Hugh O’Neill

The claim by an English historian that Hugh O’Neill was “a great man as far as savages go” shows the historian’s opinion that O’Neill was a man of a race and culture below his own. Friel’s presentation of Hugh O’Neill in ‘Making History’ both supports and disagrees with this comment. Friel first stage directions introducing the character of Hugh O’Neill describe him as, ‘a private, sharp-minded man… out going and talkative’ who speaks in ‘an upper-class English accent.

This introduction of O’Neill shows him to be an intelligent and well-educated individual, showing that at the beginning of the Act I, scene I, the audience should not consider him to be a “savage”. He also presents O’Neill as a sensitive man, a characteristic not commonly associated with savages. Shortly after his marriage to Mabel, he shows great enthusiasm when planning to, ‘make the room upstairs into’ their bedroom. This characteristic continues when O’Neill defends his marriage to Mabel in front of Lombard and O’Donnell. He calls her a, ‘very talented, a very spirited, a very beautiful young woman’.

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Further more, he presents her with a ‘watch’, claiming the only person he knows, ‘who has one is Queen Elizabeth’. This gift is hugely significant as it once again shows O’Neill’s love for Mabel, despite their two-decade age difference. However, O’Neill’s affection and care for Mabel, it could be argued, is no more than skin deep, shown when he sexually desires her, telling her, ‘I want to devour you’. Frayn’s use of the word ‘devour’, shows a savage side to O’Neill, a man who pursues sexual pleasure rather then love in his marriages.

This idea is first presented when Harry reveals that O’Neill has had two previous marriages, the first of which was, ‘never properly dissolved’. This presents O’Neill as hypocritical, for in Catholicism, O’Neill’s religion, marriage is a gift to be protected and divorce is seen as undesirable. Further more, during his exile in Rome, O’Neill has no moral conscience when visiting ‘Maria’, a prostitute; even despite the fact he is married to ‘Catriona’, a woman whom, in violent drunkenness, refers to as a ‘bitch’. This shows that his love for Mabel was an inconsistent quality, one not found in his other treatments of women.

The watch which O’Neill presents to Mabel – although a romantic and no-doubt costly gesture – could be viewed as an inexpensive present and nothing more. For O’Neill, the Earl of Tyrone, with his vast extent of wealth, a present such as this would not have been overly costly and, proven in Mabel’s reaction of disbelief and flattery, could have been an easy way to, once again, win his wife’s heart. Throughout the play, O’Neill has powerful allies who appear fond of him. In Act I, Scene I, the pope sends him, ‘a silver birdcage and a gold and silver candelabra,’ sent with his, ‘warmest wishes’.

Friel’s presentation of O’Neill being sent personal gifts by a figure as powerful, influential and religious as the Pope does not agree with the historian’s claim that O’Neill was a “savage”. However, there is evidence in the text to suggest that the letters and gifts sent have a far less personal and more political objective. Lombard hints at this when he tells O’Neill that the Pope is, ‘solidly behind you (sic) in principle). Frayn’s use of the word ‘behind’ tells the audience that the Pope is sending these gifts as a sign of support for Catholicism is Northern Ireland, not for O’Neill.

This theme continues when O’Neill is writing his submission to the Queen. He’s aware that, like the Pope, she will use, ‘someone like me (sic),’ showing that his relationships with his allies are not personal, that he is merely a puppet on their strings that they can use to influence the Irish people. O’Neill is presented as a treacherous character throughout ‘Making History’, primarily through the English’s’ opinions of him. Harry reports that ‘Young Essex’ has been imprisoned for, ‘conferring secretly with the basest and vilest traitor that ever lived, Hugh O’Neill’.

This historically accurate opinion of O’Neill shows that the English considered him a savage. The way in which other characters view O’Neill is an important part of Friel’s presentation of O’Neill. O’Donnell is described as having, ‘a deep affection for’ him. However, Friel presents O’Donnell as a fool, as when Lombard, Harry and O’Neill as discussing serious political and religious present situations, he is more intent upon telling the other characters of his mother’s house’s refurbishment. However, O’Donnell also insults O’Neill, calling him a ‘hoor’, showing that although he is fond of O’Neill, that he does not necessarily respect him.

This opinion is repeated when O’Donnell calls O’Neill, ‘one great fraud’. This shows that O’Neill has lost all of O’Donnell’s respect for his formerly proud, Irish self, whilst presenting O’Neill’s habit of treachery and deceit in acknowledgment from a good friend. Mary, Mabel’s English sister, holds O’Neill in much lower regard and, most interestingly, Friel’s presentation of her opinion does not simply come from her culture’s prejudice against the Irish but also from her own observations of his behaviour.

