The Death of Shane O’Neill at Cushendun

by Stephen O'Hara

Shane O’Neill, riding to Cushendun on June 2, 1567, pondered his life until that evening. Pulling his cloak tightly round his shoulders he considered where he was going and why. The MacDonnells had agreed to meet, and he hoped to enlist them in reclaiming his “throne” as the Earl of Ulster.

True, he had massacred 700 MacDonnells at Glenshesk two years previously, but surely they understood a justifiable act of war. They threatened Shane; styling themselves “The Lords of The Isles” was unacceptable, on the edge of his territory.

And hadn’t Queen Elizabeth instructed him to remove these Scottish interlopers who threatened her interests as much as Shane’s?

He had spent all of his thirty-seven years fighting to be recognised as successor to his father as Earl of Tyrone. This he turned over in his head as he neared Cushendun, the trees straining against the wind, the little fortified castle of the MacDonnells in view.

Damned English – they accepted his idiot half-brother because he was older – they insisted that the first-born should inherit, in keeping with English law.

He pressed on. Dinner at these meetings was always formal and polite, and then, in the glow of the fire, the chieftains would discuss the politics, and the concessions that would inevitably follow. Shane sniffed and shook his head at having to go begging to his hated foe, but he had little choice.

He was greeted formally, his gallowglasses told to stay their long claymores and battle-axes, grumbling about being disarmed, but understanding the rules of hospitality. Bare-headed, with loose-sleeved saffron tunics, they entered the house, and took their places.

Dinner was as expected; pork and mutton were plentiful, and the pudding made from oxblood which these damned Scots loved were on the table.

Soon the conversation turned to a treaty. The MacDonnells brought up Glenshesk, but Shane insisted they talk only of the future. He didn’t notice the younger chieftains moving from the table. Nor did he notice as they returned, blades concealed inside sleeves and beneath cloaks.

Soon each gallowglass, and O’Neill himself, was shadowed by at least two of the MacDonnell’s men. The massacre happened quickly; Shane’s men didn’t know their end at all, so swift were the dagger strikes, the thuds from axes splitting heads open, almost unnoticed.  Unarmed, they stood no chance. When it was Shane’s turn to die, a roar, a scream almost, went up and the MacDonnells had their revenge.

Shane’s body was butchered, his head to the ramparts at Dublin Castle, his body buried at Ballyterrim, and the world turned. For generations his descendants would fight for the position their ancestor had lost. But The O’Neill, Shane the Proud, Seán an Díomais, was dead.

Nothing remains today but a ruined castle and a story. Occasionally, on a dark night, with wind blowing hard enough to flatten a thorn tree, travellers say they can hear the screams of half a hundred men meeting their deaths, and the cheers of The MacDonnells, in the darkness.

Stephen O’Hara