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Irish Surname - O'Neill

The name O'Neill, in Irish O'Néill, is from the personal name Niall, possibly meaning 'passionate' or 'vehement'.

The O'Neill family history can be traced back to 360 AD. They are descended from the royal family of Tara, who were kings of Ulster and monarchs of all Ireland from the 5th to the early 17th centuries. The surname comes Niall Glúin Dubh (Niall of the black knee), who was King of Ireland from 890 until he was slain in 919. The first recorded spelling of the family name is shown to be that of Donell O'Neill, grandson of Niall Glúin Dubh, dated c1000, in the 'Historic Annals of Ireland', during the reign of King Malachy 11, known as 'High King of Ireland', 977 - 1002. In addition to the O'Neills of Ulster, where the family is most numerous, there were sets in Thomond (counties Clare and Limerick), Decies (Waterford), and County Carlow.

The legendary Niall of the Nine Hostages was also a remote ancestor. He established himself as King of Midhe (Meath) at Tara around 400 AD. His kingship was followed by many of his descendants, thereafter referred to as the Ui Neill. The Ui Neill dynasty divided into two in the 400's, the Northern Ui Neill (Cineal Eoghain and the Cineal Conaill) remained in the north while the Southern Ui Neill moved to Meath and the eastern midlands - they took it in turns to be Kings of Tara and, later, High Kings of Ireland.

In Griffiths Valuation c1850s, the Neills numbered 2578 households, while the O'Neills had 2720 households - a fairly even distribution. More than half of the O'Neills (1412), and one fifth of the Neills (537), were in the six counties that now make up Northern Ireland.

Famous People

Irish rebel Hugh O'Neill (1550-1616), the 2nd Earl of Tyrone was born into the powerful O'Neill family of Ulster. He grew up in London, then returned to Ireland (1568) to assume his grandfather's title of earl of Tyrone. He was chieftain of the O'Neills from 1593 and in 1598 he won the Battle of the Yellow Ford on the River Blackwater, Ulster, which sparked a countrywide revolt. He was defeated by the English at the battle of Kinsale in 1601. In 1607 he fled with about 100 chieftains and lived in Rome the rest of his life. He was the last great leader of Gaelic Ireland, because the so-called 'Flight of the Earls' brought an end to Gaelic Ulster, and the province was rapidly anglicised.

Eoghan Ruadh Ó'Néill (c1590-1649), anglicised as Owen Roe O'Neill (Red Owen), was a seventeenth century soldier and one of the most famous of the O'Neill dynasty of Ulster. In 1646, he defeated an English and Scottish army at Benburb, County Tyrone. A great deal of material on the O'Neills can be found in the O'Neill Historical Centre there.

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