Sir Phelim Roe O’Neill, [Felim Ruadh O’Neill] 1603-1653
Irish Catholic landowner who conspired to incite the Irish Uprising of 1641 and fought throughout the Confederate War
The eldest son of Tirlough Oge O’Neill of Kinard in County Tyrone, Phelim O’Neill inherited large estates in Ulster after his father and grandfather were killed in 1608 fighting in the King’s service against a rebellion led by Sir Cahir Doherty. Aged only five at the time of his father’s death, he was raised as a royal ward and his inheritance was subject to litigation for several years. He attended Lincoln’s Inn in London from 1618-21 where he adopted an extravagant lifestyle that drained much of his fortune and forced him to mortgage his estates.
Despite his debts, O’Neill was a prominent nobleman in Ulster. He married the daughter of Viscount Magennis in 1629 and his family became connected to the powerful MacDonnels of Antrim through his brother’s marriage. He purchased his knighthood in 1639 and sat in the Irish Parliament for Dungannon in 1641.
Conspiracy & Rebellion
Like other Irish Catholic landowners, O’Neill felt threatened by the aggressive colonisation of Ireland by Protestant settlers from England and Scotland, particularly during the administration of Sir Thomas Wentworth, lord-deputy of Ireland from 1633-40. When the Irish Parliament failed to provide safeguards for the rights of Irish landowners, O’Neill was drawn into conspiracies against the British government which culminated in the Irish Uprising of October 1641.
O’Neill and his supporters in Ulster seized Charlemont Fort and other strongholds on 22 October. Two days later, O’Neill issued a proclamation declaring that he and his associates had taken up arms only for the defence and liberty of themselves and the native Irish; the insurgency was not intended to harm either King Charles or any of his subjects in Ireland. In a vain attempt to gain the support of the Scottish Covenanters, he issued a forged commission early in November 1641, purporting to come from the King, which authorised the Irish to rise in defence of their liberties against the Westminster Parliament.
O’Neill and his fellow conspirators intended to seize power in Ireland by means of a swift coup, but Lord Maguire failed to capture the vital city of Dublin and the situation rapidly escalated into a general uprising of the native Irish against the British settlers. When English and Scottish troops were sent to Ireland to subdue the rebels, the situation escalated further into the eleven-year Confederate War.
Early in 1642, O’Neill’s attack on the town of Drogheda failed and his poorly-equipped forces steadily lost ground to the British in Ulster, but the Irish cause was strengthened by the return of Sir Phelim’s cousin the renowned soldier Owen Roe O’Neill in July 1642 and by the inauguration of the Confederate Assembly in October. However, Sir Phelim’s rivalry with Owen over claims to the title of Earl of Tyrone led to bitter enmity between them.
The cousins were temporarily reconciled when the papal nuncio Archbishop Rinuccini arrived in Ireland in October 1645 and mediated between them in an attempt to unify the Confederate cause. Sir Phelim’s regiment fought in Owen Roe’s great victory at Benburb in June 1646, after which he is said to have avenged himself on the Ulster Scots by ordering his men to kill all prisoners. He also supported Owen and Rinuccini in their denunciation of the First Ormond Peace in July 1646. However, the failure of the subsequent campaign against Dublin discredited Rinuccini’s party on the Confederate Supreme Council and Sir Phelim shifted his allegiance to the “Old English” noblemen who sought reconciliation with the Marquis of Ormond and an alliance with the Royalists against the English Parliamentarians.
After Owen Roe’s death in November 1649, Sir Phelim was disappointed in his expectation to succeed to command of the Ulster Confederates, which passed to the militant Bishop of Clogher, Heber MacMahon. Against the advice of his officers, MacMahon led the Ulster army to a disastrous defeat at the battle of Scariffhollis In June 1650. O’Neill escaped from the battlefield and fled to Tyrone. He tried to defend Charlemont Fort against the English Parliamentarian army in August 1650 but was forced to flee and go into hiding. Regarded as the main instigator of the Irish Uprising, O’Neill was blamed for the massacre of Protestant settlers and a £300 reward was offered for his capture.
In February 1653, O’Neill’s hideout on an island on Lough Roughan in County Tyrone was betrayed and he was put on trial before the High Court of Justice in Dublin. He was offered a pardon if he would testify that the forged royal commission of 1641 was genuine, but he refused to do so because he realised that it might later be held against his wife and heirs. Condemned as a traitor, Sir Phelim O’Neill was hanged, drawn and quartered at Dublin on 10 March 1653.
O’Neill was married three times. After the death of his first wife around 1641, he married a daughter of Owen Roe O’Neill’s rival Thomas Preston. In 1649, he married Jean Gordon, daughter of the Catholic Scottish nobleman the Marquis of Huntly. Their son, Gordon O’Neill fought for James II in Ireland during the Williamite War of 1689-91.
Robert Dunlop, Sir Phelim O’Neill, DNB 1894
Jerrold I. Casway, Sir Phelim Roe O’Neill, Oxford DNB, 2004