Thomas P. O’Neill 1922-1996

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2 (Summer 1996), News, Volume 4

The practice of history can be seen as a tapestry being constantly re-woven as patterns change, fade, deteriorate, go out of fashion, being replaced in their turn by new shapes, new colourings, expressions of new approaches. Tom O’Neill appeared in these pictures often, over the last forty years, his appearances more lasting than many. But to those of us who knew him, who worked with him, his major and perennial role was more akin to the warp on the loom without which the woof of design is nigh on impossible.
From way back he seemed conscious of this—not in any programmatic way, but in the instinctive generous impulse of the real scholar delighting in his craft and delighting even more in sharing his discoveries with others, professional and amateur. One of his earliest publications, Sources of Irish Local History, published by the Library Association in 1958, a pioneering work, a user-friendly manual, aimed at encouraging interest in and facilitating the practice of local history, for which he was always an enthusiast, a practitioner and a populariser—vide his weekly column of local history in the Galway Advertiser since 1984.
His years in the National Library had witnessed this regard for the raw material of history, its accumulation, its care and its indexing. As ‘Lional Thomas’, he had taken issue with J.C. Beckett, when he (Tom) was assigned to the anti-partition campaign, but as ‘Tomás Ó Néill’ he was never a propagandist, was always faithful to his sources. His Fiontán Ó Leathlobhair (1962) for example looked at Lawlor in two new ways—from the angle of Blackstone’s Commentaries and in the light of Lalor’s letters to Peel animadverting on O’Connell and Repeal. People actually advised Tom to suppress that data: he was shocked. De Valera was very impressed with his handling of Lalor and had him seconded to write the two-volume biography De Valera in Irish (1968 and 1970) [Pádraig Ó Fiannachta, listed as joint author, was in fact the translator]. In 1970 it appeared in English as Éamonn de Valera also again as if in tandem: Lord Longford’s role was that of compressing Tom’s original (the publishers said they needed a ‘famous’ author’s name to sell the book!) and of adding personal information of his own.
As can be seen in the recent reprint of the Edwards and Williams compilation, The Great Famine, Tom’s article on the organisation of relief has stood the test of time best. He had hoped to return to the Famine, saying at the end of last year on one radio programme that he would not be as easy on England on revisiting the topic. Typically his last public appearance was to launch the Cathal Poirtéir collection of Radió na Gaeltachta talks, Gréithe Den Ghorta.
Generosity was his hall-mark. When moving on from the Famine he wrote an article ‘From famine to near famine’ in Past & Present and began to collect data on the 1850s, the ‘Pope’s brass band’, Irish MP’s and so forth. On learning that John H. Whyte was further advanced on a similar theme he made all his own notes available to J.H. as is duly acknowledged in the preface to The Independent Irish Party. Seldom has someone appeared so often in the acknowledgements of so many authors. But not only authors were grateful; so also were undergraduates and postgraduates at UCG, and local history societies all over the country whose journals and lecture schedules witness his availability. Typically, he willed his papers to the National Library where one unfinished major project on the Registry of Deeds should be almost complete. One medal winning-paper based on it, ‘Discoverers and Discoveries: the Penal Laws and Dublin Property’, was published in the Dublin Historical Record (1983).
He thanked his friend Donnacha Ó Céileacher at the end of the preface to his Lalor book with these words: ‘Rinne sé an oiread san oibre chun slacht a chur ar an leabhar seo gur féidir a rá nach mbéadh sé ar fáil in aonchor gan é’ (‘He did so much to perfect this book that it would be true to say that without him it wouldn’t have appeared at all.’). Is mó údar a dhéarfadh an rud céanna ina thaobh féin (‘Many authors would say the same about him’). As he said about Donncha, ‘Cailliúint mhór a bhás’ (‘His death was a great loss’).

Pádraig Ó Snodaigh

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