Chief of Tyrone (1559-1567)
Born c.1530 Died 1567
Shane O'Neill was a chieftain whose support was worth gaining by the English even during his father's lifetime; but rejecting overtures from the Earl of Sussex, the lord deputy, Shane refused to help the English against the Scottish settlers on the coast of Antrim, allying himself instead with the MacDonnells, the most powerful of these immigrants. Nevertheless Queen Elizabeth, on succeeding to the English throne, was disposed to come to terms with Shane, who after his father's death was de facto chief of the formidable O'Neill clan. She accordingly agreed to recognize his claims to the chieftainship, thus throwing over Brian O'Neill, son of the murdered Matthew, Baron of Dungannon, if Shane would submit to her authority and that of her deputy. O'Neill, however, refused to put himself in the power of Sussex without a guarantee for his safety; and his claims in other respects were so exacting, that Elizabeth consented to measures being taken to subdxie him and to restore Brian.
An attempt to foment the enmity of the O'Dounells against him was frustrated by Shane's capture of Calvagh O'Donnell, whom he kept a close prisoner for nearly three years. Elizabeth, whose prudence and parsimony were averse to so formidable an undertaking as the complete subjugation of the powerful Irish chieftain, desired peace with him at almost any price; especially when the devastation of his territory by Sussex brought him no nearer to submission. Sussex, indignant at Shane's request for his sister's hand in marriage, and his demand for the withdrawal of the English garrison from Armagh, was not supported by the queen, who sent the Earl of Kildare to arrange terms with O'Neill. The latter, making some trifling concessions, consented to present himself before Elizabeth.
Accompanied by Ormonde and Kildare he reached London on the 4th of January 1562. Camden describes the wonder with which O'Neill's wild gallowglasses were seen in the English capital, with their heads bare, their long hair falling over their shoulders and clipped short in front above the eyes, and clothed in rough yellow shirts. Elizabeth was less concerned with the respective claims of Brian and Shane, the one resting on an English patent and the other on the Celtic custom, than with the question of policy involved in supporting or rejecting the demands of her proud suppliant. Characteristically, she temporized; but finding that O'Neill was in danger of becoming a tool in the hands of Spanish intriguers, she permitted him to return to Ireland, recognizing him as 'the O'Neill', and chieftain of Tyrone; though a reservation was made of the rights of Hugh O'Neill, who had meantime succeeded his brother Brian as Baron of Dungannon, Brian having been murdered in April 1562 by his kinsman Turlough Luineach O'Neill.
There were at this time three powerful contemporary members of the O'Neill family in Ireland Shane, Turlough and Hugh, 2nd Earl of Tyrone. Turlough had been elected tanist (see Tanistry) when his cousin Shane was inaugurated 'the O'Neill', and he schemed to supplant him in the higher dignity during Shane's absence in London. The feud did not long survive Shane's return to Ireland, where he quickly re-established his authority, and in spite of Sussex renewed his turbulent tribal warfare against the O'Donnells and others. Elizabeth at last authorized Sussex to take the field against Shane, but two several expeditions failed to accomplish anything except some depredation in O'Neill's country. Sussex had tried in 1561 to procure Shane's assassination, and Shane now laid the whole blame for his lawless conduct on the lord deputy's repeated alleged attempts on his life. Force having ignominiously failed, Elizabeth consented to treat, and hostilities were stopped on terms that gave O'Neill practically the whole of his demands.
O'Neill now turned his hand against the MacDonnells, claiming that he was serving the queen of England in harrying the Scots. He fought an indecisive battle with Sorley Boy MacDonnell near Coleraine in 1564, and the following year marched from Antrim through the mountains by Clogh to the neighborhood of Ballycastle, where he routed the MacDonnells and took Sorley Boy prisoner. This victory greatly strengthened Shane O'Neill's position, and Sir Henry Sidney, who became lord deputy in 1566, declared to the Earl of Leicester that "Lucifer himself was not more puffed up with pride and ambition than O'Neill". Preparations were made in earnest for his subjugation. O'Neill ravaged the Pale, failed in an attempt on Dundalk, made a truce with the MacDonnells, and sought help from the earl of Desmond. The English, on the other hand, invaded Donegal and restored O'Donnell. Failing in an attempt to arrange terms, and also in obtaining the help which he solicited from France, O'Neill was utterly routed by the O'Donnells at Letterkenny; and seeking safety in flight, he threw himself on the mercy of his enemies, the MacDonnells.
Attended by a small body of gallowglasses, and taking his prisoner Sorley Boy with him, he presented himself among the MacDonnells near Cushendun, on the Antrim coast. Here, on the 2nd of June 1567, whether by premeditated treachery or in a sudden brawl is uncertain, he was slain by the MacDonnells, and was buried at Glenarm.
In his private character Shane O'Neill was a brutal, uneducated savage. He divorced his first wife, a daughter of James MacDonnell, and treated his second, a sister of Calvagh O'Donnell, with gross cruelty in revenge for her brother's hostility; Calvagh himself, when Shane's prisoner, he subjected to continual torture; and Calvagh's wife, whom he made his mistress, and by whom he had several children, endured ill-usage at the hands of her drunken captor, who is said to have married her in 1565.
Extracted from the entry for O'NEILL in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.