Felim O'Neill of Kinard

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Felim O'Neill of Kinard
An engraved portrait of Phelim O'Neill, showing a man's face with moustache and goatee and shoulder-long hair clad in a doublet
Died10 March 1653
FamilyO'Neill dynasty
Spouse(s)Jean Gordon
FatherTurlough MacShane O'Neill

Sir Phelim Roe O'Neill of Kinard (Irish: Féilim Rua Ó Néill na Ceann Ard), was an Irish nobleman who led the Irish Rebellion of 1641 in Ulster, which began on 23 October 1641. He joined the Irish Catholic Confederation during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, in which he fought under his kinsman and second cousin, Owen Roe O'Neill in the Confederate Ulster Army. In 1653 Phelim O’Neill had sought refuge from the British on an old crannog in Roughan Lough while staying at Roughan Castle but was captured after his hideout was betrayed.

Birth and origins[edit]

Felim was born in 1604[1] as the eldest son of Turlough MacShane O'Neill[2] and his wife Catherine. His father was a member of Kinard branch of the O'Neill dynasty. His father and grandfather were killed on 20 June 1608 in an action against Cahir O'Doherty.[3][4] His grandfather, Sir Henry Óg O'Neill, had fought for his 2nd cousin and father-in-law, Hugh O'Neill in the Nine Years' War, but received a pardon and was confirmed in his lands in Tiranny and Minterburn. His second great-grandfather, Sean, a brother of Conn Bacach, had settled in Tynan parish by at least 1514 in a sub-district called Cluain Dabhal. Felim's name in Irish shows his paternal genealogy as: "Felim mac Turlogh Óg mac Henry Óg mac Henry mac Seán mac Conn Mór Ó Néill" (father of Conn Bacach O'Neill).

His mother was Catherine[5] daughter of Turlough Mac Henry O Neill, Chief of the Fews branch of O'Neills. After his father's death, she remarried to Robert Hovenden, a Catholic of recent English descent. Their sons Robert Hovenden and Alexander Hovenden were Felim's half brothers. Captain Alexander Hovenden fought for Felim, but was killed in 1644.

Family tree
Phelim O'Neill with his last wife, his parents, and other selected relatives.

d. 1622
Earl of

c. 1550 – 1616

the younger
d. 1608

d. 1608
2nd Baron

d. 1638

3rd Baron
XXXSubject of
the article
XXXO'NeillsXXXBarons H.
of Strabane
Also see the list of siblings in the text.

Early life[edit]

O'Neill was a member of the Irish Parliament in the 1630s and studied law at King's Inns in London, as a knowledge of the subject was considered important for landowners of the era. He may have at one point briefly converted to Protestantism, before returning to Catholicism.

He married three times. In 1629 he married first a daughter of Arthur Magennis, the 3rd Viscount Magennis of Iveagh.[6] Her first name is unknown. She died in 1641 shortly before the rebellion. He married secondly Catherine, daughter of Thomas Preston, 1st Viscount Tara, a younger brother of the 5th Viscount Gormanston.[7]

In 1639 O'Neill was awarded a knighthood by the Lord Lieutenant Thomas Wentworth thanks to the influence of his relation the Earl of Antrim.[8] Shortly before the rebellion, O'Neill evicted some of his Gaelic tenants near Kinard and replaced them with British settler families who were able to pay higher rents.[9]

However, in common with many Irish Catholics, and especially Gaelic Irish Catholics, O'Neill felt threatened by the Protestant English government of Ireland. In particular, they were aggrieved at Catholic exclusion from Public Office and the continual confiscations of Catholic-owned land.



This fear reached its high point in the late 1630s and early 1640s, when Thomas Wentworth, Lord Deputy for Charles I, was known to be planning widespread new plantations. A crisis point was reached in 1641, when the Scottish Covenanters and English Long Parliament threatened to invade Ireland to finally subdue Catholicism there. In this atmosphere of fear and paranoia, Felim O'Neill became involved in a plot hatched by fellow Gaelic Irish Catholics from Ulster, to seize Dublin and swiftly take over the other important towns of Ireland. After this, they planned to issue their demands for full rights for Catholics and Irish self-government in the King's name. O'Neill's role was to take towns and fortified places in the north of the country whereas Maguire was tasked with seizing Dublin Castle.[10]

A half-length engraved portrait of a man standing
Sir Felim O'Neill

O'Neill was a latecomer to the plot, brought into it by Lord Maguire in early September 1641. On 23 October 1641 he surprised Caulfield in Charlemont Fort.[11][12] O'Neill was instrumental in shaping many of the political objectives of the rebellion.[13] He rapidly assumed command of the Ulster rising.


However, the plan to take Dublin was bungled by two conspirators, Maguire and MacMahon, who were captured by the authorities. O'Neill went ahead and started the rebellion in the north, capturing the important fort of Charlemont, but quickly found that he could not control the Irish Catholic peasantry he had raised. These people, many of whom had been displaced during the Plantation of Ulster, began attacking the Scottish and English Protestant settlers with varying intensity over a period of 5 months. Being in command, O'Neill has been blamed for complicity or lack of oversight in these massacres, the detail of which is still a matter of contentious debate.

On 24 October 1641 O'Neill issued the Proclamation of Dungannon[14] in which he claimed to have the King's authorisation to rise in defence of the Crown and the Catholic religion. On 4 November 1641 O'Neill repeated these claims in his proclamation at Newry and read out a commission from Charles I of England dated 1 October, commanding him to seize: "... all the forts, castles, and places, of strength and defence within the kingdom, except the places, persons, and estates of Our loyal and loving subjects the Scots; also to arrest and seize the goods, estates, and persons of all the English Protestants, within the said kingdom to Our use. And in your care and speedy performance of this Our will and pleasure We shall rely on your wonted duty and allegiance to Us which We shall accept and reward in due time."[15] This gave O'Neill's forces the impression that they were acting within the law. Charles later denied having issued the commission.

Like other rebel leaders, O'Neill had difficulty with the discipline of his troops, which was compounded by his comparative lack of social status. In an effort to improve this O'Neill planned to have himself declared Earl of Tyrone at the historic site of Tullyhogue.[9]

Nalson, in his "History of the General Rebellion in Ireland", described Sir Phelim as follows: "Sir Phelemy Roe O Neill, captain-generall of all the rebels, and chieftain of the O Neills, O Hagans, O Quyns, O Mellans, O Hanlons, O Corrs, McCans, McCawells, Mac Enallyes, O Gormelys, and the rest of the Irish septs in the counties of Tyrone and Ardmagh."

Having largely succeeded in Ulster, O'Neill, along with Rory O'Moore, then tried to march on Dublin, defeating a government force at the Battle of Julianstown, but failed in the Siege of Drogheda 1641.

Civil war career[edit]

The rebellion quickly spread to the rest of Ireland. By the spring of 1642 only fortified Protestant enclaves, around Dublin, Cork and Derry, held out. King Charles I sent a large army to Ireland, which would probably have put down the rebellion, had the English Civil War not broken out. As it was, the Irish Catholic upper classes had breathing space to form the Irish Catholic Confederation, which acted as a de facto independent government of Ireland until 1649. Felim O'Neill was a member of the Confederate's parliament, named the General Assembly, but was sidelined in the leadership of Irish Catholics by wealthier landed magnates.

On the military side, O'Neill was also sidelined. After his disastrous defeat on 16 July 1642 at Glenmaquin near Raphoe in County Donegal against the Protestant Laggan Army led by Sir Robert Stewart, his kinsman, Owen Roe O'Neill, a professional soldier, arrived from the Spanish Netherlands and was made general of the Confederate's Ulster army. Felim O'Neill was a cavalry commander in this force, and spent most of the next six years fighting against the Scottish Covenanter army that had landed in Ulster. He fought in the army's victory at the Battle of Benburb on 5 June 1646.[16]

In Confederate politics, O'Neill was a moderate, advocating a deal with Charles I and the Irish and English Royalists as a means of winning the war against the English Parliament and the Scottish Covenanters. In 1648, he voted for such a deal, the Second Ormond Peace, splitting with Owen Roe O'Neill, who opposed it along with most of the Ulster army. He and several other moderates such as Alexander MacDonnell and Viscount Iveagh left the Ulster army because of their dispute with the hard-liners.[17] In the summer of that year, the Confederate armies fought among themselves over this issue, with the pro-Royalists prevailing.

However, this was not enough to stop Ireland being conquered by the New Model Army of Oliver Cromwell in 1649–53. The well trained and supplied Parliamentarians crushed all Confederate and Royalist resistance and imposed a harsh settlement on Irish Catholics.

In November 1649 Phelim married Jean Gordon, the widow of Claud Hamilton, 2nd Baron Hamilton of Strabane, who had died on 14 June 1638.[18]

Felim O'Neill fought in the Ulster Army at the Battle of Scarrifholis in 1650 where it was routed by Charles Coote. O'Neill escaped from the battle and retreated with a rest of the Ulster army to the Charlemont Fort. Together with Lord Strabane, he held the fort against Coote, inflicting heavy casualties on the English troops in the Siege of Charlemont, but had to surrender on terms on 6 August 1650[19] and marching away with his remaining troops was expected to embark and take service in France. However O'Neill decided to rather go into hiding.

