Myles the Slasher

by Peter Brady

On August 3rd 1913 an imposing memorial to the memory of Myles O'Reilly (The Slasher) was unveiled in the Co Westmeath section of the village of Finea.

The unveiling was officially performed by the right honourable Lorcan Sherlock L.L.D. Lord Mayor of Dublin and the oration was delivered by the Very Rev. Thomas Canon Langan D.D. Parish Priest of Abbeylara. Canon Langan was later Parish Priest of Moate, Co Westmeath and was the oldest priest in the Diocese of Ardagh when he died there in 1951 aged 97.

The main inscription on the memorial (a Celtic cross) reads as follows: - “The Slasher had with him 100 horse while the enemy was 1,000 strong. They fought them the whole day long till his followers were nearly all slain. Finally he was encountered by a gigantic Scotchman who trust the point of his sword through the Slasher’s cheek. The latter closed his jaw on the blade and held it as if in an iron vice while he slew his antagonist cutting him through steel helmet down to his chin with one blow, both falling together. At that moment reinforcements arrived from Granard and the Bridge was saved.
A further inscription reads “In memory of Myles O’Reilly, (The Slasher) who fell on the Bridge of Finea while defending against the English and Scottish forces under General Monroe on the 5th August 1646.”

While the above probably represents the accepted version of events in 1913, subsequent studies and research give an expanded picture and would alter some of the detail.

Writing in a historical compendium published by the New York - Irish Society in 1967, Fr Finbarr Corr of Ballinagh, drawing on the Memoirs of Lord Castlehaven, published in 1684, gives the year of battle as 1644. Castlehaven who fought on the side of the Catholic Confederate forces from 1642 until the peace with Ormonde in 1646 would have to be credited with getting the year right and probably made relevant diary or narrative notes on, or shortly after, the date of the battle.

Perhaps, more to the point, Fr Turlough O’Mellan, Chaplain to the Catholic Confederate Army, in his diary for July 1644, gives an account of the battle and lists the names of some of those killed.
Myles - Death or Escape at Finea?

In his famous one hundred and thirty one line poem, “Myles the Slasher,”, William Collins who was born in Strabane, Co Tyrone in 1838 and died in Brooklyn New York in 1890, gives us the following:-

“But alas for the cause of Green Erin,
The heart of that hero is cold.
He died waving free in the blast,
With his hand on the hilt of a sword.

There is, however, strong evidence that Myles was not killed in the battle but as another source put it “he escaped by spurring his charger over the battlement and later went to France where he died.”
The most telling argument in favour of the tradition that Myles did not die at Finea is contained in the work of genealogy of Chevalier O’Gorman who states that Myles married Catherine, the daughter of Charles O’Reilly of Leitrim and that they had three sons, John, Edmund and Philip and two daughters Honora and Rose. They were all alive in 1717 in which year John the eldest died aged 70 years which would give the year of his birth as 1646 a full two years after the battle. Given that John was born in 1646 the very earliest year of the birth of the youngest would be 1650 - six years after the engagement or - if the year on the memorial is correct, four years afterwards.

While the evidence for the survival of Myles at Finea is strong the same cannot be said for his alleged escape to France. It is far more likely that, under the tortuous and often dangerous conditions under which the chroniclers of Irish history worked in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the name of Myles of Finea fame became confused with that of his cousin Colonel Myles O’Reilly of Denn and Kilmore who was High Sheriff of Cavan in 1641. This particular Myles first emigrated to Spain and then to France. He died in the monastery of the Irish Capuchins at Charleville in 1670.

It would appear, therefore that until research can unearth a reliable obituary date for Myles the safest course to adopt is to go along with another local tradition which has it that Myles, having slept in the de Nogent castle at Ross overlooking Lough Sheelin on the night before the battle, returned there afterwards had his wounds attended to and subsequently made his way back to the stronghold of the O’Reillys in mid Cavan where he married and raised his family.

The Battle
In the summer of 1644 Owen Roe O’Neill was camped with his Irish forces at Portlester, near Trim in Co Meath. Word reached Castlehaven, who was then in Granard, that a 17,000 strong English and Scottish army under General Monroe was approaching from Cavan intent on marching into Leinster via the bridge over the Inny River at Finea.

O’Neill’s army had not yet reached a state of preparedness which would equip it to face such a mighty fighting force as that commanded by Monroe, and so it was decided that a small but elite force would attempt to halt his advance at the Bridge - or perhaps Ford - at Finea. (Finea was then spelled Feinnaugha-The Hounds Ford).

The number of soldiers in the force was about 600 foot and 100 cavalry. Castlehaven, in his Memoirs does not give the name of the Officer in charge but a contemporary source offers the name of a Colonel John Butler while in charge of the cavalry was Brian Roe O’Neill. Myles paternal grandmother was Catherine Butler.

The Irish Defenders were in position for one day when Monroe arrived and attacked with ferocity. With equal ferocity and given their grossly outnumbered forces, with far greater courage the Irish defended all day long and by evening almost all the Irish force had been killed or seriously wounded but Monroe’s losses were also of such horrendous proportions that, fearing an encounter with the redoubtable O’Neill, he retreated through East Cavan and Louth to the Protestant stronghold of Ulster.
Despite the serious losses it is probable that O’Neill and Castlehaven considered the strategy a success in that it inflicted huge damage on Monroe’s army, gave more time to the preparation of the Irish forces and was therefore a major factor in O’Neill’s subsequent victories.

It may also be the reason that the Battle of the Bridge of Finea has lived so long in folk memory and why in 1913, 269 years later, two committees, one in Dublin and one in Cavan, got together in difficult times to raise funds for the erection of a fitting memorial to Myles the Slasher.

For the record the membership of the committees were
Finea: Patrick Fitzgerald, Patrick Clarke, Patrick O’Connor, George Whyte, John Riall, John Clark, Edward Kiernan, John Donnellan - President, John Ryan - MD, JP Treasurer, John Arkins - Secretary
Dublin: Thomas Doherty, John Hughes, Edward Dignam, Edward Brennan, Patrick J O’Reilly, James McNamee, James Sweeney, Peter J Duffy-President, Lawrence McNamee, Edwards Brooks - Joint Treasurers, Patrick O’Reilly (late of Kilgolagh) - Secretary.

In these days of historical revisionism and political correctness, expressions of admiration or commemoration of those who fought on the Irish side against the colonial power are severly frowned on by a harsh and unyielding intellectual elite. As proof of this we only have to look at the flood of criticism showered on those who organised commemoration of the 1798 rising in 1998.
Despite this let us now and then remember and perhaps say a silent prayer for those who fought against superior forces and made the ultimate sacrifice for a cause in which they believed.

Taken from Breffni Blue
April 1999