During a futile argument with Mabel, she calls O’Neill, ‘treacherous and treasonable… and steeped in religious superstition’. This is important in Friel’s presentation of O’Neill as the audience know that the Earl is, ‘treacherous and treasonable’, having heard them said and written by other characters previously. Further more, the audience also agree with Mary’s claim of the Earl’s ‘superstition’, shown through his various curses and later belief that the war with the English has become the Counter-Reformation, a holy crusade.

Her opinions become more extreme when she tells Mabel that the Irish people are “savage” through their, ‘refuse to cultivate the land God gave us’. Her people consider O’Neill to be; ‘Lucifer – The Great Devil – Beelzebub! ‘ and she supports this with observations she has made, that she has, ‘seen him eating with his bare hands’ and that not every leader in Europe respects him as Mabel claims. However, the insults and more importantly, Mary’s observations are claims made in moments of hysteria, when she is desperately attempting to persuade her sister, whom she loves, that she is doing the wrong thing.

Her observations are only revealed when she realises that Mabel is not going to see her point of view, she delivers them in desperation, hoping for them to have an effect on Mabel. Friel constructs their argument in such a way that the audience question Mary’s claims, thus encouraging them to disagree with her, presenting O’Neill as a cultural and educated man rather than a “savage”. Further more; Mary’s reference to O’Neill’s duality is a trait that the audience are used to, the way in which he seemingly, treacherously sides with England and the Western Europe.

Friel explains this trait through and presents O’Neill as a politically educated and diplomatic man – two characteristics not associated with “savages”. He argues that the, ‘slow, sure tide of history’ is with him and that, like Maguire, he, ‘has to rise,’ due to his; ‘history, instinct, his decent passion’ and, ‘the composition of his blood’. O’Neill relates to and sympathises with Maguire’s situation and Friel’s presentation of his understanding show the audience that he faces the same situation. The Earl understands that, ‘either way I (sic) make an enemy’, showing his political astuteness and diplomatic thought process.

It seems that Mabel’s claim that he’s constantly, ‘fighting to preserve a fighting people,’ is an unfair one as he, in reality, Freil presents him as using ‘caution’ and ‘deliberation’ – ‘the only Irish Chieftain who understands the political method’. During conversations with Lombard, concerning O’Neill’s history, the Earl insists, repeatedly and with great emphasis, on ‘truth’ being a necessary ingredient in the telling of his life. O’Neill repeats his plea to Lombard a total of eight times throughout the play.

In such a carefully constructed piece of drama, such repetition carries special importance and shows a moral quality of the Earl’s character. Further more, five uses of the word occur in the first Act with only three occurring during O’Neill’s exile in Rome. It is expected by the audience that O’Neill, during his dying days would be determined to have a true account of his life with which to preserve his memory. The fact that the majority of O’Neill’s references to ‘truth’ occur long before the earl’s death show that he has greater concern for the moral implications of a ‘florid lie’, even during moments when his death is distant.

Freil’s presentation of the effect that Mabel’s death has on O’Neill is a very important part of the playwright’s presentation of the Earl. His immediate reaction is unlike any of that he has experienced in previous marriages, he appears so shocked that he can only whisper the prayer, ‘Oh, dear God… ‘ This contrast between his ‘outgoing and talkative’ nature described in the first scene of the play and his whispering despair show that Mabel’s death was a tragedy which will have detrimental effects on his character.

These effects emerge suddenly and shockingly in Act II, Scene II. Friel describes his temper as, ‘volatile and bitter and dangerous’, shown when he turns on Harry Hoveden, his loyal friend. Friel describes him as talking to Harry, icily and shouting drunkenly at him over the matter of wine. This presentation of O’Neill shows a savage side to his personality, however, the audience sympathise with his situation, as anyone would – flattered by prostitutes, exiled form his homeland and clinging to the belief that the counter-reformation is still a possibility.

He has been removed from power by treachery, something that previously he manipulated for his own benefits, ensuring peace and minimal resistance, therefore his now savage personality is expected and through O’Neill circumstances, Friel presents it as excusable. In conclusion, Friel does present O’Neill as a savage to a certain extent, through; other character’s opinions of him, the stage directions and his own words and deeds. However, many, if not all of these savage characteristics can be explained by the character’s difficult circumstances thus presenting the Earl in a slightly negative, if not entirely savage, light.