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O'Donnell Abú is a traditional Irish song. Its lyrics were written by a Fenian Michael Joseph McCann in 1843. It refers to the Gaelic lord Red Hugh O'Donnell who ruled Tyrconnell in the late sixteenth century first with the approval of the Crown authorities in Dublin and later in rebellion against them during Tyrone's Rebellion. The title refers to the Gaelic war cry of "Abú," "To victory," which followed a commander's name.
Red Hugh O'Donnell (1571-1602) was the son of Ineen Dubh and Hugh O'Donnell, Lord of Tír Chonaill. As a boy he was fostered by several of the noble houses of Ulster.
Just before his fifteenth birthday he was captured by the English and was taken to Dublin Castle. He was kept prisoner for four years before he escaped and made his way back to Donegal, travelling in freezing winter weather. On the 3rd May 1592 he was proclaimed Chieftain O'Domhnaill (O'Donnell) at the rock of Doon, at Kilmacrennan, County Donegal.
The O'Donnells fought in the Nine Years War against the English with their allies, the Maguires and the O'Neills. The Battle of Curlew Mountain was one of Red Hugh's greatest victories. In 1601 help arrived from Spain for the Irish. The Spanish forces landed in Kinsale and Red Hugh set out on the long journey to meet them. The English army, led by Lord Mountjoy, arrived to lay siege to the town and this resulted in the Battle of Kinsale in December 1601. The battle was won by the English and the Irish retreated back to Ulster.
Red Hugh left Ireland and travelled to Spain to seek help. After nine months he was struck down by an illness and dies at the age of thirty. He is buried in Vallidolid in Spain.
Stylistically the song draws on the romantic nationalism of the mid-nineteenth century, similar to those of McCann's contemporary Thomas Davis.
The song portrays the rallying cry for the O’Donnell clan, called to assemble at a location on the banks of the River Erne. The Bonnaught and Gallowglass referenced in the lyrics were Irish and Scots mercenaries employed by O'Donnell to guard the mountain passes. They are now summoned to join the rest of O'Donnell's forces, who await the arrival of Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, and the Borderers who protect his lands.
In the 1930s it was adopted as the anthem of the Irish Blueshirts. In the 1960s the song was recorded by the Irish folk group Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers. The song was chosen by Radio Éireann as the station ID signal in 1936, after a poll of listeners. It remains to be such to this day. Every day it is played on RTÉ Radio 1 at 5:30AM. The song appears in the 1966 movie, The Fighting Prince of Donegal.
Lyrics by Michael Joseph McCann