The O’Neill Family

o'neill crest

(Crest. No. 2. Plate 1.)

HIGH race of O’Neill! will no Feardan bring thee

His Clearsach of power to honor and sing thee?

From the hills of the North hath thy glory departed?

Are the bards of Tyr-Owen grown false and cold-hearted?

That when wine cups are fill’d and true hearts are meeting,

All silent, they pay thee nor homage nor greeting?—

No, though sad is my soul that thy house once the greatest,

Hath left but one minstrel the meanest and latest.

The broken in spirit, the weigh’d down by sorrow—

And, oh! how unlike to the bard of MacCaura,

Yet weak though his harp, as the reed by the river.

Its chords are his heart strings—the Red Hand forever!

Proud Lords of Tyr-Owen! high chiefs of Lough Neagh,

How broad stretched the lands that were ruled by your sway,

What eagle would venture to wing them right through,

But would droop on his pinion o’er half ere he flew.

From the hills of MacCarthan, and waters that ran

Like steeds down Glen Swilly to soft-flowing Bann—

From Clannaboy’s heather to Garrick’s seashore,

And high Armagh of Saints to wild Innismore—

From the cave of the hunter on Tyrconnel hills

To the dells of Glenarm, all gushing with rills—

From Antrim’s bleak rocks to the woods of Rosstrevor—

All echoed thy war shout—the Red Hand forever!

Ah! show me on earth coronation so splendid

As when the Lia-fail[1] thy chieftain ascended—

His Brehons around him—the blue heavens o’er him—

His true clan behind, and his broad lands before him,

While grouped far below him on moor and on heather

His tanists and chiefs are assembled together;

They give him a sword, and he swears to protect them;

A slender white wand, and he vows to direct them;

And there in God’s sunshine O’Neill they all hail him

Through life, unto death, ne’er to flinch from or fail him;

And earth hath no spell that can shatter or sever

That bond from their true hearts—the Red Hand forever!

When the Saxon, with slaughter, swept fierce from the Pale

Who arose, in their might, with their flag on the gale?—

Unconquer’d and strong met the foe in their pride,

And, as Rathlin the sea, dash’d their billows aside,

Who, like straw in the stubble, trod down Nugent’s spears,

And MacAlister tore from his stout mountaineers?

Who humbled proud Essex? Stern Bagnall, and bore

His flag without check, from Armagh to Dunmore?—

Who conquered at Bael-Breac[2] made Monroe to flee,

Like a stag from the deer hounds, on high Clan-hugh-bwee?

Who scattered the Saxons, by plain, ford, and river?

Hark! answers Benburb with—the Red Hand forever!

Author of “The Monks of Kilcrea.”

The O’Neill family is descended from Milesius, King of Spain, through the line of his son Heremon. The founder of the family was Eogan, ancestor of the Northern Hy Nials, son of Nial of the Nine Hostages, King of Ireland, A. D. 379. The ancient name was Nial, and signifies “Champion.” The surname was taken from Niell Glenndubh (Black Knee), King of Ireland, A. D. 914, who was slain in a great battle with the Danes, in the vicinity of Dublin, A. D. 919.

The titles of the chiefs of this line were Prince of Tyrone, Clanneboy and Tireogan, King of Ulster and Lord of Aighert, and their possessions embraced the present County of Tyrone. Donnell (O’Neil, son of Muirterkagh, was the immediate predecessor of Malachy the Great, and died in 979.

The O’Neils of Thomond were also of the Northern stock. They went south in the tenth century to assist in expelling the Danish invaders, and some of them settled in the Counties of Clare, Cork and Tipperary, where their descendants are numerous to-day.

The O’Neils were among the first of the Irish chiefs to grasp the necessity of united action on the part of the Irish chiefs and princes against the invader, and they fought bravely, intelligently, and generally with success against the foreign despoiler. Muirchearteach of the house of Niel, Prince of Aileach, in the tenth century, endeavored to subdue the Danes and their provincial allies, and made every possible effort to present united resistance to the foreigner.

Still, the O’Neils, at times, were at war with the neighboring princes. They raided Leinster five times in a single year. Nial the Great was a celebrated warrior, and met the Roman forces in Britain and Gaul successfully. It was from one of his warlike expeditions into Gaul that he brought back to Ireland the captive youth, who afterward became Ireland’s Apostle—Saint Patrick.

