The Fighting Prince of Donegal (1966)




Director:     Michael O'Herlihy.

Starring:     Peter McEnery (Hugh O'Donnell),  Susan Hampshire (Kathleen McSweeney),  Tom Adams (Henry O'Neill),  Gordon Jackson (Captain Leeds),  Norman Wooland (Sir John Perrott),  Richard Leech (Phelim O'Toole),  Peter Jeffrey (Sergeant),  Marie Kean (The Mother),  Bill Owen (Officer Powell),  Peggy Marshall (Princess Ineen),  Maurice Roëves (Martin),  Donal McCann (Sean O'Toole),  Fidelma Murphy (Moire),  John Forbes-Robertson.,  Patrick Holt.

in Ireland 1587 Hugh O'Donnell inherits the title of the prince of Donegal and tries to unite Ireland to oppose English occupation


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

Ireland 1587.  Ireland is ruled by England under Queen Elizabeth I and is garrisoned by English troops against the threat of a Spanish invasion. 

The birds in a part of Donegal create a huge swarm.  A woman looking at it says that it fulfills the old prophecy:  The birds will gather in their hundreds when Hugh succeeds Hugh as Prince of Donegal.  A young man named Hugh O'Donnell races for home (the castle of Donegal) as fast as he can.  He and his mother meet before the court.  Lady Ineen says:  "My husband is dead.  My son is the O'Donnell now.  Hugh has succeeded Hugh."  The men at court want to know if they will strike the English now.  The young O'Donnell says:  We O'Donnells can't do it ourselves.  No single clan is strong enough.  All the clans must unite so they can bargain from strength with England.  The aim of the bargaining is to be left alone and free, not occupied by English troops.  But many of the men want to face off against England.  One shouts:  "Fight them before they occupy us!"  Another says:  "I say no!"  O'Donnell replies:  "I say no!"

Mother tells Hugh that he can talk with the McSweeney clan first.  His excuse will be that he wants to see Kathleen again.  England has spies everywhere and they must be careful.  Mom adds that this is the moment all Ireland has waited for. 

Hugh arrives at the McSweeney clan and is greeted by McSweeney himself.  Hugh tells McSweeney that his father is dead, "So you know why I'm here."  The prophecy has become true.  Hugh wants to see Kathleen but learns that he has a rival, a young man named Henry O'Neil.  Henry has been pursuing Kathleen and does not want a new rival for her affections.  So Henry gets up on the table and challenges Hugh to a wrestling match.  Hugh wins the match and Henry says:  "All right, O'Donnell, I'm with you."   Hugh announces a toast to their alliance. 

After dinner Hugh walks alone on the parapet.  Kathleen comes up to see him.  She says that he stayed away so long.  He agrees.  Talking about why he came and the troubles he has to face he tells her:  "We Irish just aren't used to alliances."  Then he mentions that she is so lovely.  Henry shows up and tells Kathleen that they are dancing downstairs.  Kathleen says that we (her and Hugh) will go down and dance.  Hugh tells Henry to stay and keep an eye on an English ship in the water. 

McSweeney says that they should start for the O'Neill's this very night.  Hugh agrees.  An officer arrives from the English ship.  He says the ship and its men are trading goods along the coast.  The captain has asked him to invite them to a sumptuous dinner on their ship.  Hugh doesn't want to go, but McSweeney, enjoying the taste of the stranger's wines among his sample goods, insists that they go.  Kathleen asks Hugh to please go with her father to the ship so someone can make sure he returns all in one piece.  On board ship they meet the captain.  And they soon find out that they have been caught in a trap.  They take Hugh into custody and put McSweeney ashore.  They then sail away. 

Hugh is taken to Dublin Castle.  The English Viceroy of Ireland has his headquarters there.  His captain in charge is Captain Leeds and he wants to head north and attack the Irish clans there.  The Viceroy, however, thinks that the captain is much too aggressive for his own good.  Hugh is brought into the Viceroy.  He fully realizes now that he has become a hostage.  They will hang him if there is any trouble with the Irish.  He will stay in Dublin castle until the Spanish threat is over.   

