Priest penetrates Vatican secrecy in quest for lost portrait of Irish rebel leader Hugh O’Neill

Hugh O'Neill seated at back with the Spanish ambassador
Hugh O'Neill seated at back with the Spanish ambassador

The quest to find the lost portrait of the great Hugh O’Neill has been revealed in an article published by the O’Neill Country Historical Society to commemorate the 400th anniversary of his death.

O’Neill, the last Irish chieftain to be crowned at Tullyhogue, is one of the most important Ulster men in history, but incredibly no authentic portraits of him existed until a recent chance discovery by an Irish priest in the Vatican.

According to O’Neill historian James Kane, the images we have of O’Neill are all ‘romanticised fictions’.

“The popular pictures, including the famous depiction of the Flight of the Earls by Thomas Ryan, were all devised by the Irish nationalist movement to create the iconic impression of a national hero”, he said. “None of them were based on actual drawings of the Irish leader.”

O’Neill historical society decided to publish the newly discovered portrait of Hugh O’Neill to mark the anniversary of his death. For centuries, it had been shrouded in secrecy because of the rule forbidding any copying or photography of the paintings in the Vatican.

However, it is believed that an Irish priest equipped with a mobile phone was able to snap the image.

The fresco, showing a frail, elderly figure in a white beard at the back of a room full of bishops, captures a canonisation ceremony in Rome in 1608. The Latin description of the painting describes O’Neill as ‘the Great Hugh O’Neill in attendance with the Spanish ambassador’.

“We thought it would be a good idea to put this image on the cover of our twenty-third Duiche O’Neill journal”, said Mr Kane. “The portrait was lost for four centuries and it is fitting that we are revealing it to the people of Ulster at this time.”

The journal can be obtained, price £20, through the ONeill Country Historical website: or by email:

The 304 page journal with 22 articles contains a wealth of additional original historical information on a wide variety of subjects. The report on the recent excavations at Tullyhogue fort near Cookstown confirms human activity on this, the Crowning site of the O’ Neills’, centuries before the arrival of that famous Clan circa 900AD.

A heavily illustrated article on the antiquarian collector and artist John Bell details his fabulous collection of artefacts and traces his move first to Newry, then to Armagh and finally as an art master to the Royal School at Dungannon where he died and was buried.