Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/O'Neill, Owen Roe

1428439Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 42 — O'Neill, Owen Roe1895Samuel Rawson Gardiner

O'NEILL, OWEN ROE (1590?–1649), Irish patriot and general, born about 1590, was the son of Art O'Neill, the younger brother of Hugh O'Neill, earl of Tyrone, whose flight in 1607 was the immediate cause of the plantation of Ulster. Owen Roe, or the Ruddy, as he was called, entered the Spanish military service about 1610 (‘Aphorismical Discovery’ in Gilbert's Contemporary History of Affairs in Ireland, i. 6). After a distinguished service of about thirty years, he conducted the defence of Arras in 1640, surrendering it to the French after a notable resistance (ib. i. 350). According to Irish ideas the chieftainship did not necessarily follow hereditary right, and after the deaths of Tyrone and his sons, Owen was looked up to as the representative of the pretensions of the O'Neills, though his own elder brother, Art Og O'Neill, and a son of his father's elder brother, Con MacCormac O'Neill, were still living. His position was also strengthened by his marriage with Rose, daughter of Sir Cahir O'Dogherty [q. v.] of Inishowen, who had led an abortive insurrection against the English in 1608, and widow of Rory O'Donnell, earl of Tyrconnel [q. v.], who had fled with Tyrone in 1607. As Owen's aunt had been married to Sir Randal MacDonnell, first earl of Antrim [q. v.], he was connected by blood or alliance with the leading families in every part of Celtic Ulster. His nephews, Daniel O'Neill [q. v.] and Hugh O'Neill (fl. 1642–1660) [q. v.], are separately noticed.

Absence from Ireland, however, prevented Owen from taking part in the Ulster insurrection of 1641, and, as far as the O'Neills were concerned, the leadership fell into the hands of Sir Phelim O'Neill [q. v.]

As the Ulster insurrection widened into a general resistance to English domination, Owen resolved to carry his sword to the defence of his country (O'Neill to Wadding, 28 May–7 June 1642, in Gilbert, u.s., i. 476). He arrived in Lough Swilly at the end of July 1642, when he was at once chosen general by the Ulstermen. For some time he carried on a partisan warfare with the Scottish army under the command of Robert Monro (d. 1680?) [q. v.] He always consistently maintained that he fought as a loyal subject of the king against the parliamentary rebels, but Charles's authority in Ireland was so slight that it was of little importance whether an Irish commander nominally adhered to him or not. Of more immediate interest were the relations between O'Neill and the supreme council of the confederate catholics, which had been established at Kilkenny in October 1642. Between Owen and the supreme council there were personal misunderstandings, as it had appointed as its general in Leinster Thomas Preston [see Preston, Thomas, first Viscount Tara], whose daughter was married to Phelim O'Neill, Owen's rival in the north. The differences, however, between Owen and the council were also political. Owen and the Ulstermen represented the purely Celtic element in Ireland, while the supreme council in great part represented the Anglo-Norman element. The former aimed at making Ireland practically independent, in its political and social life, of England, and relied on the organisation of the Roman catholic clergy; while the latter aimed at establishing under the authority of the English crown a parliamentary system in which the Irish nobility and gentry should be preponderant, and liberty of religion should be conceded to Roman catholics.

In November 1642 Owen visited Kilkenny, where he received supplies for his troops and swore the oath of confederacy (GILBERT, u.s. i. 53). The campaign of 1643 was a desultory one. None of the parties had sufficient supplies in money or in warlike stores to enable it to strike a decisive blow, and when on 15 Sept. a cessation was agreed to between the supreme council and Ormonde, the king's lord deputy, it was loyally accepted by O'Neill. In one way O'Neill had shown himself a successful general. In spite of enormous difficulties he had succeeded in attaching to himself the force which he commanded, and at no time was he deserted by his men as Montrose was deserted after Kilsyth. To feed them without resort to plunder was beyond his power; and whether the Ulster army operated in the centre or south of Ireland, its presence caused alarm among the population, from which it was compelled to draw its support.

