O'Neill, John (1740–98), 1st Viscount O'Neill , politician, was born 16 January 1740 in Shane's Castle, Co. Antrim, eldest son and heir of Charles O'Neill (d. 1769) of Shane's Castle, MP for Randalstown (1727–60, 1761–9), and his wife, Catherine Alice (d. 1790), daughter of John Brodrick, MP and son of Alan Brodrick (qv), Viscount Midleton, lord chancellor of Ireland. The O'Neills, who had lived in Shane's Castle since 1637, were among the wealthiest, most important families in Antrim, and traced their lineage back to the ‘Great O'Neill’ and the high kings in the fifth century. John was educated at TCD, which he entered 21 April 1757, and Christ Church Oxford, where he matriculated on 14 April 1762 and graduated MA a month later. By this time he was already an MP of the Irish parliament, having been returned in 1761 to the family borough of Randalstown. He was returned for Randalstown at every election until 1790. In 1783 and 1790 he was also elected MP for the county but preferred to sit for the borough. His influence in the county was assured; he was high sheriff in 1772, and subsequently deputy governor, and governor until his death.
Generally a popular parliamentarian and generous landlord, O'Neill made an error relatively early in his political career when he was prevailed on by Frederick Hervey (qv), bishop of Derry, to introduce in 1774 a vestry bill designed to deprive dissenters of their customary rights by enabling the Church of Ireland to raise taxes for the repair of churches on presbyterian members of the parish. The bill was defeated amid great outcry. Most of O'Neill's tenants were presbyterians, and he afterwards took great care to placate them. When reelected for Antrim county in 1790 to scenes of great enthusiasm, he observed gratefully that his support was ‘inspired by the bottom’ (Malcomson, 338).
A prominent Volunteer, he was a delegate for Co. Antrim to the national Volunteer convention in Dungannon, 15 February 1782, and one of the five Co. Antrim delegates to the national reform convention of November 1783. In 1785 he spoke against Pitt's commercial propositions for the freeing of trade between Great Britain and Ireland; his interventions in the house were generally listened to respectfully since he spoke seldom but always plainly and concisely. His voice was strong, although marred by a slight lisp, and he did not raise it. During the regency crisis he was one of four delegates appointed by the Irish house of commons in February 1789 to request, without stipulating any conditions, the prince of Wales to assume the regency of Ireland. As early as 1785 O'Neill was lamenting that the Irish opposition was but ‘a rope of sand . . . a means must be found to cement and bind it together’ (Charlemont MSS, ii, 31–2) and to this end he called for a political club, comprising peers and commoners, and was afterwards one of the original members of the Whig Club, formed in 1789 by Grattan (qv) and Charlemont (qv) and including as members Theobald Wolfe Tone (qv) and Archibald Hamilton Rowan (qv). After some hesitation over granting political rights to catholics, he decided in favour. On 8 February 1792, three days before the second reading of the relief bill, he presented to the house a petition signed by 600 Belfast citizens of good standing demanding the repeal of the penal laws. Ten days later he presented a further 350 names of protestant gentry and clergy.
Though a strong supporter of the opposition, he managed to remain in good stead with the government, sometimes discreetly absenting himself from votes. He was in contact, through the Northern Whig Club, with United Irishmen but his loyalty was never in question, so he achieved his ambition of a peerage. In October 1793 he was created Baron O'Neill, and two years later was elevated to Viscount O'Neill. With his wife Henrietta Boyle (qv) (m. 18 October 1777) he was a noted patron of the arts, especially music and theatre. At Edenduffcarrick on their estate, they built a theatre where the great tragedienne Mrs Siddons gave a performance in the early 1780s, and was then much impressed with the lakeside luxuriance of Shane's Castle, which inspired recollections of an ‘Arabian nights’ entertainment. O'Neill's private band (made up of his servants, who in addition to more usual skills were required to be musicians) was directed by the organists of Randalstown parish church, William Birch and John Sharp (d. 1803). This band played in the new Exchange Rooms in Belfast in 1779 and at several concerts in succeeding years. A notable event in the early concert life of Belfast was the appearance of the Weichsells in 1784 in the Exchange Rooms with O'Neill's band and that of the 49th Regiment. Important musicians enjoyed the hospitality of the O'Neills on their way between the Rotunda concerts in Dublin and Edinburgh: in 1786 two of the guests, John Mahon, violinist and clarinettist, and Andrew Ashe, flautist, gave the first of several concerts in Belfast. O'Neill was also a member of the RIA from 1794 and of the Dublin Society from 1797.
