What’s in a name?

The Antrim O'Neill.

My writer’s name David Rory O’Neill is not my given name. The O’Neill name is taken from my grandmother’s maiden name. It’s an ancient noble family with an interesting history.

Here is history of the name and family, two crests and an old song.

O'Neill crest.





A song of praise for an O’Neill Chief:

His Brehons around him – the blue heavens o’er him,

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

While group’d 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 then, 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 for Ever!

Proud lords of Tir-Owen! High Chiefs of Lough Neagh!

How broad-stretch’d the lands that were rul’d 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 MacCartan, and waters that ran

Like Steeds down Glen Swilly, to soft-flowing Bann –

From Clannaboy’s heather to Carrick’s sea-shore

And Armagh of the Saints to the wild Innismore –

From the cave of the hunter on Tir-Connell’s hills

To the dells of Glenarm, all gushing with rills –

From Antrim’s bleak rocks to the woods of Rostrevor –

All echo’d your war-shout –

`The Red Hand for Ever!’

O’Neill is arguably the most illustrious among the surnames of Ireland, though only tenth in the list of most commonly found names. The story of the sept originates in the myths of prehistory. The ancient clan historians trace the family back to Heremon, son of Milesius and Celtic conqueror of Ireland. Thence the line continues through many generations to through Conn Ceadcathach (Conn of the Hundred Battles), second century High King and on to Niall Naoi Ghiallach or Niall of the Nine Hostages, High King of Ireland from 377 to 404 AD. As High King of Ireland, Niall reigned from the ancient Irish royal seat at Tara, in modern Co. Meath. During his reign he conquered all of Ireland and Scotland and much of Britain and Wales. He took a royal hostage from each of the nine kingdoms he subjugated, hence his famous nickname. The families that descend from Niall are collectively known as the Uí Neill, meaning descendants of Niall, and not to be confused with the sept of O Neill. He had twelve sons, of whom four moved into Ulster to establish the dynasty there.

Eoghan, son of Niall gave his name to Tir Eoghain (in English Tyrone) and twelve generations later we find his descendant, Niall Glandubh (Niall of the Black Knee) as High King in 890 A.D. He was killed in battle against the Norsemen near Dublin in 919. It was his grandson, Domhnall (c. 943) who adopted the surname O Neill, meaning grandson of Niall. From the fifth to the eleventh century, and from the twelfth century to the death of Red Hugh O Neill in 1608, this dominant family were monarchs of all Ireland, kings of Ulster, earls and princes of Tyrone, statesmen and soldiers. The O Neills are the oldest family in Europe with unbroken descent in the male line. The descent of the original Tyrone family has continued unbroken, down to the present holder of the title of O Neill Mór.

From the sixth to the twelfth century, the Grianan of Aileach, which overlooks the Inishowen Peninsula in County Donegal, was an O Neill stronghold. It was plundered many times and Murtough O Brien demolished it in 1101 in revenge for the destruction of the O Brien royal seat at Kincora in County Clare. It is recorded that he ordered his soldiers to carry away the stones with their provisions. In the nineteenth century, the Grianan was imaginatively restored by a local citizen.

In the fourteenth century a branch of the Tyrone O Neills migrated to Antrim where they became known as Clann Aodha Bhuidhe, from Aodh Buidhe (or Hugh Boy) O Neill, who was slain in 1283. His name is perpetuated in the territorial name Clannaboy or Clandeboy. These O Neills reversed the usual trend in Ireland of that day by taking large tracts of land from the Anglo-Norman invaders. Their principal seat was at Edenduffcarrig, later known as Shane’s Castle, northwest of Antrim town. The attempts made by the English in the sixteenth century to exterminate them, which were carried out by Essex and others with a ferocity and perfidy seldom equalled even in that violent age, were unsuccessful, and O Neills are numerous there today, as they are also in West Ulster. Since 1740, the O Neills of Clanaboy have been living in Portugal, where they proudly continue their ancient Gaelic designation O Neill, Chieftain.

