FOR some months after the surrender of Arras, Owen O’Neill was attached to the army of the Cardinal-Infant. But now in a time of multiplied anxieties, when a rising of the Irish was in preparation, and when it was hoped that even in that very autumn Dublin Castle could be secured and a final blow struck at British domination in Ireland, military duty in the Spanish service could no longer be added to his duties as an Irish leader. In the early months of 1641 he therefore obtained leave of absence for a time, and settled once more in Brussels to direct as in former years the whole Irish movement. During the next year all questions by the leaders were submitted to his judgment, and he laid down for their direction the guiding lines of policy. As time went on the groups of friars and officers flitting to and from Owen’s quarters made it clear that some enterprise was afoot. Dunkirk was watched, and every day saw envoys landing or embarking. “It was notable to observe (says Cartan) with what speed and certainty the Irish in Flanders received the news in Ireland out of England.” Mr. Secretary Nicholas wrote to Sir Henry de Vic, the English agent at Brussels, at the end of the year: —
“I am upon advertisement from Ireland and other places to put you in mind to have a special eye to the person and actions of one Colonel Owen, or as some term him Eugene O’Neill, at present in service of that state where you reside, of whom the rebels make great account and seem to hope much; nor is it unlikely he may have a design to transport himself with other commanders over to them, for their greatest want is of good officers and arms, being otherwise very numerous but most of them naked and unskilful.”
Acting on these instructions Sir Henry subjected Owen to a surveillance which borders on burlesque. Solemn reports in the State Papers describe Don Eugenio’s habits down to the most insignificant detail, with discussions and conjectures as to the meaning of his slightest act. If he set out from Brussels, Sir Henry’s spies took care to be near him; if he looked out for another house in Brussels, they speculated at length on his deep designs. Minute particulars of his personal appearance were sent home; these are not themselves forthcoming, but in later letters Sir Henry corrects some mistakes made in the report — Owen was not “bald” as stated; the height and stretch of forehead and his custom of wearing his hair longer than the ordinary had misled the spies. Sir Henry also tried more active means of ascertaining Owen’s designs. Two experienced spies were sent to sound him, and to find out if possible what plots he had in hand and how far the Spanish government was friendly to him. The spies made very little of their mission. They professed themselves burning with the desire of taking part in an Irish war of independence, and already they had taken some steps, they said, but in a matter so momentous they naturally came to him and only desired advice from him as to the dangers that might arise in their way. Was the Spanish government, for instance, likely to interfere with them? Owen did not know in the least. Then they opened their minds still more. They were quite willing, eager indeed, to serve under him. He surely had plans of his own. They would put themselves unreservedly in his hands. “He only repeated the Spanish proverb (for we spoke in that language) Pears take time to ripen.”
With the experience born of military command Owen above all things impressed on the leaders at home that until his coming they should keep an armed watch, and on no account be led to hazard their men and their fortunes in a pitched battle with the State troops. “He always advised that the lords and commanders of the Irish army should by all means avoid to fight any battles with the English or the king’s army until his own arrival in Ireland, but should weary them with night attacks.” The main enterprise was to have been the seizure of the Castle of Dublin, and when news came to O’Neill that by folly and treachery the great scheme which was to have been the base and buttress of all the rest had been utterly wrecked, and the whole plan of action destroyed at the outset, he was very wrathful and for a time downcast.
New plans had to be made to meet new difficulties. Arms were now the chief need of the Irish at home, and Owen’s coming without supplies would be of little avail. He accordingly addressed himself to Don Francisco de Mello, the Governor of the Netherlands, and despatched “messengers of special trust to France, Rome, and the Emperor desiring their assistance for the Irish in defence of their religion.” Bishop McMahon undertook the main part of these negotiations, and found ready help in Rome, where Father Luke Wadding was his steadfast friend, and the ever-constant solicitor of the Irish cause in the Papal court. Early m 1642 Owen’s final plans were fully made. Ulster was mostly in Irish hands; Leinster had just thrown in her lot with the northern province; the great seaports of the south were open, “I shall bring with me three ships” — so ran Owen’s memorandum of his final dispositions — “with three or four hundred officers, and with munition and ammunition for horse and foot, and with all miners, cannon and cannoniers.” He despatched a friar to Ireland to advertise him of the safest landing place, and he promised Sir Phelim and Rory O’Moore that with or without help “he would adventure himself and his whole estate in the service, and that assuredly he would be with them within ten weeks.” On all and every one of his envoys and messengers he solemnly laid one injunction: —
“Persuade Sir Phelim and Mr. Moore and the Lords and Commanders of the League that they should in all manner hold firm together, and not be deceived by the fair promises of the English or of the Government in Dublin, as Tyrone and Tyrconnell were, who, after they had submitted, were forced to fly the kingdom, and were robbed of their lands. Tell them to hold fast and firm, and there shall be no doubt of succour.”
