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Beatha Aodha Ruaidh Uí Dhomhnaill / Life of Red Hugh O’Donnell

RIA MS 23 P 24: Cat. No. 138. 17th century. Paper: 18.5 x 14 cm, 170 pp.
Author: Lughaidh Ó Cléirigh 
Scribe: Cú Choigcríche Ó Cléirigh

The earliest surviving version of a seventeenth-century biography of Aodh Ruadh Ó Domhnaill (Red Hugh O’Donnell) (d.1602) is preserved in the Royal Irish Academy Library. It is now generally known under its Irish title: ‘Beatha Aodha Ruaidh Uí Dhomhnaill’ (RIA, MS 23 P 24). The biography was the work of Lughaidh Ó Cléirigh, and is preserved in a near-contemporary transcript in the hand of Cú Choigcríche Ó Cléirigh, one of the Four Masters. This is the source of much of the historical detail of the life, military exploits and death of Red Hugh O’Donnell.

The biography was first composed sometime between 1616 and 1627. The narrative of Aodh Ruadh’s exploits is arranged chronologically, although dates are supplied only as an afterthought in the margin of the earliest surviving copy. It is known for its florid and artificially archaic language, which makes the Irish text a challenging one for modern readers.

The story focuses on the career of one man, eulogising his heroic exploits on the battlefield in the late sixteenth century, from 1587 to 1602. It includes accounts of some military exploits during the Nine Years’ War (1594-1603). As well as recording Aodh Ruadh’s actions, the author contextualises and explains them.

Lughaidh Ó Cléirigh also compiled an abridged version of the biography of Aodh Ruadh. It survives in an eighteenth-century transcript in National Library of Ireland, MS G 488.

The story of Aodh Ruadh Ó Domhnaill, as told by Lughaidh Ó Cléirigh, was adapted by the Four Masters for their Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland, compiled in the 1630s (RIA, MS 23 P 7). The Four Masters echoed Lughaidh Ó Cléirigh’s words in describing Aodh Ruadh as a long awaited hero: ‘tairrngeartach tinghealltach ro fíorthiorchanadh lá fáidhibh ré chian ria na ghéin’ (‘a promised and prophesied one, who had been truly predicted by prophets a long time before his birth’) (AFM 1602).

The Four Masters also copied Lughaidh Ó Cléirigh’s account of the death and burial of Aodh Ruadh in Spain. This was based on eye-witness accounts by two Irish Franciscan priests who were present. Aodh Ruadh died in the royal palace at Simancas in September 1602, having arrived in Spain some months previously on a diplomatic mission to the king.  

‘His 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. He was afterwards interred in the monastery of St Francis, in the Chapter precisely, with veneration and honour, and in the most solemn manner that any of the Gaels had ever been interred before. Masses, and many hymns, chants, and melodious canticles, were celebrated for the welfare of his soul; and his requiem was sung with becoming solemnity’. (AFM, 1602) 

‘Ruccadh dna a chorp go Ualladolíd (go cúirt an rígh) h-i cceaithirriadh cumhdachta go n-drongaibh dírimhe do Stata, do chomhairle & do gharda an righ ina uirthimcheall go lochrannaibh lasamhnaibh, go sudrallaibh solustaibh do chéir caomhalainn ar comhlasadh dá gach leith dhe. Ro h-adhnacht iaramh i mainistir S. Fronseis isin ccapittil do shonnradh co miadhach mór onorach ionnas as airmhidnighe ro h-adhnacht aoin neach do Ghaoidhelaibh riamh. Ro ceilebradh oiffrinn & hymna iomdha, claisceatail, & cantaice ceoilbhinne do ráith a anma, & ro gabhadh a éccnairc amhail ro badh dir.’

The presence of two Irish Franciscan chaplains, Flaithrí Ó Maolchonaire and Muiris Ultach [Ó Duinnshéibhe / Dunleavy], who tended to the dying leader, helps explain why he was buried in the Franciscan friary at Valladolid. 

The obituary for Aodh Ruadh Ó Domhnaill in the Annals of the Four Masters ends with a lament for all the Gaeil of Ireland. A closing paragraph, also derived from Lughaidh Ó Cléirigh’s biography, clearly conveys his death in Spain in 1602 as marking the end of an era. The Four Masters wrote:

‘Pitiable, indeed, was the state of the Gaels of Ireland after the death of O’Donnell; for their characteristics and dispositions were changed; for they exchanged their bravery for cowardice, their magnanimity for weakness, their pride for servility; their success, valour, prowess, heroism, exultation, and military glory, vanished after his death. They despaired of relief, so that the most of them were obliged to seek aid and refuge from enemies and strangers, while others were scattered and dispersed, not only throughout Ireland, but throughout foreign countries, as poor, indigent, helpless paupers; and others were offering themselves for hire as soldiers to foreigners; so that countless numbers of the freeborn nobles of Ireland were slain in distant foreign countries, and were buried in strange places and unhereditary churches, in consequence of the death of this one man who departed from them. In a word, it would be tedious and impossible to enumerate or describe the great evils which sprang and took permanent root at that time in Ireland from the death of Hugh Roe O’Donnell’ (AFM, 1602).

