McNeill, James (1869–1938), civil servant, diplomat, and governor general of the Irish Free State, was born 27 March 1869 in Glenarm, Co. Antrim, ‘of a very old Co. Antrim family’ (Irish Times, 13 Dec. 1938), son of Archibald McNeill, shipbuilder, baker, and farmer, and Rosetta McNeill (née Macauley), a member of the O'Neill clan. He was the youngest of eight children, and the brother of Eoin MacNeill (qv) and of Charles McNeill. James McNeill always spelled his surname ‘McNeill’ in contrast to his brother Eoin, who adopted the form ‘MacNeill’.
After spending his early years in the Glens of Antrim, McNeill was sent, under the care of his maternal uncle the Rev. Charles Macauley (d. 1889), professor of rhetoric and Hebrew at Maynooth College, Co. Kildare, to study at Belvedere College, Dublin, where he attained notable success in classics and history. He later studied at Blackrock College, Co. Dublin, and at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, England. In Dublin and in Cambridge ‘he carried all before him’ (Irish Times, 13 Dec. 1938).
McNeill sat civil service entrance exams in 1888 and entered the Indian civil service in 1890. He served with the Bombay presidency for twenty-five years, mainly in the districts of Nasik, Poona, and North Kanara, where he ‘made a great name for intelligence, courage and administrative capacity’ (New York Times, 31 Jan. 1928). His first notable work was the preparation of the general administration report of the Bombay presidency for 1895–6.
In 1895–6, when a bubonic plague epidemic (which ultimately spread throughout India) struck Bombay, it was in McNeill's district that a campaign of wholesale inoculation was begun. He later served as assistant collector of land revenue, customs, and opium; as chief inspector of factories; and – after the Bombay city improvement trust was established – as a special collector under the land acquisition act. He became registrar of co-operative friendly societies in 1904. In these roles he was to undertake social and political reforms by organising rural committees and assisting the standardisation of the local land system. His administration was marked by ‘his sympathetic understanding of the people, whose confidence he won by his impartiality and justice’ (Irish Times, 13 Dec. 1938). McNeill rose to become commissioner in the general division of the Bombay presidency, and in this role he governed in the region of six million people. He served as an additional member of the imperial legislative council of India and was a member of the viceroy's council in Delhi. In colonial Indian high politics McNeill had the unenviable task of acting as buffer between the viceroy, Lord Curzon, and Lord Kitchener (qv), commander-in-chief of British forces in India.
In 1913 McNeill and an Indian colleague were sent by the government of India to investigate Indian emigration to the West Indies, the East Indies, and Fiji. However, their report, while fair and comprehensive, and suggesting reforms to meet the welfare needs of indentured Indians, did not meet the favour of the viceroy, Lord Hardinge. On McNeill's death, a correspondent to The Times mentioned the report, adding that McNeill ‘received little thanks for his work and retired, underrated, as soon as he received his ICS annuity’ (Times, 17 Dec. 1938). McNeill's two final posts in India were, on the outbreak of the first world war, as censor of commercial telegrams, and finally a brief period as commissioner of the Northern Division. However, when he turned 45 (December 1914) McNeill left the Indian civil service, having worked the minimum number of years necessary to receive a pension. Though his career in India had been in many ways frustrating, ‘the life of India suited him’ and he had become ‘a fine shot and an expert in pig-sticking’ (DNB).
McNeill returned to Dublin to live with his brothers Eoin and Charles. While previously interested in the political and economic aspects of the Irish revival, and conscious of the comparisons between the rise of Irish and Indian nationalisms, McNeill – as befits a civil servant – had never been overtly political. However, with his brother Eoin intimately connected with the 1916 rising, and having himself been arrested and confined for a short period in the aftermath of the rising on account of his association with his brother, McNeill became a supporter of Sinn Féin. He initially acted as a messenger, but in a period where many senior Sinn Féin figures were in jail, McNeill freely gave his advice to the new movement and became actively involved in the organisation of the party, in the Irish White Cross Association, and in the Prisoners’ Dependents Fund. He was also a director of the Irish land bank, was involved in arbitration work assigned to him by the Dáil Éireann ministry of labour, and was chairman of a commission investigating agricultural conditions in Ireland.
In 1920 he was elected to Dublin county council and served as chairman of the council in 1922, acting on several occasions as an intermediary in industrial disputes. In the summer of 1922 he was appointed a member of the committee established by the provisional government, which drafted the Irish Free State constitution.
Having failed to gain a seat in the incoming senate of the Irish Free State, McNeill was offered (20 December 1922) the position of first high commissioner of the Irish Free State in London. He accepted the appointment, which was approved on 2 January 1923, and McNeill took up his duties on 8 January. Due to his administrative experience and knowledge of the working of the British imperial and commonwealth system, McNeill was a most suitable choice for this post, particularly as in early 1923 it was unclear in Dublin what the duties of the Irish high commissioner in London might be.