For himself, now that the turning point of his life had come he sent some last grave words to his saintly ally, Luke Wadding.
“I have received, Reverend Father,” he wrote (in Latin), “proofs of your well-known zeal for our fatherland. Time glides away (labitur) and Ireland groans and suffers, worn out not so much by her miseries as by the weary hope of foreign help, long hoped for and yet not come. I feel that I, at any rate, should make no more delay, and that in this hour of Ireland’s troubles I should not be absent or seem wanting. I am girt up for my journey with many chiefs of our race. I bid good-bye to your paternity and return unbounded thanks for your unwearied exertions on behalf of Ireland and also towards myself.”
Then setting all upon the cast of the die, he sailed for Ireland. He left Dunkirk with about 200 veteran commanders — “old, war-beaten soldiers” as a contemporary writer calls them; put out into the North Sea; touched at Denmark and Norway; then “gave a wheel round Scotland,” and passing along the northern coast of Ireland, landed at Doo Castle in the County Donegal. On the voyage he fell in with ships of the enemy, and after a stout fight he captured two small vessels, which he brought with him to Donegal. He had with him a good supply of arms and ammunition of all kinds necessary in the Irish war. All were safely brought to shore, and a hasty encampment was made. Captain Don Antonio was sent back with the frigates to fetch with all speed further war materials for landing in Wexford, that towards South as towards North Owen’s care might not fail; and above all, to give news to Lady Rosa of his safe landing. Meanwhile, Owen sent messengers to Sir Phelim, apprising him of his arrival, and summoning a council of war to deliberate upon all matters and concernments touching the Ulster army and its military movements. The messengers found Sir Phelim and his friends at Glasslough in the moment of their desolation, and the summons changed their despair into wonder and delight. Gathering round him an Charlemount, the old headquarters of Sir Phelim’s army, the chiefs of Ulster with universal joy saluted the greatest of the O’Neills, the commander-in-chief of the Ulster forces.
In the Council at Charlemount full details were laid before Owen of all the chief events since the outbreak in the preceding October, and of the forces and commanders on both sides. All Celtic Ireland had risen in the winter, and had almost in every case taken possession of the castles, holds, and other strong places of the English. Connaught had, indeed, moved very slowly. Lord Viscount Mayo had thrown in his lot with the Irish, and the strong house at Belcarra was the headquarters of the Connaught men. But the clans had not risen. The O’Kellys, Maddens, O’Connors, McDermotts, and O’Dowds, were watching events keenly, and would, it was thought, declare themselves only when the drift of fortune could be more clearly seen. Irregular bodies scoured the hills, and threatened the quarters of the State troops; but roving bands only were afoot, and no combined rising had taken place. This lukewarmness was due to Lord Clanricarde to whom the moderate Irish of Connaught looked up as to their principal representative — young as he was a finished diplomatist, who felt the Connaught men malleable in his hand. All Clare seemed at one time won; but Lord Inchiquin, of the great house of O’Brien, inheritor of the name and fame of Ireland’s great warrior-king, opposed the rising and awed the county. Ulster had been cleared of the Scotch and their adherents; the Bann had marked the boundary line of the armies and the occupied lands; Lough Neagh had been covered once again with the boats of the O’Cahans and the O’Hagans until the fatal movement on Drogheda which had led to such ruin. Now, however, 12,000 Scotch and English regulars were in occupation of Ulster, and there were rumours of still larger numbers coming; while only 1,500 men obeyed Sir Phelim’s call to arms, and these were ill-clad, badly armed, and quite unfit for a toilsome campaign.
