Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/O'Neill, Phelim
O'NEILL, Sir PHELIM (1604?–1653), Irish rebel, called in Irish Feidlimidh O'Neill and Feidlimidh Ruadh, born about 1604, the eldest son of Turlough O'Neill, inherited considerable property in Armagh and Tyrone from his grandfather, Sir Henry O'Neill, who was killed in action against Sir Cahir O'Dogherty [q. v.] on 20 June 1608. Sir Phelim at that time was four and a half years old, and the lord-deputy, Sir Arthur Chichester [q. v.], in pursuance of his policy of weakening the native aristocracy by diminishing their resources, suggested that, notwithstanding Sir Henry's letters patent, his property should be divided among his heirs ‘legitimate and illegitimate,’ with special provision for Sir Phelim and his mother, Catherine ny Neill, subsequently Catherine Hovenden. Sir Phelim was said (Cal. State Papers, Irel. Jas. I, iv. 260) to have given his consent to this arrangement, which was sanctioned by the king on 31 March 1612; but the consent of a mere infant cannot have carried much weight, and it is doubtful if the arrangement was ever executed, for on 6 Aug. 1629 Sir Phelim obtained an order for a new patent, vesting in him all the lands mentioned in his grandfather's grant. He was entered a student of Lincoln's Inn, but is said to have contracted extravagant habits; and it is certain that his estate was greatly encumbered by him with mortgages of one sort and another long before the outbreak of the rebellion (Repertory of Inquisitions, Tyrone, Charles II, p. 3). In 1641 he was elected member of the Irish House of Commons for Dungannon, but he was expelled with others for his share in the rebellion on 17 Nov. 1641.
Whether it was from a desire to mend his own broken fortunes or from a patriotic interest in the civil and religious liberties of his countrymen, he entered heartily into a proposal, suggested apparently to him by the Earl of Antrim some time in 1641, to create a diversion in Ireland in favour of Charles I. The affair is involved in considerable obscurity; but it would appear that in the summer of that year Charles, being hard pressed by the parliament, suggested or countenanced a conspiracy to wrest the government of Ireland out of the hands of the parliament, and to use his advantage there as a means to recover his authority in England. The design was imparted by Antrim to Lords Gormanston and Slane, and to others in Ulster. ‘But the fools,’ as Antrim called the northern chiefs, ‘well liking the business, would not expect our time and manner for ordering the work; but fell upon it without us, and sooner and otherwise than we should have done, taking to themselves, and in their own way, the management of the work, and so spoiled it’ (Cox, Hib. Angl. App. p. xlix). It is likely that Antrim's account of the origin of the rebellion is correct. It is certain that during the autumn frequent communications passed between O'Neill and his immediate associates and the nobility of the Pale, and that Kinard, Sir Phelim's residence in Tyrone, was a principal meeting-place of the northern conspirators. In accordance with the final arrangements for the rebellion, Sir Phelim on the evening of 22 Oct. surprised Charlemont Castle, a place of considerable strategic importance, commanding the passage of the Blackwater, on the great northern road.
The circumstances attending the outbreak of the rebellion have been, and still are, the subject of fierce recrimination. Sir Phelim himself, besides being held responsible for the outrages that took place in his neighbourhood, was directly charged with the murder of Lord Caulfeild. But of this crime he was acquitted by the high court of justice sitting in Dublin in March 1653; and it depends mainly on the degree of credibility to be attached to the depositions relating to the massacres, preserved in Trinity College, Dublin, whether he was the monster of iniquity he is described to have been by Carte and more recent historians, or a much-maligned man. In any case, his success in capturing Charlemont Castle and other northern fortresses alone prevented the rebellion from proving a miserable failure. On 24 Oct. he published a proclamation declaring that in taking up arms he and his associates had done so ‘only for the defence and liberty of ourselves and the Irish natives of this kingdom;’ and that it was in no way directed to the harm either of the king or any of his subjects, English and Scottish. His success and energy inspired confidence in him, and at a meeting of the Ulster leaders at Monaghan he was chosen commander-in-chief of the northern forces. At Newry on 4 Nov. he and Rory Maguire published a commission, purporting to come from the king, expressly authorising the Irish to rise in defence of their liberties against the parliament. The commission was a manifest forgery, but it created an immense sensation, and repeated efforts were made by the parliament at the time of Sir Phelim's trial to induce him to admit its genuineness. This, however, Sir Phelim declined to do, declaring that he had forged it himself, in the belief that he was justified in using any means ‘to promote that cause he had so far engaged in.’