Hugh is taken to the prison itself.  To entertain the troops the guards have two Irishmen fight each other with long poles.  Hugh speaks with Sean O'Toole about what is going on.  Captain Leeds shows up and the fighting immediately stops.  The prisoners and guards do not like Leeds.  Leeds immediately wants Hugh to fight him using the poles.  Hugh doesn't want to, but Leeds keeps taunting him and hitting him until he fights.  Hugh wins the fight, but by doing so make a real enemy of the captain.  Leeds tells the guards to put Hugh in irons and confine him to his cell from now on.  After the captain leaves everyone starts laughing at him, even the guards. 

Hugh in his cell is surprised when he sees a block taken out of the wall between his cell and the next one.  He finds that it's Sean O'Toole behind the block.  He said he worked on the block for several weeks before he cut it loose.  O'Toole has to replace the block quickly when the Viceroy comes in to visit Hugh.  He has the guard unlock Hugh's shackles.  He says that his orders to imprison him came from Queen Elizabeth herself.  But she has no interest in harming him.  After all, she once was a political prisoner herself.  Before he leaves, the Viceroy tells Hugh that as Viceroy he has to be loyal to his officers even if they are foolish. 

Hugh gets a scraping tool from Sean and starts removing one of the bars in the chimney shaft.  He actually gets the bar loose in a relatively short amount of time.  Sean tells him that he should head south to Wicklow, home to the O'Tooles.  He has a bad leg and won't go with Hugh.  Hugh climbs up the chimney; jumps a guard; puts on the guard's hat and cape; blocks the door of the guard house; jumps into the moat; swims to the other side; and escapes into the town.  The guards are soon after him.  Hugh climbs to the top of a roof to escape capture.  He works his way over to the port.  There he gets into an empty keg, puts the top over the keg and floats away to safety. 

The Irish find Hugh first.  Phelim O'Neill finds him sleeping.  He tells Hugh that the English are not far behind him.  Hugh asks him to help him get back to Donegal.  But the English catch up to them.  Now O'Neill pretends that he has captured Hugh.  Hugh plays along by calling O'Neill a traitor and threatening to kill him.  Leeds is with the posse and he isn't buying it.  He tells O'Neill that he is lucky that he is not arrested. 

O'Neill is back in Dublin castle prison.  He is a cellmate of Sean O'Toole. 

O'Neill reports the bad new to McSweeney, Henry and Kathleen.  There is speculation that Hugh might be placed in the Tower of London.  Kathleen suddenly has an idea.  She demands that she be taken to see Hugh in prison. 

McSweeney, Kathleen and Henry go to Dublin castle.  The Viceroy is not there, but in London.  And Leeds has taken over all responsibility while the Viceroy is away.  McSweeney says that he speaks for the northern clans.  He wants to make a bargain with the English.  They, the Irish, will defend their coastlines against any Spanish invasion, but the Irish troops must be under Irish leadership.  Leeds is not interested in any bargain with the Irish.  With the obvious lack of progress, Kathleen asks, no begs, Leeds to let her see Hugh.  One of the English officers tells Leeds it would do no harm to let her see the prisoner.  Between the two of them working on Leeds he finally gives his permission.  Kathleen is allowed to see Hugh.  She explains to him that they came to bargain with the English.  Hugh says that the English won't bargain.  When Kathleen has to leave she gets the English officer's permission to give her bejeweled amulet from around her neck to Hugh. 

