The Proud History of the O’Neill Clan

By Liam Moriarty, Contributor
Febuary / March 2006

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. ♦

30 Responses to “The Proud History of the O’Neill Clan”

  1. Looking for my Family membes. ?

    • My maiden name is O’Neal

    • RALPH GOMEZ says:

      where do you live?

    • Lesley Oneal says:

      i dont think that your related this king. He was black. Henceforth the name Black Knee and the Hand is colored. I think the image of the hand has been tampered with. Everyone in our family have 6 fingers and I bet thats why the hand is used. the Hand is colored. Its not white.
      So i dont care who claims what but its important to any black person to be properly portrait ed. thank you.

      • Kim O'Neill says:

        I am assuming you are American. From the history of America, slavery and all, I would think the surname would possibly be one bourne out of ownership not genealogy.

  2. john says:

    I am certain there are more authentically Irish spellings of O’Neill. O’Niall would be a start.

    • Sean O'Neil says:

      Just know there are more ways to spell O’Neill than most can count – no one ever bothers to ASK how you spell your name and the spelling makes a great deal of difference if you are researching your family as to the location they came from in Ireland. Good luck!

      • Jean O’Neil says:

        Sean, I have read a lot of history of the O’Neil in the north but my DNA matched all to the county Kerry with my great grandmother coming from Valencia Island and onto the French settlements of Quebec. Did the O’Neil migrate to the southwest from the north?

      • Sean P ONeil says:

        Same yeah 1500’s County Caven O’Neils in Irelend from my family. One of the most famous of the Irish clans.

  3. Joseph Neeley says:

    Hello, I’m a Neeley and i had researched my family history all the way back to Ireland and the O’Neills. I have a different spelling as well as two different variations to my name. But still trying to find the gap between O’Neills/Ireland and Neeley/America. Can anyone help with the connection?

    • O'Neal, Janice says:

      My O’Neal/O’Neills have remained a mystery for the last 45 years I have been searching. The last O’Neal in our family spells it with the O’Neal variation, but in the mid to early 1800’s they were most definitely spelled a more traditional spelling of O’Neill. All of our line came through the Southern US states….but we only have traced back to early 1800’s in South Carolina with a William O’Neill. Not a clue to any other line has been found, or when they actually came to the colonies. We believe the were here long before the revolutionary war, but that is all.They ended up in Alabama when the civil war broke out and the family was split up.
      William O’Neill married a Frizzell in 1840 and they had 12 children. They all scattered after the war and as adults to rebuild strong families. We all have been searching for many many years to find a break through beyond William stated above.

      • John O'Neal says:

        My family came out of Carrolina too
        Family Tree DNA handles the O,’Neill DNA project.
        So far,we are part of the same subclade as the Prince of Clanaboy, but exactly which Clanaboy we descend from is.not certain.
        The more members we have, the more we progress.
        I strongly suggest any O’Neill who is looking for answers to get tested and join the project.

      • Lesley Oneal says:

        thats a trip my nickname from childhood was Frizzles. this king was black like myself. Oneal is my family name. Its important that you not act he was white when he wasn’t.
        thank you.

  4. Hi,
    Thanks for the great article. Notable mention for famous O’Neills should go to Francis O’Neill (1848-1936) for his contribution to the salvation of Irish music while being a Chicago police chief. Check out for full details.

  5. John O'Neal says:

    My family came out of Carrolina too
    Family Tree DNA handles the O,’Neill DNA project.
    So far,we are part of the same subclade as the Prince of Clanaboy, but exactly which Clanaboy we descend from is.not certain.
    The more members we have, the more we progress.
    I strongly suggest any O’Neill who is looking for answers to get tested and join the project.

    • William O'Neill Johnson says:

      My Grand Mother on my fathers side was an O’Neill I am able to track here family to a Euguene O’Neill for Kelly Ireland…how do I get tested and added to the project?

  6. Kathleen Platt says:

    Through I was able to trace my mother’s O’Neil Roots to Alexander O’Neil of County Kerry who emigrated to Windsor Ontario, Canada. His grandson Francis Edward O’Neil was a newspaper editor working for Joseph Pulit,er at the St. Louis Globe Democrat. Pulitzer called him his Master of Letters and his son also Francis EdwRd became the president of Fulton Ironworks.

  7. Frank Neal says:


  8. Hilary G Bell says:

    My father’s mother my grandmother was born Mary Elizabeth O’neal and her father was in the navy and his name was John Dargan O’neal. I am from NC but I am very proud of my Irish heritage.

  9. Jacob O'Neal says:

    Im an O’Neal. My side of the O’Neals have been a mystery to try and trace back.

  10. David O'Neil Allen Jr says:

    My 3rd Great Grandfather was John Henry O’Neil/ll who came South to Alabama from Michigan with a Timber company out of Manistee, Michigan. He settled in Brewton, Ala and married his boss’s daughter, Miss Emma Theis/ss. Not much known prior to his leaving Michigan.. His father might have been named Joseph or Joe who might have lived in Browntown on the river in Manistee. Thanks, David O’Neil Allen

    • Amelia Trimble says:

      They came to America around 1700…the name got changed from O’Neill to Neill and also Neal. If you are interested, a good place to start is to look up Col. James Clinton Neill and work your way back and then forward thru your history to figure out where and how you fit.

      • Jonathan Neill says:

        Hi there was your post and had to reply my name Jonathan Neill
        And I’m from Scotland I have irish blood from both sides of my family
        And I’m part of the O’Neill clan in Ireland and part of the MacNeill clan in Scotland . And all Neill’s whether o’ or Mac or just Neill we are all part of the
        Ui Neill or dynasty of Neill .and that goes back to the high kings of Erinn
        Anyway love from your Celtic brothers and sisters in Alba.

  11. Goldpen says:

    You should Trace Clan O’Neill back to Israel, Jordan and Egypt and to Ireland and Northern Ireland Year 200.

  12. Mary O’Neal Perkins says:

    In 1880 a Harry O’Neal with a heavy accent appeared in Mississippi. He married Isabella Bolton. We have done several dna test and the name that comes up is STOUT. There is more to this, but nothing has turned up yet.

  13. João O'Neill says:

    O’Neill, I read somewhere that it’s origin was something back to Mouses era, land it meant the son of the Nile.

  14. Rachel Sara Lloyd says:

    My fathers name is Lloyd and mothers maiden name is O’Neil.
    My mother’s family came from Kilkenny in Ireland and I’m trying to find I’d I have any relatives who may have immigrated to the US.

    Long shot I know .. but worth a try


  15. Kathleen Platt says:

    My O’Neil family emigrated from County Kerry to Ontario, Canada.

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