O'Neill, Laurence (1864–1943), businessman and politician, was born Laurence Neil at 7 King's Inns Street, Dublin, on 4 March 1864, one of three children born to John Neil, a potato and corn factor at the above address, and his wife Mary (née Murphy). The family came from the Portmarnock area in Co. Dublin, where they had a house and land. By the 1880s it was deemed appropriate to restore the 'O' to their name. Laurence attended school from King's Inns Street, first the local Christian Brothers' primary school and then the Jesuits' Belvedere College, a short walk from his home. Little is known of his school days. At Belvedere he seems to have been mainly remembered for his enthusiasm as a cyclist. He may also have benefited from that school's cultivation of public speaking and of drama. He became an eloquent speaker, at ease in debate and with a dramatic quality that enhanced his argument and his reputation as an orator. Like most students then, he probably left school aged fifteen or sixteen years. He went into his father's flourishing business, merging easily with the range of people from all classes and backgrounds that crowded the markets in the adjoining Smithfield area. In his spare time he competed successfully in cycle racing throughout the country. In the process he became friendly with unionists from all parts of Ireland and from Britain. Subsequently, he was prominent as an administrator of the Irish Cycling Association and represented it at international gatherings in many European capitals. In the world of administration he honed his political skills, and this, plus his European experiences, seems to have promoted his interest in public life.
O'Neill was elected to Dublin Corporation in 1910. He soon showed a particular interest in assisting the poorer sections of society. In 1913 he won the gratitude of the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union for supporting them when most were against them. In 1916 he was wrongfully imprisoned, an experience that both increased his empathy for political prisoners and enhanced his political reputation. On his election as lord mayor in 1917, he promised to be lord mayor to all the people. His first year was particularly busy. He won praise for his mediation in industrial disputes, for his efforts to overcome unemployment – including the enlisting of the help of the chief secretary – and for his chairing of a successful protest meeting, involving unionists and nationalists, against the government's prohibition of horse racing. In July 1917 he participated in the Irish Convention set up by the British prime minister, David Lloyd George, and negotiated on behalf of Thomas Ashe (qv), Austin Stack (qv), and other prisoners on hunger strike. When Ashe died from forced feeding on 25 September, O'Neill's good relations with the commander-in-chief, Sir Bryan Mahon (qv), led to the defusion of a highly charged situation. On 25 October 1917 Lord Mayor O'Neill hosted the Sinn Féin convention at the Mansion House, which resulted in the election of Éamon de Valera (qv) as the party's president.
In 1918 O'Neill brought together conflicting nationalist interests in opposition to the government's policy of conscription. As lord mayor, he convened and chaired the Mansion House conference against conscription (April 1918) and, through his friendship with Archbishop William Walsh (qv), he prepared the way for the support of the catholic hierarchy, which united all shades of nationalist opinion against the government's policy. The nationwide response resulted in the withdrawal of the government's plan. Always a supporter of women's rights and of women in public office, O'Neill strongly protested against the imprisonment of Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington (qv) and Dr Kathleen Lynn (qv), and was instrumental in bringing about their release. During 1919 he defended the concessions made to political prisoners in the face of the new chief secretary, Ian MacPherson (qv), who sought to ignore previous agreements. In March O'Neill consented to host a civic reception for de Valera, recently escaped from prison. It was cancelled by the government, but de Valera came unobtrusively to Dublin and was photographed with Lord Mayor O'Neill and his daughters at the Mansion House. The year 1920 brought the Black and Tans, the auxiliaries, and military oppression. There were raids on the Mansion House and narrow escapes. O'Neill went from Dublin to Cork for the funeral of that city's murdered lord mayor, Tomás MacCurtain (qv). He himself received death threats, and the work of Dublin Corporation was seriously disrupted by the raids of government forces. O'Neill sent a carefully constructed letter of protest to Lloyd George. Subsequently, he pleaded for Terence MacSwiney (qv) and, crossing to England, he had an interview with Lloyd George in an attempt to save the life of Kevin Barry (qv).