With his experience of government in India and with his strong nationalist credentials, McNeill was in April 1923 suggested by Kevin O'Shiel (qv) to be one of the three commissioners who, under the terms of the 1921 treaty, would comprise the boundary commission which was charged with redrawing the border between the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland. He was not chosen, his brother Eoin instead filling the post. While the commission, which was based on London, undertook its work, McNeill was told little or nothing of its work by his brother, though he would play an important role liaising between Dublin and London in the immediate events surrounding Eoin's resignation as boundary commissioner (December 1925), following the leak by the Morning Post newspaper of the findings of the commission.
During the 1920s much of the high politics of Anglo–Irish relations was carried out at prime ministerial level between W. T. Cosgrave (qv) and his opposite number in London. Prominent too in Anglo–Irish relations was the cabinet secretary, Diarmuid O'Hegarty (qv). Though he made a favourable impression in London and had widespread experience in dominion affairs, the result of relations operating at prime-ministerial level was that McNeill's work in London revolved largely around ceremonial and trade matters. McNeill was in close contact with dominion high commissioners in London and attended the 1923 and 1926 imperial conferences as a member of the Irish Free State delegation.
McNeill had indicated in 1923 that he wished to serve only five years as high commissioner, and by 1927 he made it known to Dublin that he was reluctant to stay longer in London. Despite not personally desiring to hold the post, on 1 February 1928 McNeill replaced Tim Healy (qv), whose term of office as governor general had expired on 31 January 1928, to become the second governor general of the Irish Free State. It was again his vast experience in administration, diplomacy, and politics that suggested his suitability to hold this position. Though ill health marred the first year of his appointment, McNeill saw out four relatively uneventful years at the viceregal lodge. The governor-generalship of the Irish Free State had been progressively reduced in importance by the Cumann na nGaedheal government, and through the reforms in dominion status agreed at the imperial conferences of the 1920s. With Mrs McNeill he established a lively social circle in Dublin society. However, following the coming to power of Fianna Fáil in February 1932, what was to be McNeill's last year as governor general was played out in public, in sharp contrast to the preceding years.
The incoming president of the executive council, Éamon de Valera (qv), hoped to downgrade and ultimately abolish the office of the governor general. The new government first told McNeill not to invite any of its members to official functions he was hosting. To this McNeill agreed; he did not wish to make matters awkward. When this situation continued, McNeill complained that he felt personally snubbed, though he was told that the matter related to his office only and not to the incumbent. He had never been a party politician and had hoped that he could use the office of governor general to bring about better relations between Fianna Fáil and Cumann na nGaedheal.
Matters came to a head on the night of Saturday 23 April 1932, when two Fianna Fáil ministers, Seán T. O'Kelly (qv) and Frank Aiken (qv), conspicuously walked out of a reception at the French legation in Dublin when the McNeills arrived. McNeill found this conduct offensive and wrote seeking an apology from de Valera; but none was forthcoming. In the growing cold war between the governor general and the executive council, McNeill was greatly perturbed as to how he should act, and sought the advice of his former colleague, the secretary of the Department of External Affairs, Joseph Walshe (qv). But McNeill's confidence was betrayed, as Walshe passed details of his conversations with McNeill on to de Valera, telling him that McNeill ‘had worked himself up into a state of pique and was boiling over’ (Documents on Irish foreign policy, iv, 76).
Then, in the run up to the 1932 eucharistic congress, McNeill was asked by the government to keep a low profile and additionally not to welcome visitors to the congress in his official capacity as governor general. McNeill said he would invite guests, but his position was becoming untenable and he attempted to gain the upper hand on de Valera by publishing in the national newspapers the correspondence that had passed between the two over the governor-general issue. However, following a late-night emergency cabinet meeting, the newspapers bearing the letters were suppressed by order of the cabinet, which held that the correspondence was confidential state documents; however, the letters were published in full in the Irish Times on 12 July 1932.
Though at this stage he would personally have been glad to resign, McNeill instead forced the executive council to remove him. Following a submission by de Valera to King George V, McNeill relinquished the office of governor general on 31 October 1932. He retired to a small estate at Foxrock on the south side of Dublin and devoted his time to farming and agricultural issues, having been an ardent admirer of the co-operative movement as established by Sir Horace Plunkett (qv). He took a special interest in the work of the Horace Plunkett Foundation.
The illness which he had suffered in 1928 returned and he went to London for treatment. James McNeill died in London on Monday 12 December 1938. In his obituary, The Times wrote of McNeill that in his long career he had ‘made many friends and no enemies’ (13 December 1938). His funeral took place at Haddington Road church, Dublin, on 14 December 1938 and was presided over by the papal nuncio, Mgr Paschal Robinson (qv). The taoiseach, Éamon de Valera, and the leader of the opposition, W. T. Cosgrave, attended the ceremonies. McNeill was that day buried in Kilbarrack cemetery. He left an estate of £5,296. 2s. 8d. to his widow. In an article published ten years before his death, the New York Times considered that he had ‘an almost infallible tact and much social charm’ (31 Jan. 1928).
McNeill married (20 November 1923) Josephine Ahearne (Josephine McNeill (qv)). They had no children.