O'Neill's Rebellion took place in Ireland from 1590 until 1598. It was fought between the Gaelic O'Neill family with their Spanish allies against the Kingdom of England. The leaders of the O'Neill family were Hugh O'Neill, Shane O'Neill and Pheilim O'Neill. The war was fought to end English rule in Ireland. The war was fought in all parts of the country, but mainly in the northern province of Ulster, and the English controlled Pale, in eastern Leinster. The war ended in a victory for the O'Neill family and the restoration of the power of Gaelic families in Ireland. 

King Hugh O'Neill


O'Neills rebellion was a result of the Gaelic families of Ireland attempting to resist the advance of English control in Ireland. The English state sought to end Gaelic power in Ireland and bring the Protestant religion to the almost exclusively Catholic country. Hugh O'Neill was head of the House of O'Neill, who had lost a lot of their influence in Ireland to the English. In 1588 Hugh O'Neill sent his brother Shane O'Neill to the court of Rory O Donnell in Donegal to form an alliance between the two families. Shane O'Neill was wildly successful. O Donnell agreed to a military alliance with the O'Neills. Shane O'Neill married Catherine, the daughter of Rory O Donnell, to cement the alliance between the two families.

Capture and execution of Shane O'Neill

In the summer of 1590, Hugh O'Neill sent his brother Shane to form an alliance with the FitzGeralds of Kildare, who were Catholics that were determined to stop the spread of the protestant religion into Ireland. However, Shane O'Neill never arrived in Kildare, he was captured by English forces near the Pale. Hugh O'Neill demanded the return of Shane O'Neill. The O'Neills argued Shane's capture was unjust, but the English were determined to stop the Catholic lords of Ireland creating alliances with each other. In November, 1590. Shane O'Neill was brought to Dublin castle and hanged by the English. This execution was supposed to send a message to the Irish and old English Catholic families to cease plotting against the English crown.

War breaks out

One week after the execution of Shane O'Neill, Hugh O'Neill raised an army of 15,000 soldiers in Ulster and began marching towards the Pale. When the English heard of O'Neill's army marching towards the Pale, which acted as the centre of English control in Ireland, they demanded Hugh O'Neill disband his army and submit to the Queen of England, Elizabeth I. They received no response and sent a force of 8000 professional English soldiers to Ireland. Initial reports led the English to believe O'Neill was marching an army of no more than 4,500 men. In January 1591 O'Neill's forces led siege to the town of Dundalk in North eastern Leinster. The English authorities in the Pale were alarmed at the size and professionalism of O'Neill's army and requested an additional 7000 soldiers. The English agreed to send 7000 soldiers and the soldiers arrived in Drogheda, a town south of Dundalk. By February O'Neill had taken Dundalk with very little casualties. In late February Rory O Donnell joined O'Neill and sent 4000 soldiers to aid O'Neills army in in the Pale.

Irish victory in Drogheda

After O'Neill's victory in Dundalk he continued to march south and in March, 1591 the first major fighting between Irish and English forces took place. At the Battle of Drogheda, O'Neill's army of 15,000 met the English army consisting of 7000. The English army in Drogheda desperately needed support from the 8000 soldiers making their way from Dublin to Drogheda. O'Neills forces charged the English army of 7000 under the command of Lord Mountjoy before the 8000 English soldiers under command of the Earl of Winchester could arrive. Mountjoy's army was wholly unprepared due to a spread of disease in his army. The battle was a major victory for O'Neill. 1,500 English soldiers were killed with an additional 2000 being captured by the Irish. Irish loses were minimal ranging from 200-300 men. O'Neill continued south, he sent 3000 of his men to take the town of Drogheda.

Capture of the Earl of Winchester

The Earl of Winchester's army never reached Drogheda and began to retreat south to Dublin to defend the city. However, the army of 4000 under command of Aodh O Donnell, son of Rory O Donnell, had been sent south to meet with O'Neill's army. O Donnell's army instead attacked the retreating English army of the Earl of Winchester. In the early hours of the morning O Donnell's army attacked the an English camp. The attack seemed to be a complete failure for O Donnell, he had lost over 1,500 men and the English army had lost under 500 men. However, O Donnell's motive had not been to destroy the English army but in the midst of battle his army had captured many high ranking officers, including the Earl of Winchester. O Donnell retreated to O'Neill's army with the Earl of Winchester as a prisoner.

