Owen Roe O’Neill, [Eoghan Ruadh O’Neill] c.1583-1649
Confederate soldier and Irish patriot who fought in vain to restore the Roman Catholic faith to Ulster.
Born at Armagh in Ulster, Owen Roe (“Red Owen”) was the son of Art MacBaron O’Neill (c.1548–1618) and the nephew of Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone (1540-1616).
Owen was educated by Franciscan monks but also trained for war from an early age, joining his uncle, father and brothers in the Nine Years War (1594-1603) against the English occupation of Ulster.
Around 1605, he joined the Spanish army, enlisting in an Irish regiment raised for the Spanish service that was known as the Earl of Tyrone’s regiment and was commanded by Owen’s cousin Henry O’Neill. After the “Flight of the Earls” in 1607, when Tyrone and other leading Irish noblemen were forced to flee from Ulster, O’Neill adopted the ideal of recovering Ulster for the native Irish and restoring the Roman Catholic faith to Ireland.
The Spanish Service
For more than thirty years, O’Neill led a distinguished career in the Spanish army. He served mainly in Flanders where Spain was fighting against the United Provinces of the Netherlands, whose revolt from Spanish rule resulted in the Eighty Years War (1568-1648). O’Neill was promoted to major and effectively commanded Tyrone’s regiment after the death of Henry O’Neill in 1610.
On the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War in 1618, the regiment fought for Spain in the Palatinate campaigns. O’Neill distinguished himself at the sieges of Bergen-op-Zoom and Breda. He was commissioned colonel of a newly-raised Irish regiment in 1634 and achieved his most celebrated feat of arms in the Spanish service during Spain’s war against France when he defended the frontier town of Arras with 1,500 troops against overwhelming odds during July and August 1640.
Return to Ireland
Through his nephews Con and Daniel O’Neill, Owen was drawn into the intrigues that led to the Irish Uprising of October 1641, after which he left the Spanish service and returned to Ulster. O’Neill landed at Castledoe, County Donegal, in July 1642 with a cadre of Spanish-trained officers and a supply of arms and ammunition. He was received warmly and acknowledged lord-general of Confederate forces, but he was disappointed not to be recognised as Earl of Tyrone and chieftain of the O’Neills, the title being disputed by his kinsman, Sir Phelim O’Neill. Furthermore, Owen quickly came into conflict with the Royalist noblemen in the Confederate Assembly who did not share his ambition to restore Irish sovereignty.
Unwilling to trust him as general of all Confederate forces, the Assembly appointed him commander in Ulster, one of four regional commands.
The Ulster army was made up mainly of untrained, badly-disciplined recruits. With fewer than 600 regulars and lacking supplies, weapons and ammunition, O’Neill was unable to contain Protestant forces in Ulster. Relentless raids by Monro’s Covenanters and the Lagan Army forced him to withdraw from Ulster towards Connacht. His forces were ambushed and defeated by the Lagan Army at Clones in June 1643. After this setback, O’Neill moved into County Meath to raid for supplies and to threaten Dublin from the north-west. When British forces under Lord Moore tried to drive him out, O’Neill took up a defensive position at Portlester. The British retreated when Lord Moore’s head was blown off by a cannon shot aimed, according to legend, by O’Neill himself.
O’Neill and the Confederacy
Often frustrated by the tortuous politics of the Confederate Assembly, O’Neill had no respite during the Cessation of Arms negotiated by the King’s lord-lieutenant the Marquis of Ormond in September 1643 because the Ulster Scots refused to recognise the Cessation and continued to fight against the Catholic Irish. The Assembly agreed to send an army against the Scots but commissioned the Earl of Castlehaven to command it rather than O’Neill.
Castlehaven’s Ulster campaign of 1644 was completely ineffective. In his frustration, O’Neill considered returning to the Spanish service but took heart from the arrival at Kilkenny of the papal nuncio, Archbishop Rinuccini, in November 1645.
Rinuccini brought supplies of weapons and money that enabled O’Neill to pay and fully equip the Ulster army for the first time. Equally importantly, Rinuccini shared O’Neill’s vision of driving out the Protestants and restoring the Roman Catholic faith in Ireland.
