Select O'Neill Surname Genealogy

O'Neill is an Irish clan whose name goes back into the mists of history - to the legendary 5th century warrior king of Ireland Niall Noigiallach (Niall of the Nine Hostages) who is said to have been responsible for bringing St. Patrick to Ireland.

The name derived from two separate Gaelic words, Ua Niall which means "grandson of Niall" and Neill meaning "champion."  When Nial Gluin Dubh (Nial of the Back Knee) was killed in 919 fighting the raiding Norsemen, his grandson Domhnall adopted the surname Ua Niall.  The clan stronghold at that time was the Grianan of Aileach overlooking the Inishowen peninsula in Donegal.

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Select O'Neill Ancestry

Ireland.  The O'Neills were the chief family of the Cinel Eoghen, their territory being Tir Eoghen (or Tyrone) which then also included most of Derry and parts of Donegal.  Aedh (Hugh) "the Stout" O'Neill, king of Ulster in the 14th century, took as his clan emblem and warcry a severed bloody right hand (the red hand of Ireland forever).  Until 1595 the chiefs were inaugurated as the O'Neill Mor (the great O'Neill).  For most of that time these chiefs from their base at Dungannon were able to keep Ulster free of English encroachment.

In the 14th century a branch of the Tyrone O'Neills had migrated to Antrim where they became known as the clan Aedh Buidhe (clan of the yellow-haired Hugh) or Clanaboy - from Aedh Buidhe O'Neill who had been slain in 1283.  The Clanaboy clan chieftain styled himself the O'Neill Buidhe.  His stronghold in county Antrim was Edenduffcarrick, subsequently Shane's castle. 

Other lesser clans of O'Neills were also formed, those of the Fews in Armagh and the Ivowen, Thomond, Cor, and Meath O'Neills.  The O'Neill name was also quite common in county Carlow where an O'Neill sept was to be found in the barony of Rathvilly.

In the 16th and 17th centuries the struggles to preserve Gaelic Ireland against the English intruders centered in large part around the O'Neills:
  • Conn Bacach (the lame) O'Neill was the first of the warrior O'Neills at this time; his son Shane O'Neill (Shane the proud) left a bloody trail in his wake; while grandson Hugh O'Neill won against the English and then lost (at Kinsale) and fled to Europe.  His death in Rome in 1616 was the last entry that was recorded in The Annals of the Four Masters, the Gaelic medieval history of Ireland. 
  • later, Phelim O'Neill led the Rebellion of 1641 and fought in the Confederate Wars, before being betrayed by a kinsman and executed in 1653; and Sir Nial O'Neill fought and died at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.  However, fate was kinder to Daniel O'Neill, nephew to the soldier Owen Roe O'Neill. After espousing the Royalist side during the English Civil War, he was feted by Charles II following the Restoration and died one of the richest men in Ireland.
At this time, with many O'Neills facing persecution, a number changed their names.   Names such as Paine, McShane and Johnson emerged as these O'Neills sought to hide their identities.
The O'Neills were said to be a fiercely proud, sometimes arrogant clan.  The wandering blind harper Arthur O'Neill was recorded as having said: "wherever an O'Neill sits he is always the head of the table."  The clan history has been covered most recently in Desmond O'Neill's 1996 book The Ancient and Royal Family of O'Neill.

Some O'Neills later took the English line, most notably the O'Neills who succeeded to Shane's castle in Antrim.  From this line came Hugh O'Neill, Baron Rathcavan, an Ulster Unionist politician who died in 1982 at the ripe old age of ninety nine and Terence O'Neill, Baron of the Maine, who was Prime Minister of Northern Ireland in the 1960's.

Spain and FranceThe Flight of the Earls in 1607, with Hugh O'Neill the Earl of Tyrone, may be said to have started Irish emigration.  Other O'Neills followed him.  Hugh's nephew Owen Roe (the red-haired) and Art g O'Neill were among those exiles who made a career for themselves in the Spanish army in Flanders; as was, it was said, the grandfather of Alexis O'Neill, the forebear of the French O'Neills.   Patrick O'Neill, the grandson of Hugh, was born in Spanish Flanders, was recognized by Spain as Hugh's successor, and made his home in Spain.

The O’Neills in Spain
in fact began with Henry O’Neill, the 13 year old son of Hugh, arriving in Spain in the year 1600.  His line was covered in Micheline Walsh’s 1957 book The O’Neills in Spain.

Phelim O'Neill of Clanaboy, who arrived in France in the early 1700's, was a cavalry officer who fought with the Irish Brigade of the French army.  There then followed the most notable of the O'Neill departures from Ireland, that of Shane O'Neill, the head of the Clanaboy clan, in 1740.  He moved to Portugal and his aristocratic O'Neill dynasty has continued there to the present day. 

Henry O'Neill of the O'Neill Fews, after losing his land tenancy in Ireland, moved to Spain with his wife Hanna in 1758 and served in the Spanish colonial service in the Americas.  His descendants became sugar planters in Puerto Rico.