Assault on Dublin

The defeated army of Lord Mountjoy formed together with the army retreating to Dublin. The force of some 11,000 men under command of Lord Mountjoy had suffered great casualties due to disease. Morale was very low among Mountjoy's troops and Mountjoy had developed a reputation as a coward and as a poor leader. The army of Hugh O'Neill had gathered support from local people that opposed the English regime and O'Neill's army had reached over 25,000 men. But, O'Neill was badly in need of arms. In May 1591 he sent his eldest son, Pheilim O'Neill to Spain for support. The Spanish were at war with the English and King Philip II of Spain hated Queen Elizabeth of England. The Spanish government listened to Feilim O'Neill and agreed to send a force of 10,000 to Ireland, with 55 ships containing huge amounts of arms. The Spanish King recognised Hugh O'Neill as the true King of Ireland and in September Prince Feilim arrived in Ireland with the Spanish force. Hugh O'Neill was delighted and arms were distributed among O'Neill's forces. In December, 1592 the huge force of 35,000 men commanded by both Irish and Spanish generals attacked the city of Dublin. By this time Lord Mountjoy's army had managed to re-arm themselves and now had a force of 13,000 soldiers. The 55 Spanish ships blockaded any attempt to bring English supplies into Dublin. In January 1593, the city of Dublin was besieged by O'Neill's army, O'Neill ordered an attack on the city. O'Neill's army managed to smash the gates down and Irish and Spanish forces quickly overran the city. O'Neill's son Feilim commanded 15,000 soldiers sent inside the city to occupy it. 20,000 soldiers surrounded the city to kill any English soldier who attempted to escape, and to stop any English force that landed to try and break O'Neill's siege. Prince Feilim occupied the city in 2 days. He used over 100 cannons loaded with chain-shot.

English forces surrender

In March 1593, Lord Mountjoy signed an armistice with O'Neill. Half of Mountjoy's army were taken prisoner by O'Neill until a treaty was signed, The rest were sent back to England. Queen Elizabeth was outraged with Lord Mountjoy for surrendering and stripped him of his titles. In May 1593, O'Neill sent his victory terms to Elizabeth, the terms were that the English remove all forces from Ireland and recognise Hugh O'Neill as the King of Ireland. Queen Elizabeth rejected the terms and had the victory conditions burned and Irish messenger beheaded. In retaliation, The Earl of Winchester was executed by O'Neill himself. By this time, all English forces in Ireland had been captured, killed or sent back to England. Hugh O'Neill was coronated in the Hill of Tara as King of Ireland. All the families of Ireland recognised O'Neill as the King, some were reluctant but did not want to face a war against O'Neill's huge army. King Hugh considered the war as good as over. King Hugh moved the capital to Armagh in Ulster. The vassals of Ireland had a large degree of autonomy.

Gaelic restoration

King Hugh, now set his sights on reversing the plantations of Laois-Offaly and Munster. He revoked all titles owned by the planters and granted the titles to the families that had lost land during the plantations. He exiled the English planters and allowed the native Irish to live on the land. This reversal of the plantations was known as the Gaelic restoration. Hugh was torn on whether to allows the Old English families to retain their lands or not. In the end, he decided to allow the families to retain their lands, because most had supported him during his rebellion. King Hugh began improving relations with Scotland. He wanted the Celtic powers to join together and topple the English government, but this proposal was rejected by the Scottish King. King Hugh began to turn Ireland into an independent Gaelic state.

Last English invasion of Ireland

In 1598, Queen Elizabeth, still refusing to accept the Kingdom of Ireland, sent an invasion fleet of 50 ships carrying 20,000 marines to Ireland with the goal of reinstating English rule in Ireland. The invasion was a disaster as fierce storms wrecked the ships off the coast of county Down. Only 15 ships, with 5000 men reached Ireland. The English soldiers captured coastal fishing villages but realised that defeating the Irish army was hopeless. An Irish army of 15,000 arrived in county Down. The 5000 English soldiers looted the villages they had taken and then burned them to the ground. This frustrated King Hugh. His army was merciless and killed every man in the English army of 5000 men. The 15 ships that safely reached Ireland were captured by the Irish and were added to the Irish navy.


In 1603, Elizabeth died. Her successor, James I, agreed to end the war and the Treaty of Naas was signed by King Hugh of Ireland and King James of England. They treaty ended the war and the English conceded defeat. The English dropped all claims to Ireland and recognised the Kingdom of Ireland. After the rebellion King Hugh proved to be a better military commander than monarch. He often ignored the advice of his council and made reckless decisions. Hugh died in 1616, and was succeeded by his son, Feilim. Feilim proved to be an excellent monarch and reformed the justice system. He limited the powers of his vassals, which stopped a looming civil war between the O'Brian family who claimed the title of King of Ireland. King Feilim was also responsible for the founding of the first Irish overseas colony in modern day Chile. The Spanish had granted him claims to areas in South America. He continued the Irish-Spanish Alliance, and sent often sent Irish troops to aid the Spanish army in foreign conflicts. Ireland's position on the edge of Europe allowed King Feilim to concentrate on expanding his overseas territory and not get involved in European conflicts.

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