OWEN ROE or Don Eugenio O’Neill, the first leader of the Irish nation in its struggles for liberty, was the son of Art McBaron O’Neill, a younger brother of Hugh, the great Earl of Tyrone. The great-grandson of Con Bocagh, first Earl of Tyrone, the great-grandson of the last great Earl of Kildare, the father of Silken Thomas, he represented in his own person the two leading lines of the Ancient Irish and the Old English. In the rebellion of Hugh O’Neill against Elizabeth, Owen’s father. Art McBaron, led the Irish troops in the stirring campaign of 1595, during which the line of the Blackwater was cleared of the English and the huge wooden castle built on the river banks was besieged and captured. In the succeeding years Art and his two sons, Cormac and Shane, commanded the men of Ulster in the battles near Lough Neagh, where they combined land and water operations with great skill and daring ; but as Owen’s name does not appear in any of the contemporary reports we may infer that he was at that time too young to bear arms. He was probably born in or about the year 1582. In his boyhood he saw the long and varied struggles against Elizabeth, and as he was about sixteen years old when Hugh won the great victory of the Yellow Ford, and twenty at the disaster of Kinsale, he was old enough to appreciate the striking events and varied fortunes of his great uncle’s insurrection. After Hugh’s submission at Mellifont, Owen, in common with many other young Irish gentlemen, sought a career on the Continent, and with his younger brother, Art, entered military service in the Spanish Netherlands, then and for many years the theatre of a great war. His father remained in Ireland, and the Dublin governors thought it prudent to leave him in undisturbed possession of very considerable territory; “because,” as they explained, “he has two sons captains in the Archduke’s army and a lusty blade at home.” The Archduke’s army was really the Spanish army as the Archduke was politically subject to the King of Spain. At the death of Charles V., his vast empire fell asunder, and several states were constructed from its ruins. Ferdinand as Emperor ruled in Vienna over the Austrian dominions, while Spain, Burgundy, and the Netherlands came to the hands of Philip II. At Philip’s death in 1598 his daughter, Clara Eugenia, and her husband, the Archduke Albert, acquired the Netherlands, where they reigned under the strange title of “the Archdukes” until Albert’s death in 1635.

The long and trying years during which they governed are looked back upon by the people with love and veneration; and the “good Archdukes are dear even now to the people of Flanders. It was of great importance to Owen in the course of his political development that he was schooled in a state which combined imperial unity with local freedom; and although he never elaborated any theories of government, yet from time to time he dropped hints which show that he would have willingly accepted an autonomy for Ireland on the lines of the free government of Flanders, yielding loyal obedience in imperial matters to a non-intermeddling suzerain. It must be always remembered that in Owen’s earlier years Ireland had never been a nation; for until the old tribal kingdoms were extinguished and until Palesmen and natives were involved in common suffering no feeling of common nationality could well arise. In the process of nation-making, therefore, Owen would have been most willing to pass through a period of honourable transition and compromise; and indeed there are indications that the germ of this principle came into his mind in Brussels, where under the very real overlordship of Philip III., the Archdukes were left quite uncontrolled in all internal affairs. Analogies, however, usually fail at the most critical points and this is especially so with analogies of government. There were many causes of unrest and trouble in Ireland which were unknown in happier Flanders, and it is in no way certain that a copy of the Flemish constitution would have been a wise political prescription for the cure of Irish sufferings and wrongs. However, Owen saw in Flanders a striking instance of a free nation loyally attached for offence and defence to a state outside itself, as he saw in Brussels one of the most brilliant courts in Europe.

Into that brilliant court Irish gentlemen were warmly welcomed. O’Neills and O’Donnells met there side by side with the Gormanstown Prestons of the Pale, the Bourkes of Mayo, the O’Briens of Clare, and the Talbots and Dillons of the central counties of Ireland. Great scholars like Peter Lombard were encouraged and honoured, and famous physicians like Owen O’Shiel were received as confidants and friends into the Viceregal Palace. Ireland was well represented in all the higher walks of intellectual and social life; nor was she without worthy representatives in the less distinguished ranks and classes. Thousands of brave Irish soldiers did good service in these long Low Country wars, and in most of the Belgian towns the garrisons were largely made up of Irish clansmen serving under their chiefs, or of adventurous Palesmen or townsmen who had gone abroad to learn the soldier’s glorious trade.

