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Updated 07/10/2014


Owen Roe O'Neill

Owen Roe O’Neill (1590–1649) was a seventeenth-century soldier and one of the most famous of the O'Neill dynasty of Ulster in Ireland.  O'Neill was the illegitimate son of Art O'Neill, a younger brother of Hugh O'Neill, 2nd Earl of Tyrone (the Great O'Neill) and the daughter of Aodh Conallach O'Raghallaigh, the chief of Breifne O'Reilly in County Cavan.

As a young man Owen left Ireland, one of the ninety-nine involved in the Flight of the Earls escaping the English conquest of his native Ulster. He grew up in the Spanish Netherlands and spent 40 years serving in the Irish regiment of the Spanish army. He saw most of his combat in the Eighty Years' War against the Dutch Republic in Flanders.  He also distinguished himself in the Franco-Spanish war by holding out for 48 days with 2,000 men against a French army of 35,000.

In 1642, O'Neill returned to Ireland with 300 veterans to aid the Irish Rebellion.  The subsequent war, known as the Irish Confederate Wars, was part of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms -civil wars throughout Britain and Ireland.  O'Neill was recognized on his return to Ireland 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 favor. 

Owen Roe professed to be acting in the interest of Charles I; but his real aim was the complete Independence of Ireland as a Roman Catholic country.  O'Neill wanted the Plantation of Ulster overturned and the recovery of the O'Neill clan's ancestral lands 

Following a reverse at Clones, O'Neill had to abandon central Ulster and was followed by thousands of refugees, fleeing the retribution of the Scottish soldiers for some atrocities against Protestants in the rebellion of 1641. 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 did his best to stop 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 very bad reputation for plundering and robbing friendly civilians around its quarters in northern Leinster and southern Ulster.

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, on the Blackwater killing or capturing up to 3000 Scots. However after being summoned to the south by Rinuccini, he failed to take advantage of the victory, and allowed Monro to remain unmolested at Carrickfergus.

In March 1646 a treaty was signed between 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.  So alienated was O'Neill by the terms of the peace that he refused to join the Catholic/Royalist coalition and in 1648 his Ulster army fought with other Irish Catholic armies.

There is no clear evidence of how Owen Roe died; one belief was that he was poisoned by a priest, while others think it is more likely that he died from an illness resulting from an old wound. Under cover of night he was reputed to have been brought to the Franciscan abbey in Cavan town for burial. However some local tradition still suggests that it may have been at Trinity abbey located upon an island in Lough Oughter, which may be more likely given the logistics of his removal. His death was a major blow to the Irish of Ulster and was kept secret for some time.

In the nineteenth century, O'Neill was celebrated by the Irish nationalist revolutionaries, the Young Irelanders, who saw O'Neill as an Irish patriot. Thomas Davis wrote a famous song about O'Neill, titled "The Lament for Owen Roe".