Likely Burial Site of Irish Hero ‘Red’ Hugh O’Donnell Found in Spain

The 16th-century chieftain fled his home country after suffering a devastating defeat at the Battle of Kinsale

Excavation site
Archaeologists found a skull fragment, femur and other human remains on the fifth day of the excavation. Courtesy of Cultura Turismo VLL

In 1598, Irish noblemen “Red” Hugh Roe O’Donnell and Hugh O’Neill scored a major victory against England at the Battle of the Yellow Ford. But the tide soon turned, and in January 1602, the Irish independence fighters—supported by 3,500 Spanish reinforcements—suffered a devastating defeat at the Battle of Kinsale.

O’Donnell fled to Spain, where he hoped to recruit more reinforcements, but the country’s king, Phillip III, failed to respond to his requests. Before O’Donnell could reach Spain’s then-capital of Valladolid, he died, likely of an infection. Though the king refused to send additional military aid to the rebels, he did give O’Donnell a royal funeral, interring the Irishman in the Chapel of Marvels (the same Franciscan convent where Christopher Columbus was initially buried).

The chapel’s exact whereabouts were lost following Spain’s suppression of the monasteries in the mid-1830s. But as Sam Jones and Rory Carroll report for the Guardian, local archaeologists have spent the past year drawing on historical records, digital technology and an 1835 plan of the chapel to identify its likely location. Now, excavations at the proposed site have unearthed walls and human remains that may confirm the venue’s identity as O’Donnell’s final resting place.

Speaking with the Irish Times’ Ronan McGreevy, chief archaeologist Óscar Burón describes O’Donnell as an “Irish prince and the hero of the resistance against the English.” He further speculates that O’Donnell’s remains are “buried right under our feet and now we are concerned with checking whether the research we have undertaken is correct.”

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, O’Donnell spent his teenage years imprisoned in Dublin Castle because the English feared his family’s connections to other Irish clans. A 1590 escape attempt failed, but in January 1592, the 19-year-old finally managed to thwart his captors. That same year, he became chieftain of the O’Donnell clan, and by 1596, he had joined forces with the O’Neills to rebel against England’s occupation of Ireland.

Spain, which threatened to invade England for much of Elizabeth I’s reign and finally did (albeit unsuccessfully) in 1588, shared a common enemy with Ireland—a fact that led Phillip III to send Spanish troops to support the rebellion. But the Irish army’s decisive defeat at Kinsale made the Spanish king reluctant to dedicate further resources to the cause.

Still, when O’Donnell died in 1602, “[h]is body was conveyed to the king’s palace at Valladolid in a four-wheeled hearse, surrounded by countless numbers of the king’s state officers, council, and guards, with luminous torches and bright flambeaux of beautiful wax-light burning on each side of him,” according to a near-contemporary account quoted by the Irish Times.

Last year, Brendan Rohan of Donegal, the Irish county where O’Donnell was born, visited Valladolid in search of the historical hero’s grave.

“Of course it was a fruitless search and I was passed from ‘billy to jack’ and searched many ‘blind alleys’ for three days until I met the director of cultural tourism who had a ‘gra’ for Ireland and I enthused him with the idea,” Rohan tells Donegal News Kate Heaney. “He passed me to the director of archives who more or less told me I was wasting my time because in the secularization of Spain in the 1800s, that whole property was sold and levelled and the grave site lost.”

After Rohan left Spain, city officials followed up on his inquiry. One year later, the team had compiled enough information to embark on an archaeological dig. So far, the archaeologists have found the chapel’s walls and human remains including a femur and part of a skull. They suspect that O’Donnell’s remains will be easy to identify because he lost both big toes to frostbite during the 1592 escape from Dublin Castle. If the team does in fact find a skeleton lacking these particular digits, a group of O’Donnell descendants has already been lined up for the genetic testing needed to confirm its identity.

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