In 1606, the names of Owen Roe and his brother Art first appear in the reports of English agents from Brussels. Both were then captains, and both were noticed as men upon whom a keen official watch should be kept, as rumours of conspiracies and plots were industriously circulated and possibly it was thought the Irish in Flanders were at that time planning a descent on Ireland. However, no such movement was then afoot, and indeed up to the flight of the Earls in 1609 no real danger threatened the peace of the Government in Dublin. Both the Earl of Tyrone and the Earl of Tyrconnell seemed contented with their lot, and although both must have mourned over the humiliations and disasters which had fallen upon their race, no symptom of rebellious intent could be detected by the most searching official eyes. But dark charges were made against O’Neill by anonymous detractors, and one of the Fermanagh Maguires, a captain in Brussels, warned him in time to fly from the plotters who were bent upon his ruin. Accordingly, on Holycross Day the two earls, O’Neill and Rory O’Donnell, sailed from Lough Swilly with kinsfolk and retainers numbering ninety-nine in all. Hugh O’Donnell had died some years before in Spain, and of his house none remained but Rory and Cathbar, and both left Lough Swilly together. They were accompanied by Cathbar’s wife “the Lady Rosa O’Dogherty,” who soon after Cathbar’s death became the wife of Owen Roe O’Neill. “Surely,” said the Four Masters, “the winds never wafted from Erin a company more illustrious.” Two great princely houses were left desolate, and the last chiefs of Ireland passed into the land of exile. They journeyed through France into Flanders, and there Owen Roe and his brother met the great head of the O’Neills, broken with age and with infirmities. The old chief went on to Rome, and Owen saw him no more; and in Rome, blind, worn, and heart-broken he dragged on a few wretched years until death mercifully released him in 1616.

When the natural leader was gone, events forced Owen Roe into a commanding position. Two of Tyrone’s sons had been struck down by the long arm of English assassination, and the one survivor, poor incapable John, was a futile substitute for his mighty father. In his empty and foolish life at Madrid, where he mingled in those bright scenes of court life of which glimpses are given to us by the pencil of Velasquez,[1] the only trace of his influence was to interfere from time to time in ecclesiastical appointments and to procure the nomination of a few bishops to Irish sees, which were posts of peril rather than of worldly dignity.

Thus it was that the Irish abroad while recognizing and respecting the heir of their great chief, began on all trying and difficult occasions to consult “his cousin-german, Colonel Owen O’Neill.” And Owen’s great qualities deeply impressed his countrymen, for to the intellectual powers necessary for leadership he added the reticence and self-command which are almost equally essential. In all his enquiries and studies into means and materials and opportunities for an Irish rebellion he seemed cold, calculating, and impassive; but now and then there were indications of the soul of fire which burned under that icy surface. There never was a more patient, laborious, and methodical leader; the slightest detail he microscopically examined; all movements in England and Ireland were watched by him with calm vigilance, nothing seemed to escape him, nothing to ruffle or perturb. In 1628 and 1629 he was constantly in communication with Richelieu, and it speaks well for his political insight that he at all times looked rather to France than to Spain for help in an Irish war of liberation. The nets of the great Cardinal were too widely spread, and his encouragement of Owen ended in friendly assurances; but Owen Roe undoubtedly won the warm admiration of Richelieu, who corresponded with him as with one wielding great political and military power, and more than once in pauses of the great European drama the Cardinal returned to the question of Irish revolt, and held out hopes of help in arms, money and men. Ireland for the first time had left her insular moorings, and was mingling in the ocean movement of European politics; and in that trying time she found in Owen a leader well fitted for the task of guiding her new course. Bred as a soldier in “the only martial academy of Europe,” he was still by gifts and training one of the ablest of diplomatists. If the Irish at home had in Roger O’Moore a high-minded and accomplished leader, the Irish abroad had in Owen Roe O’Neill much more than this; they had a great captain and a great man. To him they looked as to their acknowledged sovereign, and his home in Brussels was, during all the years spent in the careful weaving of national association, the heart and centre of the whole Irish movement. His noble wife, a queenly woman of pathetic grandeur, and as devotedly Irish as himself, inspired her countrymen with her own lofty courage. If Owen was the de facto head of the O’Neills, Lady Rosa from the death of her brother. Sir Cahir, was the de facto head of the O’Doghertys, while her eldest boy, Cathbar O’Donnell’s son, was pointed out by prophecy as the liberator of Tyr-Conaill. The three great Ulster clans, therefore, naturally looked to Owen and to his wife as to their rulers in exile. But if Lady Rosa, the grand-daughter of Shane O’Neill, strengthened Owen’s claims to the active leadership of Ulster, Owen himself by blood and birth combined, like Roger O’Moore, the two great races of the Old Irish and the Old English of the Pale, while his commanding faculties won to him the ready obedience of the Wicklow “Byrnes and Tooles,” and the Longford O’Ferralls, who filled his ranks with brave and fearless soldiers.

