Born: 16 April 1863, Dungannon, County Tyrone
Entered: 07 September 1880, Milltown Park, Dublin
Ordained: 1895, Milltown Park, Dublin
Final Vows: 15 August 1898, St Francis Xavier, Gardiner Street, Dublin
Died: 19 July 1947, Canisius College, Pymble, Sydney, Australia - Australiae Province (ASL)
Transcribed : HIB to ASL 05/04/1931
by 1890 at Prague Residence, Czech Republic (ASR-HUN) studying
by 1891 at Paris France (FRA) studying
by 1897 at Drongen Belgium (BELG) making Tertianship
◆ Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University online :
O'Neill, George (1863–1947)
by J. Eddy
J. Eddy, 'O'Neill, George (1863–1947)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/oneill-george-7909/text13757, published first in hardcopy 1988
biographer; Catholic priest; linguist; religious writer; theological college teacher
Died : 19 July 1947
George O'Neill (1863-1947), Jesuit priest, academic and author, was born on 16 April 1863 at Dungannon, Tyrone, Ireland, son of George F. O'Neill, inspector of schools, and his wife Mary Teresa, née McDermott. He was educated at the Catholic University School in Dublin and at St Stanislaus College, Tullamore, and entered the Jesuit novitiate in September 1880 at Milltown Park. In 1880-89 he taught at Belvedere and Clongowes Wood colleges, studied at Milltown Park and took his B.A. with first-class honours in classics from the Royal University of Ireland. He spent a postgraduate year in Prague in 1890, followed by a year in Paris. On his return to Ireland he took his M.A. with first-class honours in modern languages at the Royal University.
From 1891 O'Neill pursued philosophical and theological studies at Milltown Park and was ordained priest in 1895. In 1897, after completing his tertianship at Tronchiennes, Belgium, he was appointed to the staff of University College, St Stephen's Green, an independent Jesuit college which prepared its students for the examinations of the Royal University. Fr O'Neill was prefect of the library and church, choirmaster, and taught ancient and modern languages until 1901, when he became a fellow of the Royal University, while continuing to teach at St Stephen's Green as professor of English literature, in succession to Thomas Arnold. In 1909 when the Royal University was replaced by the National University of Ireland, O'Neill became a founding fellow and was nominated the first professor of English language and philosophy in 1910. He held this post until his departure at the age of 60 for Australia. One of his pupils was the young James Joyce.
O'Neill was sent to the Australian Jesuit Mission in 1923 at his own request, influenced by a period of ill health and a sense of dissatisfaction at the approach of retirement. Archbishop Mannix was keen to obtain distinguished staff for his new seminary, Corpus Christi College, Werribee, Victoria, and O'Neill became professor of modern languages (1923-45) and of church history (1932-45), and lectured and wrote in theology, history, literature and aesthetics. In 1945 when his eyesight and health were failing, he retired to Canisius College, Pymble, Sydney. He died on 19 July 1947 and was buried in Gore Hill cemetery.
A somewhat reticent and scholarly figure, O'Neill was nevertheless warm, frank, cultured and friendly, respected for his good critical judgement, his moral qualities of courage and sympathy for others, and his spiritual outlook. He was a precocious linguist, being thoroughly at home in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, German and Italian, a fine pianist and occasional composer, an omnivorous reader and, though not a great supporter of the Irish revival, was a correspondent of Canon Sheehan, Lady Gregory and Louise Guiney. Among his publications were studies of Shakespeare and of English poetry, a history of the Jesuit missions in Paraguay, scripture and poetry anthologies, a Newman reader, and a study of Job. He served as editorial consultant and wrote for a number of scholarly journals, including the Lyceum and the New Ireland Review, and contributed over thirty articles to the Jesuit publication Studies. His best writing is to be found in the Life of the Reverend Julian Edmund Tenison Woods (1929) and Life of Mother Mary of the Cross, 1842-1909 (1931).
U. M. L. Bygott, With Pen and Tongue (Melb, 1980)
Irish Province News, 5, no 3, July 1947, p 238
Society of Jesus, Irish Jesuit Archives, Dublin and Australian Province Archives, Hawthorn, Melbourne, Australia.
◆ David Strong SJ “The Australian Dictionary of Jesuit Biography 1848-2015”, 2nd Edition, Halstead Press, Ultimo NSW, Australia, 2017 - ISBN : 9781925043280
George O’Neill came to Australia in 1923, when he was over 60. It might have been thought that at this age, his value to the Society in Australia would not be very great, but the work he did in the 22 years he spent at Corpus Christi College was of greater value for the glory of God than anything he had done in his earlier life.
Before his arrival in Australia, O’Neill had been engaged in university work in Dublin for years, first with the Royal University of Ireland and then with the National University. This assignment began in 1897, when he was appointed to University College, where he prepared students for the Royal examinations, lecturing in modern and ancient languages. University College was a relic of the abortive attempt to establish a Catholic university in Newman's time. It was handed over to the Society by the Irish bishops, and became a kind of hostel for students preparing for the Royal Examinations. O’Neill was a fellow of the Royal University of Ireland. He set and corrected examinations and received a modest salary.
