The Battle of Benburb, 5 June 1646, and Owen Roe


A young, red-haired, Franciscan-educated veteran of the Nine Years War, nephew of the great Hugh O’Neill, the son of his younger brother, Art, would leave Ireland and, in 1606 be commissioned a captain in the Regiment of his cousin Henry O’Neill, Hugh’s son, in “The Earl of Tyrone’s” (the first) Irish regiment in the service of Spain.  Thus began the formal continental military career of Eoghan Ruadh O’Neill (“Owen Roe”).  With the Flight of the Earls (1607) Owen Roe would also dedicate himself to the restoration, not only of the lands of the dispossessed native Irish in Ulster, and to the protection of the Catholic religion, but also to the restoration of Irish sovereignty.  Over eight decades before the “Flight of the Wild Geese” would create an Irish Brigade in the service of France (patterned on the Irish who had been serving Spain, beginning in the Low Countries in 1587, and continuing to 1808, including service as an ally of the United States in the American War for Independence), Owen Roe O’Neill would lead the double life of a professional soldier and Irish revolutionary conspirator.  With the death of Henry, now Major Owen Roe became the functional commander of the regiment, then commanding in the name of Henry’s too young brother, John, from 1614.  In 1627, when England’s difficulty with the outbreak of war between England and France might become Ireland’s opportunity, he was among those Irish exiles who petitioned the King of Spain to send the Irish Spanish regiments back to Ireland.  Owen Roe wished to see the establishment of an Irish republic (of necessity allied to Spain – if the English could aid the Dutch republic, against the interests of Spain, surely the Spanish could return the favor by aiding an Irish republic against what the English perceived to be their interests).  Owen Roe O’Neill, although a member of one of Ireland’s royal houses, favored a republic, in part to preclude in-fighting among prominent Irish families over who would be a king or prince for Ireland.  In 1634 Owen Roe was given his own regiment, which was specially recruited in Ireland.  Over a thirty-five year career he became recognized, by friend and foe alike, as one of the finest soldiers in all Europe.

Life in Ireland, however, was going from bad to worse.  Even those native Irish Catholics who were still in possession of their land could, at best, only be inferiors in their own country, and that number was always shrinking.  Owen Roe was irreconcilably opposed to the new order in Ireland, and to those responsible for the injury being done to his homeland.  Owen Roe prepared himself to be able to sail to Ireland in little over a fortnight of receiving the news that the people had risen.  In 1641 Irish frustration at the injustices of the Plantation, particularly in Ulster, erupted into violent opposition.  However, it wasn’t until 1642 that he was able to secure his release from active service in the Spanish Army, but, unlike “Bonnie Prince Charlie” who would return to Scotland virtually alone in 1745, Owen Roe arrived at Doe Castle in Donegal in September of 1642 accompanied by some two hundred Irish professional soldiers (including many officers), veterans of the Spanish-Irish regiments, together with military supplies.  The native force which he came to assist were no more the stuff of a professional army than were those American patriots who took refuge with George Washington in Valley Forge.  Over the next four years Owen Roe O’Neill, and his cadre of Irish veterans, would do as fine a job as the Baron von Steuben would later do for Washington in the creation of a professional force from men, many of whom were past masters at hit-and-run harassment, but had never stood in line of battle (this lack of formal training had been a fatal flaw at Kinsale, that even the intuitively brilliant Hugh could not overcome, at the beginning of the century – sort of like Barney Ross, who had been bobbing and weaving and stinging Joe Louis for several rounds then trying to finish him off in a slug-fest). 

