ON THIS DAY: 6 November 1649: Death of Eoghan Ruadh Ó Néill in Cavan

Eoghan Ruadh Ó Neill was born around 1580, the son of Art Ó Neill and a daughter of Hugh Conallach O’Reilly of Breifne. He had had least 8 brothers and sisters and many cousins and wider family, all connected through marriage to many of the leading native Irish families of Ulster.

The Plantation of Ulster forced Art from the family lands of Onelian in Co. Armagh to inferior land in the barony of Orior. These lands were returned to the crown after Art’s death in 1618. Accompanied by three of his brothers, Eoghan Ruadh left Ireland for Spain in 1605 to pursue a military career and within a few months had secured a position as captain in Spanish Flanders.

An entry in the records of the college of Salamanca shows he studied there; it states also that Eugenius Rufus O’Neill had been appointed to a Sergeancy of halberdiers, the foot-guards of the Spanish monarchs. He was transferred to the Netherlands probably about 1625. In the State Paper Office is a “List of Irishmen Abroad” sent in by some one of the numberless spies whom the English kept constantly employed in foreign countries,

“that might be dangerous to the peace of Ireland in the event of a war with Spain; they have been long providing of arms for any attempt against Ireland…”

From internal evidence it is probable that this was made out about 1640. This above mentioned document is given in the Nation, 5th February 1859.

Over the course of 30 years in Spanish service, he acquired excellent logistical, martial, military and leadership skills and his reputation was renowned throughout Europe.



Eoghan Ruadh never forgot Ireland though, and it was his intention to come home at the opportune time and to re-establish the lands of his family and other Gaelic Chieftains. From as early as 1640 he was in contact with his kinsman Sir Phelim O’Neill and getting regular updates on the anti-catholic rhetoric of the Westminister parliament. He encouraged his kinsmens to revolt and promised to provide military assistance in the event of an uprising. He believe the Spanish would help out but they had their own political games ongoing with England and Spain did not want to provoke England’s ire; The English authorities, hearing that Eoghan Ruadh would be coming with Irish Troops from Flanders, put pressure on the Spanish to prevent it. He left for Ireland, knowing he may never get the Spanish assistance he had been waiting on.

When General Leslie expressed regret that a person of his experience and reputation abroad should come to Ireland to second so bad a cause, and besought him earnestly to return when he had come; O’Neill replied with scorn that he had more reason to come to relieve the deplorable state of his country than he had to march at the head of an army.

Father Luke Wadding sent him from Rome the sword of his ancestor, the great Red Hugh O’Neill, who had spread terror among the English army at the Yellow Ford, famous battle in Ireland. “This heirloom,” says the Papal Nuncion Rinuccini, “was accompanied with the papal blessing for Don Eugenio and so irritated Preston and his Anglo Irish adherents, that they gave out that His Holiness’ next gift to Eugenio (O’Neill) will be a crown.”  Nunziatura, p. 309.

Clarenden’s Rebellion, Vol II, p 614 stated:

“Even his enemies said he was the best soldier and the wisest man among the Irish rebels.”

On the 29 August, a provincial assembly of the Ulster insurgents nominated Eoghan Ruadh as Lord General of the Ulster Forces.  He immediately set about training the native troops in discipline and military skills in an attempt to create a professional force.

There was a lot of jealousy of Eoghan Ruadh’s reputation amongst the Catholic Confederate ranks. He was treated with blatant and overt hostility. They were jealous of the positive relationship he had with Rome and other Catholic powers on the continent, but were also jealous of his military expertise, even though it could benefit them. In Casway’s Owen Roe O’Neill, the cleric Hugh Bourke describes him as “a man of great prudence and conduct, very adroit and craft in he handling of great matters’. His first and foremost intention was the re-establishment of the dispossessed Gaelic Chieftains and families to their rightful lands; he also wanted a Catholic Gaelic State.  He thought the best way to achieve this was through an alliance with the Catholic king of England. The confederates, loyal to the English crown, thought that Eoghan Ruadh wanted a full return to Gaelic Ireland and to sever all links with the English monarchy. They kept Eoghan Ruadh at bay from the inner workings of the confederate government.

Suffering a defeat in Clones on 13th June 1643, he retreated into remote Leitrim and Longford to re-organise his troops. At Clones, he opposed Sir Robert Stewart in open battle and lost a number of continental veterans and kinsmen including Hugh Dubh Ó Néill. A ceasefire between the Royalists and the Confederates in September 1643 brought an uneasy peace for 3 years.  The Ulster Scots rejected the true and signed a deal with the English Parliamentarians vowing to destroy Irish Catholics by force.

When looking for help in this regard at the confederates General Assembly in Waterford in 1643, it was decided, amongst other offences, to launch a major confederate offence with forces from all four provinces. Ó’Néill would have been the natural choice given his stature and military experience. Instead they selected James Tuchet, Earl of Castlehaven, a man of significantly less military experience to lead the campaign. It was a very public rebuff of Eoghan Rua and was indicative of the petty jealousy towards a man who was no doubt their superior in so many ways.

