Shane O’Neill Was “The Grand Disturber” of Elizabethan Ireland

Brian Mallon, left, and Shane O'Neill, the subject of Mallon's new book.
Brian Mallon, left, and Shane O'Neill, the subject of Mallon's new book.

By Fionnula Flanagan, Contributor
April / May 2016

Brian Mallon’s epic novel chronicling the life of Shane O’Neill, the 16th century Irish chieftain, is reviewed by Fionnula Flanagan.

Here is the great dark cloak of Irish Elizabethan history spread out before us. Its threads are spun from loyalty, intrigue, betrayal, lust, terror, thievery, and extraordinary courage, ferocity in battle, savagery in revenge, and passion in love. The jewels that adorn it are the great clans of Ireland of the time, those who retained their Gaelic heritage and customs and those who had intermarried with the Normans and, over time, were titled in exchange for their fealty to the British crown. The warp and weft of their connection to each other is by blood, marriage, or fosterage (the ancient Irish custom whereby children were sent to a neighboring clan to be reared, thereby ensuring peace and interdependence between the families), and sometimes by all three. Most dazzling of the jewels is Shane O’Neill – fearless warrior; brilliant war strategist; a charming wit in Irish, English, and Latin; and a would-be King of Ireland.

(RedBranch Press / 778 pages / $23.78)

(RedBranch Press / 778 pages / $23.78)

We meet him at the height of his powers when he has just taken to his bed Katherine, Scots wife of his arch rival, whom he throws into a dungeon for an indefinite period, thereby threatening the support of the Gaelic Scots families. But their love prevails and Katherine, besides bearing him some half a dozen children, proves a canny politician and go-between for Shane in his dealings with the Scots, and particularly with the court of Mary Stuart, Catholic Queen of Scotland and sworn enemy of Elizabeth I of England.

And so we have Elizabeth, a diamond, hard and cold, unwinking in its brilliance, cutting, laser-like across the Irish Sea to penetrate the dark warp and weft of her Irish cloak. She is desperate for funds and food to support her army in her wars with France and Spain. Driven by this desperation, she is relentless in her determination to bring the savage Irish to heel. To this end, she employs the methods used worldwide by countless tyrant colonizers that followed her. First, undermine and destroy the authority of the Irish chieftains and their religious leaders; stamp out their native language and customs; coerce, disenfranchise, imprison, and murder those who resist. In this way, can she, Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII, aided by leaders of the Protestant Reform Church (of which she is the head), and members of her ambitious and ruthless cabinet, clear the way to freely appropriate Irish lands and launch a colonization the evidence of which lives on to this day in the bloody war – euphemistically called The Troubles – and its aftermath, in the North of Ireland.

It is Shane O’Neill who leads the resistance to Elizabeth’s scheming. We journey with him to her London court, where, being assured safe passage to and from, he is denied permission to leave London and realizes that he has been seduced by his own vanity and lured into a trap to prevent him leading armed resistance to the forces of the British Crown in Ireland.

Restored finally to his lands, Shane attempts various measures – not always above board, and often betrayed by spies – to placate Elizabeth and stave off a complete invasion. Dubbed The Grand Disturber and relishing the title, he appeals to the Pope, to the Catholic monarchies of France and Spain for armed help, but his appeals are met with denials or silence, or worse still, betrayal. The Irish and Scottish clans, bribed, threatened, and coerced by Elizabeth’s representatives in Dublin Castle, abandon him one by one. Finally, he is left to fight the ultimate battle supported by a pitifully small force of his own clansmen.

This is a brilliantly woven novel, painstakingly researched by its author, Brian Mallon, from archives in Ireland, London, Rome, and other sources throughout Europe. The detail of the mise-en-scène is amazing, vivid, colorful, and historically true in all its complexity. Because Brian Mallon is also a poet, he gives proper place and importance to poetry and history and the authority of the Bard in Irish society in the person of Farleigh, a kind of mystical Merlin who sings of that which has gone before and a warning for that which he foresees. Shane often mocks him, but in truth respects his gifts and wisdom. Finally, in becoming aware of Elizabeth’s destruction of Bardic Ireland, Shane realizes her true intent. By turn we admire, fear, envy, fall in love with and hate Shane O’Neill and his nemesis, Elizabeth. And we cannot but feel the betrayal perpetrated against Ireland as a nation, not solely by her invaders but, more bitterly, by her own leaders, religious and secular, the very ones trusted to protect and defend her. Yet at their hands and by their deeds, shame becomes the worm in her legacy.

There is a poem in Irish called Mise Eire (I am Ireland) the last stanza of which goes:

Mise Eire (I am Ireland )
Mór no náire (Great is my shame)
Mo chlann féin do dhíol a máthair (Twas my own family that sold out their mother) ♦

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