O'Neill, Owen Roe

views updated May 23 2018

O'Neill, Owen Roe

Owen Roe O'Neill (c. 1583–1649), a native Irish leader and general of the northern army of the Kilkenny Confederation, was born in Ulster, educated by continental-trained Franciscans, and during the last Elizabethan Irish war was "bred in a nursery of arms" ("Aphorismical Discovery," in Gilbert 1879, p. 172). At the conflict's end, he joined an Irish regiment in the Spanish Netherlands and became its tacit commander. His goals were the recovery of confiscated estates and the restoration of the Catholic faith. Years later, he proposed the liberation of Ireland and its oppressed religion through a unifying Catholic "republic and kingdom."

Despite decades of exile, O'Neill kept in touch with his homeland by recruiting and giving military advice to native dissidents. When the crisis of the Stuart monarchy spilled over into Ireland, O'Neill stepped up his activities in hopes of concessions from the troubled Charles I. Ensuing setbacks led to a rebellion in late 1641 and Owen Roe's return to Ireland, where he supported a Catholic confederation meeting in Kilkenny. In May 1642 this embryonic commonwealth brought together the king's Irish Catholic subjects under the motto "United for God, King, and the Irish fatherland." Their task was to lay the foundation for a Catholic patria (fatherland) in a provincial-minded and religiously fractious society.

Appointed general of the northern forces, O'Neill assembled an army against Protestant English planters and Scottish settlers. His efforts were forestalled by a September 1643 cessation of arms with the king's lord deputy, the marquis of Ormond, a devout Old English royalist and Protestant convert. Ormond's negotiations failed to satisfy the clerical confederates and the new papal nuncio, Archbishop Rinuccini, who resisted royalist terms and succored O'Neill's army for an aggressive northern campaign. On 5 June 1646 O'Neill routed a Protestant-settler army at the battle of Benburb. His victory raised hopes for a more advantageous accord with Ormond.

These expectations splintered the Catholic confederacy. In August, O'Neill's army came to Kilkenny to support the clerical party. The Supreme Council, the executive branch of the Kilkenny Federation, was purged and a new executive led by Rinuccini took control. New fissures developed over the negotiations with Ormond and the appointment of O'Neill as the sole commander for an attack on Dublin. The campaign failed and the clercial coup lost its momentum.

Over the next year O'Neill remained in the Confederate heartland, as the nuncio and Ormondist factions jockeyed for power. The final breach came on 20 May 1648 when the Supreme Council, believing that Protestant royalists were likely to rekindle negotiations with Ormond, joined them in another cessation of arms. O'Neill supported Rinuccini's condemnation and censure of the Council, which rescinded O'Neill's military command. On 30 September the new General Assembly declared O'Neill a traitor—a rebel against the king and the fundamental laws of the Confederation.

Over the next four months O'Neill's position deteriorated. Ormond and the Confederation concluded a treaty, Charles I was executed, and an embittered Rinuccini returned to Rome. Ostracized and without allies, Owen Roe signed truces with parliamentary commanders, but their benefits were short-lived. Ormond's defeat at Rathmines, followed by Cromwell's arrival in August 1649, compelled the weakened confederate-royalist cause to turn to O'Neill once more. On 12 October 1649 articles of peace were finally concluded. Severely ill, O'Neill dispatched forces to Ormond's service and retired to County Cavan, where he died of natural causes on 6 November.

SEE ALSO Confederation of Kilkenny; Rebellion of 1641; Primary Documents: Confederation of Kilkenny (1642)


"An Aphorismical Discovery of Treasonable Faction." In A Contemporary History of Affairs in Ireland from 1641 to 1652, edited by John T. Gilbert. 6 vols. 1879–1880.

Casway, Jerrold I. Owen Roe O'Neill and the Struggle for Catholic Ireland. 1984.

Casway, Jerrold I. "Gaelic Maccabeanism: The Politics of Reconciliation." In Political Thought in Seventeenth-Century Ireland: Kingdom or Colony, edited by Jane H. Ohlmeyer. 2000.

Gillespie, Raymond. "Owen Roe O'Neill: Soldier and Politician." In Nine Ulster Lives, edited by G. O'Brien and Peter Roebuck. 1992.

Ohlmeyer, Jane H. Civil War and Restoration in the Three Kingdoms: The Career of Randall MacDonnell, Marquis of Antrim, 1609–1683. 1993.

Ó Siochrú, Micheál. Confederate Ireland, 1642–1649: A Constitutional and Political Analysis. 1999.

Jerrold I. Casway

O'Neill, Owen Roe

views updated May 18 2018

O'Neill, Owen Roe (c.1590–1649). O'Neill was the military linchpin of the Confederation, which struggled for control of Ireland after the rising of 1641. He was a nephew of Hugh O'Neill, 3rd earl of Tyrone, and spent his early years in the Spanish service. He was not in Ireland at the start of the rising but arrived in July 1642 and took over command of the Ulster army from Sir Phelim O'Neill. He managed to keep an army together through all the extraordinary political vicissitudes of the next few years and in 1646 gained a significant victory at Benburb over Monro and the Scottish army. But the end of the Civil War in England enabled Parliament to strengthen its position in Ireland. The Confederation split badly on political tactics and O'Neill was declared a traitor in 1648 for supporting the intransigent line of Rinuccini, the papal nuncio. Early in 1649 he reached an agreement with Monck, who commanded the parliamentary forces in Ulster. It is doubtful whether he could have put up much resistance to Cromwell, who landed in August 1649, but he died in November of the same year.

J. A. Cannon