International O’Neill census launched

Published in Issue 4 (July/August 2016), News, Volume 24


Above: Hugh ‘the Great’ O’Neill (1540–1616), second earl of Tyrone, who departed from Rathmullan, Co. Donegal, in September 1607 in that famous episode known as the ‘Flight of the Earls’. (Lord Dunsany)

Above: Hugh ‘the Great’ O’Neill (1540–1616), second earl of Tyrone, who departed from Rathmullan, Co. Donegal, in September 1607 in that famous episode known as the ‘Flight of the Earls’. (Lord Dunsany)

The ancient clan claims descent from Conn Ceadcathach (Conn of the Hundred Battles), the second-century high king, and on to the legendary Niall Noígiallach (Niall of the Nine Hostages), the high king of Ireland from AD 377 to 404. Eoghan, son of Niall, gave his name to the Cenél nEógain, of whom the O’Neills were the chief sept, and their territory was Tír Eoghain (Tyrone). There are many other families who can claim descent from the Cenél nEógain, such as Hamill, Mallon and O’Hagan, to name but a few. The first to take O’Neill as a surname was Domhnall, who took the name of his grandfather, killed in a battle with the Vikings. ‘O’Neill’ thus translates as ‘grandson of Niall’.

Up until the time of Brian Boru, the Ui Néill (descendants of Niall of the Nine Hostages) were, almost without interruption, high kings of Ireland. They formed two main branches—the northern Ui Néill of Ulster and the southern Ui Néill, who established themselves in Meath. The sixteenth century produced the most famous of the O’Neills—Hugh ‘the Great’ O’Neill (1540–1616), second earl of Tyrone, who departed from Rathmullan, Co. Donegal, in September 1607 in that famous episode known as the ‘Flight of the Earls’.

The extended O’Neill diaspora is considerable. Indeed, if one considers the United States alone, there are a plethora of examples, such as the Nobel and Pulitzer prize-winning writer Eugene O’Neill, and the former speaker of the US House of Representatives Thomas ‘Tip’ O’Neill. The European dimension of the O’Neill clan that emerged from the ‘Flight of the Earls’ has ensured that there is a large network of O’Neills based on the Continent, particularly in countries such as Spain, France, Portugal and Italy. This includes the Portugal-based Hugo Ricciardi O’Neill, officially recognised by the offices of arms throughout Europe as ‘The O’Neill of Clanaboy’. And while ‘O’Neill’ is easily the most common spelling of the surname, other variants can include Neill, Neel, Neal, Niel, McNeill, etc., as a result of this extensive diaspora throughout the world.

To mark the remarkable historical and cultural significance of the O’Neill clan, O’Neills from near and far gathered on Saturday 30 January 2016 at the ‘Hill of the O’Neill’ in Dungannon. This was the signal to launch the An Leabhar Ui Néill (the Book of O’Neill), in which it is envisaged that every O’Neill, and all the variations of the name, will have the opportunity to record their details. Thanks to this initiative, if genealogical details such as mother, uncle, aunt, great-grandparents etc. are known they will be put into this unique book, the first of its kind. For a small fee of £20, a family can register their entire household in this historic book. Once finished, it will be put into a time-capsule at the nearby iconic fort of Tulach Óg (Tullaghoge) and will remain there for over a century.

The launch event was hosted by the current Ancient Clan O’Neill Chief and Vice Chief Guardians, Dan O’Neill and Siobhan O’Neill. According to Dan O’Neill, the diversity of the O’Neill name is truly remarkable:

‘In the census of Ireland taken in 1901, there were hundreds of Church of Ireland and Presbyterian O’Neills, while in the United States we have discovered Mormons and Quakers with the surname—and we want them all to be part of this, an inclusive project. We are the living descendants of these great people, the guardians of our O’Neill clan history and genealogy … We launched this book project so that it will hopefully be written by every descendant of the O’Neill clan throughout Ireland, Britain and many countries across the world. We thought the best way to keep our family history alive was to give O’Neills the opportunity to record the history of their own family.’

When this ambitious project is completed (scheduled for May 2017), two copies of the book will be printed, bound in leather cases and put into bronze caskets. After a special ceremony, one copy will be put into a time-capsule at the ancient hill of Tulach Óg, traditional crowning place of the O’Neill chiefs; the other copy will be displayed at the Hill of the O’Neill centre in Dungannon. It is fitting that this year has been chosen to launch this project, as 2016 commemorates the 400th anniversary of the passing of Hugh O’Neill.

For further information on the ‘An Leabhar Ui Néill’ project:,


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