Fr. Peter O’Neill

Fr. Peter O’Neill is perhaps the best known link to Ballymacoda and the Society of United Irishmen and the events of 1798. Arrested for his alleged knowledge of the murder of an informer in Ballymacoda, he suffered a brutal interrogation and torture, and spent a number of years in a prison colony in Australia. In this post, we delve into the life of Fr. Peter O’Neill, the events leading to his deportation, and his life afterwards.

Fr. Peter O’Neill

It is interesting to note that Fr. O’Neill was not born in Ballymacoda, but born in the parish of Conna, on June 29th 1747. He was educated first at a hedge school at Inch, with schools and education being banned for Catholics at the time. Later he attended a school at Kilworth, learning classics and mathematics. Following his education in Kilworth, he was sent to be trained for the priesthood at the College of the Lombards in Paris.

After his ordination in 1781, Fr. O’Neill returned to Ireland. For the next five years, he filled many vacant posts in the diocese of Cloyne & Ross, before being appointed Parish Priest of Ballymacoda by Bishop MacKenna in November 1786. His letter of appointment from the Bishop, dated 8th November 1786 seems to indicate that he had done a more than satisfactory job in his other parishes up to that point.

Being answerable to the great God for the choice I make to fill vacant parishes with proper pastors, as the district of Ballymacoda is now vacant, and certainly wants a pastor conspicuous for good sense, prudence, discretion, zeal, and talents for instruction, we hereby assign and appoint you as pastor, whom we well know to possess those qualifications, and charge in conscience to labour strenuously in reforming and instructing said flock, as you have done in all places you have served hitherto, and charge said flock by virtue of the obedience they owe to you their pastor, and to me their superior, to show you due obedience and respect, and charge Rev. Mr. Dinahy to induct you properly.

Letter appointing Fr. O’Neill P.P of Ballymacoda from Bishop Matthew MacKenna.

At that time, Shanagarry was part of the parish of Ballymacoda & Ladysbridge, and Fr. O’Neill first presented himself at the church there. As told in the Memoir of Rev. Peter O’Neill (Rice, 1900), he found the doors to the chapel locked and no one there to welcome him. After striking up a conversation with a blacksmith, he managed to convince him to open the church doors, and requested that those in the locality at least permit him to say a mass, which was accepted. Fr. Peter won over his parishioners, and this was the beginning of his ministry in the parish of Ballymacoda. Sources indicate that he was a very hard working priest, arising at 4am each morning and working many hours hearing confessions, saying mass, and visiting the sick. He was also involved in the building of schools in the parish, and a new church in Ballymacoda in 1796.

Stone at the entrance to St. Peter in Chains Church, Ballymacoda

Memoir of Rev. Peter O’Neill (Rice, 1900) discusses Patrick Murphy arriving in Ballymacoda, his wife possibly being a native of the area or having relations there. Murphy was an ex-sergeant and had been convicted of attempting to convince fellow officers to join the United Irishmen. He was sentenced to 500 lashes and to be deported for life to a prison colony, but this sentence was commuted on his agreement to become an informer for the authorities, and report on activities of the United Irishmen.

The leader of the United Irishmen in Ballymacoda at this time was Thomas O’Neill (no relation to Fr. Peter O’Neill). There is evidence that Thomas O’Neill and Fr. Peter O’Neill had previously had conflict, specifically relating to a disagreement regarding the proposed site of the new chapel in Ballymacoda.

Patrick Murphy integrated locally, but was at the same time passing information to Lords Shannon and Boyle regarding the membership and activities of the United Irishmen in Ballymacoda. A meeting of Murphy and the Lords was observed, and this information was passed to members of the United Irishmen in Ballymacoda. A meeting was held, to which Murphy was invited. He was arrested, and charged with being a spy, to which he admitted. It was claimed that the United Irishmen sent two members from this meeting to Fr. O’Neill to consult him on the course of action, however it seems that he didn’t give a response. The two returned to the meeting, where they concluded after much deliberation that Murphy should be shot. There is reference to the shooting happening in Ring, but it is likely impossible to pinpoint the location. Where exactly the body of Patrick Murphy was disposed of is also unclear – some sources list it as being buried in the sand in Knockadoon and others as having been thrown into the River Fanisk and covered over in a pile of stones.

Over the next number of weeks, noticing the absence of Murphy and the information which he was providing, the authorities arrested many people in the area for interrogation. It seems that Thomas O’Neill, under questioning, was the one who brought Fr. O’Neill into the fold – indicating that if he had done his duty, nobody would have been shot.

Fr O’Neill was arrested and brought to Youghal, where he was to suffer greatly. In his remonstrance in 1803, Fr. Peter O’Neill gave a first hand account of his punishment. He had ‘made up his mind not to utter even a single groan‘, as he knew that this would give satisfaction to his tormentors. The brave priest kept silent as lash upon lash was landed on his body. Lord William Loftus (1752-1831) was at the time Commander in Chief of the British forces based in Munster, and presided over the flogging of Fr. O’Neill. He was not pleased that the punishment was seemingly not having the desired effect, and indicated that he would ‘make the popish rebel groan‘. He ordered that jagged strips of tin and lead be knotted to the lashes of the whip. Fr O’Neill endured 275 lashes, and was thrown in a cell in the Clock Gate prison. Under great pressure throughout this ordeal to reveal the names of United Irishmen members in Ballymacoda, he didn’t reveal a single piece of information.