The hope of meeting with support from the Scottish settlers proving before long delusive, Sir Phelim prepared to reduce them by force. On 15 Nov. he captured Lurgan, but was repulsed from Lisburn, with considerable loss, by Sir Arthur Terringham and Major Rawdon on Sunday, 28 Nov. Turning on his heel, he marched into the north-west, captured and plundered the town of Strabane, and, with the connivance of Lady Strabane, widow of Claude Hamilton, lord Strabane, whom he subsequently married, succeeded in getting possession of the castle. He remained in the neighbourhood for several weeks, but the Lagan forces under Sir William Stewart, though unable to prevent him burning and plundering at his pleasure, frustrated his efforts to capture Castlederg and Augher. Meanwhile the siege of Drogheda had not been progressing as favourably as had been expected, and the gentry of the Pale, ‘being no longer able to conceal their engagement with those of the north,’ and perceiving the besiegers ‘to decrease daily, by reason that the soldiers, as soon as they were become masters of any considerable booty, stole from the camp with it, resolved at length to call upon Sir Phelim O'Neill, whose power they thought unresistible.’ Sir Phelim at once obeyed the summons, reaching the camp before Drogheda apparently about 10 Jan. 1642; ‘and the lords,’ says Bellings, ‘to endear Sir Phelim O'Neill by the highest marks of their confidence in him, not only offered to receive him as general of all the forces which were designed for the siege, but by an instrument in form of a commission entrusted him with the government of the county of Meath during that service.’
Finding after a brief experience that the resources at his command were inadequate to the reduction of the place, Sir Phelim determined to renew his attempt to subjugate the Scots in Down and Antrim; but not succeeding in this, he returned to Drogheda about 10 Feb. Two days previously (8 Feb.) he had been proclaimed a traitor, and a reward of 1,000l. placed on his head by the government at Dublin. About the same time there appeared in London ‘The Petition of Sir Phelomy Oneale, Knight … Presented to the Right Honourable the Lords and Commons now assembled in the High Court of Parliament in England.’ The thing was a hoax; but Ormonde's name having been appended as a petitioner, it was ordered, on 8 March, that some speedy course be taken to repair his honour, and ‘for the corporal punishment of the printer and contriver.’ Several such pamphlets were in circulation calculated to inflame the public mind against Sir Phelim. A more specious but equally spurious one was that entitled ‘The True Demands of the Rebells in Ireland. Declaring the Cause of their taking up Armes. Sent into England by Sir Phelom O'Neale … Vlster. February 10, 1641. Published for preventing false copies already extant or that may be hereafter printed.’
After several months had been spent in a fruitless attempt to reduce Drogheda, Sir Phelim was compelled in April, by the approach of Ormonde, to raise the siege. In one of the numerous sallies made by the garrison at this time, he narrowly escaped capture by creeping into a fir bush. Retiring to Armagh, he was about the beginning of May forced by Monro to set fire to the place, and to beat a hasty retreat to Charlemont, while the greater part of his troops betook themselves to the fastnesses of the bogs and mountains of Tyrone. About this time, according to the author of the ‘Aphorismical Discovery,’ Sir Phelim, ‘inflated with some odd conceits of his own actions,’ assumed the title of Earl of Tyrone, but was immediately prevailed upon by Daniel O'Cahan to drop it. Sir Phelim himself denied that he ever subscribed himself as such in any official document. He was greatly crippled in his operations by want of powder, and though he made every effort to improve his position in the north-west, he was unable to prevent the recapture of Strabane by Sir William Stewart. He was joined by Alexander MacDonald (d. 1674) [q. v.], but on 16 June the allies were defeated at Glenmaquin, near Raphoe, after the sharpest encounter that had taken place in Ulster. Returning to Charlemont, he was confronted with a new danger. On 20 June Lord Montgomery, with a small force, having managed to capture Kinard, including Sir Phelim's own house, was preparing to attack Charlemont itself. Somewhere near the place made famous by Tyrone's victory over Sir Henry Bagenal, Sir Phelim contested the passage of the Blackwater with him, but was defeated, and narrowly escaped being captured. The same day Dungannon was surprised by Sir William Brownlow; but after a vain attempt to terrify the garrison of Charlemont into surrender, Lord Montgomery was compelled, by lack of ammunition, to raise the siege. Hitherto the possession of Fort Mountjoy had enabled Sir Phelim to command Lough Neagh, but on 26 June the fort was captured without a blow by Colonel James Clotworthy. Sir Phelim was obliged to retire into Charlemont Castle; his resources were exhausted; his followers, having lost all confidence in him, obeyed or disobeyed him as they liked; ‘one day he had two or three thousand, the next day but five hundred.’
