Making History

Jenny Cathcart explores Brian Friel's play and the history behind The Flight of the Earls

As NI celebrates the 400th anniversary of The Flight of the Earls, Brian Friel's Making History is back on the stage. Making HIstory documents the experience of the first Earl of Tyrone, Hugh O’Neill, in the lead up to the battle of Kinsale and the Earls' subsequent flight from Ireland. Friel's play offers the perfect opportunity to explore one of Irish history's defining episodes.

Born in 1550, Hugh O’Neill, grandson of the first Earl of Tyrone, was set to occupy a unique place in history when he became the ward of Giles Hovendon, an English settler, and was taken to England. It was the England of William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe and Sir Francis Drake and O'Neill was to be educated by Sir Henry Sidney at Penshurst, passing ‘days without blemish’ amid fields of wheat and barley and neatly tended kitchen gardens.

Yet O’Neill retained a deep respect for his own Gaelic heritage, accepting that his fellow Irish pastoralists and sometime cattle-raiders were by nature more passionate and impulsive than the English. Therein lay his dilemma.

O’Neill, Baron of Dungannon, Earl of Tyrone and finally chief of the O'Neill clan ‘trotted behind the Tudors’ for more than 20 years, fighting on the English side in Munster before transferring his considerable wealth, power and leadership to the Irish rebellion.

In 1591, O’Neill eloped with the 21-year-old Mabel Bagenal, sister of arch enemy Sir Hugh Bagenal - the Queen’s marshal based in Newry. Entering into a short-lived ‘mixed’ marriage (for Mabel tired of O'Neill's contradictions and complexities), she died in 1595.

Following the English defeat of the Gaelic and Spanish forces at the battle of Kinsale, O’Neill signed the Treaty of Mellifont in 1603 a few days after the death of Elizabeth I.

From then his position became more and more untenable. On September 14, 1607, together with Rory O’Donnell, Earl of Tyrconnell, Cochunnacht Maguire and other Irish aristocrats, O’Neill set sail from Lough Swilly hoping to enlist the help of the Spanish and French kings in order to protect Catholic Ireland from English settlement. The ill-fated journey became known as the Flight of the Earls.

The man who had gone hunting with James I became, as historian John McCavitt affirms in his book The Flight of the Earls, ‘a pawn in the international chessboard of intrigue’ and was reduced to living on a monthly allowance from the Pope consisting of 100 crowns and a supply of bread and wine sufficient for ten persons. Back in Ireland ‘a powder-keg atmosphere prevailed’. The Plantation of Ulster began in earnest in the summer of 1610.

In the preface to his vivid account The Great O’Neill, Sean O'Faolain suggests that ‘a talented dramatist’ might write ‘an informative, entertaining, ironical play on the theme of the living man helplessly watching his translation into a star in the face of all the facts that had reduced him to poverty, exile and defeat’. Brian Friel is that dramatist and Making History is that play.

Friel, a Tyrone man himself, found the subject irresistible. A consummate storyteller, he brings the characters of O’Neill, his private secretary, Harry Hovedon, Hugh O’Donnell, Mabel Bagenal, her sister Mary Bagenal, and Peter Lombard (Roman Catholic bishop of Armagh) to life with wit, imagery and pathos.

Personalising history, Making History is above all a love story, the kind which fascinates Friel. The lovers being from opposing families, he uses poetic licence to underline the poignancy of O’Neill’s relationship with Mabel, his third and most cherished wife, by announcing her death after the battle of Kinsale.

In the final scene of the play, set in Rome, Lombard is completing his written account of O’Neill’s glorious exploits, being of the opinion that truth may not be the primary ingredient because history will prefer a national hero. 'Don’t embalm me in piety', warns O’Neill and then, his upper-class English accent fading to a barely audible Irish whisper, he weeps bitterly for Mabel, pleading for her forgiveness.

For Denis Conway, whose powerful performance as O’Neill is central to Ouroboros Theatre's production, the most electrifying performance of Making History took place on Dungannon Castle Hill. There, every line of the play resonated with an audience drawn from all sections of the community.

At Enniskillen castle (once home to Cochunnacht Maguire who commandeered the French vessel which transported the Earls to Europe) the historic Watergate provided an eloquent backdrop. At the Fort in Rathmullan (from where the Earls set sail exactly 400 years before) Conway and his fellow actors celebrated the end of their Irish tour with a bottle of champagne offered by the playwright himself.

Conway feels that Making History is uncannily relevant in this anniversary year as the latest wave of immigrants arrive in Ireland and a new Assembly is established in Belfast. He believes that O’Neill was above all a man of vision.

‘If, 400 years ago, the Gaelic chieftains had not been as Friel says, "trapped in the old paradigms of thought" but had shared with O’Neill a broader view of the world, they might have absorbed the new colonial English and more of their Celtic traditions would survive in Ireland today.’

McCavitt comes to a similar conclusion:

‘Had (Sir Arthur) Chichester’s advice been implemented, to grant substantial lands to the indigenous Irish who remained in Ulster along with some reasonable help to stock and manure it, then the legacy of bitterness ultimately bequeathed by the Ulster Plantation may well have been avoided.’