Victory at Benburb: Owen Roe's Finest Hour (2011)


Part 1 of 3

By Liam Murphy / Heritage Editor

Eoghan Ruadh Uí Néill was a young, red-haired, Franciscan-educated veteran of the Irish Nine Years' War (1594-1603), nephew of the great Hugh O'Neill, the son of his younger brother, Art when he left Ireland in 1606. He would be commissioned a captain in the Regiment of his cousin Henry O'Neill, Hugh's son, in "The Earl of Tyrone's" Irish regiment in the service of Spain. Thus began the formal continental military career of Owen Roe O'Neill.

With the Flight of the Earls (1607), Owen Roe, 25, would dedicate himself to the restoration of the lands of the dispossessed native Irish in Ulster, the protection of the Catholic religion, and also to the restoration of Irish sovereignty. More than eight decades before the "Flight of the Wild Geese" would create an Irish Brigade in the service of France, Owen Roe would lead the double life of a professional soldier and Irish revolutionary conspirator.

With Henry's death, Owen Roe became the leader of the regiment, commanding in the name of Henry's too-young brother, John, from 1614. In 1627, the outbreak of war between England and France became Ireland's opportunity, and Owen Roe was among those Irish exiles who petitioned the King of Spain to return the King's Irish regiments to Ireland.

(Left: Photo by Brendan Hamilton, Wikipedia Commons - Doe Castle in Creeslough, Co. Donegal, where Owen Roe landed.)

Owen Roe wished to see the establishment of an Irish republic, of necessity, allied to Spain. His appeal was this: 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.

O'Neill, although a member of one of Ireland's royal houses, favored a republic, in part to preclude infighting 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 35-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 the dwindling number of native Irish Catholics who were still in possession of their lands could, at best, only be inferiors in their own country. Owen Roe was irreconcilably opposed to the new order in Ireland, and to those responsible for the injury being done to his homeland.

In 1641, Irish frustration at the injustices of English confiscation and settlement of their lands, during the so-called Plantation, particularly in Ulster, erupted into violent opposition. Owen Roe was prepared to sail to Ireland in little over a fortnight after receiving the news that the people had risen. 

Wikipedia Commons
The areas subjected to British plantations in Ulster, using modern county boundaries. Click on image for a larger view.

However, it wasn't until 1642 that Owen Roe was able to secure his release from active service in the Spanish Army.

Unlike "Bonnie Prince Charlie" who would return to Scotland virtually alone in 1745, Owen Roe arrived at Doe Castle in Donegal in September 1642 with some 200 Irish professional soldiers (including many officers), veterans of the Spanish-Irish regiments, together with military supplies. The native force that he came to assist were no more the stuff of a professional army than were those American patriots who took refuge 135 years later with Continental Army commander 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 Baron von Steuben would do for Washington in the creation of a professional army from men who had never stood in line of battle. This lack of formal training had been a fatal flaw four decades earlier, at the battle of Kinsale, a handicap even Owen Roe's brilliant uncle Hugh could not overcome.

The revolutionary government of the Irish was a coalition known to history as the Confederation of Kilkenny. Revolutionary Ireland comprised the indigenous Gaelic "Old Irish," along with the "Old English," who had lived in Ireland for generations, identified with Ireland, and had, by and large, remained Catholic. Most of the "Old English" in Ireland 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).

Owen Roe's championing of the dispossessed, and his attitude toward sovereignty were potentially dangerous issues in a coalition that included descendants 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.

Nationl Gallery of Ireland
Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Giovanni Battista Rinuccini

In 1645, Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Giovanni Battista Rinuccini, arrived in Ireland, bringing with him a substantial store of weapons, gunpowder and money (but no fancy uniforms). O'Neill's share of that aid would give him the wherewithal to properly equip his men and pay his foot soldiers the princely sum of 1 riall per day (3 shillings 6 pence per week)—in contrast, infantry in the Irish army in Leinster received a shilling less per week.

Due in large part to the exertions of Waterford-born, Irish Franciscan Friar Luke Wadding, then in Rome, Rinuccini was sent to the Confederate Irish with arms and money, which he dispensed quite liberally to Owen Roe and his men. But the archbishop's ace in the hole was the diplomatic recognition for the Confederation that he embodied. The archbishop's boss, Pope Innocent X, was not only the Vicar of Christ, but also temporal ruler of the Papal States in Italy. With money and arms and Catholic Europe's embrace of the Confederation as the legitimate government of an independent Ireland, its prospects seemed particularly promising heading into the new year.


The Man Behind the Long Green Lines (and It's Not Patrick)

Liam Murphy, is Heritage Editor of, and also serves as military liaison for The New York Saint Patrick's Day Parade and Celebration Committee. A native of Lubbock, Texas, Liam is a former editor of the National Hibernian Digest, and a member of AOH Division 11, in Tarrytown, N.Y. He was a co-founder of the Irish Brigade Association, served as an officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, and as vice president of the Civil War Round Table at Virginia Miitary Institute, where he earned his undergraduate degree. He holds a Masters degree in American history from Fordham University. Liam can be reached via e-mail at

This feature was edited by Gerry Regan and produced by Joe Gannon.

Copyright © 2011 by Liam Murphy and GAR Media LLC. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed without prior permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to

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