In the spring of 1646, O’Neill marched against Major-General Monro, commander of Scottish forces in Ulster, who attempted to join forces with a second British force from Coleraine and units of the Lagan Army at Glaslough in County Monaghan in preparation for an invasion of Leinster. O’Neill manoeuvred skillfully to lure Monro into attacking him at a disadvantage and won a great victory at the battle of Benburb near Armagh on 5 June 1646.
Benburb was the biggest set-piece battle of the Confederate War and a major setback for the British in Ulster. Split by internal divisions and engaged in endless negotiations with Ormond, however, the Confederate Assembly failed to follow up the military advantage that O’Neill had gained.
Archbishop Rinuccini and the clergy wanted to abandon the negotiations with Ormond altogether and to unite the Confederacy against the Protestant invaders. In September 1646, O’Neill marched to Kilkenny to support Rinuccini, who then forced the Supreme Council to agree to a Confederate attack on Dublin with the Ulster and Leinster armies. The combined army was the largest ever mustered by the Confederates, but command was given jointly to O’Neill and his rival General Preston, who did not trust one another. Not only was the campaign against Dublin a military failure, it also prompted the Marquis of Ormond to hand the city over to the English Parliamentarians rather than risk it falling to a Catholic army.
During 1647, moderate members of the Supreme Council succeeded in relegating O’Neill to service in Connacht and relied upon Preston to protect Kilkenny with the Leinster army. After Preston was decisively defeated by the Parliamentarians at the battle of Dungan’s Hill, O’Neill was recalled to the defence of Leinster. However, the Ulster army had become discontented and mutinous and O’Neill was unable to recover territory lost to the energetic Parliamentarian commander Colonel Michael Jones.
In May 1648, the Supreme Council negotiated a truce with Lord Inchiquin that enraged Archbishop Rinuccini to the extent that he threatened supporters of the Inchiquin Truce with excommunication. O’Neill remained loyal to Rinuccini. In June 1648, he declared war on the Supreme Council and marched against Kilkenny. Although he failed to capture the Confederate capital, O’Neill spent most of the summer pillaging the surrounding country and manoeuvring against Inchiquin and Confederate forces in Leinster.
The Marquis of Ormond returned to Ireland in September 1648 with the intention of negotiating an alliance between the Royalists and Confederates against the Parliamentarians. When the Second Ormond Peace was signed in January 1649, Archbishop Rinuccini departed from Ireland in despair. O’Neill refused all approaches to join the Royalist-Confederate coalition because Ormond would not commit himself to promising the restoration of Irish lands in Ulster as O’Neill demanded.
When coalition forces moved against him during the summer of 1649, O’Neill was obliged to negotiate an unofficial truce with Colonel Monck, in which he agreed to support the Parliamentarian garrison at Dundalk against Lord Inchiquin’s forces in exchange for supplies of gunpowder. However, Inchiquin’s cavalry siezed the powder convoy in a surprise attack and O’Neill withdrew into western Ulster where he also signed a truce with Sir Charles Coote. O’Neill’s withdrawal drove away the Lagan Army and the Ulster Scots who had joined Ormond’s coalition and were besieging Coote’s garrison at Londonderry.
News of Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland and the subsequent storming and massacre of Drogheda finally convinced O’Neill that the alliance with Ormond represented his only hope of regaining Ulster. Ormond was desperate to gain the support of O’Neill and the Ulster army and came to terms with him in October 1649, promising on the King’s behalf restoration of Irish lands in Ulster and freedom of the Catholic faith.
Before they could join forces against the New Model Army, however, O’Neill fell ill. He died on 6 November 1649 at Cloughoughter Castle in County Cavan and was buried in an unmarked grave in the Franciscan priory at Cavan. The old belief that he was poisoned by the English is no longer generally accepted.
O’Neill married Rosa O’Dogherty (c.1588–1660), widow of Cathbar O’Donnell, in 1613. They had one son, Henry Roe, who also became a soldier and was killed fighting for the Ulster Irish at the battle of Scariffhollis in 1650.
Jerrold I. Casway, Owen Roe O’Neill, Oxford DNB, 2004
G.A. Hayes-McCoy, Irish Battles, a military history of Ireland (London1968)
Pádraig Lenihan, Confederate Catholics at War 1641-49 (Cork 2001)