Spanish archaelogical dig for tragic Irish chieftain (THE NEWRY DEMOCRAT)

By Donal McMahon
A Newry historian has played a
key role in the Spanish search for
the remains one of the great tragic
heroes of history labelled the Irish
William Wallace.
The historical magnitude of a potential
find of the 17th century Irish chieftain
Red Hugh O’Donnell is said by historians
to be comparable to shock find
of the last Plantagenet English King,
Richard III under a Leicester carpark.
The hugely significant search in the
Spanish city of Valladolid has attracted
international attention with the dual
possibility of locating the original burial
site of one of the world’s most famous
explorers at the entrance of the Chapel
of Marvels, none other than Christopher
Columbus, the discoverer of the
Americas in 1492.
Former Abbey Grammar teacher, Dr
John McCavitt, a Fellow of the Royal
Historical Society has provided his
expertise to the archaeology team led by
the Hispano-Irish Association.
“The location of Red Hugh O’Donnell’s
burial has long been known with the
authorities convinced last year to undertake
an archaeological dig,” e xplained
Dr McCavitt.
Red Hugh O’Donnell, one of the
masterminds of the Nine Years’ War
against the English from 1593 to 1603,
died in 1602 after he fled to Spain to
appeal for renewed help from King
Philip II in fighting their shared enemy.
The exact location of his burial was lost
during a period of civil and religious
upheaval in Spain during the 18th
century leading historians and archaeologists
from Ireland and Spain to
collaborate in order to pinpoint the
original burial site.
“After the Spanish search team contacted
me, I provided them with an
electronic copy of my ‘Illustrated History
of the Flight of the Earls’, supplying
them with images, and I have
been in constant touch with them
advising on matters of historical accuracy
and context,” added the Newry
As early excitement grew this week in
the north west of Spain, the historical
game was afoot or so it seemed as the
skeletal remains of “a big strong man”
were found at the identified burial
However, the initial indications which
had brought them to a 400-year-old site
were kicked into touch with an undeniable
anatomical discovery, as Red
Hugh had famously lost two toes to
frostbite whilst hiding out from the
English in the Wicklow mountains.
President of the Hispano-Irish Association,
Carlos Burgos has confirmed
on location that the remains found this
week has a full complement of toes
providing a negative ID for the Irish
A total of 12 bodies were uncovered at
the current dig site at the entrance to the
Chapel of Marvels the place where
archaeologists has understood that Red
Hugh O’Donnell and perhaps the body
of Christopher Columbus were buried
as a mark of respect alongside bishops
and earls.
However, the search continues for Red
It is thought that the body of Christopher
Columbus may have been removed
from Valladolid to a different
location in the past, though the facts
have not yet been unearthed.
It is hoped that the current dig my
provide some clues as to his true
whereabouts as the search for Red Hugh
O’Donnell continues once all the remains
are studied. Evidence has already
suggested some date back as far as the
14th century right up to the 17th century
artefacts including a coin of king Philip
II of Spain.
As a historical adviser on the period of
the Flight of the Earls in 1607, research
on Red Hugh O’Donnell’s remains has
revealed some of the less well-known
facts of the O’Donnell name in Spain to
Dr McCavitt.
“Red Hugh O’Donnell and his brother-
in-law, Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone
were important allies of the Spanish
during hostilities with Elizabethan England,”
explained Dr McCavitt.
“News of their famous victory at the
Battle of the Yellow Ford in 1598 was
greeted with jubilation in Spain.
“Juan Guimerans, director for culture
and tourism in Valladolid has also
highlighted to me that O’Donnell is a
very famous surname in Spanish history.
“O’Donnells reached high positions in
the Spanish army and politics, including
one who became prime minister of
“He also said there have been O’Donnells
in Valladolid too, probably the
best-known Mr Carlos O’Donnell
(1762-1830), member of the Royal Army,
who was the founder of the oldest still
running today Charity House in the
“There are also prominent sporting
links with the grounds used by Real
Madrid and Atletico Madrid once called
Campo de O’Donnell.
“The historical reputation of Red Hugh
O’Donnell is untainted by an association
with the Flight of the Earls in 1607 by his
brother-in-law, Hugh O’Neill, Earl of
Dungannon and his brother, Rory
O’Donnell, Earl of Tyrconnell. Like Red

Hugh, they too were attempting to
travel to Spain to seek military assistance.
“Stripped largely of arms and ammunition
as a result of an early version
of a decommissioning policy in the
aftermath of the Nine Years War, the
earls were powerless to offer effective
military operations against a crown
administration in Dublin headed by
their bitter adversary, Sir Arthur
Chichester, whom they regarded as
hell-bent on their destruction.
“The deaths of Red Hugh O’Donnell
in Spain in 1602 and his brother, Rory
O’Donnell, Earl of Tyrconnell dying in
Rome in 1608 inspired me to write a
song entitled ‘Lost Chieftains of Tyrconnell.’
Which can be found online
for anyone interested in hearing it.
“This story has now attracted international
attention with Red Hugh
being portrayed in the Madrid newspaper
‘El Pais’ as the Irish ‘William
Wallace ’, with today being the final
day of the dig, I would be hopeful that
the archaeology team will continue
with future digs further into the
Spanish location at Valladolid,” added
the Newry historian.

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