Caribbean.  Many O'Neills in fact came to Puerto Rico, an island under Spanish rule.  The earliest records show a Don Juan O'Neill arriving there in the 1710's.  Some came from Spain or Spanish Flanders, others from elsewhere in the Caribbean.  Meanwhile, the descendants of Patrick O'Neill who had given their loyalty to France settled in the island of Martinique.

America.  O'Neills were said to be among those who accompanied Leonard Calvert in 1633 in his mission to establish a Catholic colony in what is today Maryland.  A firmer O'Neill sighting in Maryland was that of John O'Neill who had arrived from Ireland in 1786 and was employed in the local militia.  He was the hero of a skirmish against the British in the War of 1812 and later served as the Concord Point lighthouse keeper.

Hugh O'Neill had arrived in Delaware around 1730.  His origins in Ireland are uncertain.  A descendant Judge John Belton O'Neall wrote in his Annals of Newberry published in the 1850's:

"Hugh was, I think, a midshipman in or at any rate belonged to the English navy; and, not liking his berth while at anchor in the Delaware, he jumped overboard, swam ashore and landed near Wilmington, as well as I can remember, at the little Swedish town of Christiana.  Here he lived many years and married Annie Cox.  On landing, to escape detection, he had altered the spelling of his name, from O'Neill to O'Neall."
His descendants were plantation owners in Bush Creek, South Carolina.  Abijah O'Neall. a Quaker who objected on principle to slavery, moved himself in 1800 to the free-slave state of Ohio.  Other O'Nealls migrated to Georgia and Florida.

America in the 19th century was home to three notable O'Neills:
  • John O'Neill, who had followed his mother to America as a young boy in 1848.  He fought in the Civil War and then joined the Irish nationalist cause.  He embarked on a plan to invade Canada and later took up the cause of resettling Irish families in the American West.  O'Neill in Nebraska was founded by John O'Neill in 1875.
  • Daniel O'Neill, who arrived in 1851 and settled in Pittsburgh.  He became a well-known newspaper man, owning and editing the Pittsburgh Dispatch with his brother Eugene.
  • and James O'Neill, who came to this country at the age of five in 1852.  He became a well-known actor, best known for playing the Count of Monte Cristo.  His son was even more famous, being the playwright Eugene O'Neill.
Canada.  O'Neills came early to Canada's Maritime Provinces.  Local tradition has it that the O'Neills were the first settlers in Holyrood, Newfoundland.  The first recorded O'Neill in Newfoundland was Julianna O'Neal who registered property in Harbour Main in 1793.

The O'Neills of Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia date from 1787 when John O'Neill, a fisherman, was granted land at Main-a-Dieu.  Henry O'Neill married in Lunenburg county, Nova Scotia in 1802.  He and his son were lost at sea while on a voyage to the West Indies in 1846.  Another Henry O'Neil, this time from Guysborough, was a sea captain in the 1860's.

Australia and New Zealand.  The early O'Neills in Australia were convicts.  Two were transported there on political grounds for their supposed involvement in the Irish Rebellion of 1798.  One - Peter O'Neill, a priest - was barbarously scourged on a trumped-up charge of having abetted a murder.  The other - Thomas O'Neill, a Dublin tailor - received better treatment.  He pursued his trade in Sydney and gained the favor of Governor Macquarie:

"In 1811 His Excellency Governor Macquarie bid me go and pick out a small farm where I choose.  I went and chose it at Middle Harbour.  I must remark that when the Governor handed me the order he said: 'Tommy, here is your order, let me see you get rich.'"

Among later O'Neill migrants were:
  • Eugene and Ellen Mary O'Neill from Cork, who arrived in Victoria in the early 1840's.  Eugene was an engineer in Melbourne.  He died youngish in the 1860's.
  • John and Bridget O'Neill from Clare, who sailed to South Australia on the Epanminondos in 1852.   
  • Thomas O'Neil from county Down, who went to New Zealand on the Lancashire Witch in 1856.  He had enlisted in the British army and been sent to fight in the Land Wars.
  • Cornelius O'Neill from Limerick, who travelled with his aunts to Victoria in 1857.
  • and Michael and Mary Ann O'Neill from Kerry, who reached Brisbane in Queensland  in 1863.
Select O'Neill Miscellany

If you would like to read more, click on the miscellany page for further stories and accounts:

Select O'Neill Names

Domhnall, the grandson of Niall Glun Dubh, was in the 10th century the first clan chief to adopt the O'Neill name.
Hugh O'Neill, the Earl of Tyrone, fought and lost against the English at Kinsale and then was forced to flee Ulster in 1607.
Eliza O'Neill, the actress, was a star of the Irish and English stage in the early 1800's.
Eugene O'Neill was an acclaimed American playwright of the first half of the 20th century.
Tip O'Neill was a long-serving Congressman from Massachusetts who was Speaker of the House from 1977 to 1987.
Martin O'Neill was a Northern Ireland footballer who became a football manager and pundit in England.
Shaq O'Neal has been a tall and dominating center basketball center in the NBA.

Select O'Neills Today
  • 39,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 59,000 in America (most numerous in New York)
  • 68,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Ireland).

PS.  You might want to check out the surnames page on this website.  It covers surname genealogy in this and companion websites for more than 800 surnames.

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