"He had bestowed most wealth and riches upon the learned, the Ollavs, and all those who sought gifts of any of the lords of Ireland in his time; for he had often issued a proclamation throughout Ireland to all those who sought gifts, inviting them to come to him on the festivals of the nativity of our Lord; and when they came, not one departed dissatisfied, or without being supplied. He was a lord who had many soldiers in his service for pay and wages, a lord prosperous in peace, and powerful in war, until age and infirmity came upon him."
Toirdhealbhach Luineach Mac Néill Chonnalaigh, Anglicized (Turlough Luineach) was hailed as "Chief of Kings, the King of Ulster…" by the Irish poet John Buidhe O’Daly in 1584. He was unfairly described as a "collaborator with English authorities" in some Irish histories, but was described to Queen Elizabeth I as an "enemy of the Crown" by his own cousin Hugh O’Neill, the Earl of Tyrone. The English Lord Deputy of Ireland described him as “treacherous”, a "drunkard" and a "traitor". Turlough was many things: ruthless, wily, intelligent, powerful and generous. He was brother-in-law to his powerful Scottish ally the 4th Earl of Argyll, and ironically was both cousin and father-in-law to his later arch-enemy, "Red Hugh" The O’Donnell of Donegal.
For over a quarter of a century, he frustrated both the ambitions of the English to "tame and colonize" Ulster and the ambition of his cousin Hugh O’Neill to become the King of Ireland. During Turlough’s long reign from 1567 to 1593, Ulster remained a relatively peaceful bastion of Gaelic power and customs. After Turlough’s death, both his cousin Hugh O’Neill and then the English would achieve their conflicting ambitions. Ulster and much of Ireland became a wasted battleground; the high Gaelic nobility of Ulster fled to continental Europe; the indigenous Irish of Ulster were dispossessed of their lands; and then Ulster was parcelled-off by King James I of Britain as a plantation for Scottish and English planters.
Turlough’s legacy was eclipsed by the terrible and momentous events and confusion that immediately followed his death and he became a nearly forgotten footnote of Irish history. Sloppy historians would later confuse references to "O’Neill" and "The O’Neill", the Gaelic titles for the King of Tyrone and Ulster, with other individuals’ surnames, and would mistakenly associate most of the events and history between 1567 and 1593 with Hugh O’Neill rather than with Turlough Luineach, The O’Neill.
Turlough was born around 1530, probably at the "old castle" at Dungannon. He was the fourth son of Niall Connallach macArt óg O’Neill, who was the Tanist of Tyrone (1519-1544). As Tanist, Niall Connallach was designated to succeed his uncle Conn Bacach mac Conn O’Neill, who was The O’Neill (1519-1559). Turlough’s mother was Rose O’Donnell, the daughter of Manus, The O’Donnell of the kingdom of Tir Conaill (Donegal). Turlough was a grandson of Art óg macConn O’Neill, The O’Neill (1513-1519). He was also a descendant of Brian macNéill Ruad O’Neill, The O’Neill (1238-1260) and considered by the Irish to be the last High King of Ireland (1258-1260).
As a young child, Turlough was sent in fosterage to the Mhuintir Luinigh, a powerful noble clan occupying a large area at the very heart of Ulster in central and western Tyrone and northern Fermanagh. Fosterage was an ancient Irish custom whereby a child was sent to live and to be educated by another prominent family, usually from age 7 to 17. Fosterage was one of the means of cementing political alliances, as well as a means of ensuring a traditional Gaelic education. As an adult, Turlough took the name "Luineach", the personal form of "Luinigh", giving rise to the assumption that he had been formally adopted by the Mhuintir Luinigh after the sudden death, and probable murder, of his father in 1544 orphaned the teenager. He would later choose to rule from Strabane, the principal town nearest the Mhuintir Luinigh.