When Rinuccini landed in Ireland as papal nuncio in October 1645, he found in O'Neill a warm supporter in his policy of pushing the claims of the Roman catholic church to the uttermost. When on 28 March 1646 a treaty was signed between Ormonde and the confederate catholics, O'Neill took advantage of it, and of the supplies with which he was furnished by Rinuccini, to attack the Scottish army under Monro. Over this army he gained a complete victory at Benburb, on the Blackwater, on 5 June [see Monro or Munro, Robert, d. 1680?]. During the next three months O'Neill, though protesting his devotion to Ormonde, did little to follow up his victory, and on 1 Sept. Daniel O'Neill [q. v.], who had been sent by Ormonde to his uncle Owen to discover the cause of his lingering, gave his opinion that Owen was not to be trusted. Two days later Daniel forwarded a statement of the grievances of the Ulstermen, from which it appeared that they expected a restoration of at least a considerable part of the lands which had been confiscated at the time of the plantation (Daniel O'Neill to Roscommon, 1 Sept., Grievances of the Ulster Party, 3 Sept., in Gilbert, i. 701, 702). The revolution, in short, was religious and political at Kilkenny, but religious and agrarian in Ulster.

By this time the situation was complicated by the rejection of the peace by Rinuccini and by most of the towns in the south of Ireland. Before the end of September the supreme council had been replaced by one entirely at Rinuccini's devotion. In the campaign of 1647 an attempt was made to combine the whole Irish force against Ormonde in Dublin, but there was rivalry between O'Neill and Preston, and the former withdrew to Connaught. In August, Preston having been defeated by Jones [see JONES, MICHAEL], who had been appointed governor of Dublin by the English parliament when Ormonde left Ireland, at Dungan Hill, the supreme council summoned O'Neill to its aid. He soon established himself in Leinster, and skilfully kept Jones in check, but his plunderings roused the southern Irish against him, and Jones and Inchiquin, who were now in arms for the English parliament, proved too strong to be resisted. By May 1648 the supreme council had revolted against the ascendency of Rinuccini, and on 20 May a cessation of arms was signed between it and Inchiquin [see O'Brien, Murrough, first Earl of Inchiquin], with the object of forming a combination against Jones and the parliamentarians (Vindiciarum Catholicorum Hiberniæ libri duo, p. 88). This proceeding having been violently condemned by Rinuccini, O'Neill sided with the latter, and the disputes which arose prevented the Irish enemies of the parliament from taking the opportunity afforded by the absorption of the parliamentary army in England in the second civil war. On 17 June O'Neill and his commanders issued a declaration that they were still loyal to the king and to the Irish confederacy, but that they abhorred the authors of the cessation as virtually subordinating themselves to Ormonde, who had been guilty of surrendering Dublin and other garrisons in his power to the English parliament (Declaration in Gilbert, i. 741). On 30 Sept. the general assembly of the confederates replied by declaring O'Neill an enemy and a traitor (ib. p. 749). Yet on 13 Oct. O'Neill, hearing that Ormonde had returned to Ireland as the king's lord-lieutenant, sent him a congratulatory letter (ib.)

It is unlikely that there was any genuine feeling behind these congratulations. O'Neill's real thoughts were expressed in a letter to Ormonde of 6 Dec. ‘The distance,’ he wrote, ‘your Excellency finds me at with the rest of the confederates is occasioned by my obligation to defend his Holyness's Nuncio and the rest of the clergy that adhered to him, and myself too, from the violence and indiscretion of some of the council that were at Kilkenny. … As for the treaty which your Excellency hath begun with the Assembly, if it end with the satisfaction of the clergy in point of religion, and of the rest of the Assembly in what concerns the common interest of the nation and the safety and advantage of the poor provinces which entrusted me with their army, I shall with much joy and gladness submit to the conclusion of it, for these are the ends which made me quit the good condition I was in abroad, and with a great deal of trouble to myself and expense of my fortune, stay here’ (O'Neill to Ormonde, 6 Dec., ib. p. 754).

