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O'Neill was the illegitimate 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. Eoghan Ruadh's mother was the daughter of Aodh Conallach O'Raghallaigh, the chief of Breifne O'Reilly in County Cavan.
As a young man Owen 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. He also distinguished himself in the Franco-Spanish war by holding out for 48 days with 2,000 men against a French army of 35,000.
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 Eoghan Ruadh 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 Eoghan Ruadh Ó Néill was an experienced 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. To O'Neill 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, with substantial Gallowglass numbers and additionally 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.
In March 1646 a treaty was signed between Ormonde and the Catholics, which would have committed the Catholics to sending troops to aid the Royalist cause in the English Civil War. The peace terms however, were rejected by a majority of the Irish Catholic military leaders and the Catholic clergy including the Nuncio, Rinuccini. O'Neill led his Ulster army, along with Thomas Preston's Leinster army, in a failed attempt to take Dublin from Ormonde. However, the Irish Confederates suffered heavy military defeats the following year at the hands of Parliamentarian forces in Ireland at Dungans Hill and Knocknanauss, leading to a moderation of their demands and a new peace deal with the Royalists. This time O'Neill was alone among the Irish generals in rejecting the peace deal and found himself isolated by the departure of the papal nuncio from Ireland in February 1649.
So alienated was O'Neill by the terms of the peace the Confederates had made with Ormonde that he refused to join the Catholic/Royalist coalition and in 1648 his Ulster army fought with other Irish Catholic armies. He made overtures for alliance to Monck, who was in command of the parliamentarians in the north, to obtain supplies for his forces, and at one stage even tried to make a separate treaty with the English Parliament against the Royalists in Ireland. Failing to obtain any better terms from them, he turned once more to Ormonde and the Catholic confederates, with whom he prepared to co-operate more earnestly when Cromwell's arrival in Ireland in August 1649 brought the Catholic party face to face with serious danger.
Before, however, anything was accomplished by this combination, Eoghan Ruadh died on 6 November 1649 at the O'Reilly stronghold of Cloughoughter castle located on an island in Lough Oughter in County Cavan. There is no clear evidence of how Owen Roe died, one belief was that he was poisoned by a priest, while others think it is more likely that he died from an illness resulting from an old wound. Under cover of night he was reputed to have been brought to the Franciscan abbey in Cavan town for burial. However some local tradition still suggest that it may have been at Trinity abbey located upon an island in Lough Oughter, which may be more likely given the logistics of his removal. His death was a major blow to the Irish of Ulster and was kept secret for some time.
The Catholic nobles and gentry met in Ulster in March to appoint a commander to succeed Owen Roe O'Neill, and their choice was Heber MacMahon, Roman Catholic Bishop of Clogher, the chief organiser of the recent Clonmacnoise meeting. O'Neill's Ulster army was unable to prevent the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland, despite a successful defence of Clonmel by Eoghan Ruadh's nephew Hugh Dubh O'Neill and was destroyed at the Battle of Scarrifholis in Donegal in 1650. Its remnants continued guerrilla warfare until 1653, when they surrendered at Cloughoughter in county Cavan. Most of the survivors were transported to serve in the Spanish Army.
In the nineteenth century, O'Neill was celebrated by the Irish nationalist revolutionaries, the Young Irelanders, who saw O'Neill as an Irish patriot. Thomas Davis wrote a famous song about O'Neill, titled "The Lament for Owen Roe". which was popularised in their newspaper, The Nation.
O'Neill has been commemorated in the names of several Gaelic Athletic Association clubs, including (in Armagh) Eoghan Ruadh Middletown; (in Derry) CLG Eoghan Rua, Coleraine; (in Dublin) St Oliver Plunketts/Eoghan Ruadh GAA, and (in Tyrone) Brackaville Owen Roes GFC; Owen Roe O'Neill's GAC, Leckpatrick; Dungannon Eoghan Ruadh Hurling Club, and the defunct Benburb Eoghan Ruadh GAC.
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