Turlough Luineach was inagurated as The O’Neill Mor after the death of Shane O’Neill in June 1567. He supposedly murdered his cousin Bryan O’Neill (brother of Hugh) in order to ensure his succession to the kingship, but revenge for the murder of his own father was more likely motive. The title of "The O’Neill Mor" was conferred upon the leader of the Gaelic kingdom of Tír Eóghain (Tyrone), who was also considered to be the paramount King of Uladh (Ulster). The inauguration ceremony at Tullahoge was described in a dispatch to Queen Elizabeth I as "an appalling pagan spectacle" where Turlough supposedly "mated with a white mare", the ancient Gaelic ritual for assuming kingship.
An act of Parliament for the retrospective attainder of Shane O’Neill in 1569 seemed designed to try to put Turlough in his place, by insisting upon the utter abolition of allegiance to the O’Neill name in Ulster. The attainder gave “legal” title of most of Ulster to the Crown and banned the "The O’Neill" title. Although he professed his willingness to Lord Deputy Sir Henry Sidney to relinquish the title of “The O’Neill Mor”, Turlough insisted throughout the 1570′s on his rights to the traditional O’Neill urraghs (the allegiance and tributes of the sub-chiefs of Ulster). Turlough ignored both the attainder of Parliament and repeated threats by the English Crown. The distrust with which the English regarded him can be seen most clearly in Queen Elizabeth I’s refusal to grant him the title of Earl of Tyrone, in abeyance since the death of Conn O’Neill in 1559.
Chieftains in Ulster went out of their way to marry noble Scottish women because their rich dowries often consisted of large armies of mercenaries. During the early years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a great power in the Southern Hebrides and the Glynns of Antrim was Sir James MacDonnell, The MacDonnell of Isla and Cantire (Kintyre). His wife was Lady Agnes Campbell, the daughter of Lord Archibald Campbell, the 4rd Earl of Argyll, one of the most powerful nobles of Scotland. Their daughter, Finola MacDonnell, married Hugh, The O’Donnell of Tir Connell (Donegal). When Sir James MacDonnell died, Turlough Luineach married the widowed Lady Agnes in 1569, and thereby gained not only a large dowry of redshank mercenaries provided by Lady Agnes’s brother, the Earl of Argyll, but also became the father-in-law to his cousin The O’Donnell of Tir Connell. When she married Turlough Luineach, Lady Agnes brought 10,000 troops with her. Their marriage was celebrated with fourteen days of feasting, story-tellers, jugglers and jesters.
In 1570 he compassed the death of some of the principal MacSweenys. In 1581 he attacked and humbled the O'Reillys, in retaliation for their having imprisoned some of his cousins. In the month of July of the same year he was engaged in hostilities with the O'Donnells. The Four Masters say: "A furious and desperate battle was fought between them; and the celebrated proverb was verified on this occasion, i.e., 'Lively is each kinsman when fighting against the other.'" In 1585 he went to Dublin to attend the Parliament that assembled on 26th April, but does not appear to have taken his seat, as his name is not on the official list.
During the twenty-six years of his reign as The O’Neill Mor, Turlough was reviled by the Lord Deputies of Queen Elizabeth I, and by his own cousin and rival Hugh O’Neill (Earl of Tyrone), as being a treacherous and degenerate villain, the greatest threat to English authority in Ireland. Despite their repeated political and military efforts to remove him from power, the English had no choice but to settle for a treaty in 1578, negotiated by Turlough’s wife Lady Agnes, which conferred upon Turlough legal title to his extensive land holdings in Ulster, the titles of Earl of Clanconnell and Baron of Clogher for life and the right to maintain his personal army of Scottish mercenaries. In spite of this treaty, Turlough continued to intrigue against the English through covert alliances with Spain and Scotland, and maintained virtual control of Ulster until 1593, when he was forced by poor health and military setbacks to concede power to his cousin Hugh O’Neill, the Earl of Tyrone. Ironically, it was his ambitious cousins and son-in-law who brought Turlough’s reign to an end, not the English.
Upon his death in 1596, Turlough Luineach was interred at Ardstraw graveyard. He is represented as having been a staunch friend of the bards and brehons. Professor O'Donovan says: "There are still extant several Irish poems addressed to Turlough Luineach, inciting him to shake off the English yoke and become monarch of Ireland like his ancestors... But he was so old when he was made O'Neill that he seems to have then retained little military ardour lo tread in the wake of his ancestors.