The small fishing town of Rathmullan witnessed a key event in Irish history - the end of the old Gaelic order. From this spot in 1607 a small ship left for Spain. On board were the chieftains of some of the leading Gaelic families of Ulster, incuding the O'Donnells and the O'Neills. Those chieftains who could not live with the new English order sought refuge with England's main enemy, with the hope either of making a new life for themselves, or of living to fight another day.
How did they come to be here, and why did they leave? In one final attempt by the old order to reverse the tide of English power a decade or so earlier, an army was organised by Hugh O'Neill, chief of Tir Eoghain, and Red Hugh O'Donnell, began a series of battles with the English which came to be known as the Nine Years War. After strenuous efforts on their part, the Gaelic chieftains secured a promise of support from the leading continental power of the day, Spain. To meet up with the Spanish expeditionary force, however, O'Neill's and O'Donnell's force had to march the length of the country to Kinsale on the south coast. There they fought and lost the landmark Battle of Kinsale, which brought down the curtain on a political and cultural system that could not compete with the neighbouring island. Red Hugh made his way to Spain to try to inject new life into the alliance but died in the Castle of Simanacas a little over a year after Kinsale. He was succeeded as chieftain by his brother Rory.
The division between Gaelic lords and English government was not as clearcut as one might imagine. Dublin Castle and its local representatives, such as Sir Henry Docwra in Derry, engaged in political as well as military means to further their objectives. Thus they offered Gaelic lords titles in return for undertakings to recognise English rule - Rory O'Donnell accepted the title of Earl of Tyrconnell in 1603 - and also tried to gain the support of middle ranking lords, to lessen the sway of chieftains like the O'Donnells. Docwra succeeded, for example, in having Cahir O'Doherty replace his father as lord of the Dohertys against Red Hugh's candidate; the price was a reduced Inishowen and Cahir's dependence on Docwra.
Six years after Kinsale the remaining Gaelic chieftains, recognising that English rule over the country was a fact but unable to bring themselves to accept it, or knowing what would happen to them if they gave themselves up, decided to leave Ireland for the continent. O'Donnell and O'Neill, and members of other leading families from Ulster and the northern half of the country, including Maguires and Plunketts, in all over one hundred people, took ship in Rathmullan, ironically the spot where Red Hugh had been captured in a fortaste of what was to come. Interestingly only one Sweeney left with them, and he was a Sweeney Banagh, with no members of either the Sweeney Fand and Sweeney Doe, whose base was much closer to Rathmullan. This was the so called 'Flight of the Earls'. In truth the power of these chieftins had been broken, even before Kinsale, and their ability to provide leadership and a measure of prosperity for their people had gone before then. They quickly disappeared from history - Rory dying in Rome in 1608 and Hugh O'Neill in 1616.