MacNeill, John Gordon Swift (1849–1926), jurist and politician, was born 11 March 1849 in Dublin, only son of the Rev. John Gordon Swift MacNeill of Blackhall Street, and his wife Susan Colpoys (née Tweedy). He was descended from Godwin Swift, uncle and guardian of Jonathan Swift (qv), and the Hebridean MacNeill lairds of Barra. His paternal grandfather knew John Philpot Curran (qv) and Jonathan Swift, and MacNeill had childhood memories of elderly relatives recalling Grattan's parliament. The Rev. John MacNeill was curate of St James's church, Dublin; in 1858 he moved to St Catherine's. Swift MacNeill (as he was always called) remained a devout anglican throughout his life.
MacNeill entered TCD in 1866 but left in 1868 after encountering a bullying examiner. In 1868 he won the Slade exhibition and first exhibition at Christ Church, Oxford; he graduated BA in 1873, winning first place and first exhibition, and proceeded MA in 1875. In 1872 he stood for the presidency of the Oxford Union. As a student, MacNeill served on the council of the Home Government Association founded by Isaac Butt (qv); he proposed home rule motions at the Oxford Union in 1871 and the Cambridge Union in 1875 and was offered parliamentary nominations in 1874 and 1880. MacNeill studied law at King's Inns, Dublin, and the Inner Temple, London. In 1875 he was auditor of the Law Students’ Debating Society and obtained first place at his final law examination. He joined the Irish bar in 1876, and went on the Munster circuit. C. S. Parnell (qv) offered MacNeill a parliamentary seat in 1879, but in 1880 the Land League ordered solicitors to boycott him for representing landlords in rent and ejectment cases. His employment as leader writer for the tory-landlord Dublin Daily Express led conservative friends to assume that he had abandoned home rule, but in fact he told the Express proprietor that though he was conservative he would support whichever British party advocated home rule.
MacNeill was appointed professor of constitutional and criminal law at King's Inns in 1882 and retained the post until 1888; his pupils included John Redmond, (qv) his brother William (qv) and T. M. Healy (qv). His jurisprudential studies showed him how far protections under the British constitution were restricted in Ireland and he interpreted the Irish patriot tradition as seeking British constitutional rights for Ireland. This view, expressed in The Irish parliament: what it was and what it did (1885) caught the attention of Gladstone, who wished to construct a liberal pedigree for home rule; MacNeill's English interference with Irish industries (1886), was written ‘at Mr. Gladstone's suggestion and request’. In 1887 he published How the union was carried (1887). MacNeill's historical works are compendia of eighteenth-century patriot complaints, supplemented from the works of W. E. H. Lecky (qv), whom MacNeill quoted against unionism. Lecky thought MacNeill a propagandist and supported official refusals to let him research state papers. Stephen Gwynn (qv) noted that he knew and cared little about medieval and Gaelic Ireland.
MacNeill again refused a Parnellite nomination at the 1885 general election, but in April 1886, as Gladstone prepared his first home rule bill, MacNeill decided to enter parliament. He canvassed for the liberals in Scotland and sought a seat there, but on 2 February 1887 he became nationalist MP for South Donegal, defeating a unionist; he again faced unionist opposition in 1892 and 1895 but was unopposed thereafter. One of his first acts on behalf of his constituents was to publicise evictions in Donegal during the Plan of Campaign. Many legal acquaintances regarded MacNeill's alignment with Parnell as a betrayal. The benchers of King's Inns tried to pressurise him into giving up his professorship. His legal practice suffered. His appearances at Church of Ireland functions were disrupted by loyalists. His supposedly simian features were mocked by unionist politicians and journalists, who nicknamed him ‘Pongo’; in 1893 he assaulted the Punch cartoonist Harry Furniss (qv) for portraying him as a chimpanzee. Despite these attacks MacNeill was a conscientious MP. He diligently studied the rules of debate and standing orders, and became one of the commons’ foremost procedural experts, combining skill in parliamentary obstruction with reverence for parliamentary tradition. In 1887 MacNeill mediated between Cecil Rhodes and Parnell in securing a contribution to party funds; this arrangement has sometimes been called a disguised bribe to secure the renewal of Rhodes's royal charter. (MacNeill had denounced parliamentary chartered companies as vested interests.) He opposed Parnell at the split, influenced by reverence for Gladstone and friendship with a number of liberals.
MacNeill's legal and academic career continued alongside his political commitments. In 1893 he was made QC; in 1909 he became professor of constitutional law and the law of pubic and private wrongs at UCD; and in 1910 he was appointed clerk of convocation of the NUI. In 1894 he published Titled corruption, listing Irish peerages created in the late eighteenth century and union period for corrupt purposes, and highlighted subsequent holders’ connections to the divorce courts and patent medicines, and their power to frustrate the elected chamber during the debates on the 1893 home rule bill. He campaigned against flogging in the navy (abolished in 1906) and conflicts of interest among conservative politicians. In 1892 when the commons voted a grant to the East Africa Railway he persuaded the house to disallow the votes of MPs who held its shares; he successfully established that ministers should not ‘make the Treasury Bench a sty for guinea-pigs’ by holding directorships of public companies. MacNeill fiercely opposed the South African war, representing its objectives as ‘a Stock Exchange government pursuing Stock Exchange wars for Stock Exchange purposes’. In 1900 he was accused of cheering in the commons over a British defeat.
MacNeill opposed British cession of the strategic island of Heligoland to Germany in 1890; he always maintained that if Heligoland had been retained the first world war would have been averted. From 1914 he campaigned for the rulers of the central powers to be expelled from British knightly orders and for royal relatives and other peers who fought against Britain to forfeit British titles. In 1918 he was deselected for South Donegal in favour of J. T. Donovan (an associate of Joseph Devlin (qv)). He took this bitterly, and in 1919 wrote to Walter Long (qv) recalling how friends had told him nationalists would let him down. MacNeill accepted the new Irish Free State reluctantly, but came to admire the ‘almost illimitable potential’ of its constitution as a codification and improvement of its British model. He defended it in newspaper controversies; his commentary Studies in the constitution of the Irish Free State (1925), well received by the government of W. T. Cosgrave (qv), proclaimed that a study of the constitution should provide ‘elevated intellectual recreation to every citizen’ and form part of the school curriculum. In 1925 MacNeill published an anecdotal memoir, What I have seen and heard.
MacNeill died 24 August 1926 and was buried at Mount Jerome cemetery on the 27th. He was unmarried, living with his sister, Mary Colpoys Deane MacNeill, and numerous cats and dogs. He loved eighteenth-century craftsmanship, collecting books, historical mementoes, plate, and china. Despite his stormy career, MacNeill was a Buttite, a nostalgic antiquarian throwback to eighteenth-century colonial nationalism. A few MacNeill letters may be found in the John Dillon papers in TCD, the John Redmond papers at the NLI, and the Walter Long papers in the British Library.