Owen Roe O'Neill

Owen Roe O'Neill

A Victorian-era impression of O'Neill
Born c.1585
County Armagh, Kingdom of Ireland
Died 6 November 1649
Cloughoughter Castle, County Cavan, Kingdom of Ireland
Nationality Irish
Other names Eoghan Ruadh Ó Néill
Occupation Mercenary, Soldier
Title Commander of the Ulster Army
Predecessor Sir Phelim O'Neill
Successor Bishop Heber MacMahon
Religion Roman Catholic
Spouse(s) Rosa O'Neill
Parent(s) Art MacBaron O'Neill

Owen Roe O'Neill (Irish: Eoghan Ruadh Ó Néill; c. 1585 – 6 November, 1649) was a seventeenth-century soldier and one of the most famous of the O'Neill dynasty of Ulster in Ireland. O'Neill left Ireland at a young age and spent most of his life as a mercenary in the Spanish Army serving against the Dutch in Flanders during the Eighty Years' War. Following the Irish Rebellion of 1641, O'Neill returned and took command of the Ulster Army of the Irish Confederates. He enjoyed mixed fortunes over the following years but won a decisive victory at the Battle of Benburb in 1646. Large-scale campaigns to capture Dublin and Sligo were both failures.

O'Neill's later years were marked by infighting amongst the Confederates, and he led his army to seize power in the capital of Kilkenny. His troops clashed with rival forces of the Confederacy, leading to O'Neill forming a temporary alliance with Charles Coote's English Parliamentary forces in Ulster. He initially rejected a treaty of alliance between the Confederates and the Irish Royalists, but faced with the Cromwellian invasion he changed his mind. Shortly after agreeing an alliance with the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland Ormond, in which he was promised an Earldom, he died in December 1649.

Early life

Owen Roe O'Neill was the illegitimate son of Art MacBaron O'Neill, a son of Matthew O'Neill, 1st Baron Dungannon and younger brother of Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone (the Great O'Neill), who held lands in County Armagh. His great-grandfather was Conn O'Neill, 1st Earl of Tyrone, the most powerful figure in Ulster and the first O'Neill to take a title from the Crown as part of the surrender and regrant policy of the Tudor era. Through Conn, he was descended from Thomas FitzGerald, 7th Earl of Kildare, the leading Anglo-Irish noble of the era.

His year of birth is unknown, but was likely to have been around 1585. It is also not certain exactly where he was born, but it was probably near Loughgall in County Armagh where his father's estates were and where Owen Roe spent much of his youth.[1] Owen Roe's mother was the daughter of Aodh Conallach O'Raghallaigh, the chief of Breifne O'Reilly in County Cavan. Several of his brothers died during Tyrone's Rebellion. Another brother Brian MacArt O'Neill was hanged for manslaughter in 1607. One of Owen Roe's his nephew's was Daniel O'Neill, a Protestant who became a noted Cavalier in England during the 1640s.

In Spain

As a young man Owen left Ireland. He grew up in the Spanish Netherlands and served for 40 years in the Irish regiment of the Spanish army. Most of his combat was in the Eighty Years' War against the Dutch Republic in Flanders and against the French in the Franco-Spanish War. He distinguished himself notably at the Siege of Arras (1640), where he commanded the Spanish garrison and held out for 48 days with 2,000 men against a French army of 35,000.[2]

O'Neill was, like many Gaelic Irish officers in the Spanish service, very hostile to the English Protestant invasion of Ireland. In 1627, he was involved in petitioning the Spanish monarchy to invade Ireland using the Irish Spanish regiments. O'Neill proposed that Ireland be made a republic under Spanish protection to avoid in-fighting between Irish Catholic landed families over which of them would provide a prince or king of Ireland. This plan came to nothing. However, in 1642, O'Neill returned to Ireland with 300 veterans to aid the Irish Rebellion of 1641. The rebellion had broken out in Autumn 1641, with the rebel leaders issuing the Proclamation of Dungannon declaring their aim of enhancing Catholic rights while declaring their continued loyalty to King Charles I. Despite a failed attempt to seize Dublin Castle, the rebels enjoyed success across Ulster and the uprising spread to other parts of the country. However, the rebels then suffered several defeats to the Royal Irish Army and the Scottish Covenanter Army in Ireland and by the time Owen Roe arrived the rising was increasingly in trouble.

Return to Ireland

The Green harp flag, stated as being used by Owen in 1642.

The subsequent war, known as the Irish Confederate Wars, was part of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms – civil wars throughout Britain and Ireland. Because of his military experience, O'Neill was recognised on his return to Ireland, at Doe Castle in County Donegal (end of July 1642), as the leading representative of the O'Neills and head of the Ulster Irish. Sir Phelim O'Neill resigned the northern command of the Irish rebellion in Owen Roe's favour, and escorted him from Lough Swilly to Charlemont.

But distrust between the kinsmen was complicated by differences between Owen Roe and the Catholic Confederation which met at Kilkenny in October 1642. Owen Roe professed to be acting in the interest of Charles I; his aim was the complete Independence of Ireland as a Catholic country, while the Old English Catholics represented by the council desired to secure religious liberty and an Irish constitution under the rule of England. O'Neill wanted the Plantation of Ulster overturned and the recovery of the O'Neill clan's ancestral lands. The majority of Confederate military resources were directed to Thomas Preston's Leinster Army. Preston was also a Spanish veteran but he and O'Neill had an intense personal dislike of each other.

Mainly because Preston had been given the military resources, Owen Roe was outnumbered by the Scottish Covenanter army that had landed in Ulster in 1642. Following a reverse at Clones, O'Neill had to abandon central Ulster and was followed by thousands of refugees, fleeing the revenge of the Scottish soldiers convinced by propaganda alleging atrocities against Protestants in the rebellion of 1641 – allegations that have now been proved untrue.[3] To O'Neill the devastation of Ulster made it look, "not only like a desert, but like hell, if hell could exist on earth". O'Neill stopped the killings of Protestant civilians, for which he received the gratitude of many Protestant settlers. From 1642–46 a stalemate existed in Ulster, which O'Neill used to train and discipline his Ulster Army. This poorly supplied force nevertheless gained a bad reputation for plundering and robbing friendly civilians around its quarters in northern Leinster and southern Ulster.

Battle of Benburb

Main article: Battle of Benburb

In 1646 O'Neill, with substantial Gallowglass numbers and additionally furnished with supplies by the Papal Nuncio, Giovanni Battista Rinuccini, attacked the Scottish Covenanter army under Major-General Robert Monro, who had landed in Ireland in April 1642. On 5 June 1646 O'Neill utterly routed Monro at the Battle of Benburb,[2] on the Blackwater killing or capturing 3,000 Scots. However, he was summoned to the south by Rinuccini, and so was unable to take advantage of the victory, and allowed Monro to remain unmolested at Carrickfergus.

Factionalism and disillusionment

O'Neill's Ulster Army was closely aligned with the policies of the Papal envoy Giovanni Battista Rinuccini.

In March 1646 a treaty was signed between Ormonde and the Catholics, which would have committed the Catholics to sending troops to aid the Royalist cause in the English Civil War. The peace terms, however, were rejected by a majority of the Irish Catholic military leaders and the Catholic clergy including the Nuncio, Rinuccini. O'Neill led his Ulster army, along with Thomas Preston's Leinster army, in a failed attempt to take Dublin from Ormonde. The Irish Confederates suffered heavy military defeats the following year at the hands of Parliamentarian forces in Ireland at Dungans Hill and Knocknanauss, leading to a moderation of their demands and a new peace deal with the Royalists. This time O'Neill was alone among the Irish generals in rejecting the peace deal, and found himself isolated by the departure of the Papal Nuncio from Ireland in February 1649.

So alienated was O'Neill by the terms of the peace the Confederates had made with Ormonde that he refused to join the Catholic/Royalist coalition and in 1648 his Ulster army fought with other Irish Catholic armies. He made overtures for alliance to Monck, who was in command of the parliamentarians in the north, to obtain supplies for his forces, and at one stage even tried to make a separate treaty with the English Parliament against the Royalists in Ireland. Failing to obtain any better terms from them, he turned once more to Ormonde and the Catholic confederates, with whom he prepared to co-operate more earnestly when Cromwell's arrival in Ireland in August 1649 brought a war of horror.

Death and legacy

Owen Roe died on 6 November 1649 at the O'Reilly stronghold of Cloughoughter Castle on an island in Lough Oughter in County Cavan.[2] One belief was that he was poisoned by a priest, another that he died from an illness resulting from an old wound. Under cover of night he was said to have been brought to the Franciscan abbey in Cavan town for burial. Local tradition is that he was buried at Trinity Abbey, on an island in Lough Oughter. His death was a major blow to the Irish of Ulster and was kept secret for some time.[2]

Catholic nobles and gentry met in Ulster in March to appoint a commander to succeed Owen Roe O'Neil. Their choice was Heber MacMahon, Bishop of Clogher. The Ulster army was unable to prevent the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland, despite a successful defence of Clonmel by Owen Roe's nephew Hugh Dubh O'Neill and was destroyed at the Battle of Scarrifholis in Donegal in 1650. Its remnants continued guerrilla warfare until 1653, when they surrendered at Cloughoughter in Cavan. Most of the survivors were transported to serve in the Spanish Army.

In the 19th century, O'Neill was celebrated by the Irish nationalist revolutionaries the Young Irelanders as a patriot. Thomas Davis wrote a song about O'Neill, "The Lament for Owen Roe", first published in the Young Ireland newspaper The Nation. Drawing on an older tune composed by Turlough O'Carolan, it portrays O'Neill's death as an assassination and the main cause of the subsequent defeat to Cromwell's English Republican forces. Its first verse is:

“Did they dare, did they dare, to slay Owen Roe O’Neill?”
“Yes, they slew with poison him they feared to meet with steel.”
“May God wither up their hearts! May their blood cease to flow,
May they walk in living death, who poisoned Owen Roe.”

Tommy Makem composed a song "The Battle of Benburb" which commemorates O'Neill's 1646 victory over the Scottish Covenanters.


O'Neill is commemorated in the names of several Gaelic Athletic Association clubs in Northern Ireland, including (in Armagh) Eoghan Ruadh Middletown; (in Derry) CLG Eoghan Rua, Coleraine; (in Dublin) St Oliver Plunketts/Eoghan Ruadh GAA, and (in Tyrone) Brackaville Owen Roes GFC; Owen Roe O'Neill's GAC, Leckpatrick; Dungannon Eoghan Ruadh Hurling Club, and the defunct Benburb Eoghan Ruadh GAC.

The Irish Army opened a new barracks in 1990, to replace the old military post in Cavan Town since 1707?, and named it "Dún Uí Néill" (O'Neill Fort). A & Sp companies of the 29th Infantry Battalion conducted border patrols and Aid To Civil Power operations from here. It was subsequently closed in 2012 during Defence Forces restructuring.(J. Doherty)


  1. Casway p.9-10
  2. 1 2 3 4 Bréifne (2006). Egan, Terry, ed. A Travel Guide to Bréifne: the Lost Kingdom of Ireland. Belfast: The Stationery Office Ltd. p. 10. ISBN 978-0-337-08747-9.
  3. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/feb/18/1641-irish-rebellion-anti-catholic-propaganda


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