Saturday, May 9, 2015

Iníon Dubh, Scottish Princess

model and photographer Niamh O'Rourke and actor, archaeologist, Dave Swift portray Iníon Dubh and Redshank in a recent Irish photo shoot.  

Iníon Dubh (said, Nee-an doo) is one of the most remembered and beloved heroines in Irish history.  Iníon Dubh was her pet name which means 'black haired daughter.'  She was Fionnuala Ní Dhónaill née Nic Dhónaill.  She was a Gaelic aristocrat, the daughter of the taoiseach of clann Mhic Dhónaill, Seamus Mac Dónaill, and Anna Chaimbeul, the daughter of the third Earl of Argyll, head of clann Chaimbeul.  She was multi lingual, speaking her native Gaelic, Latin, and English.  She was born on Islay and spent much of her early life in the Scottish Court.  She married Aodh Mac Manus Ó Dónaill in the summer of 1569.   She moved to the Laggan district of Donegal with some 1,000 Redshanks recruited from clans Caimbeul and Mac Dónaill.

With her husband's health failing, she became the de facto taoiseach of Clann Uí Dhónaill by the mid 1580s.  She was by this time also the most powerful person in west Ulster, because she commanded her own army of very devoted Redshanks.  An account of her career in Donegal will be included in the book A Short History of the Laggan Redshanks, 1569-1630, which will be published by Ulster Heritage Publishing later this spring.

Iníon Dubh was the mother of Aodh Rua Ó Dónaill who led his west Ulster army to many victories against the English in the Nine Years War (1594-1603). 

She lived at Mongavlin just south of St Johnston, in east Donegal.  The remains of her castle are still standing.  Her legacy still lives in Donegal in the many families there that are of Redshank origins.




(Below, the chapter on Iníon Dubh from the book Finding the McCains  which is available on Amazon)

Iníon Dubh


The River Foyle is a large, brown water, tidal river, that flows north into Loch Foyle and then on into the Atlantic Ocean.  It begins at the town of Lifford in Donegal from the confluence of the Finn and Mourne rivers.  The Foyle is one of the best salmon fishing areas in Ireland.  The low lands on the west side of the river are called the Lagan,[1] taking that name from the Gaelic word lagan, meaning a hollow or low lying area.  In the Lagan, on the banks of the river, is the small market town of St Johnston.  The lands around St Johnston are green and fertile and there you will see the many shades of Irish green.  It is a beautiful area where farms still flourish and time is marked by the changing seasons.  In Elizabethan times, this part of the Lagan was called the Portlough precinct.  After her marriage to Aodh Mac Manus Ó Dónaill, Iníon Dubh settled just south of St Johnston at Mongavlin castle.  This is also where the McCains first appear in Ireland.

It was a highly strategic area. Not only was it fertile, rich land, but the Foyle River on the Lagan's eastern border provided easy access into O’Donnell lands.  Troops were needed there to protect the Foyle river ports. Large number of Redshanks accompanied Iníon Dubh to her new home there to accomplish this task.  Accounts vary, but the number of Redshanks was certainly over 1,000.  There was, throughout her time in the Lagan, an ebb and flow of Redshanks as the military needs of Clan O’Donnell dictated.  Iníon Dubh was aggressive in her efforts to defend west Ulster from English rule and her weapon of choice were the tall, fair, broad shouldered Gaels of Argyll.

Iníon Dubh was a traditional Gaelic woman, but she was also able to interact with the Elizabethan English on their terms. She spent her teenage years in the Scottish court and understood the subtle nuances of politics and war.  She had command of a large force of Redshanks and was not afraid to put them into use.  Lughaidh Ó Cléirigh, her contemporary and biographer of her son, wrote of her “she was the head of advice and counsel of the Cenél Conaill (Clan O’Donnell), and though she was calm and very deliberate and much praised for her womanly qualities, she had the heart of a hero and the mind of a soldier,”[2]  She has a unique place in Irish history.  She was a Scottish aristocrat, her father the head of Clan Donald and her mother the daughter of the Campbell chief, but she became a heroine of the Irish in the north.  Iníon Dubh is best remembered for her defense of her sons, who had glorious but tragic lives as Gaelic warriors. 

Iníon Dubh’s main residence in the Lagan was the castle at Mongavlin.  She had a secondary house at Carrigans, just north of St Johnston.  These locations were not random.  Both were river harbors where the Redshank galleys could easily land.  It is not a large area. Carrigans is only one and three quarters miles north of St Johnston and Mongavlin is only two and a quarter miles to its south.  The Redshanks of Iníon Dubh settled around her within the five or so miles between Mongavlin and Carrigans. 

The Elizabethan English were very cognizant of the Redshanks in Ireland.  The Calendar of the State Papers Relating To Ireland has correspondences of English officials in Ulster reporting their movements from the mid-1500s onward.  The English feared the Redshanks and the actions of Iníon Dubh in particular.  Scotland was still considered a threat to England and so many Scots in Ireland was considered an invasion of English ruled land.  Iníon Dubh used her Campbell clan connections to great effect and made many trips to Argyll to visit the fifth Earl of Argyll and his successor.  She would stay for several months, recruiting her Redshanks, and return with a fleet of Gaelic galleys to her lands on the shores of the River Foyle.