The revolutionary government of the Irish, however, wasn’t all that revolutionary, but rather a coalition known to history as the Confederation of Kilkenny.  There were the indigenous Gaelic “Old Irish”, and the “Old English”, who had lived in Ireland for generations, identified with Ireland, and had, bye-and-large remained Catholic (most of whom sought the restoration of their former liberties, but were otherwise happy enough to live under the King of England – but NOT under its Parliament – which would have described many of the Americans who took up arms in defense of the public liberty in 1775).  O’Neill’s championing of the dispossessed, and his attitude toward sovereignty were potentially dangerous issues in a coalition which included descendents of Norman dispossessors.  He was appointed Provincial General in Ulster, where he could be effective without being too close either to the center of influence in Kilkenny, or to the strategic center of gravity in Dublin.  In 1645, the arrival in Ireland of the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Giovanni Battista Rinuccini, brought with him the weapons, gunpowder and money (but no fancy uniforms), O’Neill’s share of which, would give Eoghan Ruadh the wherewithall to properly equip and pay his soldiers (the princely sum of 3 shillings 6 pence per week).  The Irish army of Ulster, though smaller in numbers that their enemies, would now be not only the more highly motivated, but also the better trained and better equipped.  The pike was still the principal infantry weapon, and when your pike is two feet longer that your opponent’s, and with a more penetrating head, the result is usually that the other guy is dead before the point of his pike can reach you.  Eoghan Ruadh’s enemies, however, didn’t know this, because the Irish had never yet stood and fought a set piece battle, nor were they ever expected to do so.  

O’Neill’s nemesis was a very competent, brave and self-confident, Scottish Covenanter General called Robert Monroe, who commanded the “united British Protestant forces” in Ulster.  His force consisted of Scottish and English (including Anglo-Irish) regiments of some 6,000 professional soldiers, many veterans of continental warfare, plus Ulster volunteers, recruited from among the Planter yeomanry, plus about six hundred horse and six field guns.  Both Monroe and O’Neill had commanded in battle on the continent.  Unlike O’Neill, however, Monroe had no scruples about waging war on enemy non-combatants.

With the coming of summer in 1646, it was Monroe’s intention to coordinate the march of three forces south, into the midlands, and perhaps even to destroy the Confederate government in Kilkenny.  In addition to his own force in Carrickfergus, there would be second force of about a hundred mounted men and two hundred forty musketeers marching south from Coleraine, and a third force, known as the Lagan army, of some two thousand planters coming from the Foyle.  However, Monroe also knew that he could not leave Ulster, especially Antrim and Down, undefended against O’Neill’s wild Irish, and so determined to crush him before heading south.  When he heard that O’Neill had left his base at the hill of Gallanagh near Lough Sheelin in Cavan, and was headed for Benburb, from which he could cross the Blackwater to the safety of the fort at Charlemont (across the river from The Moy), Monroe resolved to get there first, trap O’Neill and finish him off in a stand-up fight.  O’Neill’s intelligence network, however, was superb, and was very aware of his enemies’ every moves.  G.A. Hayes-McCoy in Irish Battles: A Military History of Ireland (Belfast: Appletree Press, 1989 reprint) points out that it was O’Neill’s plan to manoeuvre Monroe into attacking him “precipitously and at a disadvantage.”  Hayes-McCoy then cites Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet as exemplars of this strategy, as well as Stonewall Jackson (implying not only the surprises of Jackson’s Valley Campaign in the Shenandoah, and at Chancellorsville, but also Jackson’s taciturn security on the march). 

On June 4th, some of Monroe’s mounted scouts encountered some of O’Neill’s, and after a brief skirmish captured one, who told Monroe that O’Neill had about six thousand men and were marching that day from Glaslough to Benburb and Charlemont, which was more or less true.  Monroe, never realizing that O’Neill wanted him to pursue and attack, was excited at the prospect of catching O’Neill and so many rebels at one time, and ordered forced marches to catch O’Neill on the march, but guessed wrong as to O’Neill’s line of march, and discovered that O’Neill had already reached Benburb on the Blackwater, and discovered that the nearest undefended ford was upstream at Caledon, necessitating getting his troops up early, and again force marching circuitously to trap O’Neill. 

Meanwhile, Eoghan Ruadh O’Neill sent most of his cavalry, under Brien Roe O’Neill, with some infantry to intercept the British force coming from Coleraine.  They knew exactly where and how to find them, near Dungannon.

