Many historians consider the Battle of Kinsale 1602 as marking the end of the old Irish Order but I disagree. The Irish spirit was not yet dead – it may have received a demoralising blow but it definitely wasn’t dead. The northern clans retreated gracefully and continued to defend their territories. Rory O’Donnell fought one last battle against the English at the Curlew mountains in the autumn of 1602. Shortly after he received the sad news of his brother’s (Red Hugh) death in Spain. With this news came the realisation that Spanish aid would not be coming and so the northern chieftains, including Hugh O’Neill and Rory O’Donnell, made peace with the English. Therefore I say that the death of Red Hugh was the turning point. The Irish spirit was definitely dead and the English Crown had finally conquered Ireland.
The O’Donnell Clan Association had commemorated the 400th anniversary of several events of the Nine Years War – most notable being the Battle of the Curlews in 1999. As 2002 approached we felt that the 400 anniversary of the death of Red Hugh should not pass un-noticed or un-remembered. All agreed it should take place in Spain but that presented huge problems. How could we organise the event in another country in another language? Then wonderful things began to happen. Maria Angelines O’Donnell of the Spanish O’Donnells but living in California came across my website and made contact with me. Patricio O’Donnell of the Spanish O’Donnells did exactly the same thing. Both agreed to help in whatever way they could. Around Christmas 2001 Maria Angelines visited Spain for a short holiday during which she called on some of her cousins to form a committee to organise the Spanish end of things. And there in January of 2002 the seed was sown for what was to be the greatest O’Donnell Clan Gathering ever. While Maria Angelines was the catalyst, Patricio was the person who did most of the ground work; Count Hugo was instrumental in gaining access for us to many institutions otherwise out of bounds to the general public and Mariana was the other member of that group. A travel agency in Madrid was appointed to look after accommodation, buses, guides etc. The only person at that agency with a knowledge of the English language was Puri Lopez a young beautiful energetic girl and so she was put in charge of everything both before and during the week. She played such a part in the entire event that she seemed to be one of us.
We had, about 60 people from Ireland, a dozen or so from the U.S., a few from England and Belgium and a good 40 turned up from Spain. Now it has to be understood that all the O’Donnells of Spain are descendent from Joseph O’Donnell who emigrated from Co. Mayo about 250 years ago, and Joseph descended from Manus 21st Chieftain (Manus was Red Hugh’s grandfather). We, Irish, were so delighted to meet with members of the Spanish branch who turned out to be a handsome and jolly lot. Very encouraging it was to see so many of their young people present. Nationalities were no longer important as we realised we had a stronger bond – we were O’Donnells!
Day 1, 3rd Sept.:
There was a bit of a delay getting out of the airport but when we did Puri Lopez was there with a coach waiting for us. A 20 minute drive took us to our hotel, Hotel Convencion, a 4 star hotel on O’Donnell Street. As we were already late for the Cocktail Reception we wasted no time getting to the Reception room where many of the Spaniards had been waiting for us for about an hour. We were warmly welcomed and the rest of the evening was spent in getting to know one another, making introductions, speeches, enjoying drinks and hors d’oeuvres and enjoying being together.
Day 2, 4th Sept.:
After breakfast we enjoyed a guided tour of Madrid, a beautiful city. Lunch was back in our hotel and then we were off again to visit among other places, the Prado Museum which houses so many wonderful paintings by the worlds greatest artists – El Greco, Goya, Marilo, Van Gogh and Picasso. We visited the Army Museum where our guide was an army general. There we saw a large collection of weapons and armaments, some dating back centuries. Among the exhibits were the sword of El Cid and swords and pistols of Leopoldo O’Donnell, 1st Duke of Tetuan and one of Spain’s greatest heroes. Our last visit was to the a reception in the City Hall where we were received by the Lord Mayor’s representative. Again we enjoyed drinks and finger food, heard the history of the building and its significence in Spanish history. A Donegal Parian China harp was presented to our host in thanksgiving. Later, back in the hotel, many of our group sat around drinking, chatting, singing and just having a nice time until well past 2.00am.
Day 3, 5th Sept.:
After an early breakfast it was off to Toledo where we enjoyed a guided tour of this ancient city. The cathedral is fascinating but the highlight of the day was our visit to El Alcázar, that huge fort on top of the hill which has seen some of the bravest and saddest scenes in Spanish history especially during the Civil War. Once again our guide through the Alcázar was a general from the Spanish army. Here also we saw some artefacts belonging to General Leopoldo O’Donnell. After presentations were made we went for lunch and then to a sword factory. During the 14th and 15th centuries Spanish ships often called to Donegal bringing goods from the Continent – silk, wine, etc. but always weapons. Toledo swords were always in high demand. We were back in the hotel by 9.00pm where the ‘áirneal’ went on, like the previous night, till long after the bar was closed.
Day 4, 6th Sept.:
Another early start for the 2 hour drive to Valladolid. On arrival we met the Spaniards who had travelled by another coach and had a different guide. We toured the city in two groups, our paths often crossing, which led to all sorts of good-natured banter every time we met. From previous experience we realised that for fifty people to keep toghther through busy streets there was a need for some sort of ‘guiding star’. Our O’Donnell flag fulfilled this purpose wonderfully. For the rest of the day various members of our group carried our standard with pride.
We eventually entered the Plaza Mayor and though our guide went on about the Plaza and the magnificent buildings surrounding it, most of us just thought and whispered about the bones of our beloved Red Hugh being buried somewhere close to where we were standing (outside the Cafe del Notre).
Somewhere here 400 years earlier the Prince of Tír Chonaill was buried inside the church of the the Franciscan Monastery. About 200 years ago the monastery was destroyed and a 100 years later the ruins removed. No trace remains today. Around a corner in a side street is a ceramic representation of the facade of the monastery and it is there the Lord Mayor has granted us permission to place a commemorative plaque.
We then proceeded to the City Hall for a reception. Again, there was food and drink, speeches, presentations and off we went to lunch. At lunch we were joined by the Spaniards, about 30 of them. It was a casual get together where we mixed, enjoyed lovely food and drink, toasted Ireland, Spain and the O’Donnells.
The two coaches brought us the short distance to Simancas Castle. It was here Red Hugh died on the 10th Sept. 1602 at the age of 29. The castle is not open to the public. It houses many of Spain’s archives, among them correspondence from Red Hugh and from Hugh O’Neill to the Kings of Spain requesting assistance. On our arrival we were taken on a tour of the castle. On a table in one of the rooms the the letters were on display. There we could see Red Hugh’s signature and seal.
Finally we assembled in the courtyard for our remembrance ceremony. It began with a decade of the Rosary being recited in the Gaelic language. Then Red Hugh’s will was read in both Spanish and in English. Eunan O’Donnell recited a wonderful eulogy to Red Hugh. Inside the main gate is a bronze plaque giving an account in Spanish and Gaelic of Red Hugh’s death. Under this plaque a laurel wreath was laid by Count Hugh, Pádraig McCosker on behalf of the Irish Ambassador, and Vincent O’Donnell of the O’Donnell Clan Association. Caitlín O’Donnell sang ‘Róisín Dubh’ supposedly composed by Red Hugh’s poet and expressing Red Hugh’s last wish for Ireland as he lay dying in Spain. And lastly, we all sang ‘O’Donnell Abu’.
It was a moving ceremony and, of course, the reason we were there. That night back in the hotel we once again enjoyed a few hours of our own nightly entertainment.
Day 5, 7th Sept.:
After breakfast we joined up with a group of the Spaniards to visit the Thyssen Museum to see more interesting Picasso, Dali, Miro, German Renassiance and Dutch 17th cent. paintings. By 7.00pm we assembled at the residence of the Irish Ambassador, Declan O’Donovan. This was the event that brought out the glitter and glam – both men and women were dressed in their finery. Here we were wined and dined with pomp and honuor. Speeches were made by Dermot Kinlen O’Donnell, Count Hugo, the Ambassador and a presentation to the Ambassador by Vincent O’Donnell.
It was then back to the Hotel Convencion for the banquet. The largest crowd of Spaniards we had met so far turned up for this event. They had come from many parts of the country and a fine bunch they were.
Also joining us were some friends of O’Donnells amongs them Ultano Kindalen, Chief of the Name, and his wife. After the meal there were presentations to those who had worked to make the Gathering such a success – Hugh O’Donnell, Count de Lucena, Maria Angelines O’Donnell, Patricio O’Donnell and Maraina O’Donnell. And a special presentation to that wonderful girl – Puri Lopez. After dinner the Irish challenged the Spaniards to a competition in entertaining the crowd – this was because we the Irish didn’t feel we received justice against Spain in the World Cup. What followed was truely amazing. People who had behaved themselves and were quiet all week suddenly showed another side of their personality.
There was dancing and singing, poetry and instrumental music, juggling and all sorts of entertainment. Groups could be seen here and there throughout the hotel whispering or practising or trying to remember words of songs etc. It was a wonderful bit of fun and I must say the Spaniards were great. Sometime in the middle of the night Juan O’Donnell from Malaga said, “There can be no loosers because we are all one family.” What a nice thought and how right he was? By 4.00am. we were all in bed except the young ones who had been invited to a night club by the young Spaniards. Some came back at 7.00pm. and some later.
Day 6, 8th Sept.:
It was difficult to rise next morning but we had one more duty to fulfill. A fleet of taxies was called and off we went to Santa Barbara church for Mass. It is here the remains of General Leopoldo lie in a beautifully wrought marble tomb to the left of the high altar. The remains of some Spanish Monarch are on the right. No one else is buried there.
Count Hugo and his family attended as did some others of the Spanish contingent. After Mass all Spaniards took their leave as many had a long journey to their homes. The rest of us passed the day sightseeing through old Madrid. Again we gathered in the bar area of the hotel for our last chance to drink, sing, chat etc.
Day 7, 9th Sept.:
No hurry this morning. We are free till 4.00pm. when the coach takes us to the airport. It was a lazy day, some shopped, some walked about, some just sat about until it was time to go. Gradually we were parting and saying ‘Good Byes’. Some were going off for another holiday in Spain, others were travelling home earlier, etc. Finally our turn came, we departed Madrid, the plane was on time, at Dublin Airport we said ‘Good Bye’ to more and my wife and I along with 10 more got on our bus to Donegal.
It was all over and as always it was nice to be coming back home. We had and have many fond memories and hopefully another Gathering will be organised here in Donegal within the next few years – the Spaniards all promised they would come.
But the greatest thought of all running through our heads was that the 400th anniversary of Red Hugh O’Donnell’s death had been commemorated and commemorated well. Thanks to all who organised, all who contributed in any way and especially to everyone who came along.