Such was the situation when the news that Owen Roe O'Neill (d. 1649) [q. v.] had arrived with supplies at Doe Castle revived the drooping spirits of the Irish. Hastening to meet Owen Roe, Sir Phelim escorted him in safety by way of Ballyshannon to Charlemont. He at once yielded to the superior claims of Owen O'Neill to command the northern forces; but though it was endeavoured to render his resignation as palatable as possible by making him general of the horse, it was almost inevitable that jealousies should arise between the two kinsmen. Feeling himself eclipsed, Sir Phelim gradually drew to the side of the confederation. The exertions of Scarampi, and subsequently of Rinuccini, produced a temporary reconciliation; but, according to Bellings, ‘their differences were never entirely appeased, and each of them endeavoured upon all occasions to strengthen his faction … wherein Sir Phelim O'Neill thought he had outstripped the other by the alliance he had contracted with General Preston, whose daughter he took to wife.’ He was elected a representative of Ulster on the supreme council of the confederation, and on 1 Nov. 1642 was appointed one of the committee to ‘consider and lay down a model of civil government.’ He is said to have been present at the battle of Benburb on 5 June 1646, and, according to Rinuccini (Embassy, p. 175), ‘bore himself most bravely,’ and ‘when asked by the colonels for a list of his prisoners, swore that his regiment had not one, as he had ordered his men to kill them all without distinction.’ He supported Ormonde's endeavours at a pacification in 1646, and received the lord-lieutenant's thanks for his exertions. In September 1648 he was appointed a commissioner to treat for a peace, and for his services it was proposed to reward him with a title and an addition of estate. He was subsequently nominated a commissioner of trust for the government of Ireland, and appointed governor of the fort of Charlemont and commander of a regiment of foot. He still continued his opposition to Owen Roe O'Neill, and did his utmost to prevent an alliance between him and Ormonde.
After Owen's death he was disappointed in his expectation of succeeding to the command of the northern forces. He took part in the battle of Scarriffhollis, and afterwards escaped into Tyrone. He displayed great courage in his defence of Charlemont Castle against the forces of the parliament, but was forced to capitulate on 6 Aug. 1650. He was excepted from benefit of the articles of Kilkenny, and on 23 Aug. 1652 a reward of 300l. was offered for his apprehension. His hiding-place on an island in co. Tyrone was betrayed by Philip Roe MacHugh O'Neill to Lord Caulfeild, ‘who, having brought together a party of horse and foot, entered the island in boats and seized him there’ early in February 1652–3. He was taken to Dublin, and on 5 March placed on his trial before the high court of justice, presided over by Sir Gerard Lowther. A pardon was several times offered him if he would admit the genuineness of the commission said to have been received from Charles I at the beginning of the rebellion, but, refusing to do so, he was executed as a traitor on 10 March 1652–3. According to the impartial estimate of a contemporary calling himself a ‘British officer,’ Sir Phelim ‘was a well-bred gentleman, three years at court, as free and generous as could be desired, and very complaisant; stout in his person, but, not being bred anything of a soldier, wanted the main art, that is, policy in war and good conduct.’ A portrait of him, from a print in the British Museum, will be found in Mr. Gilbert's ‘Contemporary History of Affairs,’ ii. 208.
He was apparently married three times. 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. In 1649 he married Jean Gordon, widow of Claude Hamilton, baron of Strabane, by whom he had a son named Gordon, from his grandfather, the Marquis of Huntly.
Gordon O'Neill (d. 1704), captain of grenadiers in the infantry regiment of William Stewart, lord Mountjoy, was one of those catholic officers greatly favoured by the Earl of Tyrconnel in carrying out his plan for remodelling the government of Ireland in the interests of James II. He was made lord lieutenant of Tyrone, and represented the county in parliament in 1689. When the war of the revolution broke out he raised a regiment of foot for the royal cause, and was actively engaged at the siege of Derry, where he was wounded in the thigh. He was present at the battle of the Boyne, and was severely wounded at the battle of Aughrim, being left for dead on the field. He was discovered by some Scottish officers, relatives of his mother, in William's army, and removed to Dublin. On his recovery he took advantage of the treaty of Limerick to retire to France, where he was made colonel of the Irish infantry regiment of Charlemont. From 1692 to the peace of Ryswick in 1697 the regiment served against the emperor, and in February 1698 was incorporated in the infantry regiment of Galmoy, to which he was attached as a supernumerary or reformed colonel. He married a protestant lady of the city of Derry, and had a daughter Catherine, who became the wife of John Bourke, fourth lord Brittas, and ninth Lord Castle-Connell. He died in 1704.