MERCILESS and blood-guilty as Cromwell was in his Irish campaign, one turns with something like relief from the paltry intriguers of Dublin and Kilkenny to the terrible destroyer of Drogheda and Dublin. It has been the sad lot of Ireland that while her oppressors have been men of iron, such English rulers as professed themselves her friends have been mostly men of lath; cheats, quacks, and cowards. By Charles and Ormond she had been duped, and now she had to face the wrath of their great antagonist. The edge of Cromwell’s sword smote the cities of the Pale and the Anglo-Irish defences fell before him as if they were pasteboard. Already, even while Owen lay dead in Cavan, Cromwell announced to the Parliament that his army was on the “edge of Munster ” and, still ignorant that his great opponent had been struck down out of his way, he declared that he looked for fierce fighting from none but the ”Ulstermen of Owen Roe.” These Ulstermen, indeed, full of hope and courage, were on the march to meet him when their hearts were appalled with the news of their great commander’s death. They were now to range themselves under Ormond’s colours and to face the grim conqueror who had already cleft in pieces the armies of the Pale.

From his death-bed Owen had sent warning words to Ormond: —

“The precipitation of fighting with Cromwell, whereunto your Excellency is persuaded by many, is of a most dangerous consequence; for if any disaster should now attend your army the country would doubtless be betrayed into the hands of Cromwell, so few are those on whom in prosperity and adversity you may depend. The country must supply food, else a course must be taken with it; but should the worst come and food be scanty, it is better to see the soldiers fast a little while than lose them desperately in rash warfare, and indeed they will always make some shift to live. If God gives me grace to recover, I hope to make up as good an army as your Excellency has had any time this twelvemonth. I pray and desire your Excellency to have patience for two months, and to be circumspective and careful of the few men your Excellency hath already together, whereon depends (under God) the preservation of all the interests, both of the King and of the Irish nation.”

We can see how the plan of defence shaped itself in the mind of the great strategist, and had he lived a military drama of enormous interest would have been developed, in which the Ulstermen would have borne the leading part. But Owen’s voice was now silent, the voice which had never failed to rally the Celtic clans from end to end of the island, and the troops held together for seven years by the force of his will and genius were delivered over without appeal to the incompetent hands of Ormond.

Under Ormond’s orders the Ulster forces were scattered over the whole country, their cohesion broken, their strength sapped, and the army as a united host destroyed. As the people of Waterford had refused to allow Castlehaven’s soldiers within the walls, Ormond despatched Lieutenant-General O’Farrell and a portion of the Ulster army to serve under Preston in the defence of the city; while Hugh O’Neill was ordered to Clonmel with another detachment, and the rest of Owen’s soldiers were dispersed in little parties to castles, towns, and military stations, never again to be united in one body under one commander. But the arrival of the Ulster army had checked Cromwell’s career. After a vain attack on Waterford the forces of the Parliament, worn out with disease and fatigue, retired in the middle of December into winter quarters. Cromwell was under no delusions. Well fed and well paid as his troops had been, “the wet marches and ill accommodation” had proved too much for them, and Cromwell’s sole rival in military renown, the victor of Dungan’s Hill and Rathmines — Colonel Michael Jones, now Lieutenant-General under the Parliament — died of cold and fever in Dungarvan.[1] Celtic Ireland met the shock in another spirit than that of the Pale. The Ulstermen kindled new life and fire in the south, and all Connaught was in arms ready to repel attack.

