O'Neill Surname Meaning, History & Origin
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.
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
the Grianan of Aileach overlooking the Inishowen peninsula in Donegal.
- Royal O’Neill Clan. O’Neill clan
- The Association of O’Neill Clans.
O’Neill clan website.
- Quaker O’Neall and Friends.
Hugh O’Neill/O’Neall descendants in America.
- O’Neill DNA Project.
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
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
In the 14th century a branch of the Tyrone O’Neills had migrated to
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
- 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
- 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
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
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 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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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:
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:
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
- John and Bridget O’Neill from Clare, who sailed to South
Australia on the Epanminondos
- 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.
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.
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
“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
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
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
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
but one bottle of water left between them by that time.
refugees’ destination was Spain, but they disembarked in France and
proceeded overland to Spanish Flanders, whilst the main party continued
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
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
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.
was a remarkable fact that for almost a
century the Irish regiment in Spain was never without at least one
among its senior officers. At the formation of the regiment in 1709 the
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’
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
- 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’Neill Numbers Today
- 39,000 in the UK (most numerous
- 59,000 in America (most numerous
in New York)
- 68,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Ireland).
Select 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.
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