Henry deliberately picks a fight with Leeds and gets himself thrown into prison.  But that is what he wanted.  He tells Hugh that he can help him escape.  They all start working on a half-Irish, half-English prison worker named Martin.  They tell him that he is actually a prisoner himself in Dublin castle.  Hugh tells him that he has a way he can escape his bondage and be a hero to all of Ireland as well.  He wants Martin to help them escape.  To sweeten the deal Hugh gives the man two of the jewels he got from Kathleen.  Martin will get the other jewels when they successfully escape.  Martin says he will think it over. 

Leeds comes in to see Hugh.  He tells him that he will be taken to the Tower of London the day after tomorrow.  Leeds leaves.  When Martin comes into the cell to give them water, Hugh tells him that it's tonight or not at all.  Martin says:  "I'll try."  The three prisoners have to wait a long time for Martin to come back and Henry thinks he's not going to come at all.  But Martin does show up. He lets them out of their cells and they go down into the storm drain.  At the last second Sean tells them that he is staying behind.  He says his bad leg would just slow them down.  The three in the storm drain can't convince Sean so they start pushing through the waters in the drain.  They make it outside and escape.

Leeds tells Sean that if the three are not captured, they will hang him.  The prisoners finally get through a security checkpoint by dressing in women's clothes.  Martin will rejoin them at the outer wall.  But then two guards see that the two women are wearing men's shoes and they chase after them.  Henry and Hugh are able to kill the two guards.  They climb up the rope provided by Martin to the top of the battlement.  There they have to take out another guard.  The guard falls from the top to the ground.  Then Hugh and Henry let themselves down to the ground   Martin goes a little ways with them but then demands to be paid.  He is not going with them.  Hugh gives him the rest of the jewels he got from Kathleen. 

Leeds comes up with an idea.  The English and he will take Donegal castle.  They will then hold Kathleen and Hugh's mother as hostages.  This will force Hugh to come to them.  Leeds says:  "At last, an excuse to fight these Irish."

As Hugh and Henry travel a shepherdess sees them.  She walks away from them.  As the two escapees rest, they see someone approaching them.  Hugh runs toward the person and jumps him.  It is then that he sees two other persons near them.  They are two women.  And the person he jumped is also a woman.  They straighten things out and the three sisters take the two men to their cottage.  Henry starts flirting with all three of the young ladies, but their mother watches him too closely for him to make much progress. 

The English posse shows up at the cottage.  The mother fools the posse leader by posing Henry as her recently deceased mother and dressing Hugh as one of the mourners at the wake.  Mother asks the Englishman to have pity on their grieving.  The fellow says:  "I'm sorry for your trouble, old woman." 

The English take Donegal castle.  Leeds says Kathleen and Hugh's mother will eventually be taken to Dublin jail. 

The Irishman O'Connor and a few of his men finally finds Hugh and Henry.  They've been looking everywhere for them.  O'Connor informs Hugh that the English under Leeds have taken Donegal castle.  Hugh and Henry ride with the O'Conners.  They meet with members of various clans and plan an assault on Donegal Castle.  Hugh and Henry with a group of men will explode a mine under the wall of the castle and gain entrance.  The sound of the explosion will be covered by the Irish cannons.  Hugh will head for the main gate and open it.  McSweeney will lead the hidden main body of troops into the castle through the open gate. 

The plan works and Hugh is able to get the gate open.  The Irish rush into the castle.  The defending English troops are thrown into confusion when Henry drops a mine in their midst.  The Irish then take the castle.  Leeds tries to grab the two hostages, but he is stopped by the pursuing Hugh.  Hugh is able to defeat Leeds in combat, but does not kill him.  He tells the English troops to go back to Dublin, but Leeds will stay in Donegal castle as their hostage.

The Irish have a big celebration.  McSweeney breaks out in song and soon everyone is singing along with him. 


The movie only deals with a small part of O'Donnell's life.  It focuses almost all its attention on the capture of O'Donnell and his many attempts to escape.  When he finally gets free he has to free Donegal from the British, so basically he just comes back to square one having accomplished little or nothing.  This period was a very important period for the British broke the back of the Irish rebellion sending the Irish back into colonial status under the Brits and O'Donnell played a key role in the struggle.  The real history of O'Donnell was much more impressive as seen below in the historical background, even though he eventually lost.   