While military affairs were in this position, Ormond was busying himself in devising a new scheme of Government. Dublin was in the hands of Cromwell, and on all other cities the Lord Lieutenant looked askance. Besides he had no wish for a representative popular assembly: he merely desired some instrument of taxation which would be respected by the people. Naturally he looked to the bishops; and as Primate O’Reilly summoned the congregation of Kells in 1642, so at Ormond’s suggestion did the bishops meet at Clonmacnoise in December 1649. fervid language they expressed their trust in the Lord Lieutenant, and declared their readiness to support his Viceroyalty. Henceforth Ormond made Connaught his dwelling place, sometimes holding state at Gort, and sometimes at Portumna or Loughrea; Clanricarde and Castlehaven served under him, and far away from danger the three peers, surrounded by a court of bishops and lords, “revelled and caroused” while the brunt of battle had to be borne elsewhere. The Connaught bishops were all Ormondians, John of Tuam being Clanricarde’s cousin and bishop Kirwan of Killala one of his most devoted followers, so that the Anglo-Irish government in its worst form was now transplanted beyond the Shannon. Fennell and Dillon and Muskerry soon joined the new cabal, and Loughrea became for a time a faint copy of what Kilkenny had been but a few years before.

Meantime in pursuance of the fundamental terms of Owen Roe O’Neill’s treaty with Ormond the Ulster army proceeded to elect a successor to their dead chief. Scattered as the forces were a new army was already in course of formation, needing only a directing hand to complete Owen’s task of organization, and “the dispersed soldiers and commanders flocking home by degrees for the occasion a Provincial Assembly was summoned to nominate and appoint a new General.” There were many competitors; the Marquis of Antrim, Sir Phelim O’Neill, Lord Iveagh, Daniel O’Neill, Colonel Hugh O’Reilly and Henry Roe, the late general’s son; but above all two great soldiers — Lieutenant-General O’Farrell and Major-General Hugh O’Neill — by skill and service stood out pre-eminently as best fitted for the supreme command.

It was the wish of the army that the Ulster forces should still be led by an O’Neill, and of all the O’Neills Hugh was marked out beyond all competitors for the post. Although with a noble modesty he himself urged as his sole claim that he “knew the mind of Owen O’Neill and his way of managing his men,” he was recognised by the troops as the very greatest of all Owen’s coadjutors. Daniel O’Neill and Henry Roe proclaimed their readiness to serve under their cousin; so, notwithstanding his higher military rank, did General O’Farrell; while both Hugh and Bryan MacPhelim declared that all their devotion to Owen Roe would be willingly given to his nephew Black Hugh. But the foolish brain of Sir Phelim was fermenting with wild ambition. The dazzling prize which so deluded him in 1641 beckoned him on to folly and revolt. He aspired to be “O’Neill,” President, perhaps Prince, of Ulster. Compromise was impossible, and a leader outside the O’Neills must be sought. O’Farrell, however, was objectionable to Lord Antrim and Lord Iveagh; and finally, to set rivalries at rest, the choice fell upon the bishop of Clogher, Heber McMahon.

No more disastrous choice could have been made. Passionate, ill-tempered, and headstrong as he was, the bishop under Owen’s guidance had been an active champion of truth and straightforward policy; left to himself he proved weak, wavering, and foolishly vain. No sooner did he receive from Ormond the ratification of his election and his commission of commander-in-chief of the Ulster forces, than his poor arrogant nature led him into strange betrayal of his trust. Solemnly presenting himself at Ormond’s viceregal court at Loughrea, he placed himself absolutely under the Viceroy’s orders, undoing by that single act the whole purpose of Owen’s guarantee, the real object of which was to secure that the Ulster army, while allied indeed with the forces of the Lord Lieutenant, should yet remain perfectly independent of them and free from official interference. As the Ulster troops scattered through the country had been incorporated into Ormond’s army, the only semblance of separate action lay henceforth with the men who remained in arms in the north. There Owen’s fortress of Charlemont still withstood all storms, and round this Stronghold a rude army was collected, the few veterans of Owen’s army left in Ulster forming the nucleus.