Everything was against the realisation of O'Neill's ideal of an Ireland strongly organised under the Roman catholic clergy, and practically independent with the English king as a figure-head. Rinuccini, vanquished by the alliance between Ormonde, Inchiquin, and the supreme council, left Ireland in February 1649, and the English Commonwealth was by that time preparing an attack in force on both Irish parties. All that O'Neill could do was to keep aloof as much as possible from the parliamentarians and from the supreme council. In a letter written to the Cardinal de la Cueva on 18 May 1649, he denounced vigorously the members of the latter body who ‘iniquâ collegatione se conjunxerint hæreticis et ecclesiæ inimicis, imo ejusdem perfidiæ caput et gubernatorem instituerint regni Marchionem Ormoniæ’ (Gilbert, ii. 435). Isolated as he was, it was difficult for him to make his weight felt, and his weakness was the greater because he was in great want of ammunition and provisions. During the spring of 1649 he negotiated with one or other of the parties which he detested, merely, it would seem, with the object of keeping his army on foot till he received the supplies which Rinuccini had promised to send him from the continent. He had for some time been in communication with Jones, but, finding nothing was to be gained in that quarter, he asked Ormonde in February to send commissioners to treat for an alliance. We have but little information on the course of this negotiation, but in the beginning of April it had practically broken down. O'Neill then turned to Monck, who commanded the parliamentary forces in the neighbourhood of Dundalk and Belfast, and was being attacked by the Scots for his refusal to renew the covenant. As O'Neill wanted supplies, and Monck wanted his hands free to cope with the Scots, a bargain was easily struck. On 8 May a cessation of hostilities for three months was signed between them. Monck was to forward to parliament O'Neill's demands for religious and other concessions in Ireland, and to give him a fixed quantity of supplies [see Monck, George, first Duke of Albemarle]. O'Neill was to assist Monck against Ormonde and Inchiquin, who were now closely combined. In July Monck, fearing an attack by Inchiquin, summoned O'Neill to his aid, and on 23 July O'Neill sent a party of men to Dundalk to receive the promised ammunition. Unluckily they got drunk, and as they staggered out of the town with their loads were routed by Inchiquin, into whose hands the ammunition passed.

On 31 July the three months of the cessation expired, without any concession arriving from England, and early in August O'Neill made fresh overtures to Ormonde (Ormonde to Clanricarde, 8 Aug., Carte MSS. xxv. fol. 193). Before an answer had been received he had supplied himself with ammunition and provisions by an agreement with Sir Charles Coote, afterwards first Earl of Mountrath [q. v.], who was besieged in Londonderry by the Scots. On 9 Aug. the Scots broke up the siege, and Coote, according to promise, gave O'Neill the supplies which he needed. The news of Ormonde's defeat by Jones at Rathmines on 2 Aug. soon altered the conditions of the Irish war, and this was still more the case after Cromwell's landing at Dublin on the 15th. The danger from the English forces was now far greater than any danger from Ormonde and the confederate catholics, and O'Neill now offered heartily to co-operate with the latter. Yet Ormonde complained bitterly of the tardiness of O'Neill's movements. Of that tardiness there can be no question, the only difference of opinion being as to its cause. O'Neill's health was breaking down and his end approaching, but, though no evidence exists on the point, it seems unlikely that he would not have made greater efforts than he did to hasten forward his army if he had not wished Ormonde to be still further weakened before his own troops appeared on the scene. However that may have been, he advanced with extreme slowness. He suffered much, and even when carried in a litter he could only travel by easy stages. On 6 Nov. he died. No credit need be given to the assertion that he had been poisoned. A long Irish elegy on him is in Egerton MS. 171, f. 53.

O'Neill's position in Irish history is clearly marked. He is not, like his uncle, Hugh O'Neill, the Irish chieftain of a sept; he is the trained soldier who fights for the independence of his country. Whether he was a great commander there is not sufficient evidence to show. To keep an army together under the circumstances in which he fought was in itself a marvel of skill, and he succeeded in winning with it the one victory obtained by the Irish in the course of the war in which he fought. His material resources were, however, too small to enable him to conduct a successful campaign, and even if this had not been the case, the divisions between the purely Celtic population of Ireland and the Anglo-Norman landowners made resistance to an English reconquest in the long run impossible. It must, however, be remembered to his credit that the force which he had organised was the nucleus of the long and stubborn resistance offered by Celtic Ireland, which began when his nephew, Hugh O'Neill, drove back Cromwell himself from the walls of Clonmel.

A lithographed copy of a portrait of O'Neill from an original Dutch painting is in Mr. J. T. Gilbert's ‘Contemporary History of Affairs in Ireland’ (i. 1).

[The greater part of the authorities for the life of Owen O'Neill have been collected by Mr. Gilbert in his Contemporary History of Affairs in Ireland. There still, however, remain some gleanings in the Carte MSS. in the Bodleian Library. Other authorities are noted under O'Neill, Daniel, and O'Neill, Sir Phelim.]

S. R. G.