Red Hugh O’Donnell and The Long Walk

"The Gaelic Chieftain", a modern sculpture commemorating O'Donnell's victory at the battle at Curlew Pass in 1599. Photo: Liam Moloney.

By C. A. Tremayne

From the dawn of history there has been a strong streak of the rebel in the Celtic character and Scotland, Wales, and Ireland ring with heroic tales, both ancient and modern, of men who refused to submit to foreign dominance; most of these tales could be considered somewhat tragic, but some of them stand out as magnificent examples of the true spirit of the rebel.

One such story is that of a young Irish chieftain from Donegal, Red Hugh O’Donnell, and his remarkable walk after his escape from Dublin Castle through the Wicklow Mountains during the harsh winter of 1592.

Born into a clan noteworthy for famous rebels, Red Hugh had been incarcerated within the stone walls of Dublin Castle for four years, after being captured treacherously by the Lord Deputy Sir John Perrot, who had concocted a plan to lure Hugh aboard a ship laden with exotic food and fine wines. The plan was successful and Hugh was overpowered and incarcerated in the grated dungeons of the ‘Bermingham Tower’, in Dublin Castle.

Although Hugh was kept in heavy irons, there was only ever one thought in his mind, escape, yes escape, just the thought sent the blood rushing through his veins, and escape he did. In January 1591, with rain lashing down, he managed to get out of his cell and lower himself and Art Kavanagh onto the footbridge over the water-filled ditch around the castle. Here, they were met by one of Hugh’s people who gave them two swords and guided them safely out of the city. Despite the heavy rain, they made good time and were just approaching Castlekevin when they were recognised by a member of the Wicklow O’Toole clan, who handed them over to Sir George Carew.

Dragged back to Dublin Castle in chains, Hugh found himself shackled in heavy iron fetters for the following twelve months as punishment. Despite this, he was already making plans for a second attempt at freedom. A year later all was set, bribes had been paid to English officers, and a file smuggled in had been successfully used to cut the chains. (it has been suggested that the avaricious Lord Deputy Fitzwilliam had accepted a bribe by Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, to allow the escape). This time instead of climbing down the tower, Hugh had decided to crawl through the Dublin Castle sewers, with him were Henry and Art O’Neill, two sons of Shane the Proud. After crawling through the sewers they finally emerged into the castle ditch, and here, despite the cold weather, they had no choice but to remove there heavy soiled outer clothes before moving on as quickly as possible.

They managed to pass through one of the city gates without any trouble but lost Henry O’Neill in the darkness. However, they moved on as arranged and once outside the city walls, they were met by a guide named Eustace, who quickly started to lead them out of the city towards the Wicklow Mountains. The wind cut through the men’s frail bodies like a knife and on top of that heavy showers of hail and snow had started to fall as they headed south-west. Soon the ground beneath their feet cracked and crunched as they walked through the thick white blanket of snow that glistened in the dark night.

As they approached the Wicklow wilderness, the weather changed, rain started coming down in torrents and soon the ground was swamped with great swathes of water. With there feet swollen and blistered by the frost and snow and totally exhausted, Art had to be supported by Eustace and Hugh. Unfortunately this exertion was two much for Hugh; the years spent chained to the wall of his cell had taken there toll. So, exhausted, he had no choice but to lay down under a lofty rock, and send the guide to Glenmalure for help.

In spite of the driving rain, Eustace made good time and the following morning as the mist slowly lifted revealing the mountains in their shades of various colours of deepest blue, he returned with a small rescue party, finding the pair covered with snow which had frozen around them. With them they had brought food and dry clothing, but they were too late to save Art O’Neill, who had died of exposure. Hugh, who was stronger, now dressed in dry clothing and eating the food the party had brought with them found he could not walk, his feet had totally frozen; had to be brought by stretcher to the home of Fiach MacHugh O’Byrne in Glenmalure. Once there, it was decided that his feet were badly frost bitten, so badly in fact, his rescuers had to amputate two of his toes. However, regardless of his misfortune, Red Hugh soon began to recuperate.

Red Hugh went on to become leader of the northern chieftains, continuing the fight against the English, and in 1601 the Spanish landed in Kinsale and the English besieged them. Hugh, along with the O’Neill, immediately marched south from Ulster in an attempt to break the siege. Despite their best efforts, they were heavily outnumbered and had to scatter, while O’Neill marched back north. Hugh set off for Spain to try and rally troops from Philip III. Once there, he petitioned the King for aid, but once again the English played a hand, paying a traitor believed to be an Irishman called James Blake to poison Hugh. The plan worked and Red Hugh O’Donnell died there in Spain on 10th September, 1602, aged just 29.