There is a description of these Redshanks found in the early 1600s book Beatha Aodha Ruaidh Uí Dhomhnaill (Life of Aodh Rua Ó Dónaill), written by the seanchaí (historian) of Clan O’Donnell, Lughaidh Ó Cléirigh:

They were recognized among the Irish soldier by the distinction of their arms and clothing, their habits and language, for their exterior dress was mottled cloaks of many colors with a fringe to their shins and calves, their belts were over their loins outside their cloaks.  Many of them had swords with hafts of horn, large and warlike, over their shoulders.  It was necessary for the soldier to grip the very haft of his sword with both hands when he would strike a blow with it.  Others of them had bows of carved woods strong for use, with well-seasoned strings of hemp, and arrows sharp pointed, whizzing in flight.[3]

Ó Cléirigh’s comments referred to the arrival in Derry of a thousand Redshanks under Dónall Gorm Mac Dónaill of Skye and  Mac Leóid of Arran in 1594.  They were in the service of Iníon Dubh’s son and part of his troop build-up at the beginning of the Nine Year's War.  Ó Cléirigh was an eyewitness to these events and his account provides insight into the physical appearance of the Redshanks in the 1590s.  For centuries Irish and Scottish Gaels had dressed identically in a saffron colored léine (long shirt to the knees) and jacket.  By the late 1500s, the unique dress of the Scottish Gaels had developed and the belted kilt was worn by many Redshanks.  The two handed swords and bows described by Ó Cléirigh were the favorite weapons of the Redshanks and they were proficient in their use.  Ó Cléirigh also noted the dialect differences in the Gaelic spoken by these Redshanks.

Both the native Irish and the English made a distinction between the older Scots in Ireland, the Gallóglaigh, and the newer Scots, the Redshanks.  The native Irish called the Redshanks, na Albanaigh, which simply means “the Scots.”   The English called them Irish-Scots, Scots-Irish, or Redshanks.  By the mid-1500s, some Redshanks were settling in Ulster and not returning back to Scotland after the campaigning season.  In 1542, John Travers, the Master of the Ordnance in Ireland wrote:

… where as a company of Irisshe Skottes otherwise called Redshankes daily commeth into the northe parties of Irelande and purchaseth castels and piles uppon the seecoste there so as it is thought that there be at this present above the nombre of 2 or 3 thousande of them within this Realme…[4]

In April of 1571, Lord Justice William FitzWilliam wrote to the Privy Council:

The Scots in the North build, manure the ground, and settle, as though they should never be removed.[5]

By 1580, Iníon Dubh and her Redshanks began to dominate the political and military affairs of western Ulster.  She was by this time the acting head of Clan O’Donnell.  Some sources say her husband, Aodh Mac Manus, was growing senile.  The reasons she took the reins of leadership were probably multiple and included her husband’s age, failing health, and loss of mental clarity.  Iníon Dubh’s early life in the Scottish court and her links to Clan Campbell and Clan Donald gave her the needed connections and experience to protect her family’s position.  She also had her own army, which she paid and commanded personally, and her Redshanks were completely devoted to her.

There were many threats to Iníon Dubh.  The children of her husband by his first wife were rivals to her own children and there was always the English to contend with.  In 1587, John Perrot, the English Lord Deputy of Ireland, wanted hostages from the O’Donnells to insure that they would not aid the Spanish in their war against England.  Perrot plotted to kidnap Iníon Dubh and her husband, but only their oldest son, Aodh Rua, fell into English hands.  He was imprisoned in Dublin Castle.  Iníon Dubh threw all her energies into freeing her son and making him the head of Clan O’Donnell.  In 1588, Iníon Dubh attempted to obtain the release of Aodh Rua by rounding up some survivors of the Spanish Armada that made land fall in Donegal and presenting them to the English in Dublin as an exchange for her son.  The English took the prisoners, but had them all executed and kept Aodh Rua in his dungeon cell.  She then told the English she would work with the Spanish if they did not release him, again with no success.

It was decidedly unhealthy to cross Iníon Dubh in matters relating to her children.  She was in a vulnerable position with her husband in failing health and her oldest son a prisoner of the English, yet she managed to hold on to power.  Her husband was thought by some within Clan O’Donnell as unfit to be head of the clan.  The first rival to press the issue was Aodh Mac Calbhach Ó Gallchobhair.  He was a mysterious figure, perhaps an illegitimate son of Calbhach Ó Dónaill, or perhaps fostered with Calbhach’s family. Whatever the case, he let it be known he could take the headship.  Aodh Mac Calbhach had cooperated with the English and had been an accomplice in the infamous murder of Iníon Dubh’s first cousin, Alasdair Mac Somhairle Mac Dónaill.  In 1588, Aodh Mac Calbhach attempted to visit Iníon Dubh at her castle and press the issue.  Iníon Dubh was not impressed.  She addressed her beloved Redshanks about the need for justice and revenge upon Aodh Mac Calbhach.  They attacked Aodh Mac Calbhach while he was in St Johnstown, killing him and his entire party.

