O'Neill (surname)

O'Neill (surname)
Pronunciation oh-neel
Language(s) Gaelic
Meaning Derived from the elements ua and Néill, meaning "grandson of Niall."
Region of origin Ireland
Other names
Related names O'Neil, O'Neall, O'Neal, Ó Neill, Ó Néill, Ua Néill, Uí Néill and Neill O'Neal

The surname O'Neill is ultimately of Irish Gaelic origin, spelling variations include O'Neal, O'Neil, Ó Neill, Ó Néill, Ua Néill, Uí Néill and Neill



For the histories of the prominent families, please see the article O'Neill dynasty.

The surname O'Neill is an Anglicization of the original Gaelic Ua Néill, composed of the elements ua, meaning "grandson" or "descendant," and of the Gaelic name Niall. The meaning of the Niall is disputed, but has been suggested as "cloud", "passionate" or "champion".[1] The progenitor of the family is said to be Niall Noigiallach of the Nine Hostages, which legend claims was the High King of Ireland in the fifth century. However, it was the grandsons of Niall Glúndub, himself a descendant of Niall Noigiallach that lived in the tenth century, that would have been the first to use the surname.

It is due to the Anglicization of the original Gaelic that the several spelling variations have emerged, during the transcribing of the name into English. Irish and Scottish variants also exist and include MacNeal, MacNiel and MacNeill, which arose when the ua element in the name was replaced with mac, meaning "son of." Ó has replaced Ua since the end of a standard Gaelic and its gradual evolution into Scottish, Manx and Irish. O'Neill is also occasionally found used as a given name.

Coats of Arms

For the coats of arms of the various families, please see the article O'Neill dynasty.

It is a mistake to state that the Irish coat of arms system follows a feudal system where a coat of arms is property passed through direct lineage.[2] This means that the right to use the arms is not restricted to a given individual, as in the English feudal system, but is open to all within the extended 'sept' or 'clan' of the Gaelic culture.[3][4]

The coat of arms of the Uí Néill (plural of Ó Néill) of Ulster were white with a red left hand cut off below the wrist, and it is because of this prominence that the red hand (though a right hand is often found used mistakenly, rather than the left used originally) has also become a symbol of Ireland, Ulster, Tyrone and other places associated with the ruling family of Uí Néills. The red hand by itself has become a symbol of the O'Neill name, such that when other O'Neill family branches were granted or assumed a heraldic achievement, this red hand was often incorporated into the new coat of arms to the point of being a cliché.[5]

The red hand is explained by several slightly differing legends, but which tend to have a common theme that begins with a promise of land to the first man that is able to sail or swim across the sea and touch the shores of Ireland. Many contenders arrive, including a man named O'Neill, who begins to fall behind the other. Using his cunning, O'Neill cuts off his left hand and throws it onto the beach before the other challengers are able to reach shore, thus technically becoming the first of them to touch land and wins all of Ireland as his prize. However, the legends seem to originate in the seventeenth century, several many centuries after the red hand was already borne by the O'Neill families.[6]

See also


  1. ^ A Dictionary of First Names. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0192800507. 
  2. ^ College of Arms FAQ
  3. ^ Heraldry in Ireland"
  4. ^ [http://www.leitrim-roscommon.com/heraldry/ Gaelic Irish Heraldry and Haraldic Practice"]
  5. ^ About the name O'Neill"
  6. ^ Uí Néill"

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