From Youghal, he was sent to Duncannon, and later put on board the transport ‘Princess Charlotte‘ in Waterford. Later taken to Cobh, he was transferred to a larger vessel bound for Botany Bay, the ‘Annie‘, where he remained for the next 10 months before being deported in 1800. While awaiting transport to Botany Bay on the ‘Annie‘, a court of inquiry was underway in Youghal, ordered by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Fr O’Neill was in no way involved in the inquiry, stating:

I was not brought nor any friend of mine summoned to speak for me. It was even a subject of sarcastic remark in the prison ship, that whilst I stood there among the sailors my trial as it was termed, was going on in Youghal. With the proceedings of that Court I am to this day unacquainted.

Fr. Peter O’Neill on his trial at Youghal, where he had no involvement, from Remonstrance to the Nobility and Gentry of County Cork, 1803

The inquiry ordered Fr. O’Neill to be removed from the transport ship, and imprisoned while the investigations were ongoing, but by the time the letter reached Cork, the ship on which Fr O’Neill was imprisoned had already set sail for Botany Bay.

Dublin Castle, 30th June, 1800.
Sir, —I have the honour to receive and to lay before my
Lord Lieutenant, your letter of the 28th instant, with its enclosure, and am directed to acquaint you, this his Excellency’s commands have been this day conveyed to Major General Myers, to take the Rev. Peter O’Neill from on board the Anne Botany Bay ship, in Cork Harbour, and to cause him to be imprisoned until further orders, but not to treat him with harshness or severity.
I have the honour, etc.,
E. B. Littlehales.

Letter ordering the removal of Fr O’Neill from the transport ship ‘Annie’. The ship had already sailed by the time this letter arrived.

In exile, the most of which he spent on Norfolk Island, Fr. O’Neill was allowed to continue his ministry. At home efforts by friends and family continued to lobby the government for his release and return to Ireland. These eventually succeeded and a recall was issued for the return of Fr. O’Neill to Ireland. Seeing the good he was doing in the colony, the governor there delayed telling Fr. O’Neill of his recall, with him first hearing of this being in a letter from a friend at home. Confronting the governor with this, the governor admitted his recall had come and that he had delayed telling him. He also offered Fr. O’Neill a yearly salary of £200 to stay on in the colony and continue his ministry there. Fr. O’Neill refused, but did promise to return later with more priests. His letter of pardon is dated 15th January 1803.

I do hereby certify that Mr. O’Neil has permission from his
Excellency, Governor King, to leave this Island, and to return to
Ireland.
Norfolk Island, 15th January, 1803

The content of Fr O’Neill’s letter of pardon, January 1803

When Fr. O’Neill arrived back in Ireland in 1803, he was reinstated as P.P. of Ballymacoda. While he was away, another priest, a Fr. O’Brien had been appointed P.P., but the bishop as a mark of respect for the suffering he had endured, reinstated him. Fr. O’Brien was later appointed P.P. in Doneraile.

In 1803, Fr. O’Neill published Remonstrance to the Nobility and Gentry of County Cork, in which he challenged the charges which were brought against him, showed that there was never any evidence, and challenged his accusers to produce any evidence against him.

Thomas O’Neill was sentenced to death for his part in the murder of Patrick Murphy in Ballymacoda, and was hanged in Cork on 13th June 1798. His ‘final confession’ is held in the National Library of Ireland, and is interesting from the perspective that he claims he was under duress to participate in the murder, and also that he had no knowledge of any involvement by Fr. Peter O’Neill, since he was previously the principal accuser of Fr. O’Neill.

From ‘The final confession of Thomas O’Neill’, National Library of Ireland

Two other local men, Patrick Shanahan and Robert Walsh, were also implicated in the murder of Patrick Murphy and hanged in Cork on 6th October 1798. A memorial was unveiled to all three at the Ballalley in Ballymacoda in 1998 on the 200th anniversary of the events of 1798.

Monument to Thomas O’Neill, Patrick Shanahan and Robert Walsh at the Ballalley in Ballymacoda

Fr Peter O’Neill died in June 1835, at the age of 88, working right up to the day he died. As per his wishes, he was buried in the churchyard at Ballymacoda. His grandnephew, the revered Fenian leader Peter O’Neill Crowley is buried at his side, but that’s another story.

The grave of Fr. Peter O’Neill in Ballymacoda churchyard

In 1906, a further memorial to Fr. O’Neill was unveiled in the 1798 memorial park in Youghal.

Fr. Peter O’Neill memorial, 1798 memorial park in Youghal

References and Further Information

Memoir of Rev. Peter O’Neill, by Rev. William Rice, Published by Eagle Works, South Mall, Cork, 1900

National Library of Ireland, The Final Confession of Thomas Neil

Historical Remains of Ballymacoda and Ladysbridge, Ballymacoda / Ladysbridge Community Council Historical Society

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *