Shane was preparing himself secretly, and the English were not asleep. They were secretly aiding O’Donnell, and spurring him on against Shane. Hugh was the name of the O’Donnell who was now in Tir-Conaill, for Calvach had lately died. This new prince must needs do some act of valour at the beginning of his reign, as was the custom with every prince at that time. Hugh broke into Tir-Eoghain by order of the English, and plundered the north-western part of it. Shane the Proud turned black and red with anger. By the champion-sword of Niall of the Nine Hostages, O’Donnell shall pay for this raid!
You would see foot and horsemen travelling from every quarter towards the great house of Benburb before sunrise, in the beginning of May in the year 1567. The great hounds began to bay with excitement at the approach of the troops, and to jump about and wag their tails, for they thought they were to have a hunt, as usual. The red deer and the wolf ran to hide themselves in the woods all around, for they too thought, with the animal’s instinct, that they were going to be pursued.
O’Neill had no desire for hunting this time, for he was in a hurry to subdue O’Donnell, and he and his host of three thousand men struck out to the north-west. Superstitious people would say that the jackdaws were screaming over the house of Shane the Proud this morning, and that he did not hear the music of the cuckoo nor the piping of the blackbird to-day.
“Are they not bold, these Tir-Conaill fellows, and is it not a great pity for them to be putting themselves in the way of their death?” said he, when he saw O’Donnell and his little band posted upon Ardingary, on the north side of Loch Swilly, in Donegal.
The tide had ebbed out of the estuary, and O’Neill thought that the sand in it was always dry. Not so with O’Donnell. He knew that place well, and he chose it in order to protect himself and his men from O’Neill, for the tide rises strongly and suddenly there.
And see, struggling together, the race that came from the two sons of Niall of the Nine Hostages — the Tir-Conaill men from Conall Gulban, and the Tir-Eoghain men from Eoghain, the man who broke his heart with sorrow after Conall when that warrior was killed!
It is said that O’Neill had no wish to fight when he saw the small army that O’Donnell had against him, and that he would rather that they would have surrendered; but for all that he arranged his men carefully, and he ordered them in companies and troops across the inlet of the sea. O’Donnell made a furious attack on the first party that got across and broke them up. If he had not many men they were all like wild cats. He did the same to the second brave file.
“We must put them out of that,” said O’Neill, and he thrust himself at the head of a detachment of horse; but O’Donnell’s horsemen rushed out on him from a hollow like a gale of wind, and great as was Shane the Proud it was with difficulty that he was able to check him. He looked around him. Some of his companies were mixed up together, and some of them were separated from each other. Shane did not understand the reason of the confusion till he saw the tide rising and terror coming upon his men, and O’Donnell with his band of heroes pressing upon them severely. Shane’s heart did not fail in that moment of distress, and he, with his horsemen, began slaughtering savagely, and galloping to and fro, calling upon his captains to put their men in order. He tried to gather the army together himself in proper order, but they had not room to turn, and some of them were up to the knees in water and the tide flowing up all round them. Most of them were inland men. A fresh panic fell on them and they broke away.
Thirteen hundred of them were drowned or killed. It was Shane the Proud’s last battle, and the greatest disaster that ever happened to him. As many as crossed the terrible estuary of the Swilly in safety fled away, and their prince rushed up the side of the river to look for a ford, with a few horsemen. A Tir-Conaill man of the name of Gallagher showed him a ford in the river two miles from the battle-field, and Shane O’Neill turned his back on Tir-Conaill, sweating, his tongue and his palate as hot and dry as a coal of lire, and a lump in his throat from trouble of mind.
O’Donnell and his good men were right merry, and they had bonfires after the battle; but they did not know that they were doing the work of the English — work which it had failed those foreigners to do for fifteen years before that, though they had lost thousands of meu and two millions of money in the attempt.
What will O’Neill of Ulster do now? The Book of the Four Masters says that he was light in his head after the fight at Ardingary, but that is only a turn of expression. That hero was too high-minded and too strong of heart and of limb to fall to blubbering and to groaning over the loss of one battle. He was not forty years of age yet, and he always had the courage of a lion. Some of his military officers begged him to yield to the English, but that was not Shane’s intention at all. He released Somerled the Sallow (Sorley Boy), whom he had had in captivity as a prisoner of war for two years, and sent him as an envoy to the Clan Donal in Scotland, to ask aid of them. They promised it to him, and he and a guard of horsemen appointed a place of meeting with them at Cushendun, in Antrim. They bowed to the ground before him, and prepared a feast for him in a large tent. Another man came to the place also, whose name was Pierce, a spy from Elizabeth, who had heard what Shane was doing. There is no written evidence to be found which proves that this Captain Pierce gave blood-money to the Scots, but every author has a strong suspicion of it.
Shane the Proud, your business is done.
Your very enemies say that your strong hand was ever as a shield to the weak, and that there was not a robber nor an unruly man in your territories during your time. They say, too, that it was your custom not to sit down to your food until, as you would say, Christ’s poor, who gathered on your threshold, had had their fill of the best meat. But there is an end to your generosity and to your valiant deeds now, for the Scots are eagerly whispering with Captain Pierce in the tent. You will never again hear the baying of the pack, nor follow the red deer through the nut-woods of the cantred for evermore. The hosts of Tir-Eoghain will hear your battle-cry no more, for there are twenty Scots behind you unknown to you, and Pierce is nagging at them that you killed their fathers in the battle of Glenshesk. Spring to your feet from that table, Shane the Proud, and look behind you, for the spear is within an inch of your broad back.
And the curlew cries away out on the Moyle Water, and the white waves break soundingly on the strand near Cushendun, and the people there show a cairn of stones in a hollow, where Shane the Proud sleeps those three hundred years and more.
“Seven years, sixty, five hundred
(And) a thousand years, it is no lie,
To the death of Shane the grandson of Conn
From the coming of Christ in the Body.”
Pierce took away with him the most beautiful head in Ireland, and they took the rich clothing from the headless body of O’Neill. Pierce received his thousand pounds from the Queen in payment for the head, and that beloved and lovely head was stuck upon a spike on the highest battlement of Dublin Castle.