Incredible Irish Women | Rose ny Neile O’Reilly
Updated: Feb 12
Welcome to the first post in my new blog series: Incredible Irish Women. I’m very excited about this series, because history has tended to ignore its female participants, and I’m here to tell you that, actually, the women of the past were not as passive and subservient as our modern patriarchal society would have us believe. In fact, some women were very active in the power struggles, politics, battles, and religious organisation of their time, but if you want to know about them, you have to go looking, sometimes in unexpected places.
But now, I’d like to introduce you to Rose ny Neile O’Reilly. I met her when researching the 1641 depositions for a history assignment last year, and she wouldn’t leave me alone until I agreed to tell her story. I’m glad I did too… she got me a 75%! I don’t think that was enough for her, though… she’s been wanting to get on my blog ever since.
You might be wondering what the 1641 depositions are. Today, they are an incredible resource for anyone interested in Ireland’s history, but they began as Protestant witness testimonies of peoples’ experiences of the 1641 rebellion. Housed in Trinity College Dublin, there are over 8000 transcripts, searchable online right HERE, freely available for anyone to peruse.
The 1641 rebellion was borne of many complex reasons, but I guess chiefly as a reaction against the plantations of Protestant settlers and dispossession of the native Catholic Irish, the worsening fate of Catholics under British rule, and fear of a possible breakdown between the British government of Ireland and the King; Irish nobles feared the potential seizing of their property, and persecution by the British authorities should the King lose power.
I decided to research Co. Cavan, where I live, and the first deposition I looked at was one by Marmaduke Batemanson, for no other reason than I liked his name. He was an English Protestant, and he made an intriguing allegation: he claimed that his execution was ordered by a woman named Rose ny Neile. Not only that, but he also accused her of murdering 50 Protestant settlers, including women and children, by forcing them into the river at the bridge of Belturbet, so that they drowned. Well, I was instantly hooked!
What arrested my attention about this, was that his statement implied that a woman was in a position of authority, making decisions and issuing orders to a group of male colleagues at a time in Irish history when the role of women was typically a domestic one.
Women in early modern Ireland were not permitted to hold positions of power, either politically, financially, or socially. They were considered as nothing more than a belonging of their father or husband, and their duty was to accept an arranged marriage of alliance, produce male heirs, and manage the home. Her ‘honour-price’ was worth only half that of her father or husband, and she was expected to be subservient to men at all times. So I was very surprised to find that a woman could wield so much authority in her male-dominated society as Marmaduke accused Rose of.
So who was Rose ny Neille? She was a daughter of a powerful Ulster Gaelic family called the O’Neills, said to be descended from King of Ireland, Niall of the Nine Hostages. Her brother, Owen Roe O’Neill (Eoghan Ruadh Ó’ Néill), commanded the Ulster forces during the Confederate Wars which followed the 1641 Rebellion. Rose married into another powerful family, the O’Reillys of Breffni; her husband was Philip O’Reilly (Pilib mac Aoidh mic Sheáin mic Aoidh Chonallaigh Ó Raghallaigh according to Irish genealogy), and they had three children: Aodh Ruadh, their only son, who was killed by Cromwell; Eibhlin, who married Colla Dubh Mac Mahon, and whose son was Hugh MacMahon, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh; and Maire, who first married Aodh Maguire before marrying Ruaidhri Og Maguire, the 5th Lord Enniskillen.
As you can see, pedigree, or genealogy was very important to the Gaelic Irish. Rose’s name comes from the latin ‘Rosa’, which was in use in Ireland from the sixteenth century, and was often adapted into the Irish language as Róisín, meaning ‘little rose’, which is still a very popular girl’s name in Ireland today. So her name in Irish may have looked something like this: Róisín ny Ó’Néill ny Ó Raghallaigh, signifying her parentage and her marriage. I should say this is just my guess; I could find no reference to her other than that of her Protestant accusers, who recorded her name in its anglicised form.
Before we go any further, I would just like to point out that I do not condone violence in any shape or form. I would also like to remind you of the saying that ‘one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter’. Today, we know that violence does not work, even though the ignorant still wage war and perpetrate aggression around the world. In the early modern era, the ideas of the Enlightenment were only just starting to take hold; violence was still the norm. People were still burned or drowned for witchcraft or transgressions against Christian doctrines, torture was common-place, traitors were still hung, drawn and quartered with their heads displayed high on castle and city walls, the poor starved to death, slavery still flourished, and it was perfectly acceptable for a man to beat his wife and children if doing so pleased him.
Rose, it seems, was what we today would call a terrorist. She appears not only in Marmaduke’s deposition, but also in those of Edward Saltenstall and George Littlefield; of Ann Read; of Faithful Teate, Elizabeth Day and William Thorp; of Thomas Taylor; of Symon Wesnam, and of Elizabeth Poke. These people were all Protestant settlers of the plantations, and none of them had a good word to say about her. She was the enemy.
