The Tale of Red Hugh
Lucky? Maybe so. From where I'm standing, rather lying, it's debatable. I'm alive. I'm
recovering. I suppose I'm fortunate, though the doctors say I won't be fully on my feet for
months to come. That's a long, long time.
Damn, damn, damn!
It hurts. And I can't show it. The bards won't let me. "You're an O'Donnell. O'Donnells
don't show pain. It's bad for their image." Image! Shimage! Public relations they call it.
Not losing face, they call it. "Don't show weakness, any weakness, physical, mental." Easy
for them to say. They didn't suffer the knife and all that went before it. Easy for you to
see it's one of my bad days.
My story is being told in fort and dun and castle the length and breadth of Fodhla, and
they say in the land of the Sassanach too. Sends shivers up their spines. Of that I'm glad.
Of that I'm proud. But if they could see me now, hobbled as I am, suffering as I am, would
they fear me? Not bloody likely!
Image they want. Image they'll get. If it kills me!
They wanted to kill me. Did they ever! A whole ship's crew sent to kidnap one
fifteen-year-old boy! At Lough Swilly it was, a cursed place, and I heading for Lough Foyle,
poor Colmcille's last sight of Ireland, a mournful tone in his lament that the bards
preserve to this very day. Who knows what future ills will stem from there?
Morbid? With good reason.
A captive in Dublin Castle in the keeping of the Sassanach had little to cheer him up.
Dublin, a long way away, and a rocky road from Dublin back to Donegal.
Back to Tirconnel. That's all I could think of. That's all that kept my spirits up. How?
"It's high on the gallows tree for you, me bucko! Just you wait, Hugh O'Donnell, just you
wait!" The taunting of the gaol guards. I can hear it still. Jabbering in bearla, the
coarse tongue that they spoke.
It was after Samhain that the plotting began. A whispered word. A smuggled letter. "Be
Then disaster. The plot discovered, and a traitor paid off. Long weeks of misery for me. A
cold, cold cell. Starvation diet. Not easy that.
Then deliverance. A cold, cold night. A smuggled key. True friends waiting. Thank God to
But the storm struck, and the snow swirled. Our breathing belaboured, our footwear worn
through, legs and hands frozen, we gained the high hills. In the land of O'Beirne we
finally found shelter. There, too, I found both my feet were frost bitten.
Behind spread the hue and cry, and next day we had to flee again. Still the snow fell.
Northward we set our course, day merging into snow-filled night, night passing into
"Reach the Erne. Must reach the Erne." One thought alone. Reach the Erne and we would be
"Patrick, Bridget, and Colmcille, help us to reach the Erne today; Patrick, Bridget, and
Colmcille, help us to reach the Erne today." The words sank into my brain.
At last we made Armagh and the friendly folk of Ulster. The rest of my journey not hard to
take, feted and feasted by one and all. O'Neill and Maguire did treat me kindly and helped
me on my way.
The rest you know. A recovery of sorts. A rallying of the clans. Ouster of the Sassanach
blackguards, and restoration of the abbey to the monks of Donegal. A tale for the bards to
Now all I want for Samhain are my two big toes, but that can never be.
"The Age of Christ, 1592." Here in the Annals of the Four Masters is given at length the
story of Red Hugh O'Donnell's escape from captivity in Dublin Castle in the depths of a
snowy winter, and of his safe, but not sound, arrival at the castle of Ballyshannon on the
Erne, built by Niall, the son of Turlogh of the Wine, in 1423. At the time of his return,
the neighbourhood was being ravaged by "two famous captains", Captain Willis and Captain
Conwell, who had established their headquarters in the monastery of Donegal whence the
friars of Saint Francis had fled. Hugh ejected them and sent them fleeing into Connaught,
his warriors' cry "To hell or to Connaught" echoing in their ears.
"Hugh O'Donnell returned to Ballyshannon and sent for physicians to cure his feet, but they
were not able to effect a cure until they had cut off both his big toes; and he was not
perfectly well until the end of a year afterwards."
(Annals of the Four Masters).
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