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Peter O'Neil (1757–1835)

by Vivienne Parsons

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Peter O'Neil (1757-1846), Roman Catholic priest, was born on 29 June 1757, in the parish of Coona, County Cork, Ireland, a descendant of the O'Neil clan of County Tyrone. He attended a hedge school in Inch, studied classics at Kilworth, and then began ecclesiastical studies at the Irish College in Paris, eventually teaching Celtic language and literature there. He spent several years as a missionary in the diocese of Cloyne before receiving charge of the parish of Ballymacoda of which he had been an exceedingly popular curate. During the rebellion he was accused of sanctioning the murder of a United Irishman suspected of being a government spy; O'Neil refused, or was unable, to give information about it, was arrested, received 275 lashes without trial, and was threatened with another flogging unless he confessed. Distraught, he first wrote that he deserved his sufferings but later protested his innocence and decried the conditions under which he alleged that his confession had been extorted. He stated that he was allowed neither to be present nor to be represented at a court of inquiry on his case held in 1799 and that the court had failed to acquit him merely because of inaccuracies in his memorial. However, he was held in prison for two years before being transported in 1800 in the Anne which sailed from Cork a few days before an order arrived from the lord lieutenant to stop his departure.

On the voyage he helped to prevent a mutiny and so earned the approbation of the surgeon. Soon after he arrived on 21 February 1801 Governor Philip Gidley King, who was then very disturbed by the Irish in the colony, sent him to Norfolk Island, as a priest 'of the most notorious, seditious and rebellious principles'. On the island he lived with Father James Harold. In August 1802 Hobart recommended that all the priests be conditionally pardoned and that O'Neil be employed as a schoolteacher, but before his dispatch was written, instructions for O'Neil's release had been sent from Ireland on 30 May after another investigation of his case there. He was released on 15 January 1803 after a Government Order of 19 November 1802 had reached Norfolk Island. He sailed directly to Ireland, was reinstated as parish priest of Ballymacoda on 29 July 1803, and remained there until his death on 30 June 1835.

O'Neil's case provoked much controversy. His 'Humble Remonstrance' was published in The Catholic Question. Correspondence Between the Right Hon. Lord Redesdale, Lord High Chancellor of Ireland, and the Right Hon. the Earl of Fingall (Dublin, 1804). The official justification was that the extraordinary action of the Irish military authorities was dictated by the desperate situation of the time. One of the unfortunate innocent victims of the emergency measures which the British government took in the Irish crisis, O'Neil carried the marks of his torture to his grave.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vol 4
  • R. R. Madden, The United Irishmen, Their Lives and Times, vol 1 (Dublin, 1858)
  • P. F. Moran, History of the Catholic Church in Australasia (Syd, 1895)
  • Bonwick transcripts, biography, vol 4 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Philip Gidley King letter book, 1797-1806 (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Vivienne Parsons, 'O'Neil, Peter (1757–1835)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 18 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


29 June, 1757
Coona, Cork, Ireland


30 June, 1835 (aged 78)
Ballymacoda, Cork, Ireland

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Passenger Ship
Convict Record

Crime: insurrection
Sentence: unknown
Court: unknown


Left the colony: Yes