Eoghan Ruadh Ó Néill was born some time in the 1580s. He left for Spain in his youth, and took up service in the Spanish military. The Ulster that Ó Néill grew up in was a destitute place in the aftermath of Tyrone’s Rebellion, and many a young Irish nobleman sought to make a name for himself abroad, especially in Catholic Spain, when life in Ulster must have seemed like a lost cause.
While in Spanish service he distinguished himself as a most capable commander. He fought against the Low Countries in the Eighty Years War, and against France in the Franco-Spanish war. Though a soldier on the continent, his heart and mind never left home. He would formulate plans for an eventual return to Ireland, to cast off the yoke of her oppression. He would petition his overlords with military plans, all to no avail.
In 1641, decades after he had left his native land, he would have recieved word of rebellion at home. A band of Irish nobles, ostensibly led by fellow Ulsterman Féilim Ruadh Ó Néill, had revolted in defence of their Catholicism. Eoghan was eating his heart out on the continent. For decades he had been planning abroad what Féilim and his collaborators had now set into motion on home turf. One can only imagine what thoughts must have raced through his mind in those days: the opportunity to avenge his uncle’s defeat at Kinsale; restoration of the old order; native law and land in Gaelic hands once more – the memories of his ancestors still running hot in his veins.
He finally managed to disentangle himself from military service and set sail for Ireland with a few hundred Irish veterans. He landed on home soil in 1642 and made contact with Féilim Ó Néill, taking command of the Ulster army. The Ulster to which he returned was devastated. He remarked that “Ulster not only looks like a desert, but like hell, if there could be a hell upon earth.” The mutual hatred between the dispossessed Gael and the Planter exploded in the shade of the rebellion. Marauders swept from village to village, raiding, butchering, robbing, burning; each side locked in a horrific and bloody struggle to annihilate the other.
A provisional government was formed by a number of revolting lords to manage the popular uprising and organise the war against the English and Scots armies. Ireland’s clergy met in Kilkenny and drafted the Confederate Oath of Association, pledging Confederate allegiance to Charles I, King of England, and encouraging all Irish Catholics to pledge their support.
Ó Néill found that there was little material with which to properly wage war in Ulster: the men were undisciplined, arms were scarce, and he had little money to pay his men. The Confederacy, however, directed most of the supplies at hand to another veteran of Spain’s wars, Thomas Preston. Ó Néill was left to defend Ulster with what meagre scraps he was dealt.
His most pressing concern was containing Robert Monro. Monro had come over from Scotland with an army of Covenanters to crush the Irish rebels. Lacking adequate arms, victuals, and money, both armies raided, further devastating the ruined country, for supplies they could not humanely acquire. Monro enacted a ruthless scorched earth policy of slaughter, burnings, and the systematic destruction of villages, towns, and castles.
Ó Néill was a cautious general and, knowing he had not the equipment or the manpower to defeat Monro, had withdrawn rather than sacrifice the lives of his men in futile engagements. For four years war in Ulster was a stalemate.
Then, in 1645, Giovanni Battista Rinuccini, the Papal Nuncio, arrived in Ireland to support the Catholic war effort. He brought with him 2,000 muskets, 800 pistols, 4,000 swords, 2,000 pikes, gunpowder, and 150,658 livres tournois. The share of arms went to Ulster, and the money must have easily attracted men in that devastation. An army of foot and horse, numbering around five thousand, was raised. Ó Néill trained and disciplined his men rigorously to a degree few Irish armies ever had been.
Ó Néill had grown up in the shadow of his uncle Aodh Mór Ó Néill, leader of Tyrone’s Rebellion. England had sent army after army to defeat Aodh Mór, and army after army he shattered. His most famous victory at Yellow Ford demonstrated the true potential of Ireland’s guerrillas: he split the English line into sections, and smashed them piece by piece until nothing was left. The one time he deviated from his guerrilla tactics, at Kinsale, and fought the English on equal terms, his army was broken.
We can only speculate what Eoghan Ruadh felt about Kinsale. The Plantation of Ulster which followed his uncle’s defeat was responsible for the bloodbath in which he now found himself. Had Aodh Mór more properly disciplined his troops, had they fought like Spain’s tercios, Ireland may well have been freed. The opportunity to prove himself was now at hand, and he demonstrated it masterfully on a hillside by the river Blackwater.
Monro made the first move. He marched west into Armagh where he expected to meet with his son-in-law’s force. Upon linking, they would campaign into the midlands and perhaps even capture Kilkenny, the capital of Confederate Ireland. Monro had expected Ó Néill to retreat rather than to stand his ground. His expectation was not unfounded for at prior engagements Ó Néill had retreated, but reinforced with Papal arms and a with a larger and more disciplined army than ever before, Ó Néill now had the confidence and ability to fight Monro in open battle.