Those of the descendants of Nial who settled in Meath, were designated the Southern Hy Nials; those who settled in Ulster, the Northern Hy Nials. Both branches supplied many Ard-Righs, or monarchs, to Ireland. From the time of Nial to that of Brian Boru, embracing a little more than five and a half centuries, forty-six O’Neils sat on the throne of Ireland’s kings. The possessions of the northern branch were known as Tir-Owen, or the land of Owen, from Eoghan, their ancestor, son of Nial.

owen roe o'neill


When King Henry the Second came to Ireland to promote the cause of religion, with the blood of Saint Thomas à Becket red on his hands, he received the homage of several of the prelates and princes of the South and East of Ireland as sovereign lord of Hibernia; but no representative of the O’Neills was there. They resisted the intruders from the beginning, and had they been half adequately supported by the other chiefs and clans, they would have driven out the Saxon-Normans as Brian had driven out the Danes. Hence, it is not surprising that the O’Neills were the object of English hatred, and vengeance, and treachery down to the defeat of the great Hugh. Flagherty O’Neill, Lord of Aileach, beside Lough Swilly, ruled his territory from 1004 to 1036. He was one of the most prominent of the O’Neill family up to his time. The Four Masters record fourteen plundering expeditions which he led, sometimes against his own countrymen, and sometimes against the Northmen. He is sometimes styled “Flaithbheartach an Trostain,” or Flaherty of the Pilgrims’ Staff, from his having made a pilgrimage to Rome.

Hugh O’Neill, Lord of Tyrone, was one of the most redoubtable foes that the Anglo-Normans encountered in the North of Ireland. In 1198 he attacked them at Larne, and crushed their power for a time in that district. In 1208 he fought a battle with the O’Donnells, in which great numbers were slain on both sides. The combatants afterward formed an alliance against the English and their allies; in 1211 they made an attack on them on the shore of Lough Erne, and in 1212 O’Neill burned the newly-erected Castle of Clones, and the following year destroyed Carrickfergus, and “defeated and dreadfully slaughtered the English.”

He died in 1230, and his death is thus recorded: “Hugh O’Neill, Lord of Tyrone, who had never rendered hostages, pledges or tribute to English or Irish; who had gained victories over the English, and cut them off with great and frequent slaughter; the plunderer of the English and Irish; a man who had attempted the subjugation of all Ireland—died a natural death, although it was never supposed that he would die in any other way than to fall by the hands of the English.”

Nial More O’Neill, Lord of Tyrone, who died in 1397, led expeditions against the Anglo-Irish districts in 1374, 1375, 1383, 1384 and 1392. In 1387 he built a house near Armagh, where he entertained the bards and learned men of Ireland. He is characterized by the annalists “Destroyer of the English,” “Uniter of the Irish,” “Exalter of the Church and Sciences of Ireland,” and by other high-sounding titles.

Henry Aimreidh O’Neill, son of the former, was founder of the Clan Enri, who settled in the fourteenth century in the locality of Newtownstewart, County of Tyrone. Dr. O’Donovan writes: “There are more traditions preserved about this Henry Avry O’Neill than any of the later chieftains of that family, excepting, perhaps, Owen Roe and Sir Phelim.” Owen O’Neill, Lord of Tyrone, from 1432 to 1435, was a prominent chieftain of his day, being continually engaged in hostilities against the Anglo-Irish, and his neighbors, the O’Donnells, McQuillans, Maguires, of Fermanagh, and rival branches of the O’Neills. He was finally deposed by his son Henry, who was inaugurated at Tullaghoge in presence of the Archbishop of Armagh, the Maguires, MacMahons and his own kinsmen.

Two chieftains of this clan are entitled to the peculiar honor and reverence of the Irish race—Sir Phelim O’Neill, and John the Proud.

The former was hanged, by order of Cromwell, in Dublin, in 1652, in pretended punishment of his participation in the alleged “Popish Massacre,” of 1641. It is true that Phelim had sent some thousands of the invaders across the Styx, but he did so in defense of the lands of the O’Neills and of Irish freedom. He was offered his liberty on the scaffold if he would incriminate Charles the First, but this he stoutly refused to do. His head was cut off and stuck on a pole, as a warning to other rebels.

John O’Neill, the most powerful chief in Ulster of his day, had so harassed the English and scoffed at all their arts of diplomacy, their offers of nobility and reformatory patronage, that the “government” determined, since he could not be overcome by force, he should be destroyed by treachery. Finally, the proud, ferocious and feared ruler of Ulster was murdered at a feast given to him by the Scotch McDonnells, of Antrim. The instigator of this foul treachery and slaughter was one Piers, an English officer and agent of the Lord Deputy. He appropriated O’Neill’s head, and received for it a thousand marks from his master. The ghastly trophy was gibbeted high on a pole, and for months grinned down at his murderer from a tower of Dublin Castle.