Interestingly, Symon Wesnam claimed that Rose’s ferocity at the Battle of Dundalk earned her the title of ‘Colonel’. But Rose was a woman… how could she possibly have been participating in a military skirmish if a woman’s role at that time was solely domestic?
It is a little known fact that Adomnan, Abbot of Iona, proposed as part of his ‘Law of the Innocents’ that women be forbidden from fighting in battle, and that in AD697 his proposal was ratified by the Synod of Birr by 51 kings or chieftains, and 40 men of the church. Where was the women’s voice in this decision, I wonder? Reminds me of the decisions that were made in the US last year regarding women’s health… but I digress. The important point here is that if female warriors were uncommon in Ireland, why was a law necessary forbidding women to fight? It also seems to indicate that women may actually have been rather successful in the military arts, and men did not like it. It is interesting that this was led by the Church, whose every action it seems to me, was to diminish the power of women.
That Rose, some centuries later, was addressed in a battle as ‘Colonel’ suggests that women either never completely knuckled under to patriarchal dominance, or that in exceptional times, they accompanied their menfolk into battle.
The fact that Rose appears in so many depositions is testament to her unusual role during the rebellion, and also suggestive of the type of relationship Rose and her husband, Philip, shared. Philip was a high ranking member of Ireland’s government before he became a leader of the rebellion.
For example, Dr. Teate’s deposition describes how, on hearing rumours of the rising, he fled to Dublin in fear of his life, but was waylaid by Philip and a warband of 300 rebels. Simultaneously, Rose, armed with a gun and backed with her own warband, attacked his home in Ballyhaise, robbing his wife and family (whom the great man had abandoned to their fates) of their possessions.
This suggests that Rose and Philip were working together, and that Rose was trusted by her husband to act in a position of authority, over and above any of his male accomplices.
However, Rose sometimes acted on her own initiative; she imprisoned Thomas Taylour for reasons not specified in the records, when he should have been evacuated with other Protestants. Also, according to Marmaduke, Philip rebuked her when she insisted on killing their Protestant prisoners, ‘saying vnto her That she might putt all the English & Scotts there to death if she would: But if she did, hee would forsake & never come nere her’.
If this is true, clearly it shows something of a stand-off between Rose and her husband.; he disagreed with her but would not pull rank and order her to obey his decision, perhaps because he saw her as an equal.
Curiously, it also seems to be a comment of a personal nature referring to their marriage: ‘forsake’ suggests divorce or abandonment, whilst ‘never come nere her’ suggests an end to intimacy between them, itself grounds for divorce according to Brehon law. This in turn is also interesting, in that it is evidence that even at this late stage in Irish history, the Gaelic Irish were still living according to their old laws despite centuries of English rule, or that they had at least revived them during the rebellion.
Why Rose turned so enthusiastically to violence is not clear, but perhaps a clue lies in the deposition of Ann Read. Ann claimed that she employed Rose as a servant, even though Rose was of noble Gaelic Irish heritage. If Ann’s testimony is true, it must have been extremely difficult for Rose to see her ancestral lands confiscated during the plantations and handed over to foreigners, let alone to find herself reduced to a position of servitude.
It is possible that observing the erosion of their culture and heritage by English colonisation led to a new phenomenon… that women began to identify themselves politically as Irish, rather than simply as members of a family group.
Certainly, violence was a key factor in the 1641 depositions, and Rose was no exception; she wielded a petronel, which was a type of handgun (see what it looks like HERE). She was said to be responsible for the deaths of many settlers including women and children. According to Professor Andrea Knox, ‘Irish women in the rebellion often acted outside the authority of men, sometimes leading men’, which certainly describes Rose’s activity.
Religion could also have played a large part in Rose’s behaviour. Marmaduke claimed that she said in reference to the English and Scottish Protestant settlers, ‘ …That she was never well that day that she saw any of either of those nations’. Further evidence of Rose’s hatred of Protestantism can be found in Dr. Teate’s deposition, in which he claimed Rose stole his books, burning some and throwing the rest in the mud. As Teate was a ‘Doctor of Divinity’, in other words a priest or religious figure, it is likely that the books Rose destroyed were Protestant prayer books and bibles.
I think you can see why Rose intrigued me so much. She was clearly a feisty character, a woman who rode into battle and fought alongside her menfolk, a leader of warbands, a woman who was prepared to get her hands dirty and do whatever was required of her in support of freedom and liberation. She was a woman of her time, and yet a woman ahead of her time.
She was also a victim of history, her contribution to Ireland’s cause all but written out of existence because of her sex. Can women be heroes? Certainly men who did the kind of things she did are lauded as heroes. I, for one, think Rose deserves to be remembered.
You can read Marmadukes depostion here: The Deposition of Marmaduke Batemanson, TCD, 1641 Depositions Project
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