The O Neills of the Fews in Co. Armagh descend from Aodh, known as Hugh of the Fews, died 1475, second son of Eoghan, chief of the name, who was inaugurated in 1432.

The O Neills of Thomond (Clare and Limerick) were chiefs of a territory in the modern barony of Bunratty: to-day O Neill is not a common name in Co. Clare, but the Nihills and the Creaghs of that county claim to be of Thomond O Neill stock. Modern historians believe that Nihills were originally Ulster O Neills who settled in Co. Clare after the battle of Kinsale.

The name O Neill is quite numerous in and around Co. Carlow, where an O Neill sept was situated in the barony of Rathvilly. Another O Neill sept was located in the Decies and its present day representatives are found in Co. Waterford and south Tipperary.

One of the most lasting and identifiable symbols of Ireland, the red hand, is taken from the O Neill coat of arms. The symbol predates the advent of formal heraldry, which was introduced by the Normans and is recorded on the battle standards of the Uí Neill in the fourth and fifth centuries. Even the family motto “Lám Dearg Éirinn” means “the red hand of Ireland”. There are many legends as to how the O Neills acquired their motto. One story is that when their ancestors sailed close to the northeast tip of Ireland they agreed that whoever landed first would have that area of land. A quick-witted warrior chopped off his left hand, threw it onto the shore and claimed his reward! Modern coats of arms show the symbol as a right hand, but the more ancient records clearly have it as “sinister” or left.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the struggles to preserve Gaelic Ireland centred around the O Neills and many of them left an indelible imprint on the history of the province of Ulster.

Conn Bacach (the lame) O Neill, the first Earl of Tyrone (c. 1484-1559), was the first of the great warrior O Neills. When his territory was invaded, he went to London to submit to Henry VIII who created him Earl of Tyrone. His family did not approve of an English title and there was much feuding, which led to the murder of one of his sons. Conn took refuge in Dublin, inside the Pale, where he died. Conn was succeeded by his son, Sean an Diomais (Shane the proud). Shane’s followers murdered his half-brother, Matthew, and Shane himself was murdered by the MacDonnells of Antrim in revenge for the destruction by Shane of their Scottish settlements in the county.


Conn Bacach’s grandson, the great Hugh O Neill (1550-1616), 2nd Earl of Tyrone and son of Matthew, lived for six years at the Court of Queen Elizabeth as Baron of Dungannon. She hoped to tame him and win the allegiance of the O Neills and for a long time he appeared to be loyal to the Crown. Ireland was in a chaotic state, it lacked any government except inside the Pale, and constant warring had led to famine and disease. Given his experience in England, Hugh was aware of the wider political issues, and at times it must have been difficult for anyone to know, including himself, which was the right side to support. He began a series of intrigues with the local chiefs and also with the English, and was harassed by Elizabeth’s spies. Endlessly suing for peace or pardons, he played for time, waiting for the promised help from Spain. His marital arrangements were equally unstable. He divorced his first wife, his second wife died, and, at 45 he eloped with Mabel Bagenal, the sister of his archenemy, Sir Henry Bagenal. She left him when she discovered he “affected two other gentlewomen”. She did not live long and, after her death, he married Catherine Magennis. In 1595 he had a successful encounter with the English at the battle of Clontibret. At the battle of the Yellow Ford, near Armagh in 1598, the Irish had one of their greatest triumphs and Bagenal was killed. Hugh O Neill now began to be regarded as Prince of Ireland – The O Neill – a title, which meant much more to him and the Irish than Earl of Tyrone. His arrogance alarmed Elizabeth who sent over her favourite, the Earl of Essex, with a vast army. However, Essex was tricked by O Neill and returned, unsuccessful, to London, where Elizabeth had him executed. She sent another expensive army with more efficient leadership. Many of the Irish chiefs, thinking only of their property, joined the English. When the Spanish army finally landed, it was at Kinsale rather than at an Ulster port. Hugh O Neill had to lead his army in hazardous winter conditions from the north to the extreme southern tip of Ireland. He wanted to attack at once, but was, it is thought, restrained by Red Hugh O Donnell and Del Aquila. When they finally attacked on Christmas Eve 1601, it was too late, and the best opportunity in centuries was lost.

