On 4 September 1607 the two Ulster earls, Tyrone and Tyrconnell, and the lord of Fermanagh, Cuconnaught Maguire, accompanied by their respective kinsmen, embarked from Lough Swilly for continental Europe. They never again returned to the lands they had striven so hard to hold. Their departure was a tragedy for Gaelic Ireland; their former dependants were left leaderless and unprotected, and what remained of the Gaelic way of life was soon undermined by the plantation in Ulster. The ‘ flight of the earls ’ is one of the black pages of Irish history and the event marks the end of an age.
What occasioned this sudden and mysterious departure? Of the many answers suggested almost all have been coloured by prejudice and the picture, consequently, remains clouded. Professional historians, with few exceptions, have shied away from the subject, and have contented themselves with qualified versions of the explanations offered by such writers as Fr Meehan, T. M. Healy, and Seán O'Faoláin. An essay in revision is certainly long overdue.