The year I turned eleven, I read the book “Red Hugh, Prince of Donegal” and I fell in love.
Red Hugh was the teenaged heir to the O’Donnell title during the reign of Elizabeth I of England. It was a time when she endeavored to bring the Irish into line. The Irish, as they are sometimes known to do, resisted.
There was a prophecy: when Hugh succeeded Hugh as the O’Donnell, the foreign invaders would be banished. The Irish hoped young Red Hugh would be that Hugh. And Elizabeth feared it was true.
So Elizabeth had Red Hugh imprisoned in Dublin Castle when he was only fifteen years old. He escaped twice, the second time successfully. During the last escape, he and his companions trudged through snowy mountains during a bitterly cold winter. One of his friends was lost. The other died of exposure. Hugh himself lost two toes to frostbite.
A lot of snow is the only image I remember these fifty years later but what has stayed with me is the sense of a self-sacrificing young idealist fighting for justice and freedom against all odds. Powerful stuff for an almost-eleven year old back then. And it’s just as powerful today. Witness the success of Star Wars, Harry Potter, and so on.
But why is it that I gave up my lingering crush on Mighty Mouse, that muscular caped hero, in favor of the renegade prince? (You might remember Mighty Mouse, the Saturday morning cartoon. With the musculature of Mr. Universe and a cape like Superman, Mighty was a classic hero – he always saved the day.)
The rebel Red Hugh O’Donnell was different. He was vulnerable. Nothing bad happens to a cartoon mouse, but human beings can freeze to death as they trudge through snow to freedom.
Life was unfair to Red Hugh. He should have been out playing the 16th century equivalent to hacky-sack with his friends, not sitting in a freezing prison cell hundreds of miles from home – imprisoned not for something he had done but because of a prophecy. No such unfairness for Mighty.
And Red Hugh was fierce. The English couldn’t hold him, not even in Dublin castle. Sure, Mighty Mouse was fierce too in his own way with his superpowers and fancy costume but it’s not the same as teenaged boy jumping off a castle wall.
It was Red Hugh’s vulnerability, the unfairness of his story and his fierceness that made him sympathetic. His fight, noble and true, resonates with our own need for justice. So we rally for him, vesting emotionally in his struggle. In loving the rebel, we learn that justice is not always found in victory. Sometimes justice is found in the struggle.