Culture & History

Digging Up Red Hugh O’Donnell, An Irish Exile

Digging up Red Hugh O’Donnell is an incredible story.

The body of this handsome earl was lost when he died in Spain in September 1602. This Irish exile, previously of Donegal, had been en route to Valladolid, the former Spanish capital. He had hopes of drumming up Spanish support for the Irish cause. But what was he doing in Spain in the first place?

This question is easy to answer – during the Nine Years War, he was an instrumental figure in fighting the English occupation, but after the disastrous Battle of Kinsale, he and other earls fled for their lives, finding welcome in the court of Spain’s King Philip III. In Ireland, the results of this engagement cemented British rule in the country and precipitated the dreadful dismantling of native Gaelic culture.

But what of the other questions? Was he poisoned by an English spy/Irish traitor, and what ever happened to his body?

Digging up Red Hugh O’Donnell

Valladolid’s Culture and Tourism organisation tweeted on May 20, 2020, that they were searching for the body of ‘Ireland’s William Wallace’. This association is an easy one to make, even if it’s a little simplistic. But nevertheless, it is interesting that a Spanish city is so keen to find one of Ireland’s lost sons. It’s wonderful.

The search is still ongoing, but if they recover a body with a missing toe or two, then it is, without doubt, Red Hugh O’Donnell. He lost it when he escaped prison and sought refuge in the Wicklow mountains. The ferocious winter brought frostbite and our protagonist losing this part of his foot. This was not his first time in prison; as a teenager, he was lured onto a ship and taken to Dublin castle. It was all part of an audacious bid to prevent his marriage, which was essentially a bold attempt to stop his clan building a powerful alliance with the O’Neills, another famous Irish family.

The good people of this northern city are also searching for the mortal remains of one Christopher Columbus; speculation places this missing body in Vallodolid, Sevilla or in the Caribbean.

Digging up Rec Hugh O'Donnell


The hope is that discovering either of these historical figures will spark greater interest in Vallodolid, and shine a light on Spain and Ireland’s great historical links, which is a subject of great interest to this particular blog.

Various publications have picked up the story, and Donegal News details how the search centres on finding the Chapel of Wonders, which formed part of a Franciscan convent. This building was one of the largest of its kind in Europe, if not the world. O’Donnell was buried here, which reveals that he was thought of highly by the king and that it was a nice parallel to his time in Ireland, as he had sponsored the construction of Franciscan monasteries in his territory.

The man behind the legend

To start the story, we must travel back to the Battle of Kinsale. We covered this story in another article about Irish refugees, so feel free to give it a read.

The Battle of Kinsale

The men leading the Nine Years’ War initially scored some big successes, such as victory at Battle of Clontibert, and another, two years later, at the Battle of the Yellow Ford.

digging up Red Hugh O'Donnell

The British responded by sending more troops onto the island. O’Donnell realised he would need Spanish help to defeat this much larger force, but King Philip III’s troops literally landed on the opposite side of the island, at Kinsale. As discussed above, the English won, changing Irish history forever and forcing the exit of men like Red Hugh O’Donnell.


After arriving in Spain, the Red man from Ulster tried in vain to get the Spanish to invade Ireland again. At the time of publishing, Spanish troops have still not come back!

digging up Red Hugh O'Donnell

He was allegedly murdered by James ‘Spanish’ Blake, an Anglo-Irish double agent. In a mysterious, murky world of secret letters and cyphers, this man allegedly set off for Iberia with the express intention of killing O’Donnell.

But, as is usually the case, the truth is far more prosaic and bland. Rather than being poisoned, some historians say he died from a tapeworm.

Red Hugh’s funeral was described in the Annals of the Four Masters as … “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” …

As reported in Donegal News

The earl also died surrounded by Irishmen. He was attended to in his final moments by an Arch-bishop and two friars from Ireland. The convent where he was buried was later demolished. Now, only time will tell if modern Spanish archaeologists will find him and Christopher Columbus.

Want more stories like Digging up Red Hugh O’Donnell?

You can discover more about the Battle of Kinsale and Irish refugees by reading this article. And you can learn more culture with our podcast. Why not try out our virtual walking tour of a historic neighbourhood in Madrid?

Thanks for reading!

digging up Hugh O'Donnell

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