O'Neill Surname Meaning, History & Origin

O’Neill Surname Meaning

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.

O’Neill Surname Resources on The Internet

O’Neill Surname Ancestry

  • from Ireland (Ulster)
  • to France, Spain, Caribs (Puerto Rico), America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand

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”

Early History.  O’Neill, king of Ulster in the 14th century, took as his clan emblem and war-cry 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.

Later History.  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.

Then 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 have been 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.

Ulster Unionists.  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 France. The 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.

18th Century  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.

19th Century  America in the 19th century was home to three notable O’Neills.

John O’Neill 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 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 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.  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:

  • Peter O’Neill, a priest, was barbarously scourged on a trumped-up charge of having abetted a murder.
  • while 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.
  • 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.

New Zealand.  Thomas O’Neil from county Down 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.

O’Neill Surname Miscellany

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.

Harry Avery’s Castle in Tyrone.  This castle was thought to have been built in the 14th century and named after Henry Aimbreidh (Avery) O’Neill, a local chief who died in 1392.

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 destroyed 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.

Mary Devenport O’Niell.  Joseph and Mary O’Niell were both from county Galway but they married in Dublin in 1908.  They stayed in Dublin, became a part of its literary set, and made a home for themselves in Dublin’s Kenilworth Square.

Mary became a prominent figure in Dublin salons and was good friends with a number of important Irish poets.  She was particularly close to William Butler Yeats.

She published a book of poetry entitled Prometheus and Other Poems in 1929.  She was just the second author to produce a volume of “modernist” poetry besides Yeats.  Her poetry often described her childhood in Galway.  This poem Galway gave a wonderful description of life in the windswept city by the sea.

  • “I know a town tormented by the sea,
  • And there time goes slow
  • That the people see it flow
  • And watch it drowsily,
  • And growing older hour by hour they say,
  • ‘Please God, to-morrow!
  • Then we will work and play,’
  • And their tall houses crumble away.
  • This town is eaten through with memory
  • Of pride and thick red Spanish wine and gold
  • And a great come and go;
  • But the sea is cold,
  • And the spare, black trees
  • Crouch in the withering breeze
  • That blows from the sea,
  • And the land stands bare and alone,
  • For its warmth is turned away
  • And its strength held in hard cold grey-blue stone;
  • And the people are heard to say,
  • Through the raving of the jealous sea,
  • ‘Please God, to-morrow!
  • Then we will work and play.’”

Mary died in 1967.

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 basketball center in the NBA.

O’Neill Numbers 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).

O’Neill and Like Surnames 

The Irish clan or sept names come through the mists of time until they were found in Irish records such as The Annals of the Four Masters.  The names were Gaelic and this Gaelic order was preserved until it was battered down by the English in the 1600’s.

Some made peace with the English.  “Wild geese” fled to fight abroad.  But most stayed and suffered, losing land and even the use of their language.  Irish names became anglicized, although sometimes in a mishmash of spellings.  Mass emigration happened after the potato famine of the 1840’s.

Some surnames – such as Kelly, Murphy and O’Connor – span all parts of Ireland.  But most will have a territorial focus in one of the four Irish provinces – Leinster, Munster, Ulster, and Connacht.

Ulster in NE Ireland covers the counties of Derry, Antrim, Down, Tyrone, Armagh, Fermanagh, Cavan, Monaghan, and Donegal.  Here are some of the Ulster surnames (excluding the Scots Irish surnames) that you can check out.


Click here for return to front page

Written by Colin Shelley

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *