Bradford Wineman

title.none: McGettigan, Red Hugh O'Donnell (Bradford Wineman)

identifier.other: baj9928.0710.004 07.10.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Bradford Wineman, US Army Command and General Staff College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: MGettigan, Darren. Red Hugh O'Donnell and the Nine Years War. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2005. Pp. 190. 65.00 1-85182-887-7. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.10.04

MGettigan, Darren. Red Hugh O'Donnell and the Nine Years War. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2005. Pp. 190. 65.00 1-85182-887-7. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Bradford Wineman
US Army Command and General Staff College

The uprisings by the lords on Gaelic Ireland in the late sixteenth century represent one of the more embarrassing blights on the historical legacy of the Elizabethan English state. Much of the success gained by these lords can be attributed to the successful leadership of Red Hugh O'Donnell and the remarkable confederacy he formed in fighting against the English during the rebellion known as the Nine Years War (1594-1603). Historian Darren McGettigan provides a fresh and provocative examination into the life of this remarkable warrior lord and a reexamination of historical role in this conflict.

McGettigan begins his narrative by describing the historical scene of Red Hugh's tale, an Ireland swept in chaos due to tribalism and long running local family feuds, exacerbated by abuse and exploitation by their English occupiers. Born to a wealthy and respected lord, historians know little of Red Hugh's early life. But when the English kidnap and imprisoned him in Dublin Castle as a teenager in 1587, the author lays the foundation a theme that will run through the course of Red Hugh's life: a powerful hatred for England. His experience as a prisoner during the prime of his youth coupled with generations of English depredations on his family and neighbors fueled a lifelong vendetta against Queen Elizabeth and her government.

His commitment to avenge himself and his people against the English tyranny drew Red Hugh into collusion with an unlikely ally, Hugh O'Neill, the patriarch of his family's greatest rival clan. McGettigan attributes to this alliance the key to the successes of the eventual Irish rebellion against the English. Not only did it demonstrate unity among the island's two competing families, but on an individual level, the two men's personalities complemented each other, providing a dynamic tandem of leadership. O'Neill's patient and thoughtful personality offset the fierce and aggressive nature of O'Donnell. Here McGettigan departs from both historiography and folk legend with this assertion. While historians typically credit Hugh O'Neill as the singular hero of the rebellion, his research demonstrates it would not have been successful without the dual management of both O'Neill and O'Donnell.

Red Hugh and Hugh O'Neill did not take on this overwhelming task alone. They recognized that the English had maintained power over Ireland by dividing its various families and tribes against each other rather than conquering them collectively. O'Donnell, with the help of Hugh O'Neill's political acuity, united nearly all of the island's disparate factions in a unified military and political coalition against their occupiers. This was no small feat as he drew much of this new confederacy from old rivals, such as Hugh O'Neill. O'Donnell's mother, Ineen Dubh, also played a key role by recruiting the help of her Scottish ancestors who provided thousands of redshank mercenaries to wreck havoc on the English forces.

With this support behind him throughout Ireland, Red Hugh now forced the arrogant but robust English forces to fight his war. Utilizing raids, surprise attacks and sieges, the Gaelic confederates isolated and ravaged every English army sent to subdue the island. For nearly the entire Nine Years War, O'Donnell's forces humiliated several of Queen Elizabeth's expeditionary armies both in guerilla war and in conventional set piece battles. Their success culminated at the Battle of Yellow Ford in 1598, where the combined Irish forces destroyed Sir Herny Bagenal's 4,000 man army in a matter of minutes.

But perhaps Red Hugh's greatest victory came via diplomacy rather than the sword. While rolling back the various English armies that the Queen threw into the maelstrom that had become Ireland, O'Donnell had successfully wooed the support of England's greatest rival, the Spanish Empire. In affairs both internal and external, Red Hugh successfully won countless diplomatic victories by winning over key individuals as well as the masses in his realm.

By 1600, the Irish rebellion had peaked under Red Hugh's leadership. With the English army crushed at Yellow Ford and the Curlew Mountains, Irish warlords in firm control of the countryside and Spain now poised to send military and financial aid to their cause, Queen Elizabeth I was wracked with panic. She sent her emissaries to negotiate terms of peace with the Irish commanders, but as the confederacy now held all the strategic chips, they audaciously declined them.

But then it all fell apart as quickly as it had come together. The Queen appointed Sir Henry Dowcra to resolve the Irish dilemma once and for all. Dowcra proved to be a competent commander who avoided the tactical and strategic mistakes of his predecessors. Meanwhile, Red Hugh contended with attacks from the inside as his cousin and once stout ally, Niall Garbh O'Donnell, betrayed the confederacy and conspired with the English to defeat his fellow Gaelic lords. Yet the explanation of Red Hugh's downfall unfortunately does not receive the depth of analysis from McGettigan as the rest of the Irish lord's life. This presents the only real shortcoming in the author's narrative as the transition from Red Hugh dominating Ireland to his losing everything happens nearly over night with little transition or clear explanation. Although Dowcra's cunning and Niall Garbh's treachery were catalysts to the confederacy's demise, McGettigan offers insufficient clarity on how they caused it all so quickly.

Rapidly losing control of the country, Red Hugh and Hugh O'Neill mustered forces for one final campaign against Dowcra. At Kinsdale, the English annihilated the Gaelic lords in a matter of minutes, due in major part, McGettigan argues, to Red Hugh's own tactical fumbling as commander of the army's rear guard. Desperate to salvage the revolution, O'Donnell traveled to Spain to reinvigorate their support, but King Phillip's son and successor lacked his father's enthusiasm and decisiveness regarding the Irish campaign. Red Hugh died in 1602 in Spain while the last of his dominion in Ireland fell to the English under his brother's control.

McGettigan masterfully details each stage of Red Hugh's personal life while keeping a framework of historical and cultural context. His remarkable research is unique for this topic, drawing primarily from documents from Irish, English and Spanish sources. He also weaves in elements of both literature and folklore by utilizing epic poems and legends to explain the cultural milieu of Red Hugh's personality and experiences, tracing them back to the ethos of Gaelic warrior legends. But more importantly, McGettigan does not allow his source material to cloud his historical judgment. He maintains care with his historical assumptions when the evidence (or lack thereof) does not offer clear conclusions, avoiding audacious claims without the indisputable proof.

McGettigan's work offers readers a most useful examination for students of Irish history, culture, politics, and more broadly the study of the reigns of both Elizabeth I and Philip II. Lastly, this book also provides equal value, whether it intends to or not, for the military scholar as a valuable but largely unutilized case study of counter-insurgency and small wars doctrine.