The O’Neill family traces its history back to 360 A.D. to the legendary 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 Ui Neill dynasty split into two septs, the Northern Ui Neill and the Southern Ui Neill, around 400 A.D.
The name is derived from two separate Gaelic words, “Ua Niall,” which means grandson of Niall, and “Neill” meaning “champion.”
When Nial Gluin Dubh (Niall of the Back Knee), the King of Ireland from 890 until 919 A.D., was killed fighting the raiding Norsemen, his grandson Domhnall adopted the surname Neill.
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. Another story tells of three O’Neill brothers who were given laurel branches as a result of their victory over the Vikings and added the nickname “Creagh” to their names.
The significance of the red hand on the O’Neill family coat of arms is often debated, and there are many interpretations as to what it signifies. The most prominent myth recounts that two Mileasan chiefs wished to settle a land dispute with a boating contest. The first man to touch the shore with his right hand would be the winner and rightful king. The chief who was about to lose, cut off his right hand and threw it to the shore before his opponent could touch it.
King Aedh “the Stout” O’Neill of Ulster first used the crest during his reign in the mid-1300s. Subsequent generations and kings made their own modifications resulting in the current coat of arms.
The Great Hugh O’Neill (1550-1616) was the second Earl of Tyrone. After a number of years and patriotic Irish actions, Hugh O’Neill was inaugurated as “The O’Neill” in 1595. He defended his lands for six years from the English but left his northern strong-hold to attack them with fellow Irish leader Red Hugh O’Donnell and Spanish allies at the Battle of Kinsale on December 24, 1601.
The Irish forces were defeated and Hugh O’Neill and Red Hugh O’Donnell were forced to leave Ireland, in what is now known as the “Flight of the Earls,” in 1607. The departure of those two Irish chieftains for Europe effectively ended the Gaelic order in Ireland. Hugh O’Neill spent his last days in Rome, where he died in 1616 being buried next to his son in San Pietro. His death is the last entry in the Annals of the Four Masters, the best-known account of medieval Irish history.
After the defeat at Kinsale, many O’Neills fled to Spain and Portugal. The remaining O’Neills split into two septs; the senior branch were called the Tyrone O’Neills and the younger branch were known as the “Clan Aedh Buidhe,” the Yellow-haired Hughs or Clanaboy.
The O’Neills continued to distinguish themselves in the fight for Ireland’s independence. Owen Roe O’Neill organized the return of 300 Irish officers in the Spanish service to Ireland to support the Irish Rebellion of 1641, which was led by Felim O’Neill of Kinard (Phelim O’Neill). Felim also fought with Owen Roe O’Neill during the Irish Confederate Wars, also known as the War of the Three Kingdoms, 1639-51 (an intertwined series of conflicts that took place in Ireland, Scotland and England), and was put to death by the British in 1653. Owen Roe’s nephew, Hugh Dubh O’Neill, who was born in Brussels in 1611, also played an important role in the Wars, especially with his defense of Clonmel against England’s “New Model Army” in 1650. Hugh Dubh’s father, Art Óg O’Neill, was among those exiles who made careers for themselves in the Spanish Army of Flanders after the Battle of Kinsale.
In America, O’Neills continued to distinguish themselves as soldiers. Some 175 O’Neills served in the Continental Army, including Captain William O’Neill who served with great distinction during the Battle of Brandywine. And the town of O’Neill, Nebraska, is named for General John O’Neill, an Irish immigrant who fought for the Union during the Civil War.
More recently, O’Neills have been active in politics on both sides of the Atlantic. Thomas Phillip “Tip” O’Neill Jr. (1912-1994) was an outspoken Democrat who served in the House of Representatives and was the second-longest-serving Speaker of the House.
Paul O’Neill, who is successful in both business and politics served as the 72nd United States Secretary of the Treasury on behalf of President George W. Bush until 2002. During his time as treasurer he made a trip to Africa with U2’s Bono. He was asked to resign by the White House over differences he had with the President’s tax cuts.
O’Neills are also well known in the art world, displaying their skills in a variety of areas. Henry Nelson O’Neil (1817-1880) painted historical scenes and was also a minor Victorian writer. His best-known paintings are Eastward, Ho! and Home Again, along with a number of paintings portraying the deaths of Mozart and Raphael.
Eugene Gladstone O’Neill (1888-1953), the great American dramatist who is featured in this issue, was born in New York City, the son of an Irish immigrant, James O’Neill, who made his living as an actor. O’Neill’s first published play, Beyond the Horizon, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1920. In 1936 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He died in Boston on November 27, 1953.
Kevin O’Neill is a renowned illustrator who has contributed to children’s comics as well as several science-fiction series such as ABC Warriors, Nemesis the Warlock and Metalzpic. Most recently Kevin has done the illustrations for the ongoing comic series and recent movie The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
Several O’Neills have made their mark in the sports world. Jonjo O’Neill is a well-known Irish jockey and trainer, Martin O’Neill has managed Scotland’s Celtic football club to huge success in recent years, and baseball player Paul O’Neill made a name for himself with the New York Yankees. Paul’s sister Molly O’Neill, is a food columnist for The New York Times.
Two more O’Neills who have distinguished themselves are brothers William and Tom O’Neill. William is a human rights lawyer, and Tom, a former writer for Premiere and US magazine when it was a monthly, is currently working on a book about the CIA. Their grandfather, Congressman Harry P. O’Neill, was a representative from Scranton, Pennsylvania. ♦