Owen Roe O'Neill

O’Neill, Owen Roe, General of the Ulster Irish between 1642 and 1649, son of Art O’Neill, who was brother of Hugh, Earl of Tyrone, was born in Ireland about 1599.

He was taken to the Continent by his uncle when he fled in 1607, was educated in the Irish Franciscan monastery at Louvain, entered the Spanish army, where he was known as Don Eugenio O’Neill, and before long rose to the rank of colonel.

He married Rose O’Dogherty, sister of Sir Cahir.

From 13th June to 10th August 1640, with 1,500 foot, chiefly Irish, and 400 horse, he defended Arras against a French force of 25,000 infantry and 9,000 cavalry; and, although ultimately obliged to capitulate, was permitted to march out with all the honours of war, and retire to Douay.

In April 1642 he was waited upon at Brussels by a deputation from the northern Irish, then in arms.

With the cordial assent of Urban VIII., and by the advice of Luke Wadding, he accepted their offer of the command of the Ulster forces, and with money sent him by the Pope, purchased a frigate, the St. Francis, and freighted her with arms and munitions.

He sailed from Dunkirk about 18th June, with his sons Henry, Bryan, and Con; O’Cahan, Bryan O’Byrne, Owen O’Dogherty, Gerald FitzGerald, and many of his countrymen anxious to join in the struggle.

Eluding the vigilance of English cruisers, specially despatched to intercept her, the St. Francis dropped anchor at Castledoe, in Donegal, towards the end of July.

Sir Felim O’Neill, with 1,500 men, escorted him to Charlemont, where he was invested with supreme command in Ulster.

The English general, Leslie, wrote that he was sorry a person of his experience and reputation abroad should come to Ireland to second so bad a cause, and earnestly besought him to return whence he came, whereupon O’Neill replied that he “had more reason to come to relieve the deplorable state of his country, than Leslie had to march at the head of an army to England against his own King.”

Twelve more sail afterwards arrived, and landed contingents of officers and men trained in the continental wars, and stores of arms and ammunition contributed by different European powers.

The Confederation of Kilkenny was constituted on 24th October 1642. Eleven spiritual and fourteen temporal peers, with 226 commoners, representing the Catholic population of Ireland, assembled, and swore to observe true allegiance to King Charles, to sustain an Irish Parliament, to maintain the free exercise of the Roman Catholic faith, and to obey the laws made by the Supreme Council then elected.

A declaration of rights was issued, a government constituted, an army organized, a mint established, a great seal cut, and ambassadors were sent to foreign states.

O’Neill was appointed to command the Ulster forces, Thomas Preston those of Leinster, Gerald Barry in Munster, John Burke in Connaught.

It would be impossible clearly to follow O’Neill’s course through the troubled politics of the next few years in Ireland.

There were the parties of the Confederation and of the English Parliament; there was Ormond’s party, and the party of Rinuccini, the Papal Nuncio; there was General Monro’s Scotch Presbyterian party, the party of Inchiquin, and the party of the Old Irish.

These factions were much split up, and at times formed the most unlooked-for alliances. Union and patriotism were lamentably wanting.

The name of Owen Roe O’Neill stands out more clearly than that of any other of the actors in the drama, as one sincerely anxious to sink personal considerations and serve his country and religion.

Only the main points in his career can be noticed.

He spent the winter of 1642 in disciplining his levies of Irish kerns, who were thus described by Rinuccini:

“The soldiers of Ulster, and, in some parts, those of Connaught, naturally accustomed to suffering, and habituated to the frosts of that northern climate, have few wishes and few wants. Caring but little for bread, they live upon shamrock and butter. Their drink is milk, and, as a great luxury, usquebagh. Provided they have shoes and a few utensils, a woollen cloak serves for their covering—more zealously careful of their sword and musket than of their personal comfort. They seldom touch money, and therefore complain but little about it.”

In May 1643 he successfully repulsed General Monro’s attempt to surprise Charlemont.

He was deeply mortified at the Supreme Council preferring Lord Castlehaven to him for the chief command of the armies of the Confederation.

On 24th June he joined Preston near Mullingar. Their forces numbered about 12,000 men. They reaped the corn in Meath, and took the castles of Killelan, Balrath, Ballybeg, Bective, Balsoon, and Ardsallagh, and defeated Lord Moore at Portlester.

On 15th September O’Neill’s progress was stayed by a cessation of arms agreed upon between the Marquis of Ormond and the Confederates.

More than a year was passed in negotiations—the Anglo-Irish Confederates were inclined to temporize, whilst the Old Irish, headed by Rinuccini and supported by O’Neill, opposed all proposals of permanent peace that would not include complete toleration for the Catholics.

In November the Supreme Council commanded him to join his forces to those of Castlehaven, and attack Monro in Munster.

The operations during 1644 and 1645 resolved themselves into a series of skirmishes which, while they did not accomplish their end of driving Monro out of Ireland, tended to discipline the Irish troops.

Towards the close of 1645 O’Neill quarrelled with Castlehaven, charging him with supineness or cowardice in the operations of the war. Both generals appealed to the Supreme Council, and O’Neill retired to Belturbet, where he established his headquarters until the spring of 1646.

He was then summoned to Kilkenny by Rinuccini, who supplied him with a large portion of the arms he had brought from the Continent; and, smoothing over the differences between him and his kinsman, Sir Felim O’Neill, induced the latter to consent to serve under him.

By the following May, Owen had an army of 5,000 foot and 500 horse, with which he marched, about 1st June, in the direction of Armagh, to attack Monro. The Scottish general met him with 6,000 infantry and 800 horse, and on the 5th June the battle of Benburb was fought, in which O’Neill was completely victorious.

Carte, in his Life of Ormond, thus writes of Monro’s defeat:

“Sir James Montgomery’s regiment was the only one which retired in a body; all the others fled in the utmost confusion, and most of the infantry were cut in pieces. Colonel Conway, after having two horses shot under him, made his escape almost miraculously to the Newry, with Captain Burke and about forty horse. Lord Montgomery was taken prisoner, with about twenty-one officers, and one hundred and fifty common soldiers. There were found three thousand two hundred and forty-three slain on the field of battle, and others were killed next day in the pursuit. O’Neile had only about seventy killed, and two hundred wounded. He took all the Scots’ artillery, being four field pieces, with most of their arms, thirty-two colours, their tents and baggage. The booty was very great: one thousand five hundred draft horses being taken, and two months’ provisions for the Scotch army—enough to serve the Ulster Irish (an hardy people, used to live on potatoes and butter, and content generally with only milk and shoes) double the time. Monro fled without his wig and coat to Lisnegarvy, and immediately burned Dundrum, deserted Port a Down, Clare, Glanevy, Downepatrick, and other places.”

One of O’Neill’s chaplains carried the news of the victory to Rinuccini at Limerick on the 13th, and presented to him the captured colours at the cathedral with much state. Three days later they were forwarded to Rome, and the Pope shortly afterwards sent O’Neill, as an augury of future victories, the sword of his distinguished uncle, the Earl of Tyrone.

After this triumph O’Neill’s army dispersed over Monaghan, Cavan, Leitrim, and Longford, until the crops should be ripe, while the wounded were sent to Charlemont, where Sir Felim O’Neill had surgeons for them.

The account of the battle posted in the streets of London described “the bloody fight at Black water, on the 5th of June, by the Irish rebels against Major-General Monro, where 5,000 Protestants were put to the sword.”

A message from Rinuccini again summoned O’Neill south, and his army being increased by deserters from Monro and fresh levies, to 10,000 foot, and twenty-one troops of horse, he marched to Kilkenny, and in conjunction with Preston supported the cause of the Nuncio and those anxious to reject the peace offered by Ormond.

O’Neill and Preston then moved towards Dublin, in the hope of wresting the city from Ormond before he could deliver it into the hands of the Parliamentarians.

The two generals proceeded by different routes, and pitched their camps between Lucan and Celbridge. Much animosity existed between them. O’Neill distrusted Preston, and Preston was really more anxious to fall on O’Neill than to march on Dublin.

A month was wasted in contentious bickerings, and when the news arrived that a large Parliamentary force had been received into the city, O’Neill collected together his troops by cannon shot, crossed the Liffey by a temporary bridge, and retreated to Westmeath, and afterwards to Connaught.

On 8th August 1647, Preston was defeated by General Jones near Trim, and the safety of the Supreme Council was left in the hands of O’Neill, who marched from Sligo, and kept Jones shut up in Dublin for four months. At times the citizens could count from their church-towers two hundred Irish watch fires.

Throughout 1648 O’Neill adhered to the cause of Rinuccini, who still rejected the peace proposals that did not provide for the free exercise of the Catholic religion in Ireland.

Preston and other Confederate generals seceded from the Nuncio, and proclaimed O’Neill a rebel, and Lord Inchiquin, hitherto on the side of the Parliamentarians, joined them—resolved to destroy O’Neill and turn Rinuccini out of Ireland.

On 28th May 1648, the Nuncio, from Maryborough, excommunicated the abettors of the peace, and put under interdict all towns that should receive it; 2,000 of Preston’s troops thereupon joined O’Neill, and the approach of a force under Inchiquin alone prevented him from sacking Kilkenny.

O’Neill then turned aside into Thomond, stormed the castle of Nenagh and the fortresses garrisoned by Inchiquin’s soldiery, and occupied a fortified position at Ballaghmore.

Rinuccini left Ireland in March 1649, and it became O’Neill’s only object to keep his army together, in the hope of Continental assistance. At one time he even entered into a treaty with General Jones, and in return for a herd of 2,000 cattle, raised the siege of Londonderry, where Coote, who held that city for the Parliament, was shut up.

After Ormond’s defeat at Rathmines, and in the face of Cromwell’s arrival, all the principal Irish parties sank their differences and showed willingness to combine against the common enemy.

Owen Roe detached 6,000 men to join Ormond, in the vain effort to withstand the Parliamentary army before Wexford, and was himself hastening south, when he was attacked with an old complaint—acute gout—at Londonderry.

For some days he was carried in a horse-litter at the head of his army; but at length resigned the command to his nephew Major-General Hugh O’Neill, and getting worse and worse, died at Cloughouter Castle, the residence of his brother-in-law, Philip O’Reilly, 6th November 1649, aged about 50.

He was interred in the abbey of Cavan.

Carte says, Owen Roe O’Neill was “a man of few words, cautious and phlegmatic in his operations, a great adept in concealing his feelings … the imitator of Fabius.”

His widow, Rosa, survived until 1st November 1660. She died at Brussels, and was buried in the convent of the Franciscans at Louvain, where her tomb may still be seen.

His son Henry was taken prisoner by Coote at the battle of Scarriffholles [See MacMahon, Heber], 21st June 1650, and notwithstanding promise of quarter, was executed in cold blood.

His other sons—Bryan, Con, and John (a priest)—ultimately reached the Continent; but no further record remains of them.


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