Monroe, having eventually crossed to the north side of the Blackwater, encountered resistance from O’Neill’s scouts and pickets, first at Ballaghkillgevill, then at Knocknacloy, then crossing the River Oona, a tributary of the Blackwater, being delayed at narrow passes in traditional Irish hit-and-run manner.  After crossing the Oona, and passing beside Thistle Hill, there was a relatively easy advance up to a ridge at Derrycreevy, but during that advance that ridge hid what lay beyond.  Much to Monroe’s surprise, when he came over the ridge he was looking across a stream with irregular vegetation, “scroggie woods” and bushes (which he would later discover concealed some of O’Neill’s musketeers) at the opposing ridge of Drumfluch on which was drawn up O’Neill’s force, in good order of battle, with banners flying – four infantry “brigades” in line, with spacing between, behind which spaces were three other brigades, with cavalry at the flanks.  They had camped in Benburb the night before and were just resting in place, awaiting the arrival of their enemy, who had been force marching fifteen miles and fighting most of the day.  Monroe found that he had more men than O’Neill but less good ground on which to stand, so his men were crowded in two very close formations, behind his guns, with cavalry to the rear.  It was now noticeably after 6 PM.

Monroe opened the engagement with his artillery, but to his surprise, the Irish didn’t flinch.  He then attempted to turn O’Neill’s left flank, and, after some hard fighting, was turned back by the Irish cavalry (mostly lancers) and musketry. 

The principal effect of the cannon fire was to inform Brien Roe, who had defeated the Coleraine column “in detail”, that the main engagement had begun, and give him the opportunity to ride to the sound of the guns.

O’Neill’s men cried out to attack, but discipline held them in place.  Brien Roe’s horse took their place on the right of Eoghan Ruadh’s formation.  The Irish had concentrated on their own ground, and had prepared the battlefield; they were ready to engage Monroe.  It was about 8 PM, and the sun was in their faces, with the south-west wind beginning to fall.  The setting sun at that latitude in June takes its time and descends at a gentle angle, shifting the sun gradually out of the eyes of the Irish army.  The matchlock musket, which was the principal infantry weapon of the day, works best with the wind either at your back, or, failing that, still.  O’Neill did not rush as nature slowly gave him additional advantage over an exhausted enemy, crowded into what would soon become a killing ground.  Father Boetius Mac Egan, the Franciscan, who had been appointed chaplain-general by the Papal Nuncio, gave general absolution. 

Eoghan Ruadh O’Neill then reminded his men that their opponents were the men who had persecuted them for their religion and banished them from the homes of their fathers; he also reminded them that they were the nobility of Gaelic Ireland – Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn had been no more inspiring than was Eoghan Ruadh O’Neill that day.  Hayes-McCoy reports that O’Neill concluded by crying out, “Let your manhood be seen by the push of your pike.  Your word is Sancta Maria, and so in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost advance! –and give not fire ‘till you are within pike-length!”

The Irish advance was steady, and heavily resisted.  They took the guns, and Eoghan Ruadh ordered Colonel Richard Farrell to close with his brigade and turn Monroe’s left flank.  The wind was falling and the sun would then be at O’Neill’s back, in the eyes of his enemies. Monroe’s cavalry attacking twice failed to break the Irish.  The fight continued.  Monroe’s too tight formation did not permit the retirement of his first line through the second; the Irish delivered a volley at close range, and the result was chaos.  The British were forced back upon the river, and then overrun.  Those who did not fall there to Irish swords or scian (Irish long knives), or drown in the river, fell as they ran back along the route they had come.  The British lost probably more than three thousand killed, over half their force, and all their baggage, including flags, banners and weapons.  Irish sources report their own losses at seventy killed and two hundred wounded.  Monroe was lucky to escape with his life, fleeing so precipitately, that he left his hat, sword, and cloak after him, and never halted until he reached Lisburn. 

Eoghan Ruadh O’Neill, with the arms and equipment acquired as a result of his stunning victory was able to double the size of his army.  The Nuncio celebrated in Saint Canice’s Cathedral in Kilkenny (a church later desecrated by Cromwell in 1650), and the Pope celebrated in Rome, both believing that the deliverance of Ireland was at hand.  However, like his famous kinsmen Shane and Hugh, before him, Eoghan Ruadh did not use the opportunity of a military victory as a springboard to cleanse Ulster of all who could speak no Irish.  They have all been criticized for this, particularly by some in Ulster.  However, the focus of Eoghan Ruadh was national

Eoghan Rua responded to the Nuncio’s appeal to look south and use his influence to prevent the ratification of an agreement which would have placed the Irish Confederate government under the King of England.  Historians will debate that he might should have cleaned house in Ulster first, but the Nuncio had provided him with the means to arm, equip and pay his army, without which there would have been no real army, and no fight at Benburb.

