Tuesday 8 May 2012

Lament for Eoghan Ruadh Ó Néill

What's in a name?

I feel so privileged that my name has meaning and history. My middle names - Seamas Alan - both have family meaning to them. I'm named Alan after my mother's brother - my mum always idolised him and this rubbed off on me when I was small, even though I haven't seen him for years he's still been a hero of mine. Seamas is the hibernicised version of James, the name of both my grandfather and his father before him.

I never met my grandfather who died fifteen years before I was born. His father, also James, would have been born in 1865. My grandfather's younger sister, Eileen, who passed away a few weeks ago aged 104, can also be seen on that census form.

As the census form shows, James and Eileen had many siblings but there were two more still to be born. One was Uncle Owen, who I met a few times. My dad is also Owen/Eoghan - so we're definitely keeping it firmly in the family. But it's not just a recent phenomoneon: Eoghan is one of the most famous names to be associated with the O'Neill dynasty over the years.

Although the O'Neills proper started with Niall Glúndub, one of the High Kings of Ireland in the tenth century, the Uí Néill were originally descended from Niall of the Nine Hostages, back in the fifth century. One of his sons was, you guessed it, Eógan mac Néill, from who name Tir Eoghain (land of Eoghan) was taken...better known these days as County Tyrone, a hotspot for O'Neills over the centuries!

Fast forward a thousand years or so, and the O'Neills had done many great things, but it was time for another great Eoghan O'Neill to step up to the mark. This was Eoghan Ruadh, or Owen Roe, who was a leader in the Confederate Wars. A relative of both Hugh ("the great O'Neill") and Conn, the first Earl of Tyrone, whose approach to diplomacy seems to have been not dissimilar to Neville Chamberlain's. Owen Roe, on the other hand, stood up against both the English and the Scottish Covenanters. Things all got a bit messy and in the end he died in 1649, traditionally believed poisoned, shortly after Cromwell's arrival in Ireland.

This post is flirting with family history and pride in being an O'Neill (albeit not necessarily directly descended from the chieftains...I don't know about my bloodline further back than James who was an engine fitter at the start of the 20th century!) and being an Eoghan and being an O'Neill. But the real reason I wrote this is to post Thomas Davis's brilliant nineteenth century "Lament for Owen Roe O'Neill". Read it and weep...

“Did they dare, did they dare, to slay Eoghan Ruadh 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 Eoghan Ruadh.”

“Though it break my heart to hear, say again the bitter words.
From Derry, against Cromwell, he marched to measure swords:
But the weapon of the Sassanach met him on his way.
And he died at Cloch Uachtar, upon St. Leonard’s day.

“Wail, wail ye for the Mighty One. Wail, wail ye for the Dead,
Quench the hearth, and hold the breath—with ashes strew the head.
How tenderly we loved him. How deeply we deplore!
Holy Saviour! but to think we shall never see him more!

“Sagest in the council was he, kindest in the hall,
Sure we never won a battle—’twas Eoghan won them all.
Had he lived—had he lived—our dear country had been free:
But he’s dead, but he’s dead, and ’tis slaves we’ll ever be.

“O’Farrell and Clanricarde, Preston and Red Hugh,
Audley and MacMahon—ye valiant, wise and true:
But—what are ye all to our darling who is gone?
The Rudder of our Ship was he, our Castle’s corner stone.

“Wail, wail him through the Island! Weep, weep for our pride!
Would that on the battlefield our gallant chief had died!
Weep the Victor of Beinn Burb—weep him, young and old:
Weep for him, ye women—your beautiful lies cold!

“We thought you would not die—we were sure you would not go,
And leave us in our utmost need to Cromwell’s cruel blow—
Sheep without a shepherd, when the snow shuts out the sky—
O! why did you leave us, Eoghan? Why did you die?

“Soft as woman’s was your voice, O’Neill! bright was your eye,
O! why did you leave us, Eoghan? Why did you die?
Your troubles are all over, you’re at rest with God on high,
But we’re slaves, and we’re orphans, Eoghan!—why did you die?”