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Hugh O'Neill was a boy from Ireland who had been raised by the viceroy of Queen Elizabeth I. He was well-liked by the Tudor house, and became Earl of Tyrone in 1587, one of the most powerful men in Ireland under the British Empire.

Despite this, however, he was still loyal to the Roman Catholic Church, which had been outlawed in Ireland in 1558 so that the Church of England could take over. During his time as Earl of Tyrone, he was allowed to keep 600 men in arms: by constantly rotating new soldiers in and out of his allotted 600, he was able to build his own standing army without violating British law. The Crown soon caught wind of what O'Neill was up to, and became even more suspicious when he failed to execute a group of survivors from the Spanish Armada who washed ashore in Ireland in 1588.

Enter Red Hugh O'Donnell, the Earl of Tyrconnell in Ulster. Western Ulster, at that time, was a predominantly Gaelic area: British settlers kept to the Belfast side of Lough Neagh. By 1593, it was one of the last parts of Ireland where the Irish still ruled.

O'Neill and O'Donnell decided to make an alliance against the British settlers, and in 1595, set out for Clontibret to fight the army of Sir Henry Bagenal. Bagenal's men, unfamiliar with the local terrain, were routed spectacularly at Clontibret, and Bagenal himself was killed two years later at the Battle of the Yellow Ford on the River Blackwater, when O'Neill's army defeated him once more.

Riding high, O'Neill enlisted the help of the Spanish for his next battle against the British, which took place in 1601 at Kinsale. However, his army ended up fighting in British-dominated territory where they had very little knowledge of the terrain, and was cleanly routed despite the influx of Spanish men and arms.

After Kinsale, O'Donnell fled to Spain, but O'Neill decided to remain in Ireland. In 1603, he surrendered to the Queen and accepted a settlement that reinstated his earldom over Tyrone. However, he only stayed in Ireland for four more years. In 1607, along with O'Donnell's brother Rory O'Donnell and ninety others, Hugh O'Neill boarded a French ship at Rathmullan and set sail for a self-imposed exile in Spain. Storms forced his ship to divert to France, and from there he made his way to Rome, where he lived until his death in 1616. The departure of the Earl of Tyrone and Earl of Tyrconnell went down in Irish history as the "Flight of the Earls": it was the end of Irish rule in Ireland until Eamon de Valera and Michael Collins won it back centuries later.


Before I knew what the Flight of the Earls really was, I knew it as a famous ballad written by Liam Reilly. It was first sung by Patsy Watchorn, and later picked up by Liam's famous brother, singer Paddy Reilly. It refers to another group of young Irish men who left their homeland: those who went overseas to find work in the postwar, pre-EU period of stagnation.

I can hear the bells of Dublin in this lonely waiting room
And the paperboys are singin' in the rain
Not too long before they take us to the airport and the noise
To get on board a transatlantic plane
We've got nothin' left to stay for,
We had no more left to say
And there isn't any work for us to do
So farewell ye boys and girls;
Another bloody Flight of Earls
Our best asset is our best export, too

It's not murder, fear or famine that makes us leave this time
We're not going to join McAlpine's Fusiliers
We've got brains, and we've got visions; we've got education, too!
But we just can't throw away these precious years
So we walk the streets of London
And the streets of Baltimore
And we meet at night in several Boston bars
We're the leaders of the future
But we're far away from home
And we dream of you beneath the Irish stars

As we look on Ellis Island, and the lady in the bay
And Manhattan turns to face another Sunday
We just wonder what you're doing to bring us all back home
As we look forward to another Monday
Because it's not the work that scares us;
We don't mind an arduous job
And we know things will get better once again
So a thousand times adieu,
We've got Bono and U2
All we're missin' is the Guinness and the rain

So switch off your new computers, 'cos the writing's on the wall
We're leaving, as our fathers did before
Take a look at Dublin Airport, or the boat that leaves North Wall
There'll be no youth unemployment any more
Because we're over here in Queensland,
And in parts of New South Wales
We're on the seas and airways and the trains
But if we see better days,
Those big airplanes go both ways
And we'll all be coming back to you again!

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