He was “turbulent” and “haughty,” proud and keen as Spanish steel,

But who had right of these, if not our Ulster’s chief—O’Neill?

Who reared aloft the “Bloody Hand” until it paled the sun,

And shed such glory on Tyrone as chief had never done.

He was “turbulent”—with traitors; he was “haughty” with the foe—

He was “cruel,” say ye Saxons? Ay! he dealt ye blow for blow!

He was “rough” and “wild,” and who’s not wild, to see his hearthstone razed?

He was “merciless as fire”—Ah! ye kindled him—he blazed!

He was “proud”; yes, proud of birthright, and because he flung away

Your Saxon stars of Princedom, as the rock does mocking spray,

He was wild, insane for vengeance—Ay! and preached it till Tyrone

Was ruddy, ready, wild, too, with “Red Hands” to clutch their own.

In curious contrast to the proud and fierce disposition of this chieftain, he was, when lavishing his hospitalities on his friends, the most genial of men, and the most agreeable of entertainers. His door was ever open to his friends, and his castle was the scene of many a princely banquet. As the poet writes:

Hail! Prince of Erin! honor’s noblest son,

A thousand welcomes greet the dark-eyed Con.

Soft heave the waves—the breezes waft him o’er

And give our chieftain to his native shore.

O’Neill! offspring of a noble race,

In all thy acts a liberal soul we trace.

The heart of hospitality commands

Thy doors to open, wide the portal stands,

Enter, O people! ’tis no miser’s hoard

That crowns so sumptuously your festive board;

But Generosity, whose hand divine

Bears the rich viands and the laughing wine, etc.

The career of Owen Roe O’Neill, the victor of Benburb, poisoned by the English, and of whom Napoleon said that if he had lived he would have outmatched Cromwell; and the life and deeds of the great Hugh, aptly called the “Irish Hannibal,” who for years baffled the treachery, diplomacy and power of Elizabeth’s Lord Deputies and armies are so well known to Irish readers, that further allusion to them would be superfluous. Many of the O’Neills signalized themselves in the military service of Spain and France, where they held grades ranging from Colonel to Marshal de Camp, and were admitted to the rank of the nobility. Many of the Southern, or Clare, O’Neills, of the branch of Heber, also served in the French and other Continental armies with distinction. One of these, Lieutenant-Colonel O’Neill, was killed while charging the English at the battle of Fontenoy.

Arthur O’Neill, a blind harper, was one of the last of the Irish bards. He is described as possessing unrivaled skill and much antiquarian knowledge, and is said to have been instrumental in preserving many of the ancient Irish melodies. He died in 1816, aged eighty-nine.

Elizabeth O’Neill (Lady Becher), born in 1791, was one of the greatest actresses of her day. “Her grace, sweetness, delicacy, refinement,” says the London “Athenæum,” “were things that London play-goers had long been strangers to. She may be said to have united the old stage with the new.” Her income amounted to over sixty thousand dollars a year, something remarkable for that day.

Among the American representatives of this family may be mentioned General John O’Neill, of Fenian celebrity. He served in the Union Army during the late Civil War. On June 2, 1866, when a Fenian invasion of Canada was planned by the Irish in the United States, he led four hundred Irish-American soldiers, nearly all veterans of the late Civil War, into Canada, at Fort Erie, where he encountered Colonel Booker, at the head of sixteen hundred English-Canadian troops. After a brief fight the latter were routed in utter disorder, some of them not having ceased in the stampede until they reached Hamilton, forty miles distant.

As the United States Government had interfered to preserve the neutrality laws, and no reinforcements came, O’Neill next day recrossed the river to New York.

Subsequently, he founded O’Neill City, in the State of Nebraska, which is to-day a flourishing town.

The O’Neills are still numerous in Ireland, and throughout the English-speaking countries. One of the noblest living representatives of this illustrious family is the Very Rev. Canon O’Neill, the present parish priest of Clones, in the County of Monaghan, Ireland.


[1] Lia-fail—stone of destiny, and the chair in which the O’Neills were crowned.

[2] Bael-Breac—the spotted mouth, in allusion to the battle of Béal-an-Atha-buidhe.