Eoghan Ruadh O’Neill’s insistence upon Irish sovereignty came to be more and more a minority opinion among the Confederate Irish, most of whom saw the Royalists as the only viable allies against the Parliamentarians. 

News of Cromwell's invasion of Ireland and the subsequent storming and massacre of Drogheda finally convinced O'Neill that an alliance with the Royalist Ormonde was Ireland’s best hope.  Ormonde was desperate to gain the support of O'Neill and the Ulster army and came to terms with him in October 1649, promising on behalf of the exiled Charles II, restoration of Irish lands in Ulster and freedom for the Catholic faith.  Before they could join forces against the New Model Army, however, O'Neill fell suddenly ill. It is the traditional belief in Ireland that he was poisoned by an English agent.  He died on 6 November 1649 at Cloughoughter Castle in County Cavan and was buried in an unmarked grave in the Franciscan priory at Cavan Town.

Assassination by deceit and poison.  It has long been maintained in tradition that O'Neill was in fact poisoned at the hands of a woman who placed the toxin in his shoes before a banquet. O'Neill danced vigorously at the affair for several hours, causing the substance to be absorbed into his skin, leading to his death several days later.  [Toxins are produced by certain plant processes, they are not living micro-organisms, but can be poisonous.  In the aftermath of the first Gulf War (1990/91) Saddam Hussein used (“yellow rain”) toxins against certain Kurdish villages in Iraq, with lethal effect.]

In many respects, the 5th of June 1646 should be commemorated as one of Ireland’s greatest military victories (the 5th of June is the birthday of James Connolly as well, also most worthy of commemoration).  But, however brilliant, Benburb is a stand-alone victory.  Benburb, whatever its potential, decided a day.  Kinsale decided a war.  The tragic and untimely death of Eoghan Ruadh O’Neill leaves unanswered the question as to what would have been the outcome on the field between armies commanded by O’Neill and by Cromwell.  The military professionalism of Eoghan Ruadh O’Neill, and his devotion to the cause of his country are beyond question.  As Edwin M. Stanton said on the death of Abraham Lincoln, he now belongs to the ages. 

The Lament for Owen Roe O’Neill, also known as "Uaill Cuma Eogan Ruaid Ua Niall," or “Caoineadh Eoghain Rua” was written, and is still played, in the memory of Owen Roe O'Neill (1582-1649), or, in Irish, Eoghan Rua Ó Neill.  It is a caoine obtained by collector George Petrie (published, 1855) from the playing of fiddler Frank Keane (Co. Clare, then living in Dublin), who learned it from the singing of the women in Co. Clare but could not remember the words. 

Hoffman (1877) included a version of it under the title “An Arranmore Tune” (No. 115) in his collection of arrangements from Petrie’s collection.  The melody has become a fiddler’s showpiece.  It is an Irish, Slow Air (4/4 time). G Dorian. Standard tuning. AB. Composed by blind Irish harper Turlough O'Carolan (1670-1738), or at least attributed to him by several authorities, including Hardiman (Irish Minstrelsy, London, 1831), Bunting (in General Collection of the Ancient Irish Music, Dublin, 1796), Clinton (Gems of Ireland, London, 1841) and Francis O’Neill (Waifs and Strays), on stylistic terms.  Gratten Flood, however, in his History of Irish Music (Dublin, 1905), says that the Owen Roe’s “glorious” lament was composed soon after his death, in 1649, predating O’Carolan’s birth by a score of years.  [The Fiddler’s Cpmpanion – on line.]  In any case, whether an O’Carolan original composition, or something which he heard and then either preserved, or adapted, it has become associated with him. 

[Turlough O'Carolan (Toirdhealbhach Ó Cearbhalláin) was born in 1670 near Nobber, County Meath and died March 25, 1738 at the home of his patron Mrs. MacDermott Roe in Alderford, County Roscommon; one of the last Irish harpers who composed. Carolan's fame was not due to his skill with the harp (having started at 18), but to his gift for composition and verse.]  