Meanwhile in the south, while Cromwell was forcing his way over the Tipperary mountains and making ready for the siege of Clonmel, the bishop and his troops were engaged in futile and paltry expeditions to the Bannside, which, unhappily, were neither brilliant in design nor perfect in execution. In other ways, too, the prelate’s presence at the head of an army was found damaging to the efficiency and strength of the national forces. Sir George Munroe, reconciled to the king’s cause, was willing to serve under a great commander like Owen O’Neill, but he declined to take orders from a “Bishop-General.” “The people of our profession,” said he, “are averse to it, thinking it a church business.” Quitting Ireland he and his Scots sought service elsewhere, and all bonds of confederacy between Scotland and Ireland were broken. For Lord Antrim, and still more “his duchess,” were deeply angered, and the duchess bitterly urged on a breach with the “ungrateful” northerners.

While the Ulster army was thus depleted by the secession of its allies, events moved rapidly elsewhere in Ireland. On the 30th of April, 1650, an obsequious clerical assembly sat in Loughrea, where seven nobles and seven bishops requested Ormond to appoint commanders for the several provinces, and on behalf of the clergy promised “zealous incitements of the people” from the altars, and the warmest promotion of Ormond’s interests. In compliance with this request, the Bishop of Dromore was appointed governor of Carlow, and later on General of Leinster; while Lord Dillon of Costello, a worthless craven, got an important command in Connaught. Loughrea was made the chief seat and habitation ” of Ormond, where, surrounded by Castlehaven, Clanricarde, Dillon, and Taafe, he presided over “a synagogue of perjury, a sphere of injustice, a congregation of bankrupts, and a conventicle of treacherous thieves.”[2] Clonmel meanwhile, far from the “carousing pastimes” of the peers, was covering itself with glory. Behind old crazy walls a true soldier stood at bay, and Black Hugh O’Neill “behaved himself so gallantly that Cromwell lost near 2,500 men before that town.” When Cromwell had called upon him to yield up the place “on good conditions,” Hugh, in words that sound like an echo of his illustrious uncle, answered that he “was of another resolution than to give up towns and places till he was reduced to a very much lower condition, and so wished him to do his worst.” After terrible cannonading a breach was made; but Hugh “formed a lane a man’s height and eighty yards long on both sides from the breach, with a foot bank at the back of it, and set two guns opposite the breach and made all things ready for a storm.” On the 8th of May the Ironsides rushed forward to the breach clad in panoply, “helmets, back breast swords, pistols, and musquetoons.” No opposition was offered; seizing the breach they dashed headlong into the town, when to their amazement they found themselves “jammed and crammed” in a narrow lane, while from either side “shots, pikes, scythes, stones, and great long pieces of timber” came crashing upon them, and “the two guns slaughtered them with chained bullets.” The troops from behind pressed into the narrow way over the corpses of their comrades only to meet death in their turn. Terrified and disordered the Cromwellians were chased from the breach, and Oliver in his wrath declared that since “he donned helmet against the King he had not met such a repulse before.” Black Hugh brought off his men by dead of night to Waterford, and later on to Limerick, which he defended against Ireton with the same high soldiership that had won the angry admiration of Cromwell.

But these exploits were only gleams in the surrounding darkness. Relying on vain promises of assistance from Ormond and Clanricarde, the “Prelate General,” McMahon, marched away from his Tyrone strongholds into the fastnesses of Tyrconnell. With his base resting on Derry, and leading troops well used to the passes of Donegal, Sir Charles Coote eagerly followed “the brave prelate but ignorant general” until he overtook him at Letterkenny. Battle was not inevitable, for the passes still under control of the Irish offered easy exit and admirable defence. But the bishop was burning for glory. In vain Henry Roe expostulated, warning him of the danger he was about to run: —

“My father,” said he, ” would protract time and make a thousand wheels and turns to save the life of a single soldier, much more would he do for the safety of a whole army. It is no disparagement unto your lordship to ask you to give place unto practitioners. You have here the Lieutenant-General and others who have acquired the science and theoric as well as the art, an art (under favour) not to be learned in a day like a pater-noster. We are now the only army left; the country is at our devotion, provision we cannot want, and forage is plentiful. If we fail we can never again be recruited, if we win the enemy may easily restore himself out of the resources of the three kingdoms. Delay is often braver than wild courage and this is such an occasion. This, sir, is the sense of all and singular our commanders, and from them I, minimus apostolorum, bear the message.”