Earl Castlehaven had no military experience of leading a large army, he did not know the Ulster terrain and wasted months dealing with disaffected rebels in north Connaught. The campaign did not work, with neither side engaging, digging into defensive positions before retiring to winter quarters. Eoghan  Ruadh publicly criticized Castlehaven’s tactics and Castelhaven accused Eoghan Ruadh of not providing men and supplies. But Eoghan Ruadh was short of supplies, it was what he had asked the general assembly for several times, and it was not forthcoming.

In October 1645, the Papal Nuncio Gianbattista Rinuccini arrived with money and equipment for the Irish forces. He gave 2/3 of the aid to Thomas Preseton, the leader of the Leinster army of the confederates and who was already well supplied. The last 1/3 of aid went to Eoghan Ruadh.

With his army paid and supplied Eoghan Ruadh organized to confront General Monroe and his armies. Using his military experience and knowledge of Ulster terrain he gained an advantage on Monroe and in a display of military excellence won a stunning victory at the Battle of Beburb in East Tyrone on 5th June 1646. It is said to be the greatest ever achieved by an Irish commander on native soil. Over 3,000 of Monroes men were lost, forcing him to retreat to Antrim with the remnants of his army. Eoghan Ruadh, however, did not have the necessary siege equipment to continue assaults on the Ulster Scots and they continued to control significant areas and armies in the province. His troops had also dispersed home.


He waited to see what other wins the Confederates would have in other areas. Political developments would soon overshadow any military victories. The ruling faction of the confederates in Kilkenny had privately made a peace settlement with Ormond, the kings lord lieutenant. The clergy opposed the deal because of the absence of any religious guarantees and an internal power struggle ensued.

Though Rinuccini had urged Eoghan Ruadh to march on Dublin, he marched instead towards the confederate capital in Kilkenny. This caused consternation and in the upheavel, the clerical faction took control of the confederate supreme council. This included Eoghan Ruadh and Thomas Preston; both men had a long held distrust of each other both on the continent and in Ireland, and any alliance would be fraught; which it was.  As was ruled by the confederate council, they marched on Dublin which would have fallen if everything had gone as planned. But the arrival of parliamentary ships, bad weather and Preston’s treachery convinced Eoghan Ruadh to retreat. Rinuccini called off the siege and allowed the moderate faction in Kilkenny to take control. They tried to make a deal with the authorities but their efforts were rebuffed.  They organized a new offensive against Dublin, commanded by Preston alone, O’Neill and his army were essentially cut out of the frame.

Infighting, blame and internal squabbling threatened any effort and in May 1647 the confederate council ordered O’Neill to attack the town of Sligo but without support and supplies the Ulster army was forced to withdraw from North Connaught. It is obvious that elements of the confederate government would rather anything than to see an Eoghan Ruadh victory, even though a victory could have saved what was to await them. He efforts were sabotaged so many times, it cannot be a coincidence.

Preston and his army was crushed by Michael Jones, the English commander, in Trim early August. In a panic, the confederate council ordered Eoghan Ruadh back into Leinster in an attempt to stop Jones make further gains. Eoghan Ruadh was to comply until a near mutiny arose within his army, they were owed pay and were sick and tired of shabby treatment at the hands of the confederates. It was temporarily resolved, and Eoghan Ruadh and his army marched towards Dublin. Further backstabbing and political quarrelling erupted at the confederate general assembly in November 1647 with a faction there wanting to prison Eoghan Ruadh’s trusted lieutenant, Bishop MacMahon over his refusal to accept orders.  Only the presence of his army quelled the divisions.

Though O’Neills army prevented Jones gaining more ground, the confederates were not so successful with Munster falling to Lord Inchiquin, the parliamentary commander in Cork. In another panic, the confederates make a deal with Inchiquin where he double crossed them the following month and made a deal with the king. Rinuccini threatened to excommunicate the supporters of the truce which sparked more consternation in the confederates with Preston and Taaffe joining with Inchiquin and Clanricarde in attacking the Ulster forces. Eoghan Ruadh was now outlawed by the confederates and he agreed a ceasefire with Jones towards the end of the year ad he desperately needed alternative source of supplies.

Political intrigue and confederate backstabbing ensured that the Irish side were never strong enough to take control from the parliamentarians. By August 1649 the balance of power in the country has shifted dramatically with the arrival of Oliver Cromwell with a large army in Ringsend, Dublin. In a matter of weeks it is very obvious that a new threat is facing Irish Catholic interests. Cromwell and his army make it very clear that they intend to rid Ireland of Catholics. In a last ditch Ormond and O’Neill agree terms to fight Cromwell, He agreed to join Ormond at Carrickmacross in the middle of December. So eager was he to show his good will and his entire forgetfulness of past injuries, that, even before the treaty was signed he sent 3,000 men under Lieutenant General Ferrall to Ormond’s assistance. He strove to follow them but he was struck down by a fatal illness.

