Hugh O’Neill (Aodh Mór Ó Néill), was a Gaelic lord, Earl of Tyrone (known as the Great Earl) and was later created The Ó Néill. O’Neill’s career was played out against the background of the Tudor conquest of Ireland, and he is best known for leading the resistance during the Nine Years’ War, the strongest threat to English authority in Ireland since the revolt of Silken Thomas.
In May 1595 he gave the crown authorities a shock by ambushing and routing a small English army at the Battle of Clontibret. He and other clan chiefs then offered the crown of Ireland to Philip II of Spain who refused it.
In spite of the traditional enmity between his people and the O’Donnells, O’Neill allied himself with Hugh Roe O’Donnell, son of Shane’s former ally and enemy Hugh O’Donnell, and the two chieftains opened communications with King Philip II of Spain. In some of their letters to the king – intercepted by the lord deputy, Sir William Russell, they were shown to have promoted themselves as champions of the Roman Catholic Church, claiming liberty of conscience as well as political liberty for the native inhabitants of Ireland. In April 1596, O’Neill received promises of help from Spain, and thereafter chose to temporise with the authorities, professing his loyalty to the crown as circumstances required. This policy was a success and, even though Sir John Norris sought to bring him to heel, O’Neill managed to defer English attempts on his territory for more than two years.