hugh O’Donnell and Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone marched from their homelands in the North of Ireland to Cork to join a Spanish Fleet which had landed to aid the rebellion. They were subsequently defeated and through a process called surrender and regrant, the belligerent Gaelic Irish lords were dispossessed of their lands. In 1607 a group of the Irish aristocracy sailed out of Rathmullen in Co. Donegal to live in exile in Europe. This became known as the Flight of the Earls and ushered in an era of colonisation, where the English planters were granted lands in Ireland. The sculpture has become known as the Gaelic Apache and the name conjures up similarities between the plains Indians of North America and the Gaelic Irish. The term gives a sense of a clash of two civilisations, the semi nomadic Irish steeped in traditions that go back millennia and the brutal advancement of the modernising English. However, it would be the descendants of the Gael’s who would make huge inroads in the American Wild West in an ever-expanding quest for land. Within Gaelic society there was a class of man known as the An Boaire or Cowman, perhaps he is the ancestor of the modern-day cowboy.

Siege of Galway 

Red Hugh O’Donnell left a lasting impression on the citizens of Galway in his short life. Some years before the Battle of the Curlew Pass, he led is army into Connacht attacking Sligo Castle before advancing towards Galway, burning as he went. On the 15th of January 1596 he attacked Athenry Castle burning the gate and attempted to scale the walls. While he was repelled, the men did take the watchtowers and held some of the townspeople Hostages. Failing to totally confiscate the castle, he resorted to burning much of the town before making his to the town of Galway. Arriving in Galway they sent a priest to the gates to issues their demands.

They wanted wine and victuals and if they were provided, they would be on their way. The townspeople refused their demands and the eastern suburbs by the lake were burned, engulfing the city in a massive cloud of smoke. Red Hugh then had his men take the Fort Hill on the east side of the city but soon cannon was brought to use against them. There was then a valiant charge by the defenders up onto Abbey Hill and a skirmish broke where several of Red Hugh’s were killed before being forced to withdraw and camp three miles outside the town. The army went back from whence they came burning another 20 villages in Galway and Mayo.

Flight of the Earls 
After the defeat of the Gaelic army at the Battle of Kinsale in 1601, he was a wanted man. He fled to La Coruna in Spain where he and many of the other outlawed Gaelic nobles had gathered promising to return with military aid. There he was made welcome by the Governor of Galicia and the Archbishop of Santiago de Compostela where an Irish college existed. Red Hugh and others plotted their return but after many years they heard no message of support from Philip the 3rd of Spain. While travelling to the court of the King he became ill and died in the castle at Valladolid. Enter James the Spanish Blake, an Anglo-Irish spy from Galway in the pay of the English crown.

Now the story takes a twist as in 1870, papers surfaced in London from Lord Carew, President of Munster with correspondence to Lord Mountjoy the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. The two men who were charged by Queen Elizabeth to suppress the Nine Years War and although the correspondence was written in cipher, it emerged that Blake had contacted Carew with a plan to eliminate O’Donnell in Spain. The key to the cipher was to use a substitute letter six spaces previous in the alphabet.

The letter dated the 28th of May 1602 reported to Mountjoy that James Blake had taken a solemn oath to do service…and is gone into Spain with determination to kill O’Donnell. Subsequently Carew writes again to Mountjoy on the 9th of October “O Donnell is dead…he is poisoned by James Blake, of whom your lordship hath been formerly acquainted. Once O’Donnell was dead further assistance to the Irish was abandoned by Philip of Spain.
While Carew was adamant, they had got their man, although a more plausible reason for his death was that he died from a tapeworm. Curiously, Red Hugh was said to have visited the Tower of Betanzos before his death, where according to Ireland’s creation myths, the sons of Milesius left for the Island of Destiny, or Ireland.

Last will and testament 

O’Donnell wrote a moving last will and testament which is housed in the Chancellery archive in Valladolid and in the town of Simancas where he died. The document is mostly directed at King Philip, requesting that he look after his retinue and that he sends aid to Lord O’Neill in Ulster and to his brother before news arrives of his death. He goes on to say that he is the only hope of his peoples and if aid is not sent, they will submit to the English upon hearing of his death. He also mentions debts he has accumulated including a 100 Ducats he owes to a Nicholas Lynch in La Coruna.

Poignantly, Red Hugh’s last words were spoken in Irish and translated to the scribe by his Irish doctors and two Franciscans monks who had gathered to witness the will. He also asks for some silver to be given to the monks for to prayed for his to soul. O’Donnell was duly buried in the Franciscan monastery which was demolished in 1837. Recent efforts have been made by archaeologists to recover his remains. When he escaped Dublin Castle in the winter of 1591, he lost to big toes to frostbite. This would be a distinguishing feature for archaeologists in identifying his remains.

Discovery of remains 

The excavation of Constitution Street in Valladolid in northwest Spain has revealed the walls of what is thought to be La Capilla de las Maravillas (the Chapel of Wonders) where O’Donnell was buried in September 1602. The Mayor of Valladolid Óscar Puente posted a tweet. It showed a photograph of the excavated site with a human skull and bones and the caption: “In the Chapel of Wonders, in the exact place where both Red Hugh O’Donnell and Christopher Columbus are believed buried, two coffins have appeared. The remains of Columbus were moved to Seville, but the coffin which has been discovered may be the original one in which he was buried. The archaeologists soon discovered 16 bodies dating to the date of O’Donnell’s, it remains to be seen if they have uncovered the once Prince of Ulster and the last Gaelic Apache.

The sculpture is of the Gaelic Chieftain overlooks the N4 bypass North East of Boyle in Co. Roscommon. The statue was commissioned as part of the percentage for arts scheme and was constructed by the artist Maurice Harron



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