His army had to leave him in Miles O’Reillys castle in Cloughoughter, Co Cavan where it is suspected he was poisoned by a man named Plunkett. He died there on 6th November 1649.  None of his biographers have given any detailed account of the symptoms of the disease. According to Carte:

“It was a defluxion in the knee which was so extremely painful that he could neither ride nor endure to be carried on a litter. By some it was imputed to poison from a pair of russet boots sent him by a gentleman named Plunkett in the County of Louth, who afterwards boasted he had done the English a favour in dispatching O’Neill out of the world.”

Colonel Henry Tully O’Neill, too, gives this as a cause of illness. Others say he was poisoned by Coote, when entertaining him. Coote is said to have given him some subtle poison which paralyzed his energies so that he could no longer mount his horse.

Rev C.P. Meehan, Franciscan Monasteries, p 346 wrote:

“O’Sheil, his physician was absent the physical in attendance on him, mistaking his malady, treated him for gout. For some time he battled against the disease hoping he might recover so he could place himself at the head of his army. From Derry where he was first attacked about the middle of August, he advanced slowly and painfully through Tyrone, Monaghan into Cavan. From Ballyhaise he was carried to Cloughouter, the residence of his brother-in-law.”

The author of the Aphorismal Discovery,  describes his last moments thus:

“He died in our Lord, the 6th of November, 1649, a true child of the Catholic religion, in sense and memory, many of both secular and regular clergy assisting him in such a doubtful transit.”

Eoghan Ruas death as such a critical moment has been the principal reason for the suspicion of poison; the coincidence at least is strange. His clansmen did not believe he could die at such a time where he was most needed. He had in truth all the qualities that constitute a leader of men; a clear, sound judgement, chivalrous valour, bravery in the field, skill in profiting of every advantage offered him by the enemy, caution which left nothing to chance and earned for him from our historians the title of the Irish Fabius. For seven years he kept together an army created by his own genius, without a government at his back, without regular supplies, enforcing discipline and obedience, gaining victories and maintaining a native power even in the very heart of the kingdom. Always intent on the welfare of his country, he rose high above the petty jealousies and intrigues that surrounded him. In nothing did he show more magnanimity than in the noble self-denial that made him sink his own greatness and follow the leadership of those whom he know to be his inferiors.”

Cromwell In Ireland, Denis Murphy, SJ, Chapter XI

“In the forty battles which he fought against the English, only once did he ever suffer defeat. No treachery or inhumanity ever sullied his victories. At the Battle of Benburt, gained with far inferior numbers, by this skill and gallantry, 3,000 Scots were left dead on the field and many more were slain in the pursuit. “The Lord had rubbed shame on our faces, till were are humbled,” wrote their General Monroe. On of the side of the Irish, only seventy fell.”

From an account of the battle in Aphor Disc, Vol I, p 113 and Transactions of the Ossory Archaeol Society, Vol I, p 307, Kilkenny 1879.

Had the Confederate leaders united with him then, and allowed him to follow up on this victory or even now had he been spared to meet Cromwell under the walls of Drogheda or to carry out the plan of defence which he urged Ormond to adopt, viz, to avoid an open engagement unless at a great advantage, and to defend the mountain passes of Wicklow and retard the enemy’s advance until the winter should set in, like his Roman model, he might have saved the country.  But it was not to be.

All writers, even the skeptical Dr O’Connor of Stowe, admit that had Eoghan Ruadh lived, he would have saved Ireland. Appendix to Davis’ Poems, p 221, Dublin 1859.

Here is a specimen of the way in which history is sometimes written:

“Owen Roe O’Neill is the only one of the Irish leaders of parties in Ireland then who by his successful audacity and his continued defections, has obtained any name in history.

Guizot’s History of Oliver Cromwell, p 46.


The Lament for Owen Roe Ó Néill

Ó Néill was and is celebrated among Irish nationalists and revolutionaries. Thomas Davis wrote a song about Ó Néill, “The Lament for Owen Roe”, drawing on an poignant lament composed by Turlough O’Carolan, it portrays his death as an assassination and the main cause of the subsequent defeat to Cromwell’s English Republican forces. Its first verse is:

“Did they dare, did they dare, to slay Owen Roe O’Neill?
Yes, they slew with poison him they feared to meet with steel.
May God wither up their hearts! May their blood cease to flow,
May they walk in living death, who poisoned Owen Roe.”


“Owen Roe, our own O’Neill—
He treads once more our land!
The sword in his hand is of Spanish steel,
But the hand is an Irish hand!

–Mr. Aubrey de Vere, Irish poet



References as above and

  • O’Neill Owen Roe, by Micheál Ó Siochrú, Royal Irish Academy, Cambridge https://dib.cambridge.org/viewFullScreen.do?filename=a6936
  • Cromwell In Ireland, Denis Murphy, SJ, Chapter XI


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