O’Neill – descended from King Niall

History of the Irish name O'Neill. Image copyright Ireland Calling

O’Neill is the tenth most common surname in Ireland.

There are several variations of the name including O’Neal, O’Neil and Neill.

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The O’Neills are descendants of King Niall who was a warrior king in the 4th century. He was known as ‘Niall of nine hostages’ because he had a tried and trusted strategy of kidnapping people from other kingdoms and refusing to release them. He took hostages from all the provinces in Ireland as well as England, Scotland and France.

Meaning of O’Neill

The name O’Neill comes from two separate Gaelic words. Firstly ‘Ua Niall’ which means ‘Descendent of Niall’ and also ‘Neill’ which means ‘champion’.

The ‘Neill’ part of the surname was added in the 10th century by the grandson of King Nial Gluin Dubh. Nial Gluin Dubh had been killed defending his land from Norsemen.

The motto on the O’Neill coat of arms is ‘The red hand of Ireland’. The red hand on the O’Neill coat of arms is also known as the ‘Red hand of Ulster’.

The O’Neills used to have a nickname in Ireland – ‘Creagh’. It means branch and comes from the Gaelic word ‘craobh’. The O’Neills got the nickname because they used to cover themselves in branches for camouflage when in battle.

King Niall had many descendants

King Niall was extremely fertile and it is thought that as many as one in 12 Irish people are descended from him. Today that is around three million people across the world.

He often crossed the Irish Sea and is said to be responsible for creating a Gaelic kingdom in Wales. As well as the Irish, it is likely that Scots with surnames MacNeil and MacLachlan are also descended from Niall.

Ironically it was Niall’s nephew, Dathi, rather than one of his own sons who succeeded him as King.

He is also believed to be responsible for bringing St Patrick to Ireland.

Famous O’Neills throughout history

Hugh O'Neill
Hugh O’Neill

Hugh O’Neill was the second Earl of Tyrone. He was born in 1550. He spent years defending his land against the English. Eventually he left and actually went on the attack. He joined Hugh O’Donnell’s men as well as Spanish allies at the Battle of Kinsale in 1601.

They were defeated and forced to flee Ireland. Many O’Neills went to Spain and Portugal.

Felim O’Neill and Owen Roe O’Neill

The Irish started to lose control of their country at that point but the O’Neills were soon back and played a big part in the 1641 Rebellion. Felim O’Neill led the Rebellion and he was helped by Owen Roe O’Neill who helped to bring back over 300 Irish soldiers who were fighting with the Spanish.

Owen Roe and Felim also fought in the confederate wars which were three way conflicts between Ireland, England and Scotland from 1639-51.

American War of Independence

There were 175 O’Neills fighting for America during the War of Independence. These included General John O’Neill and Captain William O’Neill.

There is a town called O’Neill in Nabraska that is named after General John O’Neill.

Creative O’Neills

Martin O'Neill. Photo copyright vagueonthehow CC2
Martin O’Neill

Eugene O’Neill was a writer and won the 1920 Pulitzer Prize for his first play, Beyond the Horizon. He also won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1936.

Henry Nelson O’Neil was an artist who painted historical scenes of the 1857 Indian Rebellion as well as the deaths of Mozart and Raphael.

Sporting O’Neills

Martin O’Neill was a two time European Champion as a football (soccer) player and also had a successful career as a coach, especially with Celtic Football Club in Glasgow. He became manager of the Republic of Ireland national football team in 2013.

Paul O’Neill was a right fielder for the Cincinnati Reds and then the New York Yankees. He won five World Series and was known for his passionate displays, always wearing his heart on his sleeve.

Jonjo O’Neill was a two time British champion jockey and went on to become a successful trainer.

Video histories of popular Irish names

Irish names and their meanings

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