The flight of the earls was the departure of Hugh O’ Neill, Rory O’Donnell and Cuconnaught Maguire along with their families to continental Europe. They would never return to the lands that that they had fought so validity for in the nine years war. Their departures from Gaelic Ireland left their former dependents without a leader and thus were unprotected, as the Gaelic way of life would soon be lost. John Curry and Charles Patrick Meehan are responsible for popularising the term ‘flight of the earls’ by their extensive use of a contemporary manuscript by Tadhg Ó Cianáin, a tale by one of the participate of the ‘flight’ and his party’s later journey to Rome.
The treaty of Mellifont in 1603 had been favourable to the Earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnell, as they had retained the majority of their lands. It seems that Tyrone had lost the war but won the peace. Tyrone’s position was such that the government had to rely on his authority in the region to make any political settlement work. Tyrone now entered a bitter battle with the New English officials such as Chichester and Davis, as they resented the highly advantageous conditions of surrender granted to the Earls in the aftermath of the Nine Years War.
Sir John Davis, the Solicitor general had drafted a proclamation in March 1605, which denied any standing to Gaelic customary systems of tenure. He had obtained instructions from James I in order to minimise the danger of the earls of ulster becoming too powerful. Tyrone and O’Donnell’s lands were to be divided into freeholds held directly from the crown by their inhabitants to limit the power that they have over their followers. Tyrone anticipated this and divided his lordship into freeholds, which he allocated to close relatives and loyal supporters. Rory O’Donnell was less adaptable and resilient as he lost lands around Lifford, his ‘only jewel’, to Niall Garb O’Donnell.
O’Neill knew that Davies and Chichester were planning to deprive him of his lands as can be proven by the following examples as the newly appointed bishop of Derry, Clogher and Raphoe, George Montgomery was called upon by Davies to identify church lands belonging to the bishopric of Derry. The contribution of C. P Meehan’s Fate and Fortunes of the earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnell is invaluable due to its extensive use of primary sources
Both of these men encouraged Donel Ballagh O’Callen to petition to hold his lands directly from the crown, as this was merely a test case against Tyrone. Tyrone was sufficiently astute to recognize the enormity of this threat and already in December 1605 was complaining to both the king and to the earl of Salisbury about ‘sundry busy headed persons’ who had ‘so pried’ into his title to his estate that he could assure himself of nothing unless King James reiterated ‘the royal meaning’ of the patent he had granted him. Tyrone won a major victory over Davis and Chichester as even though the council had founded that O’Cahans country was vested...