ON THIS DAY: 6 NOVEMBER 1649: Eoghan Ruadh Ó Néill, Gaelic chieftain, military commander and victor of the Battle of Benburb (1646), died in Cavan
He was one of the most famous of the O’Neill dynasty of Ulster. O’Neill left Ireland at a young age and spent most of his life as a soldier and a brilliant military strategist on the continent. Following the Irish Rebellion of 1641, O’Neill returned and took command of the Ulster Army of the Irish Confederates. He won a decisive victory at the Battle of Benburb in 1646.
When he died, some believed that O’Neill was poisoned by a priest or the English; others that he died from an illness resulting from an old wound. Under cover of night he was said to have been brought to the Franciscan abbey in Cavan town for burial. Local tradition is that he was buried at Trinity Abbey, on an island in Lough Oughter. His death was a major blow to the Irish of Ulster and by 1652 Cromwell’s army had completely taken over the country.
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 older tune 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.”