Ó Néill was well aware of Monro’s intentions and blocked the path of his march at the river Blackwater near Benburb. Ó Néill had his army arrayed on a hillside called Drumflugh and, across some knotted land and a wooded stream, Monro stationed his troops atop another hill. Monro had a numerical advantage and the advantage of cannon.
Monro opened the battle with a barrage of cannonfire on the Irish position, attempting to dislodge them from their advantageous position, but it was ineffective. Monro then ordered his men forward. The Irish held firm at the stream and after some fierce fighting eventually pushed the Scots back.
Monro was now evidently at a disadvantage. His cannonfire had failed, his attack had been beaten back, and his superior numbers meant nothing when he had marched his men to exhaustion. Though the sun was now setting Ó Néill made ready to attack. Before he issued the order, he spoke to his men, reminding them that their opponents were the same men who had pillaged their lands, evicted them from their homes, and persecuted them for their religion. “Let your manhood be seen by your push of pike,” he ended, “Your word is Sancta Maria, and so in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost advance!”
And so the Irish advanced. The Scots held their ground and defended their position with valour, but in the push-of-pike the Irish proved superior. Corpses piled atop one another as man after man fell in the fray. The Scots’ line was pushed back, their left flank was pushed hardest and was turned so that its back was now against the river Blackwater. The Scots were slowly surrounded and shortly thereafter their formation collapsed. What followed was nothing less than slaughter, as whoever now remained was cut down or fled. Many men drowned trying to cross the Blackwater, and Monro himself escaped with little more than his life.
In the end thousands of Scots’ corpses littered the hillsides, but few Irishman had fallen in the day’s combat. Ó Néill had now succeeded where his ancestors had failed — he had taken on the enemy on equal terms and emerged victorious. More than mere victory, he had utterly annihilated his enemy and incurred few losses of his own.
The cruel irony of his victory was how utterly little it meant. He may have taken the Scots Covenanters off the field in Ulster but it did relatively little to affect the outcome of the war. Where Kinsale had decided everything for his uncle, this battle had decided almost nothing for him. And where the field of battle decided relatively little for him, the complexities of international politics would decide much more. While the Irish war raged England had been busy tearing itself apart in a civil war between Royalists and Parliamentarians. That was now decisively won by the Parliamentarians and the New Model Army of Oliver Cromwell. England was uniting while Confederate Ireland was fragmenting.
The principle contention among the Confederates was an agreement made between the Confederate Supreme Council and the English Royalists which granted religious tolerance to Irish Catholics but demanded that the Confederation dissolve itself and place its troops under Royalist command. Ó Néill rejected the agreement in total: he was a radical at heart, and he and his fellow radicals had far greater ambitions than mere religious tolerance beneath England’s crown.
Their demands were: an Ireland independent from English rule, the reversal of the recent English and Scottish plantations, and the establishment of Catholicism as the state religion. The moderates must have been bitterly disappointed for the Papal Nuncio decided to back the radicals. The Cause of God, it must have seemed, was in Ireland’s total freedom, and not only her religious freedom.
Ó Néill’s triumphant victory at Benburb gave the radicals justification for their demands but the following year was bleak. Confederate armies were unable to follow up on Ó Néill’s victory and suffered two shattering defeats. The Confederation again turned to England’s Royalists, and this time, in a moment of shameful weakness, accepted the terms. Though the terms negotiated were better, Ó Néill still refused to accept any alliance with the Royalists and remained with his own army alienated from his former comrades-in-arms for some time.
He was forced to rejoin them when Cromwell came roaring across the sea with a wave of terror. But for Ó Néill it was too late: he died on 6th November 1649 at Cloughoughter Castle. He was over the age of sixty. For Ireland, too, it was too late. Infighting among Confederates had hampered their ability to properly organise a military to tackle Cromwell. The ensuing destruction is history.
Ó Néill stands head and shoulders above his peers as one of Ireland’s truly great men. Great and tragic for though a man of such calibre is rarely seen, owing to the disastrous politics in which he found himself, he was scarce able to demonstrate at home what he had demonstrated for Spain: his great military prowess. Not only a great soldier, he was a stalwart believer in the cause of Old Ireland, and one of the last of the truly great men of Clann Uí Néill, who fought valiantly in defence of their nation, though it cost them all dearly in the end.
His stoic personal character, his uncompromising defence of Old Ireland, his militant Gaelic spirit, and his great religiosity are cause for remembrance and celebration – and should serve as inspiration for those who find that the cause of Old Ireland remains to this day unfulfilled.