‘Every Kingdom divided against itself shall be destroyed’: Gaelic succession, overlords, uirríthe and the Nine Years’ War (1593-1603)
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The late sixteenth century was a tumultuous period for Ireland. The Tudor government’s attempts to extend their authority, laws and customs into an autonomous or semi-autonomous Gaelic Ireland was met with fierce resistance as the local Gaelic lords were determined to preserve their traditional power and way of life. The struggle between the two opposing worlds escalated over the final decades of the century and culminated in the Nine Years’ War, one the most bloody and influential conflicts in Irish history. The war was fought between the crown government and a Gaelic confederacy headed by two Ulster chieftains, Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, and Hugh Rua O’Donnell. Tyrone and O’Donnell did not have the full backing of Gaelic and Gaelicised Ireland as the island was a riven land. Much of the dissension in Gaelic Ireland was internal clan feuds which were a result of Gaelic succession practices. There was also conflict between clans as the stronger tried to impose their overlordship on the weaker. Such factiousness was open to exploitation by the government as rivals could be played off each and Gaelic allies recruited to their side. Such allies could prove to be very useful during conflict as they provided guides, spies, provisions and soldiers. During the Nine Years’ War the Gaelic confederacy mirrored wider society and thus it was a house of cards plagued by numerous divisions. Taking advantage of the different rifts among Tyrone and O’Donnell’s collation was a key policy of the crown government. This study examines Gaelic succession and how it led to divided clans and internal wars over the position of chieftain. The poor relations between clans will also be touched upon. The study will then evaluate the part these two forces of disunity, and the government’s exploitation of them, played during the Nine Years’ War and how much of a bearing they had on the outcome of the war.