O’Neill went to school at St Stanislaus College, Tullabeg, (later amalgamated with Clongowes), and gave evidence of the ability, so strikingly manifested later. He entered the noviceship at Milltown Park, Dublin, 7 September 1880. After this he was sent for a year to teach in Belvedere College, Dublin, and then returned to Milltown Park for a year's
philosophy. He was at the same time doing his university course by taking the examination of the Royal University of Ireland. He was given a year free of teaching at University
College, 1884-85, to prepare for his BA exams, and it was during this year that he lived with Gerard Manley Hopkins, who had been elected a Fellow of the Royal University at the
beginning of 1884 and was resident at University College.
After obtaining his degree, O'Neill did two more years teaching at Belvedere, where Albert Power was a pupil at the time, and a year at Clongowes. He was then given two years on the continent, one in Prague and one in Paris, preparing for his MA examinations in modern languages, which he took in 1891 with first class honours. Then he did a second year of philosophy (seven years after completing his first year) at Milltown Park, and went straight to theology in the same place.
He was ordained in 1895, at the age of 32, and did his tertianship at Tronchiennes. In 1897 he was appointed to University College and took up the work that was to occupy him until he left for Australia in 1923 at his own request, influenced by a period of ill health and a sense of dissatisfaction at the approach of retirement. In 1909, when the National University of Ireland replaced the Royal University O’Neill became a founding fellow and was nominated the first professor of English language and philosophy in 1910. One of his pupils was a young James Joyce. He later joined the community at Lower Lesson Street, not far from the university. He was a precocious linguist, being master of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, and German. He was an omnivorous reader, particluarly in English literature. He regularly contributed critical English articles in “Studies”.
When he reached Melbourne, it was a question whether he would go to Newman or to Werribee, and Werribee was chosen. He was to spend just over 22 years there, and his courses
exceeded all expectations. He professed modern languages, 1923-45, and church history, 1932-45. and lectured and wrote in theology, history, literature and aesthetics. He had never been a real teacher, being too academic for the average student, though the specially gifted could obtain much from him. But his simplicity of character, his edifying religious life, and general culture, had a great influence on generations of students, even if he did not teach them much.
Even in Ireland O'Neill was noted for care of the young and being kind to them. He loved having the students around him at Werribee, and regretted their departure for vacations
Though he had very considerable musical gifts, possessing a sense of absolute pitch and being competent player of the piano, he was not a real pianist, being rather hard and mechanical, and he had very poor handwriting.
O'Neill wrote a number of books and articles. in Ireland he had published a small volume “Lectures on Poetry”, and two books on the Shakespeare-Bacon question, “Could Bacon Have Written the Plays?” and “The Clouds around Shakespeare”. He continued his writing in Australia. Though always a good writer, he never succeeded in becoming a popular one. His book on the Jesuit Reductions in Paraguay, “Golden Years on the Paraguay”, deserved more popularity than it attained. The two books that made most impact on the Australian public were his life of Saint Mother Mary of the Cross (MacKillop) and his life of Julian Tenison Woods. The latter was written first. It was not popular with the Black Josephite Sisters, for in matters of controversy concerning their origins, he came down too heavily on one side.
He wrote a history of the Australian Mission, but it was never published. It was very good concerning the early years, but it was somewhat superficial in the treatment of the more
contemporary period. He could hardly be regarded as an unbiased historian, since he tended to be influenced unduly by his likes and dislikes. He never maintained a sufficiently detached outlook. He went to immense trouble in gathering material on the origins of the Josephite Sisters, particularly from surviving associates of Mother Mary and Father Woods, but his judgment on the facts could not always be firmly relied upon.
O'Neill put a great deal of work into his translation of Job, in which he received much help from Albert Power. It is greatly to his credit that he was always ready to help other writers. He had, for example, done a good deal of work on Caroline Chisholm, and helped Margaret Kiddie with her biography.
O'Neill was an extraordinary combination of genius, honesty and simplicity. He was child-like in many ways, always, for example, ready to experiment with strange combinations of dishes at meals. Though kind and even-tempered as a rule, he could become annoyed at times over what other people would regard as of no importance. Although a somewhat reticent and scholarly figure, he was nevertheless warm, frank, cultured and friendly, respected for his good critical judgment, his moral qualities of courage and sympathy for others, and for his spiritual outlook.
When his eyesight became so bad that he could no longer carry on his work at Werribee, he retired at the end of 1945 to Canisius College, Pymble, where he remained for the last year and a half of his life. As he could no longer read himself, the scholastics were very good to him by acting as readers, even if there was not always perfect agreement on both sides about the type of book to be read. He always enjoyed hearing his own creations. Towards the end he wanted to die. The Australian province should not easily forget the generous and notable service he gave in the autumn of his life.
