1558-69: Shane O’Neill’s Rebellion


Eight years


Ireland, from Ulster down to Dublin


Shane O’Neill, heir to the Earldom of Tyrone

Main causes

Local opposition to central power

Subsidiary causes

  • Internal Irish politics
  • Religion – O’Neill claimed to be true “defender of the faith” in Ireland


  • O’Neill’s successfully use guerrilla tactics – rebellion too difficult and expensive to put down
  • O’Neill eventually murdered by rival Irish, perhaps paid by English.
  • Elizabeth attaints O’Neill lands in Ulster, seizing extensive possessions but storing up future trouble with the Earls of Tyrone

Degree of threat

Medium. Rebellion was long lasting, but largely because it was financially and militarily impossible for English to bring decisive force to bear. Dublin was threatened but while O’Neill wanted to rule his part of Ulster without interference, there was no call for outright independence or regime change


Shane O’Neill was the eldest legitimate son of the Earl of Tyrone, but he had an older illegitimate brother named Matthew. Under Irish custom, only a legitimate son could inherit, but Shane’s father preferred Matthew and did a deal with the English Lord Deputy that would allow the bastard to succeed him.

Many of the O’Neills supported Shane and felt his father had betrayed their clan and Gaelic custom by using English law to get what he wanted rather than stick to Irish custom. In 1558, Matthew was killed in a fight with Shane’s men. When Shane’s father died shortly afterwards, the Earl of Sussex – Elizabeth’s deputy in Ireland – decided it would be safer to back Matthew’s sons, who would favour London, for the earldom of Tyrone.

Shane O’Neill accepted the Earldom after his father’s death – even though this acceptance implied willingness to conform to English law, a decision that had the potential to have serious consequences for his clan and his own children. However, he also saw himself as a Gaelic clan leader in the old tradition, and by the end of 1558 decided to reassert the traditional independence of his clan by rebelling.

The uprising coincided with a difficult year for Elizabeth, who faced the threat of a French invasion at the time. This meant she could not afford to send forces to deal with O’Neill immediately, and he made the most of a long delay, securing almost all of Ulster. It was not until 1561 that Sussex marched against him, and even then the English relied heavily on the O’Neill’s traditional clan enemies, the O’Donnells, for support.

O’Neill was a guerrilla fighter, avoiding head on battle with the English, but using surprise and targeting supplies. He even brought in 1,000 Scottish mercenaries – “Redshanks” – to fight for him, and with their help reached the outskirts of Dublin.

Elizabeth was forced to mount three expensive expeditions in response, and it was only in 1563, when attention was turned to destruction of O’Neill property – farms were burned and cattle killed – that Shane was persuaded to come to terms. Promised a full pardon and safe conduct, he visited London and was received and pardoned by Elizabeth, before being reconfirmed as Earl of Tyrone. On his return he mounted a self-serving show of “loyalty” to the crown by attacking the O’Donnell’s in the queen’s name, stealing 30,000 cattle.

The treaty signed with Shane lasted only two years before his rebellion began anew in 1565. A new English leader, Sidney, had only 1,000 men, and despite luckily capturing most of Shane’s treasury, he could not capture him.

By 1567, Shane was badly over-reaching himself, however, seeking alliances with France and Spain as well as the O’Donnells. Many historians believe that Sidney was sufficiently concerned by all this to pay the O’Donnells to murder Shane; whoever was behind the murder, Shane’s death in 1569 brought the rebellion to an end.

Reasons for success and failure

If you want to argue that O’Neill’s rebellion was partially successful                                  

  • English lacked cash and political will to take strong action – the main English force was rarely more than 1,000 strong
  • Shane eluded all attempts to capture him – his eventual death was at the hands of other Irish
  • The length of the rebellion and the numbers willing to fight for Shane show there was still a strong element of Gaelic nationalism in Ireland
  • The Duke of Sussex was recalled to London in disgrace for his failure to capture O’Neill and end the rebellion

If you want to argue that O’Neill was in the end a failure

  • Shane was able to stay free, but never faced the English in pitched battle nor won any major territory from them
  • There was no real threat to English control over Dublin

Key stats, quotes & views

  • Sidney’s 1565 army was only 2,000 strong, but was the largest seen in Ireland throughout the rebellion – a sign of how little resource the Tudors were able to muster to suppress rebellion in Ireland
  • Despite her financial difficulties, Elizabeth had to spend £250,000 over 10 years on suppressing O’Neill’s rebellion
  • ‘Lucifer had never been more puffed up by pride and ambition.’
    • Sir Henry Sidney on Shane O’Neill

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