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

Flight of the Earls statue (By Willie Duffin, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

In part one of Mary Stuart O’Donnell’s story, we learned of how she was born after most of her family fled Ireland for the continent in The Flight of the Earls 1607. Mary was raised by her mother in Donegal and then by her grandmother Lady Kildare in London. Mary was due to inherit her wealthy and highly esteemed grandmother’s fortune, but due to her Catholic faith, she refused to marry a Protestant man. Mary then fled the country in men’s clothing with the aim of returning to Ireland.

We pick up Mary’s tale in Bristol, where she was breaking her journey with her maid Anne, both dressed as men to disguise Mary’s identity from authorities. According to records, Mary, her maid and possibly Mary’s lover Dudley O’Gallagher tried to get to Ireland twice but failed and instead took a ship to Cadiz before moving on to France and finally Brussels.

It is rare to have accounts of day to day life of women in the seventeenth century, especially accounts of escape and daring adventure. Unusually, we do have a number of accounts about Mary and her journey to the court in Brussels so we can read about what she got up to on her travels. Mary’s trip to Brussels took six weeks, and details of this are found in a short biography written in by a man named Alberto Enriquez. It seems the book was written to make Mary look like a heroic and godly woman to the sovereign Archduchess Isabella Clara Eugenia who Mary would be appealing to for financial support.

In the short book, it is clear that Mary was controlling the writing of the book, and it also appears that the text was written to stop gossip and scandal erupting around the O’Donnells on the continent. At this time, her brother Hugh O’Donnell, 2nd Earl of Tyrconnell was battling with Seán Ó Néill, Earl of Tyrone over who would lead a Spanish backed army into Ireland; the Archduchess would be instrumental in making this choice. A sister turning up on the continent could be advantageous or disastrous to Hugh, depending of course on how she conducted herself.

In Enriquez’ account, he tries his best to make Mary sound like a devoted Catholic woman who threw away her fortune for her faith and headed to the continent for safety. It must be said that he does not mention her travelling with a lover… while other accounts state that she was on the run with a man of low rank which explains the scandal around her.

In the start of his account, which is addressed to the Archduchess, Enriquez states that during her six-week journey, Mary had no choice but to dress as a man and act as such. When others questioned why she maintained the disguise once out of England, Enriquez says; “she could not avoid the various incidents that arose on her journey, nor escape from the various duels, nor avoid some amorous encounters”. Here Enriquez is saying Mary was forced to get drunk, get into fights, seduce and sleep with women in order to hide her true identity, which all seems pretty far-fetched! Nevertheless, Enriquez tried his best to rid Mary of scandal and paint her out as a saint.

Isabella Clara Eugenia
Isabella Clara Eugenia (public domain)

Sometimes the account struggles to explain why Mary did certain things on her journey, and it is quite funny to read. The book describes how bad weather forced them to abandon their trip to Ireland and instead spend weeks drinking in pubs before trying to reach mainland Europe. Though trying to reach Antwerp, the weather meant they ended up travelling to Cadiz! In Cadiz, we hear how Mary and her group fought with pirates before heading on to La Rochelle, Poitiers and Paris. Around France, Mary not only ended up in fights but she also started duels with a number of men in order to make herself seem like a man. It is here that she also seduced more women and supposedly made love to one of them in public. As we can see, none of these actions seemed necessary, and Alberto Enriquez struggled to explain these actions away!

When Mary eventually met the Archduchess in January 1627, the Archduchess was happy to meet her, and the court was overjoyed to have such a high-ranking Irish Lady in their midst. Mary even received a letter of congratulation for her daring escape from Pope Urban VIII. It seemed to everyone that if Mary could be married off to the Earl of Tyrone, then the quarrels between the two Irish Earls could be over and there was great enthusiasm for this plan.

Of course, as we know by now, Mary did not like to do as she was told and refused to go ahead with the marriage. In a letter to the secretary of King Phillip IV of Spain, the Archduchess said: “the sister of Tyrconnell has declared that she has no wish whatever to marry Tyrone”. Soon after, the invasion of Ireland was cancelled which must have been at least partly due to failure to link the O’Neill’s and O’Donnell’s in marriage. Mary’s brother Hugh could not conceal his anger with his sister for her refusal to marry Sean and the fact she was still galivanting around in men’s clothing when she wished to and blackening the family name.

Hugh even went as far as distributing a letter which claimed Mary to be a fraud, he said “Having heard that some woman in man’s clothes is travelling through your parts by the name of my sister, defaming me and my house” and later he wished to “procure the arrest of that woman, not alone in consideration of my honour, but that of our nation”. It was clear that her refusal to marry O’Neill and her behaviour on her journey had resulted in Mary being disowned by her brother entirely.

By this time it was clear that Mary was in fact in a relationship with Dudley O’Gallagher and despite receiving support from the Archduchess Isabella Clara Eugenia and her court, Mary had outstayed her welcome in Flanders. After this, Mary and Dudley moved on to Italy, and we can follow her movements as she wrote to the King’s court in Spain and to the papacy for financial support. At first, she was granted 2,400 florins yearly from the Spanish court, but by 1632 Mary herself wrote about a dire financial situation in a letter to the Pope’s nephew.

In this letter dated 9th February 1632, Mary explained how she had married O’Gallagher and given birth to a son in Genoa. Mary stated that if it was not for the kindness of two cardinals, she “should perish with the others of hunger, cold and infinite other sufferings”. The primary role of Cardinal Ludovisi was to maintain the Irish college, and he did not have the means to keep Mary in conditions which befitted her rank. Mary described her housing in Rome as “two miserable little rooms” and said she was “reduced…to this utter wretchedness”. Mary’s letter was written in order to evoke sympathy from the papacy, and she emphasised her royal blood and high education in the letter.

Despite Mary’s pleas, it seems that the papacy was unwilling to fund her and her husband any longer after this time and she struggled on a meagre allowance from the Archduchess and her husband’s pay as a soldier. The couple eventually moved on to Austria and had another son. In Austria, Dudley climbed the ranks to become a Captain in the Imperial Army but died in service in 1635. Sadly it seems that both of the couple’s children died in infancy.

Little is known of Mary’s life after the death of her husband. It is said that Mary travelled again around Europe before returning to Rome and marrying an Irish Naval Captain who was also poor in 1639. This is a sad close to the tale of such a brave, adventurous lady who threw away an easy life in England for her faith and family. If Mary had not been disowned by her brother Hugh, her life would likely have followed a happier path.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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