Fuming with foolish anger, the bishop responded with brutal insult:—

“Such language is not suitable for the courage of true soldiers, but of cowards who are afraid even to look on blood, and tremble at the very thought of a scar.”

Wounded by “this corrosive language” and “beyond the limits of reason transported,” the commanders consented to offer battle, oblivious of all military advantage.”

The battle was a mere rout. So ill-arranged had the bishop’s dispositions been that the horse were quite unable to assist the foot; and although Henry Roe “fighting like a lion among inferior beasts made a havoc of all that came in his way,” the conflict was hopeless from the outset; “all soon fled away or were there slaughtered,” The poor blundering “Prelate-General” escaped from the fields only to be captured and carried into Enniskillen, and there hanged and quartered. The brilliant young soldier, Henry Roe, was brought to Londonderry where, after quarter given, he was beheaded by Sir Charles Coote, who, less than twelve months before, had welcomed him and his illustrious father into the city.

And so by that one day’s wild work at Scariffhollis in July, 1650, “this army, ever yet victorious under General Owen O’Neill, of blessed and famous memory, by the ill manage of one man too much given to his own opinion, was for ever destroyed; a loss, indeed, no less than to be expected on the death of such a general.” On that bloody field “all the captains and officers save very few were killed,” and Ulster was left “a dowager of moan and grief both day and night renewed.” Among the dead lay the friend and confidant of Owen Roe, his devoted physician, Owen O’Shiel — a brilliant graduate of five Universities, “he was absolutely the very best of his science in these three kingdoms.” His wife, the niece of Hugh O’Neill’s dashing lieutenant Tyrrell, the hero of Tyrrellspass, had herself been nobly distinguished by her defence of a castle against Preston, when in 1648 he warred against Owen, and by her brave answer to his appeal that in the name of religion she should yield up the place: —

“To none but to General O’Neill will I deliver up this house. If the Holy Father Himself — may God guard me from sin — demanded this castle I should refuse to yield it up without the orders of the General.”

Touches like these light up the tragedy of O’Neill’s life with a strange beauty. But the life and the lifework were now alike lost to his unfortunate country. The poor deluded bishops, horrified by Ormond’s cynical indifference after the slaughter induced by his hollow promises, met at Jamestown in August, 1650, and now when it was of no avail uttered their belated denunciation against the “common enemy of God, king, and country.” But Ormond was beyond the range of their shafts. He fled, leaving Clanricarde as his Deputy. Then came a new beginning of foolish negotiations; semi-imaginary arrangements with the Duke of Lorraine and other exalted persons, all ending in darkness, devastation, and despair. Defeat and disaster swept over the land. The light faded out save where on the cliffs of Innisboffin the national struggle was maintained for two years more. There, on that strand where the last flicker of the fight for freedom died, Roger O’Moore, faithful to the end, was found among the bravest, and escaping through the waves he passes from the eye of history.

Lady Rosa outlived all her kinsmen, and for ten weary years more was the witness of her country’s sorrow. That lofty and tragic figure, fit peer and helpmate of the “majestic, stately, stainless cavalier,” comes once into view when her nephew. Black Hugh, asked in 1650 for a safe-conduct for “my aunt, the Lady of General Owen O’Neill,” Ten years later she died in Brussels, having survived husband and son, and as it seemed fatherland as well. In a strange land she sleeps in the grave of her first-born, beneath the epitaph which proudly announces the “widow of Don Eugenio O’Neill, the General of the Catholic Irish.”

[1] It was said that Jones was poisoned, and rumour attributed the guilt to Cromwell. But in the case of Jones as of Owen Roe himself, the evidence is of the very flimsiest, while the charge against Cromwell is childish, although many of his own soldiers believed him guilty.

[2] Aph. Dis.