‘Bá trógh tra ro bás ag Gaoidhealaibh Ereann iar nécc Uí Domhnaill, doigh ro chlaochlaisiot a nairrdhe & a naigenta, oir do rattsat a milettacht ar miodhlachas, móirmhenma ar mheirtnighe, & uallcha ar inísle. Ro sgaith a ngráin, a ngaiscceadh, a ngal, a ngérraiteacht, a ccosgar, & a ccathbhuaidh iar ná oidheadh, Tallsatt céill dia ccabhair gur bhó heigen dia nurmhór dol for iocht eccrat, & ainffine, & araill ele for eisreidheadh & for sgaoíleadh, ní nama ar fud Ereann, acht seachnóin na ccennadhach go coitchend ina naittreabthachaibh bochta dinnime dearoile, & dronga ele ag creic a namhsaine lá hechtar chenelaibh go ro marbhaitt, & go ro mudhaighitt drechta dearmhara do shaorchlandaibh soichenelchoibh fer nÉreann i naile criochaibh cianibh comhaighthibh, & ro badh ádhbha aineoil & eccalsa andúthchasa robtar Rómha adhnaicthe dóibh, ar aba écca an aoín fhir sin do érna uadhaibh. Acht chena ro badh eimhilt, & ro badh diochumhaing ríomh nó aisnéis do na mór olcaibh ro shíolaidh, & ro shíorchlandaigh i ninis Ereann a los écca Aodha Ruaidh Uí Dhomhnaill an tan sin’.

Later history of the manuscript

Cú Choigcríche Ó Cléirigh’s manuscripts were brought to Dublin in 1817 by one of his direct descendants. The manuscript containing the biography of Red Hugh O’Donnell was given to Edward O’Reilly (d.1830) who sold it to another collector, William Monck Mason. The manuscript was bought for the Royal Irish Academy at the sale of William Monck Mason’s library in 1858, for the sum of £21.

The first printed edition of the biography of Aodh Ruadh Ó Domhnaill, based on RIA, MS 23 P 24, was published in 1895. It was the work of Rev. Denis Murphy, MRIA, and contained a full transcript of the Irish text accompanied by an English translation. A generation later, Rev. Paul Walsh, MRIA, prepared a revised transcript of the Irish text, but died before he could complete a new English translation. Walsh’s new edition of the Irish text was published posthumously by the Irish Texts Society; Denis Murphy’s English translation was retained.  

The manuscript can be viewed on Irish Script On Screen

Further reading

  • P.A. Breatnach, The Four Masters and their manuscripts: studies in palaeography and text (Dublin, 2013).
  • P.A. Breatnach, ‘A seventeenth-century abridgement of Beatha Aodha Ruaidh Uí Dhomhnaill’, Éigse 33 (2002), pp 77-172
  • Patrick B. Clark, ‘Lughaidh Ó Cléirigh’s Life of Aodh Ruadh Ó Domhnaill: its preservation and rediscovery’, in Katharine Simms (ed.), Gaelic Ireland (c.600-c.1700): politics, culture and landscapes (Dublin, 2013), pp 64-68
  • Bernadette Cunningham, The annals of the Four Masters: Irish history, kingship and society in the early seventeenth century (Dublin, 2010, 2014)
  • Irish Script on Screen: [Royal Irish Academy, MS 23 P 24]
  • Mícheál Mac Craith, The Beatha in the context of the literature of the Renaissance’, in Pádraig Ó Riain (ed.), The life of Red Hugh O’Donnell: historical and literary contexts. Irish Texts Society subsidiary series 12 (London, 2002), pp 36-53
  • Mícheál Mac Craith, ‘Beatha Aodha Ruaidh: beathaisnéis de chuid an Renaissance’, Irisleabhar Mha Nuad (1994), pp 44-54.
  • Mícheál Mac Craith, ‘Creideamh agus Athartha: idé-eolaíocht pholaitíochta agus aos léinn na Gaeilge i dtús an seachtú haois déag’, in Máirín Ní Dhonnchadha (ed.), Nua-léamha: gnéithe de chultúr, stair agus polaitíocht na hÉireann, c.1600-c.1900 (Dublin, 1996), pp 7-19
  • Denis Murphy (ed. & trans.), Beatha Aodha Ruaidh Ui Dhomhnaill: the Life of Hugh Roe O’Donnell, prince of Tirconnell (1586-1602), by Lughaidh O’Clery (Dublin, 1895)
  • John O’Donovan (ed. & trans.), Annála Ríoghachta Éireann. Annals of the kingdom of Ireland, by the Four Masters, from the earliest period to the year, 1616 (1st ed., 7 vols, Dublin, 1848-51). Digitised text and translation, derived from John O’Donovan’s edition, may be accessed via CELT (
  • Richard Sharpe, ‘Seán Ó Cléirigh and his manuscripts’, in Moran, Pádraic; Warntjes, Immo (ed.), Early medieval Ireland and Europe: chronology, contacts, scholarship: a festchrift for Dáibhí Ó Cróinín (Turnhout: Brepols, 2015), pp 645-70
  • Paul Walsh (ed.), Beatha Aodha Ruaidh Uí Dhomhnaill. Irish Texts Society, XLII, XLV (2 vols, London, 1948-57). An edition of the Irish text, with English translation, of Lughaidh Ó Cléirigh’s Life of Red Hugh O’Donnell. Digitised text and translation, derived from Paul Walsh’s edition, may be accessed via CELT (



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