Welcome to the premiere episode of the ONEILLCLAN story – from Wicklow to Kent. Hello. I’m Ted O’Neill your host and creator of this podcast. Please join me on my quest to discover my Irish roots. Whether you are descended from the O’Neill of Leinster, as I am, or just interested in some interesting Irish-Canadian stories, I hope you will find these podcasts entertaining and maybe even spark an interest in
The very first time I really became aware of my surname -O’Neill- and what it meant happened when I was about 7 years old. I was rummaging through a cabinet drawer of my fathers (probably shouldn’t have been doing that). I found a newspaper article. It was in glorious colour, and it depicted a man standing in a boat which was one of several apparently racing towards shore. In his right hand the man held a severed, bloody hand, apparently his own, as evidenced by the bloody stump where his left hand should be.
Wow. This had my attention. The article was from ‘Ripley’s Believe it or Not” and was a feature in the Chatham Daily News every weekend. I asked my dad what this was all about. He proudly explained that the man in the boat was an O’Neill and one of our ancient ancestors. According to legend the kingdom of Ulster in Ireland had at one time no rightful heir. So it was agreed that a boat race should take place and that ‘whosoever’s had is the first to touch the shore of Ireland, so shall he be made king.”
The man depicted in the cartoon drawing in the newspaper so desired the kingship, that upon realizing that he was about to lose the race, cut off his left hand and threw it ashore with his remaining good hand, thus winning the kingship. Legend says that the man who became king with the severed hand belonged to the Ui Neill clan. Another version of the legend concludes that the King with the severed hand was none other than Niall of the Nine Hostages.
And so the legend was born, Believe it or Not as the Ripley’s article said. The association of the O’Neill’s and the red hand on the O’Neill Crest was born and so to was my interest in the story of the O’Neill clan – my ancestors.
As I grew up in Ridgetown, a small agricultural community in southwestern Ontario, I began to learn more about my heritage. My father, John, told me he was born in Canada, and so too was his father, Joseph. However, his grandfather was born in Ireland and emigrated to Canada during the great Irish potato famine – or so he believed.
I asked if he knew his grandfather. I wanted to know more about him.
My dad said, no, he never met his grandfather. His name was Patrick. He had passed away several years before my dad was born. My mom and dad did talk about many members of the Patrick O’Neill family that they had met and known, including many of Patrick and his wife, Dorathea’s children. I am pretty sure that dad had met his grandmother before she died when he was about 10 years old.
I remember sitting in the back seat of our old chevy when Mom and Dad took me along to shopping trips to Chatham. On one trip as we were returning to Ridgetown and was just near the fair grounds I remember asking Dad where the original Patrick O’Neill farm was. Mom said ‘oh it was just a few miles back we passed near it’. This early memory would turn out to be very significant in my quest to learn all I could about he Patrick O’Neill and family story. However, the moment passed, and I never thought of it again for more than 50 years. More about that in a future episode.
Like most young people I was not at all interested in genealogy or ancient family history. There were so many other things happening in my life. I went to school, got married, got a job, moved to the big city and started a family. I was always proud of my Irish heritage but had no details of it. None at all. I didn’t know where Patrick lived in Ireland before coming to Canada. I had no details of why, how or even when this happened. My brother Doug and I sometime speculated about Patrick’s early years, and we even thought he might have come from Ulster.
The first time I remember getting serious about uncovering our family history came perhaps a decade after my father retired. He was the age then that I am now (almost). As happens, one becomes aware of his own mortality and his parents. I wanted to know a detailed history of Patrick and his family and more. I wanted to find out as much as I could about all of my ancestors.
I started asking Dad some questions about them. I tried to get down as much information as I could. It really was not very much.
Later I would undercover his birthplace and with the help of several newly found O’Neill family cousins’ start to build the detailed story of our own O’Neill clan, but it was not without some incredible challenges.
In a series of podcasts together we will explore the history of the O’Neill clan who left Ireland and settled in Ontario, Canada in the mid 19th century.
