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The Signatories of the Proclamation

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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Owen Roe O'Neill

Owen Roe O'Neill

Eoghan Rua Ó Néill, anglicised as Owen Roe O'Neill (c. 1590–1649) ("Red Owen"), was a seventeenth century soldier and one of the most famous of the O'Neill dynasty of Ulster.

O'Neill was the son of Art O'Neill, a younger brother of Hugh O'Neill, 2nd Earl of Tyrone (the Great O'Neill), who held lands in County Armagh. As a young man he left Ireland, one of the ninety-nine involved in the Flight of the Earls escaping the English conquest of his native Ulster. He grew up in the Spanish Netherlands and spent 40 years serving in the Irish regiment of the Spanish army. He saw most of his combat in the Eighty Years' War against the Dutch Republic in Flanders, notably at the siege of Arras, where he commanded the Spanish garrison. O'Neill was, like many Gaelic Irish officers in the Spanish service, very hostile to the English Protestant presence in Ireland.

In 1627, he was involved in petitioning the Spanish monarchy to invade Ireland using the Irish Spanish regiments. O'Neill proposed that Ireland be made a republic under Spanish protection to avoid in-fighting between Irish Catholic landed families over which of them would provide a prince or king of Ireland. This plot came to nothing. However in 1642, O'Neill returned to Ireland with 300 veterans to aid the Irish Rebellion of 1641.

The subsequent war, known as the Irish Confederate Wars, was part of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms -civil wars throughout Britain and Ireland. Because of his military experience, O'Neill was recognised on his return to Ireland, at Doe Castle in Donegal (end of July 1642), as the leading representative of the O'Neills and head of the Ulster Irish. Sir Phelim O'Neill resigned the northern command of the Irish rebellion in Owen Roe's favour, and escorted him from Lough Swilly to Charlemont.

But jealousy between the kinsmen was complicated by differences between Owen Roe and the Catholic Confederation which met at Kilkenny in October 1642. Owen Roe professed to be acting in the interest of Charles I; but his real aim was the complete Independence of Ireland as a Roman Catholic country, while the Old English Catholics represented by the council desired to secure religious liberty and an Irish constitution under the crown of England. More concretely, O'Neill wanted the Plantation of Ulster overturned and the recovery of the O'Neill clan's ancestral lands. Moreover, he was unhappy that the majority of Confederate military resources were directed to Thomas Preston's Leinster Army. Preston was also a Spanish veteran but he and O'Neill had an intense personal dislike of each other.

Although Owen Roe O'Neill was a competent general, he was outnumbered by the Scottish Covenanter army that had landed in Ulster in 1642. Following a reverse at Clones, O'Neill had to abandon central Ulster and was followed by thousands of refugees, fleeing the retribution of the Scottish soldiers for some atrocities against Protestants in the rebellion of 1641. O'Neill complained that the devastation of Ulster made it look, "not only like a desert, but like hell, if hell could exist on earth". O'Neill did his best to stop the killings of Protestant civilians, for which he received the gratitude of many Protestant settlers. From 1642-46 a stalemate existed in Ulster, which O'Neill used to train and discipline his Ulster Army. This poorly supplied force nevertheless gained a very bad reputation for plundering and robbing friendly civilians around its quarters in northern Leinster and southern Ulster.

In 1646 O'Neill, furnished with supplies by the Papal Nuncio, Giovanni Battista Rinuccini, attacked the Scottish Covenanter army under Major-General Robert Monro, who had landed in Ireland in April 1642. On 5 June 1646 O'Neill utterly routed Monro at the Battle of Benburb, on the Blackwater killing or capturing up to 3000 Scots. However after being summoned to the south by Rinuccini, he failed to take advantage of the victory, and allowed Monro to remain unmolested at Carrickfergus.

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