Select O'Neill Miscellany

Here are some O'Neill stories and accounts over the years:

Descendants of Niall of the Nine Hostages

The 5th century warlord known as Niall of the Nine Hostages established a dynasty of powerful chieftains that dominated Ireland for six centuries.  He may in fact have been the ancestor of about one in twelve Irishmen, according to researchers at Trinity College in Dublin.  Up to three million men around the world could be descended from him.

In a study of the Y chromosome - which is only passed down through the male line - scientists found a hotspot in NW Ireland where 21.5 percent carried Niall's genetic fingerprint.  This was the main powerbase of the Ui Neills (descendants of Niall).  Brian McEvoy of the team at Trinity said that the Y chromosome did appear to trace back to one person.

"There are certain surnames that seem to have come from Ui Neill.  We studied if there were any association between those surnames and the genetic profile.  We found that it was his (Niall's family)."

The study said that the Niall chromosome had also been found in 16.7 percent of men in western and central Scotland and turned up in multiple North American samples, including 2 percent of European-American New Yorkers.

"Given historically high rates of Irish immigration to North America and other parts of the world, it seems likely that the number of descendants worldwide could run to two or three million males."

In addition to the Niall chromosome (NWI) prevalent in NW Ireland, three other O'Neill DNA's have been identified:
  • the O'Neill Variety (ON), believed to be from a later family of royal O'Neills from Ulster;
  • the Munster Variety (MUN), from O'Neills in Munster;
  • and the O'Neills of Magh da Chonn (MDCh), from a separate O'Neill sept found in an area called Moyacomb which includes parts of Carlow, Wexford, and Waterford.

The Red Hand of Ireland Forever

The O'Neill clan motto was lambh deargh erin, meaning "red hand of Ireland;" while the clan warcry was lambh deargh abu or "red hand forever."
A severed bloody red hand has in fact been a prominent part of the O'Neill family heritage.  It was first used on a shield by Aedh (Hugh) "the Stout" O'Neill, king of Ulster in the mid 14th century.   Below the hand was a wavy line representing water and below that a silver salmon.  This was said to represent the voyage of the Milesians from Spain by boat to Ireland, the "land of destiny."

There are a number of variations to the legend as told through the ages.

There were once two chiefs disputing ownership of the land.  They agreed to settle the question in a competition.  They set out in two open boats with the understanding that the first to touch the shore with his right hand could claim the land.  The O'Neill ancestor saw his opponent stepping onto the shore and, realizing that he would lose, cut off his hand with his sword and threw it, touching the shore before the other.

Other versions of the story suggested that the sword was a knife or that there were no boats - that instead they swam across the Irish Sea to claim Ulster or that they swam Lough Neagh from Ram's island towards Tyrone.  This interpretation goes back to the belief that the O'Neills were descendants of the mythological Milesians who first came to Ireland.

Some scholars have suggested that the hand represents the Derbfine (inner family), the wrist the king or chief, the palm his sons, and the fingers his grandsons from whom a successor would be appointed.  The legend has caused some branches of the family to suggest that is why there is one left-handed O'Neill in every generation and that the southpaw is considered "the lucky one."

O'Neill as Creagh

The O'Neills were known by the nickname Creagh, which comes from the Gaelic word craobh, meaning "branch," because they were known to camouflage themselves to resemble the forest when fighting the Norsemen.  One story tells of three O'Neill brothers who were given laurel branches as a result of their victory and added the nickname Creagh to their names.

The Flight of the Earls

The Flight of the Earls took place on September 14, 1607, when Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, and Rory O'Donnell, Earl of Tyrconnell, and about ninety followers left Ulster for the continent of Europe.  It followed their defeat at the Battle of Kinsale in 1601 which in effect marked the end of the old Gaelic political order.

The Earls set sail from Rathmullan, a village on the shore of Lough Swilly in Donegal, and reached Normandy in France twenty days later.  The Earl of Tyrone, according to a witness Tadhg O'Cianain, "had a gold cross which contained a relic of the True Cross and this he trailed in the water behind the ship and it gave some relief from the storm" during the crossing.  It was said that the ship almost foundered on several occasions before landfall and that they had but one bottle of water left between them by that time. 

The refugees' destination was Spain, but they disembarked in France and proceeded overland to Spanish Flanders, whilst the main party continued to Italy. 

The Flight of the Earls can be said to have started the Scottish Protestant plantations in Ulster and the later "Troubles" in Northern Ireland.  The Flight was also the start of the Irish diaspora.  The early 17th century witnessed Irish men and women dispersed to the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, and Newfoundland; and, as well, as a direct result of the Flight, Irish soldiers - the original "wild geese" - saw service in armies around Europe and further afield.

The O'Neills in Spain

Hugh O’Neill, the Earl of Tyrone, became Conde de Tyron in Spain.  His son Henry had settled there in 1600 and at the age of 18 was given the colonelcy of an Irish regiment in Spain.  However, he died in 1610 at the age of 23. 

His brother John succeeded him and earned many decorations in a long military career for Spain.  In 1641 he approached Barcelona with his regiment of Tyrone and attacked the fortress, but was the first to be killed in the assault.  John was the last surviving son of Hugh O'Neill.  John’s son Hugh Eugenio continued to serve Spain militarily until his death in 1660. 

It was a remarkable fact that for almost a century the Irish regiment in Spain was never without at least one O'Neill among its senior officers. At the formation of the regiment in 1709 the senior captain was Arthuro O'Neill.

Shane's Castle in County Antrim

Shane's castle, formerly called
Edenduffcarrick, lies on the edge of Lough Neagh.  The old castle had large underground vaults which raised its frontage to the level of the lough.  In addition, there was a passage about 100 yards long which ran underground from the castle to the adjacent graveyard.  It was used as the servants' entrance. The castle was left by Shane O'Neill, the last Gaelic lord of Clanaboy, when he departed for Portugal in 1740.  An O'Neill line continued there via Mary O'Neill who married the Rev. Arthur Chichester with their family then adopting the O'Neill name.

These O'Neills, ennobled by the English in 1868, have played an active role in Irish public life.  In the 19th century Earl O'Neill had almost completed the restoration of a new mansion there designed by Nash when it was destoyed by fire. 

Some said that the fire was caused by Kathleen, the family banshee, who had been disturbed during the rebuilding. 

"According to the old legend, an O'Neill returned home one day to find that his daughter Kathleen had been carried away by the wee folk to the bottom of the Lough.  The wee folk allowed her to return and tell him she was safe, but made her promise that whenever misfortune visited the family she must appear and be heard to wail."

The house was burned again later by Sinn Fein.

The present Earl, a steam engine enthusiast, runs a railway system on the estate.

O'Neills in Puerto Rico

The earliest record shows that a man named Don Juan O'Neill arrived in Puerto Rico in the 1710's.  He married Anna Garcia there and his descendants,  starting with his son Don Patricio O'Neill Garcia, have been traced.

Most O'Neill families of Puerto Rico have resided for many generations in the districts of Hato Nuevo, Mamay, and Sanadora in the city of Guaynabo on the north coast.  Other O'Neill families settled in Rio Piedras and Caguas.  And O'Neills from Tortola were to be found on the island of Viques.  The O'Neills have produced a few mayors in these places.

The O'Neill name is still to be found on the island.  O'Neill & Borges is one of the leading corporate law firms in Puerto Rico.  Maria de Mater O'Neill is a local artist and lithographer.

John O'Neill and the Concord Point Lighthouse

On the morning of May 3, 1813, British forces under Admiral George Cockburn attacked the port of Havre de Grace at the mouth of the Susquehanna river in Maryland, retaliating for the town’s defiant cannon fire and the running up of its colors.  The heavy British fire caused many of his fellow soldiers to abandon their posts.  But Lieutenant John O’Neill of the local militia stood fast, taking charge of one of the cannons himself.

Later he said:

“The grapeshot flew thick about me. I loaded the cannon myself without anyone to serve the vent, which as you know is very dangerous; and when I fired her, she recoiled and ran over my thigh.”

This injury forced O’Neill to leave his position and flee into town.  The British forces which had landed at Concord Point eventually captured him.  Hanging surely awaited.  But as story has it, his teenage daughter Matilda rowed out to Admiral Cockburn’s ship to seek mercy.  So impressed was the Admiral with the young girl’s courage that he released O’Neill and gave Matilda a gold snuff box, which is housed today at the Maryland Historical Society.  In time, O'Neill came to be known as the "hero of Havre de Grace."

John O'Neill served as lighthouse keeper at Concord Point and town commissioner until his death in 1836. While there have been many keepers over the years, at least one member of each generation of the O'Neill family kept the light while it was manually illuminated.  The last keeper was Harry O'Neill who began his service in 1919.

Cornelius and Anne Jane O'Neill in Australia

In 1857 Cornelius O'Neill arrived in Victoria from Limerick in Ireland.  He came from a Catholic family with some money and wanted to get an apprenticeship.  The family story is that two of his aunts came out with him and stayed in Australia until he had been an apprentice for a while.  Then they both returned to Ireland.

He met his wife-to-be Anne Jane Love, an Irish Protestant, in Australia.  They married in the Roman Catholic church in Tamworth in 1868.  Anne Jane would often say that in Ireland the match would not have been possible.

Cornelius and Anne Jane O'Neill had a large family.  Cornelius worked as a wheelwright and Anne Jane was renowned as a bush midwife.  They had ten children and lived at Brewarrina for most of their lives.  Anne Jane died in 1911 and after that Cornelius and his sons and daughters moved to Marrickville, Sydney and lived on Silver Street.  Cornelius died in 1921 in his son's house there.

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