The constant escape attempts and failures proved a bit boring to me.  There is quite a bit of action in the movie, so the kids might like it, but the story dealt with just too small of a segment of time in the life of an important person. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:


County Donegal is in the Province of Ulster in Ireland. 

Until around A.D. 1600  -- the O'Donnell Clan was one of Ireland's richest and most powerful ruling-families

15th to the 17th century  --  the O'Donnell Clan of what became County Donegal provided the main opposition to the colonization of Ireland by England.  Only the O'Neill Clan of County Tyrone was more powerful. 

1585  --  the modern County Donegal was shired by order of the English Crown.

1587  --  15 year old Hugh Roe O'Donnell is kidnapped by Sir John Perrot to prevent an alliance between the O'Donnell and O'Neill clans.  He was imprisoned in Dublin Castle.

1585-1602  --  the English could not control County Donegal until after the Battle of Kinsale.

1585-1604  --  the Anglo-Spanish War. 

1588  -- destruction of the Spanish Armada by the English. 

since 1591  --  the Irish rebels seek help from Spain.

1591  --  Hugh escaped briefly, but was recaptured within days.

1592  -- Hugh escaped again with the assistance Hugh O'Neill who arranged for him to hide in the Wicklow Mountains.  His fellow escapee Art O'Neill died of exposure in the mountains. He successfully reached the stronghold of Fiach MacHugh O'Byrne (another of O'Neill's allies) at Glenmalure, where he found refuge.

1593  --  Hugh O'Donnel defeated Turlough Luineach O'Neill in two expedition.  This force Turlough to abdicate his chieftainship in favor of Hugh O'Neill. 

1594-1603  --  Nine Years War (a.k.a. Tyrone's Rebellion).  Irish chieftains Hugh O'Neill and Hugh Roe O'Donnell along with their allies fought the English government of Ireland..  (The O'Donnells of Tyrconnel were led by the famous Prince Red Hugh O'Donnell.  The Irish lost. 

1596  --  the combined forces of O'Donnell and O'Neill defeated an English army under Sir Henry Bagenal at the Battle of Clontibret. 

1598 (August)  --  O'Neills and O'Donnell's greatest victory came at the Battle of the Yellow Ford near the southern border of Tyrone.  They appeared to be near to acomplishing the expelling of the English from Ireland. O'Neill went south to secure the allegiance of Irish lords in Munster, while O'Donnell raided and drove out the small English settlement at Connacht.

1599  --  O'Donnell repulsed an English expedition towards w. Ulster at the Battle of Curlew Pass.  Then things went down hill for him.  He was betrayed by a cousin/brother-in-law who went over to the English side, which in turn led to the English invasion of Derry in the heart of O'Donnell territory. 

1601 (October 2) --  a Spanish force of 6,000 men reduced by bad weather to 3,400 actually landed on Irish soil at Kinsale to fight the English with help from the Irish.  The English had around 7,500 men capable of fighting.  The combined Irish armies of O’Neill, O’Donnell and Tyrrell equaled 6,180.  English forces start cannonading the Spanish forces at Kinsale.  O'Neill and O'Donnell successfully cut English supply lines, thereby weakening the English forces. 

1602  --  at Siege of Kinsale the Spanish-Irish forces could not coordinate their attack plans and therefore their night attack was spoiled; the British knew they were coming and went out to meet them.  After three months of fighting the British siege of Kinsale, the Spanish surrendered Kinsale to Mountjoy.   O’Neill returned to Ulster and then decided to go to Spain.  His flight along with many supporters (including O'Donnell) and lesser chieftains became known as the Flight of the Earls. 

1607 (September) --  full control over County Donegal was finally achieved after the Flight of the Earls. 



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