After the crushing defeat at Kinsale and most of his lands in Tyrconnell in his enemy’s control, Red Hugh O’Donnell left Ireland in order to seek financial and military aid in Spain. O’Donnell would never return home. He died less than a year later.
Born in 1571, Red Hugh was the son of Ineen Dubh and Hugh O’Donnell, Lord of Tir Chonaill. As a boy he was fostered by several of the noble houses of Ulster. Just before his fifteenth birthday he was captured by the English and was taken to Dublin Castle. He was kept prisoner for four years before he escaped and made his way back to Donegal, travelling in freezing winter weather. On the 3rd May 1592 he was proclaimed Chieftain O’Domhnaill (O’Donnell) at the rock of Doon, outside Kilmacrennan, Co Donegal.
The O’Donnells fought in the Nine Years War against the English with their allies, the Maguires and the O’Neills. The Battle of Curlew Mountain was one of Red Hugh’s greatest victories. In 1601 help arrived from Spain for the Irish. The Spanish forces landed in Kinsale and Red Hugh set out on the long journey to meet them. The English army, led by Lord Mountjoy, arrived to lay siege to the town and this resulted in the Battle of Kinsale in December 1601. The battle was won by the English and the Irish retreated back to Ulster.
Red Hugh left Ireland and travelled to Spain to seek help from King Philip. While waiting for an audience with the King in Simancas near Valladolid, he fell ill and died in September 1602 at the age of twenty-nine. He died in mysterious circumstances and was believed to have been poisoned by Blake – an agent of the English Lord Deputy.
Ludhaigh o Cleirigh, 17th Century Donegal poet and historian described his burial: “His body was taken to Valladolid, to the King’s Court, in a four-wheeled hearse, with great numbers of State Officers, of the Council and of the Royal Guard all round it, with blazing torches and bright flambeaux of beautiful waxlights blazing all around on each side of it. He was buried after that in the chapter of the monastery of St. Francis with great honour and respect and in the most solemn manner any Gael ever before had been interred.”