Lost and Found: In Search of Owen Roe O’Neill

Maybe you can help me with a little piece of research? Recently an authentic image of Hugh O’Neill, the great earl of Tyrone, was discovered in a fresco in the Vatican but one of his nephew Owen Roe remains elusive. His story, dying in Castle Oughter County Cavan in command of an intact Ulster army as Cromwell advanced across Ireland, is full of fanciful potential.

As a successful commander in the Spanish army, Don Eugenio, as he was known, would almost certainly have been the subject of a portrait whilst on the continent. It has been said that he should be one of the figures on the Spanish side in 1625 in Velasquez’s famous surrender of Breda but that painting was a studio mock-up done in Madrid ten years later.

On the other hand the remarkable defence Owen Roe conducted as governor of Arras in 1640 holding off a French army of 35,000 with only 1,500 men would certainly have attracted painters and engravers but no such contemporary image has yet come to light.

Instead for a portrait we have one of the most romanticised images in nationalist history – a middle-aged Owen Roe O’Neill depicted in profile bright-eyed, bearded wearing an Irish mantle and bejewelled bonnet. This is not how an elite hispaniolized Irishman would have dressed. It seems more like a deliberate exercise in nostalgia and national image creation.

Already the subject of the evocative ‘Lament for the death of Owen Roe O’Neill’ ballad by Thomas Davis, this reputed image of him quickly caught the public imagination when it first appeared as a lithograph in the 1856 edition of the Ulster Journal of Archaeology.

It had been sourced in County Derry where it was ‘faithfully copied’ from a small oil painting owned by an old lady who was a ‘lineal descendant of Owen Roe’. The back of the painting bore a half-obliterated inscription – ‘Owen Roe O’Neill at the Court of…by the celebrated Dutch artist, Van Brugens’.

The best I can do for this artist is an obscure portraitist and miniaturist – Louis Van Der Bruggens – who died in Paris in 1658 having worked mainly at the French Court. The 1856 lithograph was not in colour but the subject’s hair was reported to be ruddy rather than straight red and his bonnet blue.

No one stopped to wonder why the Irish hero was wearing a Scottish bonnet. Weren’t his chief enemies whilst in Ulster – Munro’s Scots – known as ‘the blue bonnets’? And although he is shown in the symbolic Irish mantle, under it he is sporting a round-necked Roman tunic.

None of this is very convincing as a claim to authenticity. In 1879 Sir John Gilbert, librarian of the Royal Irish Academy, reported that the painting had been inherited by Alexander Falls Henry of Maghera. This country solicitor died five years later. In the middle of the twentieth century, the costume historian H.F. McClintock searched for his descendants but found neither them nor the portrait.

Its whereabouts, if still exists, is unknown.

In 1996 I put out a call for the painting in the pages of History Ireland without any success. Then more recently I learned that the last male of the Henry family had emigrated to Melbourne in Australia towards the end of the 19th century, allegedly taking the portrait and a signet ring of the Emperor Napoleon with him as a family heirlooms.

As a result I asked Irish-Australian historians Mary and Val Noone to conduct a search, but to no avail as they were unable to find any record of the painting, the family itself having died out in 1950. The last information that I have is that the Belfast antiquarian Francis Joseph Bigger may have acquired the painting and that, if it managed to survive Loyalist vandalism of his property at Castle Jordan in County Down, it would, following his death in 1926, have either been sold off privately by his common law wife and housekeeper, Brigid Mathews, or been given away by his brother Joseph Warwick Bigger, a Dublin Surgeon.

The story though doesn’t end there. On a visit to Dom Hugo O’Neill, the current Clandeboye O’Neill in Portugal, I discovered that he had a painting of Owen Roe O’Neill. It was remarkably similar to the image in the lithograph, though the subject in it has dark-brown hair, a green bonnet, a red-hand insignia and an inscription which reads:

‘EXCELLENTISSIMO ET FAMOSISSIMO D. EVGENIO HEREDITARIO JURE PRINCIPI O’NEILL COPIARUM CATHOLICARUM HIBERNENSIVM VLTONIAE ARCHISTRATEGO. OBIIT A.D. MCCIL. VI NOVEMBRI’.

The latter indicated two things – it was making extravagant claims about Owen Roe being hereditary prince of Ulster and secondly that it was decidedly posthumous. It is definitely not the lost County Derry painting because the UJA had measured it at the time of lithographing at 12 ins by 16. This one in Portugal is larger.

According to Dom Hugo, his painting of Owen Roe was acquired when a family settlement was made with the heir to Paris-based Comtes of Tyrone in 1900. It would be nice to think that this is the original of the Derry painting but it is a far more likely to be a copy not of that lost portrait but an enhanced version of the famous lithograph.

In which event the search must go on for a true likeness of Owen Roe. And indeed for the lost County Derry portrait. So if you are perhaps a relative of the Henry family, who supplied the first Lord Chief Justice of NI after partition, or if your ancestors acquired any of the Bigger collection, I would appreciate you checking your attic for a wee painting which probably doesn’t like much now but may be the only portrait of the last great general of the Ulster Irish.

This piece is derived from an article in the latest edition of Dúiche Néill: the journal of the O’Neill Country Historical Society.