Trial and execution[edit]

Anyone implicated in the Rebellion of 1641 was held responsible for the massacres of Protestant civilians and was executed. O'Neill was specifically named as a ringleader in the Cromwellian Act for the Settlement of Ireland 1652 and could therefore expect no mercy. A sum of £100 were put on his head.[20] O'Neill was captured on 4 February 1653 by William Caulfeild, 1st Viscount Charlemont on a crannog (island) in Roughan Lough next too Roughan Castle, Newmills, County Tyrone where he had taken refuge. He was taken to Dublin, where his trial was conducted. He was found guilty, hanged, drawn, and quartered for treason on 10 March 1653.[21]

O'Neill may have been able to avoid execution had he testified that he had Charles I's commission for the uprising of 1641, as the Parliamentarians had claimed at the time. However, O'Neill refused to do so.

Phelim O'Neill in literature[edit]

O'Neill is depicted as an historical character in several books. Annraoi Ó Liatháin's Irish-language novel Dún na Cinniúna centers on the 1651 siege of Charlemont Fort in Tyrone.[24]

O'Neill's defeat at the battle of Glanmaquin in 1642 is described in Darach Ó Scolaí's novel An Cléireach.[25]

He was survived by at least one child, Gordon O'Neill, who served as a colonel in the Jacobite forces during the Williamite War.

The use of "P. O'Neill" as a pseudonym in Provisional IRA public statements is thought by some to be a reference to Phelim O'Neill.[26]

Citations and sources[edit]


  1. ^ a b Webb 1878, p. 416: "... born in 1604."
  2. ^ Dunlop 1895, p. 204, right column, line 37: "... eldest son of Turlough O'Neill ..."
  3. ^ a b Casway 2004, p. 856, left column: "On 20 June 1608 both Henry Oge and his son Tirlough Oge were killed in the king's service during the ill-fated O'Dogherty revolt."
  4. ^ Wills 1840, p. 434: "He was grandson of Sir Henry O'Neile, who was slain in action against Sir Cahir O'Doherty, in 1608."
  5. ^ Dunlop 1895, p. 204, right column, line 51: "his mother Catherine ny Neill, subsequently Catherine Hovenden."
  6. ^ a b Casway 2004, p. 856: "That same year [1629] O'Neill enhanced his standing in Ulster by marrying the daughter of Arthur Magennis, Viscount Magennis of Iveagh."
  7. ^ Dunlop 1895, p. 207, right column, line 1: "His first wife is said to have died shortly before the rebellion. His second wife was a daughter of Thomas Preston, a younger brother of Lord Gormanston, by whom he is said to have been influenced in his relations with Owen Roe O'Neill."
  8. ^ Ohlmeyer 2001, p. 92: "... and his tactless insistence that Phelim O'Neill ... be knighted at the height of the Scottish crisis."
  9. ^ a b Lenihan 2001, p. 31.
  10. ^ Lenihan 2001, p. 27.
  11. ^ Perceval-Maxwell 1994, p. 214: "Sir Phelim O'Neill struck in Ulster on the evening of Friday, 22 October [1641], 'the last day of the moon'. He took Dungannon first, and two hours later he was in the possession of the strong castle of Charlemont ..."
  12. ^ a b Hamilton 1920, p. 135, line 30: "Sir Phelim, who was a near neighbour and personal friend of Lord Caulfield, was readily admitted to the Castle and at once made prisoners of all whithin ..."
  13. ^ Lenihan 2001, p. 20.
  14. ^ Boyce 1995, p. 79: "Their aims were clearly stated in Sir Phelim O'Neill's proclamation, made at Dungannon on 24 October 1641."
  15. ^ Hickson 1884, p. 114, line 40Text of the commission
  16. ^ a b Webb 1878, p. 417, line 39: "Sir Felim commanded a division of Owen Roe O'Neill's army at Benburb (5th June) ..."
  17. ^ Ó Siochrú 1999, p. 181.
  18. ^ a b Webb 1878, p. 417, line 48: "In November 1649 he [Felim] married Lady Jane Gordon a daughter of the Marquis of Huntly and the widow of Lord Strabane."
  19. ^ a b Hill 1877, p. 528, Note 223, line 17: "... held the fort of Charlemont; and the said fort and garrison being afterwords, that is to say the 6th of Aug. 1650, taken by the army and forces of the commonwealth of England ..."
  20. ^ Warner 1768, p. 256, line 24: "An hundred pound reward to bring Sir P. O NEIL, dead or alive, was encouragement enough ..."
  21. ^ a b Dunlop 1895, p. 207, left column, line 50: "... he was executed as a traitor on 10 March 1652-3."
  22. ^ Fryde et al. 1986, p. 44, line 16: "Charles I. ... acc. 27 Mar. 1625 ..."
  23. ^ Fryde et al. 1986, p. 44, line 17: "Charles I. ... exec. 30 Jan. 1649 ..."
  24. ^ Dún na Cinniúna, Annraoi Ó Liatháin, Sáirséal & Dill 1966
  25. ^ An Cléireach, Darach Ó Scolaí, Leabhar Breac, 2007
  26. ^ https://www.geni.com/people/Phelim-O-Neill/6000000016744938359


External links[edit]