On 8 January 1921, at de Valera's request, O'Neill undertook the establishing of the Irish White Cross, as a means of gaining assistance from the American White Cross 'for the relief of those suffering as a result of the British campaign'. His successful efforts required a personal visit to the United States. In February, A. W. Cope (qv), assistant under-secretary for Ireland, was instructed by the British government to explore unofficial lines of negotiation with the Sinn Féin leaders. He called on O'Neill at his home in Portmarnock, and the latter arranged a meeting with de Valera. The outcome was a truce and an invitation from the British prime minister to a conference in London. O'Neill was one of the five delegates who embarked for the London meeting in September. The others were: Arthur Griffith (qv), Robert Barton (qv), Count Plunkett (qv), and the central figure, Éamon de Valera. Subsequent lengthy negotiations (in which O'Neill was not a participant) led to the signing of the Anglo–Irish treaty and to political division. At meetings in the Mansion House, O'Neill could overhear heated disagreement, and he played an unexpected role at a decisive cabinet meeting where three members opposed the treaty and three supported it. All hinged on the seventh member, W. T. Cosgrave (qv). Distraught and undecided, he left the meeting, walked up and down, and asked O'Neill what he should do. O'Neill, knowing Cosgrave's religious temperament, suggested that he take the matter to prayer. Cosgrave did so, returned to the meeting, and voted for the treaty. Later, O'Neill, with Archbishop Edward Byrne (qv) and others, made a number of efforts to prevent civil war; then, having worked to keep his city free of bloodshed and destruction in the struggle against Britain, he had to watch it being physically damaged and convulsed as Irish people fought among themselves.
O'Neill supported the provisional government in its task of fulfilling the treaty. In the election to the new dáil (16 June 1922), he topped the poll in his Dublin Mid constituency. His term of office was short-lived, as the pressures of the years caught up with him. He suffered a severe 'burn out', which rendered him absent from office from 1922 into autumn 1923, and he chose not to seek re-election. During his absence, a highly critical attitude to the new Irish government was manifested by Dublin Corporation. This encouraged the government to give public support to the ongoing criticism of the corporation by members of the business community and the main newspapers, against its high rates and alleged corruption and inefficiency. In 1924 the government disbanded the historic Corporation of Dublin. O'Neill was excused of all blame, and was offered by President Cosgrave the retention of his mayoral salary and the position of chairman of the commission entrusted with the running of the city. Appreciating the offer, but angry at the unjustified disbandment of the corporation, and out of loyalty to his colleagues, he refused Cosgrave's offer.
It was a costly refusal. He had neglected his business in his commitment to the mayoralty, and this, together with the civil war and subsequent recession, placed him in severe financial difficulties. A great deal of money was owed him, which was never paid. He felt it necessary to approach Mr Cosgrave for financial loans on two occasions. Cosgrave supported him also in a by-election (June 1929) to the seanad. O'Neill continued as a senator until 1943. He played an active part, speaking eloquently in an inimitable style, and ever ready to remind his audience of certain historic events and people in his career and to defend the suppressed corporation. He died sitting quietly in his garden in Portmarnock on 26 July 1943. His funeral to St Marnock's cemetery, Portmarnock, was attended by many representatives of church and state, but thereafter his contribution to city and country was greatly neglected.
O'Neill is sometimes criticised for doing little to solve Dublin's dreadful housing problem. In fact, apart from the many other grave problems facing him and the corporation, there were never sufficient funds available to meet the housing needs. The problem could not be solved without generous government aid, which was not forthcoming. England was involved in a world war, and then faced upheaval in Ireland. A further source of income, namely the wealth to be generated by extending the borough boundaries into the wealthy suburbs, was also refused by the government. To run the city as best it could, the corporation was obliged to raise the rates within its confined boundaries, and this provided fuel to its critics and contributed to its dissolution.
As lord mayor of Dublin during the troubled years of 1917–24, O'Neill retained the confidence of his fellow counsellors, was hailed in ballad as the greatest lord mayor since Daniel O'Connell (qv), and was viewed by some, including Bishop Joseph MacRory (qv) of Down and Connor, as the likely president of an Irish republic. From 1917 to 1919, Dublin Corporation had a major voice and leadership role in the absence of an Irish parliament. Significantly, as mentioned, it was Laurence O'Neill who, as lord mayor, convened and chaired the Mansion House conference that galvanised the successful campaign against conscription.
One of O'Neill's major aims as lord mayor throughout this period was to preserve the city from bloodshed and violence. A constitutional nationalist himself, but without any party affiliation, he was friendly with Griffith, de Valera and Michael Collins (qv), made the Mansion House available for meetings of the dáil, and subsequently gave secret shelter there to republican leaders; at the same time, he cultivated the good will of successive viceroys, chief secretaries, and commanders-in-chief. Mindful of their mutual role in bringing about the 1921 truce that brought to an end the violent conflict between the IRA and government forces, in 1924 Alfred Cope wrote to O'Neill: 'I know of no other man who, in your exalted position, would have worked so strenuously or who could have overcome so successfully the almost overwhelming difficulties of your office in so perplexing a period' (O'Neill family papers, 1 April 1924). O'Neill was small in stature and less than impressive in appearance, but he combined charm with oratorical gifts, political skill, a mediating influence in industrial disputes, a strong social conscience, and pride in and commitment to the office of lord mayor of Dublin.