Mary Stuart O’Donnell – An Irish Lady in exile (Part one)

donegal castle
By Benson Wills, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

On 14 September 1607, a French ship left Lough Swilly in County Donegal, Ireland and headed for Spain. On this vessel were 99 people, most of whom would never see Ireland again. On the ship were Hugh O’Neill, 2nd Earl of Tyrone, Cú Chonnacht Óg Mag Uidhir of Fermanagh, and Rory O’Donnell, Earl of Tyrconnell along with family members, servants and soldiers. These men were among the last native Irish rulers in the North, but they had seen their power diminish and their lands carved up by the Tudor plantations of Ulster.

Why this event, remembered as The Flight of the Earls took place has long been debated as the Earls left Ireland suddenly and with no real explanation. It seems the men were in constant fear of arrest by the English government after being implicated in fictional treasonous plots and were becoming increasingly disheartened at their own much-reduced powers due to land redistribution by the English crown. Seeing no other option, the Earls and their followers left for Spain aiming to return with troops and regain their full territories, however, the Earls died in exile not long after leaving, and this did not come to pass. The Flight of the Earls was the end of the old Gaelic order in Ulster.

Portrait of a Lady, probably Frances Howard, dowager Countess of Kildare (public domain)

As mentioned above, many family members left with the Earls, but one key member of the O’Donnell family was missing from the boat, her name was Bridget Fitzgerald. Bridget was the wife of Rory O’Donnell; once known as the King of Tyrconnell and head of the O’Donnell clan, Rory had lost land and power under King James I and was granted the lesser title of Earl. Bridget was also from an esteemed family line: her mother, Lady Frances Howard had been Lady of the Privy Chamber for Queen Elizabeth I and was in favour with King James I, while her grandfather was Charles Howard, Lord High Admiral and was related to Elizabeth I through his cousin Anne Boleyn.

When Rory O’Donnell fled from Rathmullan, he took with him his infant son Hugh but left behind his young wife because she was heavily pregnant. It seems that Bridget tried to follow her husband but was intercepted by the English authorities and ended up giving birth to a daughter named Mary in England. Bridget’s mother, Lady Kildare, advised her daughter to go to King James I for help and to deny any knowledge of her husband’s flight.

Bridget took her mother’s advice and thankfully King James was sympathetic and granted a yearly allowance to Bridget and Mary from Rory O’Donnell’s lands. King James found a fondness for the baby Mary and due to both Bridget’s links to the Howard family and King James sharing an ancestor King Robert II of Scotland with baby Mary, he proclaimed himself the child’s protector and even gave Mary the royal surname ‘Stuart’. When Mary was around two years old, her mother was permitted to return to the Kildare lands with her and raise her in the Catholic faith. Mary’s father Rory died on the continent, and her infant brother inherited his title in exile. Mary, the daughter of an Irish Earl, raised a Catholic and yet protected by King James I must have grown up with a rather confused identity.

king james
King James I (public domain)

By 1619, Mary’s mother had been remarried to an Englishman Nicholas Barnewall for two years and would give birth to nine children in the coming years with her new husband. At this time the twelve-year-old Mary was called over to England to live in the household of her grandmother Lady Kildare. Lady Kildare planned to educate her granddaughter and marry her to a protestant nobleman with the aim of making the girl the heir to her vast fortune. Mary would have had her grandmother’s wealth and influence on her side and a dowry from King James I to provide her with a fine marriage match when the time came. If Mary had followed her grandmother’s wishes, she would have lived a life of plenty and resided with a husband and probable children in a great house. However, tempting this comfortable life may have been, Mary decided to go against her grandmother’s wishes and escape the English court.

In 1626, Mary, who had become quite a handful, was involved in a plot to free Irish relatives who were imprisoned in Gatehouse prison. When summoned to speak before the royal council about this, the nineteen-year-old decided instead to turn her back on her Howard relatives and her grandmother. With King James I now being dead and King Charles I on the throne, Mary found herself less welcome at English court. After refusing to marry a Protestant nobleman because of her devotion to Catholicism, she believed her only option was to find her brother Hugh and seek the protection of Catholic royals and the papacy.

It is after Mary’s own flight that we see her daring, adventurous character unravel away from the guardianship of her grandmother. Mary, a maid and possibly Mary’s lover Dudley escaped London, with the women dressed in men’s clothing. In order to prove herself to be a man, Mary started to go by the name of Ralph on her journey, and when she reached Bristol, she fought in a duel and even made love to another woman.

In the second part of Mary’s story, we will follow her journey to the royal court in Brussels, uncover details from a biography written on her and see what happened to this fascinating lady later in life.1


  1. Sources
    – Marie Gleeson Ó Tuathaigh., ‘Resolución Varonil or the manly resolve of Countess Mary Stuart O’Donnell’ Journal of Irish Studies, Vol.6 (2011) pp.83-90
    – Frances Martin O’Donnell., “The trials and tribulations of an Irish princess in exile” The O’Donnells of Tyrconnell – A Hidden Legacy (Academica Press LLC, London: 2018) PP1-10
    – Jerrold Casway., “Heroines or Victims? The Women of the Flight of the Earls” Iris Éireannach Nua, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Spring, 2003) pp. 56-74

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