BY PHIL FITZPATRICK
The surname O’Neill is an Anglicisation of the original Gaelic Ua Néill, which is variously thought to mean “grandson of the champion”.
The grandsons of Niall Glúndub, a descendant of Niall Noigiallach, were the first to use the surname.
(There is an interesting irony here. Peter O’Neill is the prime minister of an independent country but the place where his paternal ancestors come from is still a British colony.)
The coat of arms of the O’Neill’s is a red left hand on a grey or white background.
Legend has it that Ireland was promised to the first man able to sail across the sea and touch the land.
The race was hard fought and the contenders were running neck and neck until a man called O’Neill cut off his left hand and threw it on the beach, thus claiming the first touch and the prize. Clearly a man able to seize the moment!
There are three principal O’Neill dynasties today that are each represented by the direct descendants of the original independent kings of Ulster.
The kingly titles were originally passed on under Irish Brehon law and later by other titles through first born sons.
Today these dynasties are represented in Ireland, Spain, France, Scotland, Portugal, England, America, Australia and now Papua New Guinea.
The O’Neill’s still maintain a confederation of its septs in Ireland that meets annually. In 2010 the group met to formulate a new global sept and to plan an O’Neill museum to be built in Ulster.
That’s his father’s side of the story. Fifth century is not so long ago. No doubt the ancestors on his mother’s side go back a lot further.