General Owen Roe

DESCRIPTION: Battle-weary Owen Roe finds a place to sleep. He pays a woman not to tell where he is hiding. She calls the cavalry. They capture him. He leaves his land to his family and his bridle and saddle to his son. His sister swears to avenge his death.
AUTHOR: Joseph Maguire
EARLIEST DATE: 1938 (sung by Joseph Maguire on Decca 12137, according to Spottswood)
KEYWORDS: betrayal execution rebellion Ireland
FOUND IN: Ireland
REFERENCES (1 citation):
McBride 35, "General Owen Roe" (1 text, 1 tune)
Roud #5284
NOTES [878 words]: According to Ethnic Music on Records: a Discography of Ethnic Recordings Produced in the United States, 1893 to 1942 by Richard K Spottswood (Urbana, c1990), Joseph Maguire wrote and recorded "General Owen Roe": Decca 12137, recorded January 13, 1938 (matrix number 63147-A). - BS
McBride: "It tells of the bravery of ... Owen Roe O'Neill who returned from the continent to fight for the cause of his country in 1640.... This song tells of his bravery during an incident when he was betrayed while weary and tired from the throes of battle. [The singer] learned this song from a 78 r.p.m. record - he thinks it was a McGettigan record that came from the U.S. in the thirties. It seems possible that McGettigan wrote this version based on a similar song 'General Munroe' ...." The songs are more than similar. Whole verses are lifted, though the names are changed. Even the verse about Roe's/Munroe's sister is the same.
Owen Roe O'Neill was born in Co. Tyrone in either 1595 or 1597. He returned from the continent in 1642 and was appointed commander of the Northern Army of the Confederation of Kilkenny. His death was nothing like what is portrayed in this ballad. He became sick and died, probably of tetanus, on November 6, 1649 (source: "Owen Roe O'Neill - The Cavan Connection" by Jim Hannon at the Cornafean Online site). It had been thought that he was poisoned (see, for example, "Lament for Owen Roe O'Neill" by Thomas Davis:
"Did they dare, did they dare, to slay Owen Roe O'Neill!"
'Yes they slew with poison him they feared to meet with steel.'
"May God wither up their hearts! May their blood cease to flow!
May they walk in living death, who poisoned Owen Roe!
Edward Hayes, The Ballads of Ireland (Boston, 1859 (reprint of 1855 London edition)), Vol I, p. 204.) - BS
Owen Roe O'Neill (Eoghan Rua O'Neill) is one of those slightly ambiguous figures so common in Irish history. The date of his birth is perhaps even more uncertain than the above might imply -- Golway, p. 26, gives the year of his birth as around 1580; O hOgain, p. 399, says 1582, and Foster, p. 80 plumps for 1590.
Whenever he was born, Owen was the nephew of Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone (for whom see "O'Donnell Aboo"); see Golway, p. 26. He left Ireland around the time of the "Flight of the Earls," and had spent thirty-odd years fighting for Spain in the hope that they would rescue Ireland. Finally, during the Civil War of the 1640s, he came home.
Foster, p. 90, says of him, "Subtle, aristocratic, a great figure in the Spanish army, O'Neill was deeply imbued with Continental Catholic zeal... While he was capable of fervent Royalist rhetoric [at a time when Charles I was at war with his own parliament], it was suspected that he harboured the characteristic O'Neill ambitions on his own account." Unfortunately, after so long away, he didn't understand either Irish or English politics.
According to Wallace, p. 48, he claimed to be fighting on the order of the embattled Charles I -- which was only partly true; the Irish *thought* Charles would support them, but in fact they fought without his encouragement (Foster, p. 88). Still, their claims helped splinter the Irish. O'Neill became one of the chief leaders of Irish forces, but there was no overall commander to coordinate strategy.
O'Neill won a medium-sized battle against Munroe at Benburb in 1646 (according to Fry/Fry, p. 153, he left 3000 English and Scots dead on the field); it was the greatest single victory of Irish forces in the period (Foster, p. 80). He could perhaps have marched on Dublin at this point, or moved to clean out the remainder of the Parliamentary army of Scots who occupied Ulster, but did neither, wasting his advantage as he tried to strengthen Catholic control over Ireland rather than win the final battle over the English that would have let the Irish decide things on their own (Foster, p. 98)..
Soon after, the always-fragile unity of the Irish forces crumbled completely -- the moderate leader the Earl of Ormond wanted to make terms; the Papal nuncio, supported by O'Neill, tried to hold out for absolute Catholic supremacy. And then Cromwell came. His dreadful work is described under "The Wexford Massacre." Ireland was left a conquered, ruined country.
O'Neill didn't see much of this; he died in 1649. Golway, p. 27, claims he "died under mysterious circumstances," though Wallace, p. 50, asserts he had been sick for some time; Foster, p. 102, splits the difference and says he died of a "mysterious illness." O hOgain, p. 400, claims it was cancer, and afflicted his knee. Edwards, p. 151 n., says that he died "probably of an old wound. Romantice like Thomas Davis thought otherwise... 'Yes, they slew with poison him they feared to meet with steel.'" But apparently the worst fits of pain came while negotiating with the British, leading to charges of poisoning. O hOgain, in fact, relates a tale that a dance was organized in his honor, and he was given poisoned boots! As O hOgain says, "His death was one of the most momentous losses in Irish history, and the people refused to believe it had come from natural causes."
Ultimately, I fear he did Ireland more harm than good; by holding out so long, he made compromise impossible and opened the door for Cromwell. - RBW
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File: McB1035

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