#OTD in 1649 – Death of Owen Roe O’Neill.

Eoghan Rua Ó Néill, anglicised as Owen Roe O’Neill “Red Owen”, was a seventeenth century soldier and one of the most famous of the O’Neill family of Ulster. An Irish rebel commander during a major Roman Catholic revolt (1641–52) against English rule in Ireland; his victory at Benburb, on 5 June 1646, was one of the few significant rebel triumphs of the uprising.

A nephew of the renowned Irish chieftain Hugh O’Neill, 2nd earl of Tyrone, Owen Roe served with distinction for about 30 years in the Spanish army before returning to Ireland in late July 1642, nine months after the outbreak of the insurrection. He immediately replaced Sir Phelim O’Neill as commander in the north, but he soon came into conflict with the other leaders of the Catholic confederacy. O’Neill advocated the independence of Ireland from England though retaining nominal loyalty to the English sovereign, whereas his colleagues favoured a settlement providing for religious liberty and an Irish constitution under the English crown. After routing the army of England’s Scottish ally, Gen. Hector Munro, at Benburb, O’Neill helped the papal nuncio, Giovanni Battista Rinuccini, force the confederacy to rescind a peace that it had concluded with the English. Nevertheless, O’Neill and the other members of the Roman Catholic faction eventually had to ally with the English Anglican Royalists against the English Independent Parliamentarians.

O’Neill died on 6 November 1649, three months after the Parliamentarian general Oliver Cromwell arrived in Ireland, at the O’Reilly stronghold of Cloughoughter Castle on an island in Lough Oughter in Co Cavan. 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. By 1652 Cromwell’s commanders had completely subjugated the country.

In the nineteenth century, O’Neill was celebrated by the Irish nationalist revolutionaries, the Young Irelanders, who saw O’Neill as an Irish patriot. Young Ireland founder Thomas Davis who wrote The Lament for Eoghan Ruadh O’Neill, despite Davis’ reference to O’Neill being poisoned, there is no clear evidence as to how he died.

‘The Lament for Eoghan Ruadh O’Neill’

“Did they dare, did they dare, to slay Eoghan Ruadh 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 Eoghan Ruadh!”
“Though it break my heart to hear, say again the bitter words.
From Derry, against Cromwell, he marched to measure swords:
But the weapon of the Sacsanach met him on his way,
And he died at Cloch Uachtar upon St. Leonard’s day.
“Wail, wail ye for the Mighty One! Wail, wail ye for the Dead!
Quench the hearth, and hold the breath–with ashes strew the head.
How tenderly we loved him! How deeply we deplore!
Holy Saviour! but to think we shall never see him more.
“Sagest in the council was he, kindest in the hall!
Sure we never won a battle–’twas Eoghan won them all.
Had he lived–had he lived–our dear country had been free;
But he’s dead, but he’s dead, and ’tis slaves we’ll ever be.
“O’Farrell and Clanrickarde, Preston and Red Hugh,
Audley and MacMahon, ye are valiant, wise, and true;
But–what, what are ye all to our darling who is gone?
The Rudder of our Ship was he, our Castle’s corner stone!
“Wail, wail him through the Island! Weep, weep for our pride!
Would that on the battle-field our gallant chief had died!
Weep the Victor of Beann-bhorbh–weep him, young men and old;
Weep for him, ye women–your Beautiful lies cold!
“We thought you would not die–we were sure you would not go,
And leave us in our utmost need to Cromwell’s cruel blow–
Sheep without a shepherd, when the snow shuts out the sky–
Oh! why did you leave us, Eoghan? Why did you die?
“Soft as woman’s was your voice, O’Neill! bright was your eye,
Oh! why did you leave us, Eoghan? Why did you die?
Your troubles are all over, you’re at rest with God on high,
But we’re slaves, and we’re orphans, Eoghan!–why didst thou die?”

Featured photo: Cloughoughter Castle, Inishconnell, Co Cavan

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