But the most critical and important events reported to Owen were without question the Union of the Lords of the Pale with the Ancient Irish of Ulster and Connaught, and the steps taken by the clergy to form a national government. Owen O’Neill had the blood of the Fitzgeralds of Kildare in his veins, and although the house of Kildare did not join the Ancient Irish, there were few houses in Leinster with which the Kildare family was not joined by ties of kindred or affinity. As kinsman of the Leinster lords, Owen would therefore have been by blood an impartial judge between Ulster and the Pale. But all his life longings, his hopes, feelings, and plans had centred on Ulster, and he looked askance at conversions to “Irishry” which had been caused either by fear or by the hope of gain. Still, it was no time to pick and choose. He would loyally help the Palesmen as the allies of Ulster, little as he believed in their professions of national feeling; and his resolve was made the more easy when he learned how it was that the Palesmen had been induced to join the Ulster Irish, and heard of Rory O’Moore’s great services in bringing about that union. He was told how eagerly the Puritans in Dublin had seized the opportunity offered by the Ulster rising to issue a proclamation against Irish Papists; “how the Catholics of the Pale had protested; how the Lords Justices formally explained that they only meant the Ulstermen, but still continued to cut off all communication with the Leinster Catholics; how the Catholics had been called upon to march against the “rebels,” but were refused arms for that purpose when they offered their services; how in Dowdall’s house in Monkstown, near Summerhill, “Mr. Moore” and the Pale Lords had many interviews; how from the “Camp before Drogheda,” O’Moore and his retinue rode down to the confines of the Pale, and were there met by the Lords and their retainers; how after the formal demand—”Why come ye armed into the Pale?” — Mr. Roger Moore replied,
“My Lords, our sufferings are grown too heavy for us to bear. We are the sole subjects in Europe incapable of serving our Sovereign in places of honour, profit, and trust. We are obstructed in the ways of learning, so that our children cannot come to speak Latin without renouncing their dependence on the Church, and endangering their souls. These things we wished redressed in Parliament, and had they listened to us, or to you, we should have sat down contented. But the Lords Justices are merely bent on ruining our nation, and they involve you in the same distrust with us. Lest the brand of Rebellion, which they put upon us, may deter you, we here protest in the sight of heaven, that we fight against the Malignant Party in Parliament who encroach on the King’s prerogative, and we invite you to join us in so glorious an undertaking;”
How the Lords welcomed these words, and declared, “Since such and no other are your intentions we will join with you;” how the Lords Justices then called a Grand Council of the Lords south of the Boyne; and how from the Hill of Tara, on December 7th, 1641, the Lords of the Pale declined to attend until “we hear from your Lordships how we shall be secured from peril,” and joining hands with O’Moore bound themselves in life and fortune to be his allies, and hastened to the help of the starving Irish army in the Camp at Drogheda, Owen heard all this, and he heard, moreover, of the True Bills for High Treason found by pliant Grand Juries in Dublin against Catholic Lords and Members, the Chief Justice directing them that such Bills might be found on “common report or fame,” and how these shocking Indictments hung over them and left them no chance of return. He heard of Coote’s murderous march through Wicklow, of the tortures inflicted by the Privy Council on Palesmen like Sir John Reid and Barnwell who were put to the rack, and how by deliberate prearrangement the Lords of the Pale were so goaded as to have no choice left but to adhere to their countrymen-in-arms. Sir Phelim told all this to Owen Roe; and Sir Phelim coloured the recital greatly to the favour of his new allies, for his weak vain nature had been worked upon by the flattering conduct of the Lords who had willingly acknowledged him as their Commander-in-Chief at Drogheda, and already Sir Phelim was weakened and half won by the blandishments of the Anglo-Norman nobles. Making full allowance, however, for his kinsman’s partiality Owen saw much to admire in the conduct of the men of Leinster; and he greatly rejoiced that the Boyne, “the Rubicon since the Conquest,” had been bridged.