Owen’s active leadership is distinctly traceable as far back as 1634, and in that year, remarkably enough, two men who subsequently became his most active emissaries — Heber McMahon and Daniel O’Neill — made journeys through most of Ireland. Heber McMahon is reported to have then warned Sir George Ratcliffe of plots and conspiracies which had come to his knowledge; but he seems to have done so in such vague terms that the only effect of his communication was to divert attention from his own suspicious movements. Daniel O’Neill, Owen’s nephew, came to Dublin fortified with recommendatory letters from the Elector Palatine to Strafford, and he was enabled as Strafford’s favoured friend to learn much of the condition of Ireland, and the possibilities of success in an armed rising.

Both McMahon and Daniel were engaged in propaganda, and the results became visible very soon; for in the following year (1635) a great swarm of Leinster recruits came to Owen’s regiment, which now numbered 3,000 men, and was fast becoming the training school for the approaching Irish war. This accession of Palesmen gave O’Neill’s regiment a national, as distinguished from a tribal or provincial character, and was indeed the first effective step towards the confederation of the Old Irish and the English of the Pale. For the separation between the two had been rigidly maintained, even in exile, up to that year; and Colonel Thomas Preston, a skilful officer of the noble house of Gormanstown, had been looked upon as the natural leader of the Palesmen soldiering in Flanders, and Owen Roe as the leader of the Old Irish only. Preston had many advantages over O’Neill in the recruiting of his forces. He found it easier to procure licenses from Strafford, and while the Ulstermen had to leave Ireland on chance ships under cover of darkness and storm, Preston’s recruits marched openly to the nearest ports and embarked in the light of day, with the God-speed “of their friends cheering them for the journey. Captain Thomas Tyrrell of Westmeath was licensed by Strafford, at Preston’s request, to raise and transport 200 men to Flanders; but Preston bitterly complained that when Tyrrell landed he and his men “went off and joined the regiment of Owen O’Neill.” The work of organization went on daily, and the Irish priests were Owen’s most zealous coadjutors. Law had reduced the Catholic Church in Ireland to the position of an illegal secret association, and clandestine worship was now accompanied by appeals to the faithful to rise in their wrath against the insolent oppressors of their race and their creed. A great insurrection seemed ominously to impend. But European events intervened, and the tidal movements on the Continent swept asunder the Irish in Flanders from the Irish at home, so that for some years there was no possibility of joint action between them.

The great Cardinal Minister of France began in 1634 that tremendous duel with the House of Austria on which he had for so many years set his heart. When Richelieu moved, he moved like a fierce black cloud clothed in terror, and he burst like a bolt of thunder on the Spanish possessions. In the failing ears of Father Joseph he was able to announce “Breisach is ours, Joseph; Breisach is ours,” as his strange mysterious familiar lay dying in his arms. And for six years that war raged through the Netherlands, and everywhere in the front of the fight was “the Irish regiment of the Count of Tyrone,” under the command of Don Eugenio. But whether in garrison or on the field, Owen Roe never abated his zealous watchfulness over the Irish preparations for war. During the siege of Aire the Irish regiment was encamped outside the lines of the French besiegers, and Owen’s tent was the council-chamber of the whole Irish race. From his major-domo, Henry Cartan, we learn many interesting particulars of his labours at this time. Messengers from Ireland came constantly to him, and there repaired unto him Colonel Hugh McPhelim O’Byrne, who had been a captain in Tyrone’s regiment in Spain. And he remained with Colonel O’Neill four and twenty hours, most of which was spent in private conference. And the said Hugh McPhelim was overheard to say, “We are to adventure our lives for the succouring of a scabbed town of the King of Spain, where we may lose our lives, and we cannot expect any worse than death if we go into our own country and succour it.” “And shortly after there came to the camp of Aire an Irish friar, one of the O’Neills disguised, who remained with the said Owen about six days and then departed, and Captain Brian O’Neill, a cousin of Colonel Owen’s, came there too, and shortly after the friar and the captain were said to be gone to Ireland.”