The defeat at Kinsale marked the end of the Gaelic order and ushered in the exodus to Europe. In 1607, Tyrone and his family and many other chiefs sailed from Lough Swilly, an event to become known as The Flight of the Earls. Tyrone died, homeless and penniless, in Rome. Although they fought continuously, either between themselves or against their neighbours, they also sought valiantly to drive out the colonisers. When Hugh O Neill, Earl of Tyrone, and O Donnell, Earl of Tirconnell, fled to Europe, they left Ulster open to the Protestant plantations of James I, contributing to the continuing conflict in this area of Ulster, which remained British when the rest of Ireland became independent.

Owen Roe (the red haired) O Neill (1590-1649), a nephew of the great Hugh O Neill, Earl of Tyrone, was a professional soldier who had served thirty years in the Spanish army. He returned to Ireland and, in 1642, joined the new movement styled the Confederate Catholics of Ireland. He defeated the Scots under Monro at Benburb in County Tyrone in 1646. When Cromwell landed to wreak vengeance, Owen Roe, on his way to join the royalist army led by Ormond, died.

Owen Roe’s nephew, Daniel O Neill (1612-64), was a Protestant Cavalier and a favourite of Charles II who, in 1663, appointed him Postmaster-General, an appointment which an O Neill of Clanaboy, Charles O Neill, was to hold in the nineteenth century.

Sir Phelim O Neill (1604-53), a lawyer, soldier and bon viveur, took part in the disastrous insurrection of 1641 where he was Commander-in-Chief of the northern forces. He was betrayed by a kinsman and executed as a traitor.


The O Neills of Ulster were a fiercely proud, sometimes arrogant clan. Although their royal dynasty is long gone, their fame still lives on in many parts of the world, particularly in Europe, where O Neills fought in the armies of Spain, Austria and the Netherlands. There were also distinguished O Neills in the Church and the arts. The wandering, blind harper, Arthur O Neill (1737-1816), is recorded as having said, “wherever an O Neill sits he is always the head of the table”. This Arthur was the rootstock from which has sprung some of the best in Irish traditional music.


Sir Niall O Neill (1658-90), the eldest son of Sir Hugh O Neill of Shane’s Castle at Antrim, of the Clandeboy family, had the dangerous assignment of stopping the first wave of King William’s troops crossing the Boyne at Rossnaree in 1690. He was fatally wounded and was later buried in Waterford. Shane O Neill was the last Gaelic Lord of Clanaboy. In 1740 he sailed for Lisbon in Portugal, and the aristocratic O Neill dynasty continues there to the present day. After his departure, the O Neill castle, Edenduffearrig in County Antrim, was renamed Shane’s Castle. Today, Raymond, 4th Lord O Neill of the English creation of 1868, lives there. An ancestor of his, Mary O Neill, married the Reverend Arthur Chichester, rector of Randalstown. Because these O Neills had died out in the male line, he adopted the illustrious surname, and the numerous descendants of Mary and Arthur have kept the name an active one in Irish public affairs. Shane’s Castle on the edge of Lough Neagh has suffered many vicissitudes. In the nineteenth century, Earl O Neill had almost completed the restoration of the splendid mansion designed by Nash, when it was destroyed by fire. Some say the fire was caused by Kathleen, the family banshee, who had been disturbed by the rebuilding. It was later burned again by Sinn Fein, with the irreparable loss of historical family papers. Raymond O Neill includes among his wide-ranging activities the preservation of steam trains; he runs a railway system on the estate at Shane’s Castle, which is open to the public. There is also a nature reserve, and the rebuilt conservatory houses a unique collection of camellias which, are over 100 years old. Lord O Neill is also chairman of the National Trust in Northern Ireland.


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