Clanad, on their 1976 Shanachie release, Dúlamán, have “Cumha Eoghain Rua Uí Néill” as track 2.  Dolores Keane on her 1978 Atlantic lable There Was a Maid features it on track 7.   See also, Boys of the Lough. Fox Hollow 1972 - Vol VII, Fox Hollow RI-3856, LP (1972), trk# A.04a, and Boys of the Lough. Boys of the Lough / Music and Song from the Boys of the Lough, Gilderoy, fol (1977), p 3 (Caoineadh Eoghain Rua); Kinnaird, Alison. Kinnaird, Alison / Small Harp - A Step by Step Tutor, Kinmor, sof (1989), #33/p 70 (Caoineadh Eoghain Rua);  Masterson, Mark; and Guy Moore. Morning Star, DeWeese --, Cas (1991), trk# A.02a; Robben, Janine O'Neill; and Al Radys. Morning Star, DeWeese --, Cas (1991), A.04f. 

The memory of the same Owen Roe inspired the Irish nationalist (Protestant) poet Thomas Davis to write the first if his laments:

 “Lament for the Death of Eoghan Ruadh O’Neill.”

The 20th century “Bard of Armagh,” Tommy Makem, gave us:

 “The Battle of Benburb.”

Between 1641 and 1649, for the first time since the Norman conquest, and before 1922, Ireland was recognized by the International community as an independent nation.  Even though the Cromwellian conquest of 1649 made short work of Catholic Ireland's revolution, it nevertheless ranks as one of the most successful revolts of early modern history.  The brightest star in the Gaelic firmament was Eoghan Ruadh O’Neill (Owen Roe), and, on the road to that sovereign Irish republic he sought to achieve, his crowning achievement was the Battle of Benburb, 5th June 1646

The below is a small bibliography of works that could be helpful in the study of this period.  Note, particularly, those in bold face type.

Casway, Jerrold I. Owen Roe O’Neill and the Struggle for Catholic Ireland.
(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984)
Casway, Jerrold I. “Owen Roe O'Neill,”
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004
Colum, Padraic (1881-1972).
Anthology of Irish Verse.
(London: Longmans, 1922)
Cusack, Margaret Anne.
An Illustrated History of Ireland. (1868)
Gardiner, Samuel Rawson.
History of the Great Civil War, vol.iii.
(London: Longmans, 1889)   [Reprint.  Adamant Media Corp. 2000]
Hayes-McCoy, G.A. Irish Battles, a military history of Ireland.
 (London: Longmans, 1969)  [Paperback.  Appletree Press, 1998.]
Lenihan, Pádraig.
Confederate Catholics at War 1641-49.
(Cork: Cork University Press, 2001)
MacManus, Seumas.
The Story of the Irish Race.
(New York: Devin-Adair, 1981)  [Reprint.  Konecky & Konecky, 2009.]
McKeiver, Philip.
A New History of Cromwell's Irish Campaign.
(Manchester: Advance Press, 2007)
Ohlmeyer, Jane.
The Civil Wars in Ireland
The Civil Wars, a military history of England, Scotland and Ireland 1638-60).
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998)
Ohlmeyer, Jane. (ed.)
Ireland from Independence to Occupation, 1641 – 1660.
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002)

Plant, David. Biography of Owen Roe O'Neill, British Civil Wars and Commonwealth website

Complete Collection of Carolan's Irish Tunes, 1984; No. 211, pg. 144­145. O'Neill (Krassen), 1976; pg. 245 (appears as "The Lamentation of Owen Roe O'Neill"). O'Neill (Music of Ireland: 1850 Melodies), 1903/1979; No. 626, pg. 111. O’Neill (1913), pg. 118. O’Neill (Waifs and Strays of Gaelic Melody), 1922. Petrie, 1855 (appears as “Lament for Eoghan Rua”). Green Linnet SIF 091, Paddy O’Brien – “Stranger at the Gate.” Shanachie 79008, Clannad – “Dúlamán” (appears as “Cumha Eoghain Rua Uí Néill".  Paddy O’Brien (et al) – “The Big Squeeze” (appears as “Lament for Eoin Rhua”).  T:Lament for Owen Roe O'Neill, C:Turlough Carolan; B:The Life Times amd Music of an Irish Harper, B:by Donal O'Sullivan; N:marked "Andante maestoso" Z:Transcribed by Paul de Grae.  ###


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