Cartan tells us that at this siege O’Neill lost a map or chart of Ireland in which were set out full particulars of all the towns, roads, fortresses, harbours, castles, and other special features of Ireland, all marked in cipher, as well as estimates and biographies of all the most important people in Ireland, all under assumed names; Sir Phelim O’Neill was known as President Rosse, Daniel O’Neill was Louis Lanois, Leinster was “Valois,” and Ulster “Brabant.” The resources of each district were carefully and fully set out, and all the ties or differences which bound or separated families in high place were elaborately detailed. We are told that Owen deeply deplored the loss of this chart, and only when a copy was brought to him from Ireland did he rest from anxiety and grief. He could indeed ill afford the loss, as the time was one of special activity; for already Roger O’Moore had notified to him the state of affairs in Ireland, and busy as Owen was with military operations, he now more than ever directed and controlled every detail of the insurrectionary plans.

From 1634 onward while Owen was engaged in organizing the Irish race into a great military brotherhood, his kinsmen were his chief coadjutors in the work. His brother Art died young, leaving a son, Hugh, who was ripening into early manhood when Owen’s great task began. Hugh was a silent retiring man, and a fearless warrior; indeed his subsequent defence of Clonmel (1650) shows him to have been a soldier to the heart’s core; but he was little fitted for the subtle strategems of secret plots and conspiracies, and Owen but rarely put his services into requisition. Conn and Neal O’Neale were his ablest envoys to Ireland, passing to and fro so often and so rapidly that it was said “how wonderful it is with what celerity the Irish abroad learn what takes place in Ulster.” Art McGuinness, the son of one of Owen’s sisters, a friar and a man of learning, a cadet of the noble house of Iveagh and Clandeboy, served Owen in many delicate and perilous embassies to Roger O’Moore, to Lord Antrim, and to Sir Phelim O’Neill. Another nephew and priest. Farther Hartigan, was sent by Owen Roe to stir up the Gaels of the Scottish Highlands where he was labouring to organize a great Celtic League; and was also his envoy to Father Luke Wadding at Rome, and to Richelieu’s brother, the Archbishop of Bordeaux. But by far the most remarkable of the nephews of Owen Roe was the brilliant and versatile Daniel, known to the secret association as “Louis Lanois,” and to royalists by the nickname of “Infallible Subtle ; ” “much superior in subtlety and understanding,” says Lord Clarendon, “to the whole nation of the old Irish.” He was a man of irresistible personal charm, of extraordinary dash and fertility of resource; brilliant, light-hearted, and of irrepressible humours, “a great observer and discerner of men’s nature, and humours,” and “although withal inclined to ease and luxury, his industry was indefatigable when his honour required it.” Daniel had been trained at the English court, and he passed many years between the court and the Low Countries, the winter in one, and the summer campaigning in the other, “which was as good an education,” says Clarendon, “as that age knew any.” He was never checked by nice scruples: “I shall not let the devil have odds of me” was the motto of questionable morality by which he intimated his willingness on occasion to use the devil’s methods. His life was one unbroken romance. He went on perilous missions from King Charles to his sister the fair Queen of Bohemia and her husband “the Winter King;”, he was the close friend of Prince Rupert, and the favourite pupil of Archbishop Laud. Under his uncle, Owen, he fought through the campaigns of 1635 and 1636; when the troubles broke out in Scotland in 1637, he obtained a commission in the Royal Army, and in the rout at Newburn, next year, he was made prisoner having been left for dead upon the field, but was liberated shortly after. As the great troubles grew Daniel became more and more active, and he was implicated at one and the same time in the two great army plots in England, and in the great national movement of the Irish. Very likely the royal prerogative, then in peril from the attacks of the violent parliamentarians, seemed to him the only bulwark against Puritan intolerance and persecution. An O’Neill of the O’Neills himself (for father and mother were of the clan), he had been educated a Protestant, and as a Protestant he lived and died. Indeed his leaning to royalism is in no way strange when his early surroundings and associations are remembered.

