O’Rourke, Owen (1660–1743), soldier, courtier and diplomatic agent, was born in Carha (Glencar), Co. Leitrim, the son of Con Óg O’Rourke and Dorothy O’Connor. He appears to have spent the first three decades of his life in Ireland although very little is known about these formative years until the 1690s. He was a lieutenant colonel in a regiment which the O’Rourkes raised during the Jacobite war to serve under Hugh ‘Balldearg’ O’Donnell (qv). Two battalions of O’Donnell’s men were later assigned garrison duty in the final months of the war. Following the Treaty of Limerick and conclusion of the Williamite war in Ireland in 1691, O’Rourke was one of thousands of Irish soldiers who departed for France. He served as a lieutenant in the Regiment of Limerick under the command of Sir Richard Talbot and later the Chevalier John Fitzgerald (qv). He would have seen action in northern Italy and later in the Rhineland. The terms of the Treaty of Ryswick (1697) stipulated that the Stuart army in France was to be reduced; the Regiment of Limerick together with several other Irish regiments were therefore disbanded in 1698, while those that remained were incorporated into the French army.
O’Rourke quickly found new employment in the Duchy of Lorraine. Duke Leopold had been restored to his ancestral home by the Treaty of Ryswick and he returned from exile in Austria with his mentor and chief minister, Francis Taaffe (qv), 3rd earl of Carlingford. Carlingford quickly set about rebuilding the duchy and establishing ducal authority. It was through his initiative that many of the Irish soldiers who had been demobilised in France entered Duke Leopold’s service. O’Rourke was commissioned as a captain in the ducal guards and is recorded as being in the duchy from at least August 1698. In 1707 he then embarked upon minor diplomatic missions on behalf of Duke Leopold. Travelling to Switzerland, O’Rourke met with Leopold’s cousin, Suzanne Henriette de Lorraine, Duchess of Gonzaga, who wished to enter a convent in Lorraine after her husband had been declared a traitor by the Holy Roman Emperor. Returning to Lorraine, O’Rourke then entreated with another of Leopold’s cousins, Anne Élisabeth, Princess of Vaudemont, to ensure she made a prolonged stay at the ducal court at Lunéville. This was an important visit which cemented good relations between Duke Leopold and his Vaudemont cousins.
O’Rourke was made a chamberlain to the ducal court for his service, and his growing prominence was reinforced by his marriage to Catherine-Diane de Beauvau in 1709. The Beauvau family were one of the most influential in the duchy and, wary of having an Irish soldier of uncertain origins in their family, attempted to block the marriage. O’Rourke obtained a déclaration de noblesse from the Stuart court at Saint-Germain to assuage these concerns, and was married in Paris in April 1709.
An agreement between Britain, France and Lorraine in the final stages of the war of the Spanish Succession (1701–14) had seen the court of James Francis Edward Stuart, titular James III of England, Scotland and Ireland, moved from France to Lorraine. O’Rourke was again entrusted as one of Leopold’s diplomatic agents and met with the Stuart court in 1712. The following year he was at Leopold’s side to officially welcome James to the duchy. James’s court was established in the town of Bar-le-duc and O’Rourke served as intermediary between Leopold in Lunéville and James in Bar. Throughout this period, James sought to identify his future wife to secure the Jacobite succession. For his part, Leopold had considered soliciting a match between James and one of the sisters or nieces of Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI. To that effect, O’Rourke was sent to Vienna in 1715. Although a Jacobite marital alliance with the emperor did not materialise, O’Rourke was instrumental in establishing and maintaining communications with the court of Johann Wilhelm II, the Elector Palatine, whose niece was briefly considered as a potential bride for James.
Tensions between Britain and France upon one side and Austria and Spain on the other provided the Jacobites with an opportunity to court Austro-Spanish aid in the late 1720s. With Leopold’s tacit consent, O’Rourke was appointed as James’s plenipotentiary in Vienna in 1727. By the time he arrived in the city in April/May 1727, the four powers had already signed peace preliminaries which eventually culminated in the signing of the treaties of Seville in 1729 and Vienna in 1731. Nonetheless, O’Rourke spent four years attempting to convince Austrian ministers to support the Jacobite cause. These efforts were largely carried out in audiences with the chief ministers at court: Prince Eugene of Savoy and Philipp Ludwig von Sinzendorf, the Austrian court chancellor, whom O’Rourke gradually befriended. Throughout this time, he was also closely associated with the Portuguese ambassador Joao Gomes de Silva Tarouca, the Spanish diplomat James Fitz James Stuart, Duke of Liria and Xérica, and General John Andrew Hamilton, an Irish officer in the Imperial army and a favourite of both Prince Eugene and the emperor.
Despite his efforts it gradually became apparent that there was little support to be gained from the Austrian court, and by 1732 O’Rourke was considering a return to Lorraine. However, the outbreak of the War of the Polish Succession between Austria and France in October 1733 necessitated his remaining in Vienna. During this period the Jacobites unsuccessfully attempted to broker peace between the belligerent powers, though the French and Austrians were using multiple channels of communication and ultimately chose not to utilise James Stuart in negotiations. Peace preliminaries were eventually signed in October 1735. It was agreed that the emperor’s daughter Maria Theresa would marry Francis Stephen, Duke of Lorraine, the son of O’Rourke’s old master Duke Leopold. The French accepted the couple as the emperor’s heirs; Lorraine would in return be granted to Louis XV’s father-in-law, Stanisław Leszczyński, who had been a claimant to the throne of Poland during the war.
The final years of O’Rourke’s stay in Vienna were divided between Francis Stephen’s and Maria Theresa’s court in Pressburg (modern-day Bratislava) and the Bohemian Court Chancery in Vienna. Between 1738 and 1743 O’Rourke led efforts to secure an inheritance in Habsburg Silesia for James’s sons Charles Edward and Henry Benedict, following the death of their grandfather Prince Jakub Ludwik Sobieski in December 1737. In this matter O’Rourke worked closely with the Papal Nuncio, Cardinal Camillo Paolucci, and combatted efforts by James’s sister-in-law, Maria Karolina and her husband Charles Godefroy (the duchess and duke of Bouillon respectively), to claim the Sobieski inheritance for themselves. Although the authorities ultimately ruled in favour of the Stuarts, the Sobieski estate was seized by Frederick I of Prussia following his invasion of Silesia in 1740.
Owen O’Rourke’s last surviving letter to James III, in which he described at length his increasing infirmity, was written in December 1742. He died in January 1743 and his age was reported by the Vienna newspapers as eighty-two. He was survived by his wife, who died in 1752. Although the couple did not have any children, Catherine-Diane was survived by her daughter (from her first marriage) and her grandchildren, the most prominent of whom was Étienne Francois, duke of Choiseul, Louis XV’s chief minister. O’Rourke was made a count by Duke Leopold of Lorraine in 1727. The same year, he was created Baron O’Rourke in the Jacobite peerage and in 1731 he became viscount of Breffney. The bulk of O’Rourke’s surviving correspondence can be found in Nancy, Vienna and at Windsor Castle. Microfilm copies of his letters from the Austrian archives can also be found in the National Library of Ireland. There are no known images of O’Rourke or his wife.