Tales from Irish History - Alice Birkhead

Owen Roe O'Neill, Patriot

Ireland had the appearance of a subdued nation when Strafford met his fate, but below the surface there was a terrible thirst for vengeance on the government which had sent the tyrant and given him authority. The plantation of Ulster had been followed by laws forbidding Catholics to have their own religion. Now Sir William Parsons, the deputy succeeding Strafford, threatened that very soon there should not be a single Catholic left in Ireland. A frenzy of horror ran through the Irish, who expected nothing less than general massacre.

In 1641, a leader from one of the noblest Irish families came forward. Rory O'Moore became the popular hero of the hour and "For God and Our Lady and Rory O'Moore" was now the watchword of the rebel party. O'Moore's attempt to capture Dublin failed, but it was followed by a general rising in Ulster.

An O'Neill, as was natural, led this party, and nearly every town in Ulster fell into the hands of the rebels. Scant mercy was shown to the Protestant settlers by Sir Phelim O'Neill, a man of cruel nature. The "undertakers" fled panic-stricken whenever they could escape from his butchery. Reports of a horrible massacre in Ulster reached England, and the English people rose in condemnation of the crime. Sir Phelim and his men were too ready to exact vengeance but the Irish, as a nation, hotly resented the records of the massacre, which the English historian, Carlyle, speaks of as "a huge blot, an indiscriminate blackness." They defended their own treatment of the settlers and declared that the soldiers conveyed them to places of retreat. Many priests, certainly, were well known to have sheltered English suppliants under their very altar-cloths and to have sacrificed their own lives for those who threw themselves upon their mercy.

From Ulster the rebellion spread farther. At the end of 1641 the Pale was up in arms, and with the exception of Dublin, Drogheda, and some of the seaport towns of the south and west and a few garrisoned places of the north, the whole of Ireland was in the hands of rebels.

O'Neill was too incompetent a leader to follow up his first success in Ulster. The towns he had taken were lost one by one while his own followers deserted him. Matters were in a desperate state when Owen Roe O'Neill landed in Donegal Bay at the head of one hundred officers.

He was not a true O'Neill, but the grandson of Matthew of Dungannon and nephew of the banished Earl of Tyrone. Red Owen, as he was called, was by far the noblest of his race. He had served as a soldier in Spain so gallantly that he gave up a high command in the Spanish army to go to the help of his distressed country. Had he ignored the claims of Ireland, there is no doubt that Owen would have gained everlasting fame in the annals of military exploits. It was the supreme test of his nobility when he gave up all thoughts of his own advancement and came to take a place among men fighting for their own interests and opposed to him in every aim of life.

O'Neill set to work at once to drill the Irish armies and bring them into order. The troops were no 1 longer allowed to plunder as they travelled through the country. They drove their own cattle before them, and pastured their herds on the enemy's lands, knowing it had once belonged to their fathers. For seven years the army could boast that they demanded nothing at the sword's point, yet never lacked provisions. They never lost a battle and never mutinied against their leader. When their renown had travelled far, both France and Spain asked for Irish recruits to join their armies.

Owen became the supreme commander of the Ulster party, whose great object was to win back national independence. There were three other rebel parties in Ireland—the Anglo-Irish nobility, who demanded civil and religious freedom but did not wish to be separated from England; the Puritan party, which joined the Scotch Presbyterians and was anti-Irish; and the Royalist party headed by Lord Ormonde who engaged in the struggle of King Charles against his Parliamentary enemies.

Owen O'Neill wished to unite with the Anglo-Irish party. A meeting was held at Kilkenny to bring about this union, and it was decided that war must be waged for the glory of the Catholic religion and the destruction of the Protestants. Loyalty to King Charles was eagerly proclaimed, a printing-press set up to issue proclamations and a mint established for coining money. In 1643, when truce had been made for one year, Irish forces were sent to Scotland to help the king's cause. Thanks to O'Neill's training, these soldiers won unbounded praise, and struck such terror into the king's enemies that they carried all before them.

In 1645, the pope sent a messenger to Ireland to preach the Catholic cause. Rinuccini, Archbishop of Fermo, was supported by O'Neill, but he cared nothing for King Charles and denounced the peace that was concluded between the king and the rebels. He preached so eloquently against it that heralds sent to Clonmel and Waterford to proclaim the peace were driven from those towns. At Limerick, the mayor himself was beaten for attempting to proclaim it.

The pope's messenger was delighted with his first success. Protected by Owen O'Neill, with ten thousand men behind him, he made a public entry into Kilkenny, drove the Supreme Council from the Council Chamber and flung them into prison. When a new council was elected, Rinuccini was at its head.

Meanwhile, news came to Ireland that Charles had been captured by his subjects and intended to ask help from the Irish. His supporters rallied to his standard but were ingloriously defeated by Owen Roe at Benburb on the Blackwater. The Scotch and English suffered a heavy loss in this battle while O'Neill lost only seventy men. He never engaged in conflict unless he was certain of superiority to the enemy. When the rebel leader of the south had failed to take Dublin, the command of Leinster was given to Owen Roe, but the council actually declared war against him rather than give him the command of Munster. Now O'Neill was beset by jealous rivals, who distrusted his motives, so much purer than their own. Quarrel succeeded quarrel in the rebel camps, and at last O'Neill decided to make terms with the English Parliamentary party against the Royalists. Ormonde had been obliged to leave Dublin and cross to France, where the queen and her children had taken refuge. He returned to raise a new army, bringing with him Prince Rupert, the king's gallant nephew. Royalists came to Ireland as fast as sails could bring them, trusting firmly in Prince Rupert to save the crown for Charles I.

It was too late for the most determined resistance. A new treaty was to be drawn up, promising a free Parliament and repealing laws against the Catholics, but before this was proclaimed, the tidings came that King Charles had suffered the death sentence. Still the Royalists refused to give up hope. Charles's eldest son was proclaimed as Prince of Wales at Cork and Waterford. Rebels from different parties flocked to Ormonde's standard. He welcomed them all, but his great desire was to win over the first general in Ireland, Owen Roe O'Neill. Overtures were not immediately successful and O'Neill's last days advanced. He hastened his march though he was so ill that he had to be carried on a litter, and when he lay on his death-bed he sent part of his army with advice to Lord Ormonde as to the best way of conducting the war. He died at Cloughouter in Cavan from mortal injury, which he received from a pair of poisoned boots presented to him at a banquet.

Cromwell, the English Parliamentary general, came to Ireland with victory assured to him now that the only man, who could have saved the country, was taken from it in the time of direst need.