But there was probably another and a most cogent reason. The king in the early months of 1641 was in close communication with the Catholic noblemen and gentry of the Pale; and although there is no formal proof of his active participation in any of their designs there is little doubt that he gave countenance and encouragement to their plans against the Puritan “usurpers” in Dublin. It is, therefore, not to be wondered at that Daniel while maintaining his close correspondence with Owen Roe, and while taking his counsel in all emergencies, entangled himself at the same time with the Gordons and Astleys who were then busily employed in winning over the army and navy to the side of the king against the Puritan Long Parliament. In one of these adventurous enterprises Daniel was detected, and his life was in peril. He escaped for the moment to Brussels, but returning soon after he was made prisoner and committed to the Tower. Articles of impeachment were drawn up by Pym, and the impeachment was moved by “Mr. John Hampden.” From the alleged acts of treason enumerated Daniel’s procedure in his dangerous work is laid bare, and we may see the working of that subtle mind which. Clarendon tells us, exercised an extraordinary influence over all by the marvellous dexterity of his nature.” When seeking to rouse troopers against the Houses he was reported to have said: —

“Many things are now done by parliament to the king’s great disadvantage, and it were well and wisely done if the army petitioned parliament, taking good care that its petition should be respectfully heard.”

These were dangerous words, and Daniel’s life was in danger. But while “Mr. John Hampden” was thundering against him and Irish Papists, the Constable of the Tower came with the news that “Mr. O’Neill had gotten out during the night.” Then indeed there was an outcry. Proclamation followed proclamation; but it was shrewdly feared that the admirals at the ports had been tampered with by Daniel, and at any rate it came to pass that he reached Brussels in safety, and became again the subtlest counsellor of his illustrious uncle, the one man against whose intellect he confessed himself unwilling to pit his own; for “that subtle man,” said he, “is beyond my sounding.” Under Owen’s directions Daniel’s services were priceless, and at this conjuncture, free as he was from heady enthusiasms, with his compelling convictions and indomitable will, he became Owen Roe’s most powerful auxiliary. Later on he returned to England, became Gentleman of the Bedchamber to King Charles, fought in many battles and took part in many negotiations; and after a young manhood of incredible adventure he closed his life in leisured ease dying in an old manorhouse in Kent while holding the office of Postmaster-General for the Three Kingdoms, and leaving as his widow the accomplished Countess of Chesterfield. Surely of all that remarkable group of O’Neills who gathered round Owen Roe, the most striking and dramatic figure was that of the slim lithe young gentleman described in the Hue and Cry of May, 1642, as “slight built, of a sanguine complexion, no beard, auburn hair, about thirty years of age.”

Such were Owen’s instruments abroad; at home, however, his kinsmen were equally in the forefront of the National movement. One nephew. Lord Maguire, was the only peer among the earliest of those who took part with O’Moore; Lord Antrim, Owen’s cousin, who linked the Celts of Scotland with the Celts of Ireland, and whose hardy islesmen were to the north-eastern seaboard of Ireland what the fearless O’Flaherties were to the Atlantic coast and to the Shannon estuary, was friendly from the outset, and eventually joined Sir Phelim. Sir Phelim himself was not only an O’Neill, but so close to the chiefly line that he laid claim to the succession, while his own natural incapacity was shielded by the wise counsels of his brother Turlough, “a deep, sad man, well seen in the laws of England.” But if the movement was practically an O’Neill confederacy, Owen and his nephews and his noble wife inspiring and directing all, there were other families in Ireland willing to join in a national uprising. The O’Byrnes of Wicklow were active. Able and daring soldiers of the name and clan had joined the Spanish army. One of them especially, a brave, resolute, staunch man, Hugh McPhelim, became a captain in Catalonia, but rank in Spain had little charm for him, a the longed for work at home for the old cause; he became a very close friend of Owen’s. Another intimate and valued follower was Ever McMahon, afterwards Bishop of Clogher. Only the Connaught Irish were overcast and cowed, and had little fight left in them. Lord Clanrickarde dominated the province, surrounded by sleek and prosperous official Catholics, he too being a Catholic and apparently a learned and thoughtful one. Mr. Geoffrey Browne, Mr. Patrick Darcy, and Mr. Richard Martin, composed his conclave of friendly advisers – all deeply trained lawyers who saw in constitutional agencies the only feasible course of national redress, and were in sympathy with Roger O’Moore, although they thought he aimed too high. They themselves would have been well pleased with Emancipation from Elizabeth’s penal statutes and the repeal of Poyning’s Law and shrank from any bolder programme; as a valuable record of the time says:

“I see none of these Connaughtmen as constant as gentlemen should be.”[2]

In circumstances thus confused and distracted, it was all the more unfortunate that the great counsellor and leader, Owen O’Neill, was cut off from all communication with his countrymen, and while they groped their way unguided he was holding three French armies at bay behind the feeble fortifications of Arras.


[1] He appears in one of Velasquez’s pictures.

[2] Aphorismical Discovery.