He was in Dublin in June 1798 when he had word of an imminent rising in Antrim. In his capacity as governor of the county he summoned by public notice the county magistrates to meet in Antrim town on 7 June. This was too good an opportunity for hostage-taking for Henry Joy McCracken (qv), rebel adjutant general of Antrim, to miss, and he issued battle orders to march on the town. O'Neill, on his way up from Dublin, spent the night of 6 June in Hillsborough, went through Lisburn the next morning without stopping and so failed to receive the warning left for him by Gen. Nugent (qv); he arrived in Antrim town a little after noon and into the thick of fighting. During the fray he had difficulty with his horse so was unable to retreat with the other troops, was left behind in the town, turned on his assailants bravely, but was knocked down by a pikeman (who probably failed to recognise him) and mortally wounded. He lingered two weeks in agony in Lord Massereene's castle in the neighbourhood and died 18 June 1798, to the great grief of his friends, and indeed of many United Irishmen, since he was widely respected. Jonah Barrington (qv) called him ‘high-minded, well educated, his abilities moderate, but his understanding sound; incapable of deception; one of the most perfect models of an aristocratic patriot’ (Barrington, 198); Musgrave wrote of his ‘innate goodness and philanthropy’ (Musgrave, 554). However, Charlemont, while admitting that ‘it was impossible not to love O'Neill’ also wrote of ‘his too great pliancy . . . and milkiness of disposition’ (Hardy, ii, 322). It was widely believed that he had been killed by one of his own tenants.
O'Neill left a daughter and two sons. The first son, Charles Henry St John O'Neill (1779–1841), Earl O'Neill , was born 22 January 1779 and educated at Eton and Christ Church Oxford, matriculating 23 November 1795. On his father's death he became 2nd Viscount O'Neill and two years later, on the recommendation of Lord Cornwallis (qv), was made (7 August 1800) 1st Earl O'Neill of Shane's Castle. A month later he was elected one of the first Irish representative peers in Westminster. In 1831 he was appointed lord lieutenant of the county of Antrim, though after his father's death he could never bring himself to travel through Antrim town. Politically he differed from his father in being a strong supporter of the union, and he was a grand master of the Orange order in Ireland until 1828. He died unmarried at the Bilton Hotel, Sackville St., Dublin on 25 March 1841. The earldom then became extinct and the viscountcy devolved to his younger brother.
John Bruce Richard O'Neill (1780–1855), 3rd Viscount O'Neill , soldier and politician, was born 30 December 1780 in Shane's Castle. After education at Eton he joined the Coldstream Guards (10 October 1799) and saw much active service. He was promoted to major-general (27 May 1825), lieutenant-general (28 June 1838), and general (28 June 1854). From 1802 until his succession to the peerage in 1841 he represented the county of Antrim, but was not an active parliamentarian; he attended seldom and spoke less. On reelection in 1811 he forgot to take the oath and had no consciousness of this until he tried to vote the following year. When he did vote, it was generally in support of the government. He opposed catholic relief and the repeal of the union, and was in favour of the reform bill. In 1811 he was made constable of Dublin castle and remunerated at £439 a year. Elected a representative peer of Ireland in February 1842, he died of gout and influenza at Shane's Castle on 12 February 1855. Since he too was unmarried the title became extinct, but the name of O'Neill was assumed by the inheritor of the estates, the Rev. William Chichester (see O'Neill, William Chichester, 1st Baron O'Neill (qv)).