The first step of the new commander was to enforce discipline. His heart was sorely grieved at reports of the excesses into which the insurgents had run. Those against whom serious outrages were proved were condemned by him to death, and when murmurs arose he declared that he would rather join the English than allow such offences to go unpunished. Victims who sought redress found in him a ready listener and an inflexibly just judge: compensation was decreed in many cases, and the general took good care to see that his orders were scrupulously carried out. Prisoners of war who had been detained in wretched quarters were brought into his presence; if no serious acts were proven against them they were at once discharged; three English gentlemen who had been kept in prison on suspicion of being spies were forthwith liberated, and Owen sent a company of his men to see the released captives safe on the road to Dundalk. In O’Neill’s glorious career of forty years not one stain of dishonour or cruelty ever dimmed the lustre of his sword.
No sooner had Owen declared the new discipline that was to prevail than he issued a call to arms, and summoned all Ulster Irishmen to his standard. “All,” we are told, “flocked to him, each man now counting himself two, and casting off all fear; he the happiest who was chosen to stay.” For unhappily stores were wanting, and Owen was inexorable in his determination to put away all “useless mouths.” “An army,” said the greatest of all captains, “marches upon its stomach;” and Owen felt as keenly as Napoleon did the need of having food and pay for even the most willing and zealous soldiers. He thought it far better to have a small efficient well-disciplined force than a large unmanageable one. He put away all thought of active offensive operations. The task of holding an army of levies in hand, and of keeping up that army permanently has always been one of the greatest difficulties in dealing with Celtic irregulars; and in O’Neill’s case the problem became complicated with other troubles caused by the intermeddling of uninstructed persons in his arrangements and plans. But intrinsically the difficulty was exceedingly great, such as none but a great military organizer could overcome even were he unhampered by any external agency. And moreover Owen O’Neill’s previous career in a way unfitted him for such work. He had always dealt with well-arrayed, well-appointed armies; and the Ulstermen presented a sad contrast to the proud and stately troops of Spain whom he had led. Even the Irish Regiment there consisted of men who had for the most part passed through the hands of the drill-masters before he made close acquaintance with them. Now for the first time he met the raw, undrilled levies; and his instant care was to put them under a course of real training (not mere mechanical drill, but a training in order, alertness, watchful attention, and presence of mind) so that they might not be cut down like sheep by the seasoned veterans of Leslie and Monroe. For the Leinstermen were engaged in keeping Ormond and the English of Dublin and Drogheda occupied, and the brunt of the Ulster war came from the great Scotch army, nearly 10,000 strong, which ranged at will over eastern Ulster and by the capture of Newry had opened the flat corn-growing country to their raids and incursions. To meet such troops in the open were madness. To allow them to march over all Ulster without challenge would much depress the recruits, who looked for miracles from Owen Roe. Accordingly he set about that famous “Fabian” policy for which his panegyrists have so properly extolled him; uniting safe enterprise with constant guerrilla encounters, but never until the right hour risking the chances of an open battle against the Scotch invaders. With this purpose he took steps to secure a regular supply of food. The “creaghts” and the clansmen were ready with all they had for his service. Cattle were plentiful; so that the soldiers were sure to have milk and butter and sometimes meat; while from the corn-fields there was abundance of material for bread. Ovens were made wherever Owen encamped, and the one thing which he never entrusted to any deputy was the care of the commissariat. During the first few weeks he chose the plains of Tyrone as his camping ground, sentinels for miles keeping watch under keen officers who knew how to combine the dash of the irregular with the steady and sustained bravery of the veteran. A few trifling skirmishes only happened in these early weeks. But the men were gaining military knowledge, and all observers said of Owen O’Neill at all stages of his career that it was wonderful with what speed he transformed raw levies into capable soldiers. By inspiring respect and trust he succeeded in regulating assessments, billets, and contributions, which relieved the people from the terrors of uncertain military claims, so that the army was welcomed on its march instead of inspiring the terror and dismay which inevitably follow irregular troops. An English gentleman who had been made a prisoner by Owen’s soldiers and charged as a spy, has left an account of what he saw while waiting Owen’s decision, which was given in his favour. He was present at a review of the Ulster army. Most of the Ulster gentlemen were there as Owen’s officers; “and all except Sir Phelim stood bare-headed in his presence, calling him Lord-General, and being most obedient to him in all things.”