Owen Roe O'Neill

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


IT was even so. Two months afterward, May, 1646, Charles, all powerless, fled from the dangers environing him in England and took refuge with the Scottish parliament. Meanwhile the Scottish covenanting marauders in Ulster had been wasting the land unchecked since the fatal "truce" and "peace negotiations" had tied up the hands of the confederates. The nuncio had early discerned the supreme abilities of Owen Roe O'Neill (the favorite general of the national party, or "old Irish faction" in the council), and now he resolved to strike a blow which might show the country what was possible to brave men resolved to conquer or die. He sent northward to O'Neill the greater part of the supplies which he had brought with him from abroad, and told the Ulster commander that on him it now lay to open the eyes alike of Puritan rebels, English loyalists, and half-hearted confederates.

O'Neill was not slow to respond to this summons. For three long years, like a chained eagle, he had pined in weary idleness, ignoble "truces" fettering him. At last he was free; and now he resolved to show weak friend and arrogant foe how he who had defended Arras, could strike for God and liberty at home.

'With the first days of June he was on the march from his late "truce" station on the borders of Leinster, at the head of five thousand foot and four hundred horse, to attack Monroe. "The Scottish general received timely notice of this movement, and setting out with six thousand infantry and eight hundred horse, encamped about ten miles from Armagh. His army was thus considerably superior to that of O'Neill in point of numbers, as it must also have been in equipments; yet he sent word to his brother, Colonel George Monroe, to hasten from Coleraine to reinforce him with his cavalry. He appointed Glasslough, in the south of Monaghan, as their rendezvous; but the march of the Irish was quicker than he expected, and he learned on the 4th of June that O'Neill had not only reached that point, but had crossed the Blackwater into Tyrone, and encamped at Benburb. O'Neill drew up his army between two small hills, protected in the rear by a wood, with the river Blackwater on his right and a bog on his left, and occupied some brushwood in front with musketeers, so that his position was admirably selected. He was well informed of Monroe's plans, and dispatched two regiments to prevent the junction of Colonel George Monroe's forces with those of his brother. Finding that the Irish were in possession of the ford at Benburb, Monroe crossed the river at Kinard, a considerable distance in O'Neill's rear, and then by a circuitous march approached him in front from the east and south. The manner in which the 5th of June was passed in the Irish camp was singularly solemn. 'The whole army,' says Rinuccini, 'having confessed, and the general, with the other officers, having received the holy communion with the greatest piety, made a profession of faith, and the chaplain deputed by the nuncio for the spiritual care of the army, after a brief exhortation, gave them his blessing. On the other hand the Scots were inflamed with fierce animosity against their foe, and an ardent desire for battle.'"[1]

"As they advanced," says another writer, "they were met by Colonel Richard O'Ferral, who occupied a narrow defile through which it was necessary for the Scotch troops to pass in order to face the Irish. The fire of Monroe's guns, however, compelled O'Neill's officer to retire." Lieutenant-Colonel Cunningham having thus cleared the pass for the Scotch horse, who were commanded by the Lord Viscount of Ardes, in the absence of Colonel Monroe, "the whole army advanced to dislodge Owen Roe; but a shower of bullets from the 'scrogs and bushes,' which covered O'Neill's infantry, checked him; and then the Scotch cannon opened its fire with little effect; as, owing to the admirable position of the Catholic troops, only one man was struck by the shot. In vain did Monroe's cavalry charge; with the river on their right and 'a marish bog' on the left, it was hopeless to think of stirring the confederates. For four hours did the Fabius of his country amuse the enemy with skirmishing. During all that time the wind rolling the smoke of Monroe's musketry and cannon in the face of the Irish ranks, concealed the adverse ranks from their sight, and the sun had shone all day in their eyes, blinding them with its dazzling glare; but that sun was now descending, and producing the same effect on the Scotch, when Monroe perceived the entire of the Irish army making ready for a general assault with horse and foot.

"It was the decisive moment. The Irish general, throwing himself into the midst of his men, and pointing out to them that retreat must be fatal to the enemy, ordered them to pursue vigorously, assuring them of victory. 'I myself,' said he, 'with the aid of heaven, will lead the way; let those who fail to follow me remember that they abandon their general.' This address was received with one unanimous shout by the army. The colonels threw themselves from their horses, to cut themselves off from every chance of retreat, and 'charged with incredible impetuosity.'

"Monroe had given orders to a squadron of horse to break through the columns of the Irish foot as they advanced; but that squadron became panic-stricken, and retreated disorderly through their own foot, pursued by O'Neill's cavalry. Nevertheless, Monroe's infantry stood firm, and received the Irish, body to body, with push of pike, till at last the cavalry reserve, being routed in a second charge, fell pellmell among his infantry, which, being now broken and disordered, had no way to retreat but over the river which lay in their front."