Another of Iníon Dubh’s rivals was her husband’s son by an earlier marriage, Dónall Mac Aodh Ó Dónaill.  Dónall proclaimed himself as head of Clan O’Donnell.  He also underestimated Iníon Dubh.  She took command of her army of Redshanks and marched out to meet Dónaill Ó Dónaill in battle.  Dónall assembled a formidable host that included his factions within Clan O’Donnell, along with allied clans.  The Battle of Derrylaghan took place on 14 September 1590 when the two armies met to the south of Gleann Cholm Cille near the village of Teileann.  The Redshanks used their bows to stun Dónall’s army and then closed with their two handed swords.  Dónall’s army was crushed and he, many of the Irish nobles, and 200 of their men, were killed. 

Aodh Rua finally escaped Dublin Castle in 1592.  Iníon Dubh persuaded her husband to abdicate and Aodh Rua became The Ó Dónaill.  Iníon Dubh bought off the last rival claiming the headship of the clan, Niall Garbh Ó Dónaill, and arranged a marriage between him and her daughter Nuala.

The English tried to oust Aodh Rua, but with no success.  Aodh Rua and his Redshanks won several sharp engagements against the English. Then he allied himself with Aodh Mór Ó Neill and that began the Nine Years War (1594-1603).   In the conflict, Aodh Rua and Aodh Mór Ó Neill had many victories and defeated every English army sent to destroy them in Ulster.  For seven years they held the English armies at bay, but both leaders knew this could not last.  English pressure on the north was increasing and the Irish sought Spanish help with the war.  Spain finally managed to land a small force, but in the worst possible place, on the opposite end of the country.   The small Spanish force landed in County Cork and were promptly besieged by the English under Lord Mountjoy.  Aodh Rua and Ó Neill had no choice, if they wanted Spanish help, but to march across Ireland to relieve the Spanish besieged there.  In Ulster, the Irish victories were due to the complete support of the people and the heavily wooded and mountainous terrain which suited the Gaelic style of war.   Many of the Irish victories were fought from ambush in passes and along winding roads in deep forests or from a fixed, prepared position.  These were styles of warfare that favored the Gaels.  It was a great gamble for Aodh Rua and Ó Neill to abandon what had served them so well, but they needed Spanish help to push the English out of Ireland.  Against their better judgment, they marched across the country to Cork to assist their besieged Spanish allies.  The Battle of Kinsale was fought on 3 January 1602 when the Irish army attempted to relieve the Spanish.  The Irish were forced into open field battle and were utterly defeated.  Aodh Rua took a ship to Spain to organize further resistance, but he died a few months later, thought to be poisoned by an English spy.

Aodh Mór Ó Neill returned to Ulster.  In 1607, he also left for Spain, along with Aodh Rua’s brother, Ruairi, who had become The Ó Dónaill after Aodh Rua's death.  Their intention was to raise money and an army to continue the war.  They set sail from Rathmullan, a small village on the shore of Loch Swilly in County Donegal, with ninety followers, many of them the cream of Ulster’s Gaelic nobles, an event known as the Flight of the Earls.  Their destination was Spain, but they landed first in France. Some made their way to Spanish Flanders, while others continued on to Rome.  Their plans came ultimately to nothing and both Ruairi Ó Dónaill and Aodh Mór Ó Neill died in exile.

One of Iníon Dubh’s last recorded acts was a small piece of unfinished business.  Niall Garbh Ó Dónaill had turned traitor in the end, supporting the English against Aodh Rua.  Iníon Dubh implicated Niall Gabh in a failed uprising in 1608 and he spent the rest of his days in the Tower of London where he died.  Iníon Dubh’s daughter, Nuala, left Niall Garbh, taking their children with her.

The year of 1609 brought great change in Ulster.  The old Gaelic order had finally been broken and this allowed for the Plantation of Ulster.  The lands of Clan O’Donnell were confiscated under James I.  This included Iníon Dubh’s lands at Portlough precinct in the Lagan. This part of the Lagan was planted by Scots.  The two main families of Undertakers in the Portlough precinct were the Stewarts of Lennox and Cunninghams of Ayrshire.  Both families had close ties to James I and received large grants of land.  However, there was already a Scottish community in the Lagan. Iníon Dubh’s Campbell Redshanks, including the McCains, were already living in the Portlough precinct.



[1] See Lagan map page 2.
[2] Lughaidh Ó Cléirigh, Beatha Aodha Ruaidh Uí Dhómhnaill, trans. Paul Walsh (Cork: University College, 2012. http://www.ucc.ie/celt, 39.
[3] Lughaidh Ó Cléirigh, Beatha Aodha Ruaidh Uí Dhómhnaill, trans. Paul Walsh (Cork: University College, 2012. http://www.ucc.ie/celt, 73.
[4] Hamilton, Calendar, 302.
[5] Ibid., 444.

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