Much is known and written about the O’Neill Clan. In fact, a google search for the name “O’Neill” yields more than 87 and a half million results. So, we won’t be addressing the entire history of the O’Neill family, which by the way, has been traced back almost 1700 years. Instead, we will be focusing on one branch of the family, which emigrated to Canada in the mid nineteenth century and settled in southwestern Ontario near the Town of Ridgetown.
The head of this family was Patrick O’Neill and he is my great grandfather.
Patrick must have had a tough life, especially in his early years before he left his native Ireland. He was born in County Wicklow in 1814 and lived in the Parish of Kilpipe. His father was Michael Neil and his mother was Mary Byrne. Yes, that’s right – Neil not O’Neill
There were profound effects as a result of the 1798 Irish Rebellion and these were especially felt in County Wicklow. The O’Byrne and O`Neill families were some of the main participants in the rebellion. In 1801 Ireland becomes part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Catholics are marginalized and the rebels continue to agitate. Many rebels take refuge in the mountains of Wicklow.
This must have been a horrific time for Patrick O’Neill’s ancestors. During this century, they would have lost their lands and became tenants scratching out a living during desperate times. It was probably during this time that our ancestors anglicized their surnames in order to not stand out in the English dominated area (i.e., ‘within the Pale’). O’Neill became Neil and O’Byrne became Byrne and so on. This practice appears to have been more prominent in Wicklow than neighbouring counties such as Carlow. Having the same name as Hugh O’Neill might be another reason to disguise your name.
The first half of the 19th century saw conditions grow increasingly hard in Ireland. There was a trend towards smaller farm plots with the farm being sub-divided among the children as each generation passed. As time went on the plots got smaller and smaller. Famine was common. Political conflict was also prevalent.
After arriving in Canadian 1846, Patrick purchased a farm a short distance from Ridgetown. Here he had to clear the land, build a small cabin and live the life of a pioneer.
Patrick married Dorathea Clancy, who also immigrated from Ireland around the same time and lived on a farm near the O’Neill homestead.
Patrick and Dorathea had a family of 10 – 7 girls and three boys. My grandfather was Joseph O’Neill, the second youngest in the family and youngest son. There is a rich history of the family which we will talk about in future podcasts.
Patrick passed away on February 9th, 1895 but many of his family survived into the 20th century, with last of his children Mary Ellen, passing away in 1967, at the age of 92.
All of Patrick and Dorathea’s female children became nuns and lived in Kent and Essex Counties in southwestern Ontario. Their oldest son, Michael, was a carpenter and went to live and work in San Diego, California. He passed away in 1925 with no children. Their middle son, William, died in an industrial accident in Ridgetown in 1896 at the age of 33, and had no children.
My grandfather, Joseph, took over the farm and continued to live in Ridgetown. On 9th of October he married MaryElla MacDonal, my grandmother. Together they had nine children, the youngest of which was my father, John O’Neill.
So that briefly, is an introduction to Patrick ONeill and how his clan found its way to Canada. In future podcasts we are going to dig down into the history and stories of the clan, including some incredibly interesting stories and discoveries, and some lingering mysteries.
I am excited to tell you we will have some really exciting historical guests join the conversation along the way. The first will be Patrick O’Neill himself and I will be asking his about his journey from Ireland to Canada in 1846. You will hear Patrick, in his own words (well at least how I think he would sound). Please join me next for an interview with Patrick O’Neill
My grandmother O’Neil’s history is fascinating and deserving of its own separate podcast. She was the great grandchild of Elder Gilbert Beebe, an American Baptist Minister of the old school. He and his son, William Larue Beebe (my great great grandfather) travelled to churches in the northeast including southwester Ontario.
What are my goals in undertaking this project?
1) To document and preserve the genealogical research completed to date for future generations of our family;
2) To present the information in an easy to consume format which is both interesting and historically accurate.
I hope that these podcasts will endure and that some of our future grand children will take up the cause and continue to document and maintain our families history.
So put on your headphones and sit back with a coffee or whatever and enjoy the story.