"The Scots now fled to the river," says another historian; "but O'Neill held possession of the ford, and the flying masses were driven into the deep water, where such numbers perished that tradition says one might have crossed over dryshod on the bodies. Monroe himself fled so precipitately that his hat, sword, and cloak, were among the spoils, and he halted not till he reached Lisburn. Lord Montgomery was taken prisoner, with twenty-one officers and about one hundred and fifty soldiers; and over three thousand of the Scots were left on the field beside those killed in the pursuit, which was resumed next morning, All the Scotch artillery, tents, and provisions, with a vast quantity of arms and. ammunition, and thirty-two colors, fell into the hands of the Irish, who, on their side, had only seventy men killed and two hundred wounded."[2]

Father Hartigan, one of the army chaplains, was sent to bear the glad news of this victory to the nuncio at Limerick, taking with him the trophies captured from the enemy. He arrived on Saturday, June 13th, and his tidings flung the queen city of the Shannon into ecstacies of jubilation. "On the following day (Sunday) at four o'clock p.m., all the troops in garrison at Limerick assembled before the church of St. Francis, where the nuncio had deposited thirty-two standards taken by the Irish general from the Scotch. These trophies were then borne in solemn procession by the chiefs of the nobility, followed by the nuncio, the archbishop of Cashel, and the bishops of Limerick, Clonfert, and Ardfert. After these came the Supreme Council, the mayor and the magistrates, with the entire population of the city. The procession moved on till it reached St. Mary's cathedral, where the 'Te Deum' was chanted, and on the next day a mass of thanksgiving was offered to the Lord, who fought among the valiant ones, and overthrew the nations that were assembled against them to destroy the sanctuary.' "

Mr. Aubrey de Vere, who is never truer poet, never more nobly inspired than when the victory of an O'Neill is to be sung, gives us the following splendid chant of Benburb:

"At midnight I gazed on the moonless skies;
There glisten'd, 'mid other star blazonries,
A sword all stars; then heaven, I knew,
Hath holy work for a sword to do.
Be true, ye clansmen of Nial! Be true!

"At morning I look'd as the sun uprose
On the fair hills of Antrim, late white with snows;
Was it morning only that dyed them red?
Martyr'd hosts methought had bled
On their sanguine ridges for years not few!
Ye clansmen of Conn, this day be true!

"There is felt once more on the earth
The step of a kingly man
Like a dead man hidden he lay from his birth
Exiled from his country and clan.

"This day his standard he flingeth forth;
He tramples the bond and ban:
Let them look in his face that usurp'd his hearth;
Let them vanquish him, they who can!

"Owen Roe, our own O'Neill—
He treads once more our land!
The sword in his hand is of Spanish steel,
But the hand is an Irish hand!


"Montgomery, Conway! base-born crew!
This day ye shall learn an old lesson anew!
Thou art red with sunset this hour, Blackwater;
But twice ere now thou wert red with slaughter!
Another O'Neill by the ford they met;
And 'the bloody loaming' men name it yet!

"Owen Roe, our own O'Neill—
He treads once more our land!
The sword in his hand is of Spanish steel,
But the hand is an Irish hand!

"The storm of battle rings out! On! on!
Shine well in their faces, thou setting sun!
The smoke grows crimson: from left to right
Swift flashes the spleenful and racing light;
The horses stretched forward with belly to ground:
On! on! like a lake which has burst its bound.
Through the clangor of brands rolls the laughter of cannon;
Wind-borne it shall reach thine old walls, Dungannon.
Our window'd cathedrals an ancient strain
To-morrow triumphant shall chant again.
On! on! This night on thy banks, Lough Neagh,
Men born in bondage shall couch them free.
On, warriors, launch'd by a warrior's hand!
Four years ye were leash'd in a brazen band;
He counted your bones, and he meted your might,
This hour he dashes you into the fight!
Strong Sun of the Battle!—great chief, whose eye
Wherever it gazes makes victory—
This hour thou shalt see them do or die!

"Owen Roe, our own O'Neill—
He treads once more our land!
The sword in his hand is of Spanish steel,
But the hand is an Irish hand!

"Through the dust and the mist of the golden west,
New hosts draw nigh: is it friend or foe?
They come! They are ours! Like a cloud their vanguard lours!
No help from thy brother this day, Monro!
They form; there stand they one moment, still—
Now, now they charge under banner and sign:
They breast, unbroken, the slope of the hill:

It breaks before them, the invader's line!
Their horse and their foot are crushed together
Like harbor-locked ships in the winter weather,
Each dash'd upon each, the churn'd wave strewing
With wreck upon wreck, and ruin on ruin.
The spine of their battle gave way with a yell:
Down drop their standards! that cry was their knell!
Some on the bank, and some in the river,
Struggling they lie that shall rally never.

"'T was God fought for us! with hands of might
From on high He kneaded and shaped the fight.
To Him be the praise; what He wills must be:
With Him is the future; for blind are we.
Let Ormond at will make terms or refuse them;
Let Charles the confederates win or lose them;
Uplift the old faith, and annul the old strife,
Or cheat us, and forfeit his kingdom and life;
Come hereafter what must or may,
Ulster, thy cause is avenged to-day!
What fraud took from us and force, the sword
That strikes in daylight makes ours restored.

"Owen Roe, our own O'Neill—
He treads once more our land!
The sword in his hand is of Spanish steel,
But the hand is an Irish hand!"


[1] Haverty.

[2] Rev. C. P. Meehan's "Confederation of Kilkenny."