◆ Irish Province News
Irish Province News 9th Year No 1 1934
Leeson St :
Monday, November 20th, was a red-letter day in the history of Leeson street, for it witnessed the celebration of the Golden Jubilee of the House's foundation. In November, 1833. the Community came into being at 86 St Stephen's Green, where it remained until 1909, when the building was handed over to the newly constituted National University. The Community, however, survived intact and migrated to a nearby house in Lesson Street, where it renewed its youth in intimate relationship with the Dublin College of the University.
Its history falls this into two almost equal periods, different, indeed, in many ways, yet essentially one, since the energies of the Community during each period have been devoted to the same purpose, the furtherance of Catholic University Education in Ireland.
A precious link between the two eras is Father Tom Finlay, who was a member of the Community in 1883, and ever since has maintained his connection with it. His presence on Monday evening, restored to his old health after a severe illness was a source of particular pleasure to the whole gathering. It was also gratifying to see among the visitors Father Henry Browne, who had crossed from England at much personal inconvenience to take part in the celebration. Not only was Father Browne a valued member of the Community for over thirty years, but he acquired additional merit by putting on record, in collaboration with Father McKenna, in that bulky volume with the modest title " A Page of Irish History," the work achieved by the House during the first heroic age of its existence. It was a pleasure, too, to see hale and well among those present Father Joseph Darlington, guide, philosopher and friend to so many students during the two periods. Father George O'Neill, who for many years was a distinguished member of the Community, could not, alas. be expected to make the long journey from his newer field of fruitful labor in Werribee, Australia.
Father Superior, in an exceptionally happy speech, described the part played by the Community, especially in its earlier days of struggle, in the intellectual life of the country. The venerable Fathers who toiled so unselfishly in the old house in St. Stephens Green had exalted the prestige of the Society throughout Ireland. Father Finlay, in reply, recalled the names of the giants of those early days, Father Delany, Father Gerald Hopkins, Mr. Curtis and others. Father Darlington stressed the abiding influence of Newman, felt not merely in the schools of art and science, but in the famous Cecilia Street Medial School. Father Henry Browne spoke movingly of the faith, courage and vision displayed by the leaders of the Province in 1883, when they took on their shoulders such a heavy burden. It was a far cry from that day in 1883, when the Province had next to no resources, to our own day, when some sixty of our juniors are to be found, as a matter of course preparing for degrees in a National University. The progress of the Province during these fifty years excited feelings of
admiration and of profound gratitude , and much of that progress was perhaps due to the decision, valiantly taken in 1883 1883, which had raised the work of the Province to a higher plane.
Irish Province News 18th Year No 2 1943
From a letter of Fr. George O'Neill, Werribee, Melbourne. dated 29th November, 1942 :
This Vice-Province never before got such a painful shock as it has received in the absolutely sudden death of Fr. Thomas O'Dwyer (Rector of St Patrick's College Melbourne) On last Thursday I was chatting with him and he seemed alright. This morning (Saturday) he was laid in earth amid deep and widespread mourning, the grief of his Community at St. Patrick's being specially notable. He had been doing all his work up to the last. It would appear, however, that two or three months ago. he had consulted a. doctor and had been warned that he was not quite safe in the matter of blood pressure. On Wednesday night he was phoned to by the Mercy Nuns at Nicholson St where he acted as daily chaplain, asking him to say Mass early for them as the Coadjutor Archbishop was to say Mass there at 7.l5 or 7.30. He agreed. and made the early start next morning. The time came for his breakfast in the Convent parlour while the Archbishop was finishing Mass, but when the lay-sister came in after a time she found Fr. O'Dwyer lying on the ground and vomiting. He tried to reassure her, but she ran to the Rev. Mother and they phoned for a doctor who came at once. He saw that the situation was serious and that the last Sacraments should be given. Then the Cathedral (not far off) was called up and presently the Adm. came along with the Holy Oils. The Archbishop, who had meantime finished his Mass, came on the scene and anointed Fr. O'Dwyer, having previously given him absolution for which he was still conscious. The Provincial (from Hawthorn) also arrived. Then an ambulance was got and took the dying man to St. Vincent's Hospital where he died at 9.30 am. We are accustomed here to funerals rapidly carried out, so it was not strange that all was over in the following forenoon. Some 100 priests were present , an immense crowd of boys and girls, and of the ordinary faithful, and the two archbishops. Dr. Mannix spoke some happy words with much feeling.
Irish Province News 22nd Year No 3 1947
Fr. George O’Neill (1863-1880-1947)
Not many of Ours have brilliantly distinguished themselves in two far separate provinces of the Society. Fr. George O'Neill did so not merely by his literary and linguistic attainments but by his moral qualities of courage, friendliness, and spiritual outlook. Fame came to him in spite of his reserved and shy character. Indeed those who knew him but slightly never realised the warmth of his character. And even those who knew him well are amazed when they sum up the total record of his quiet achievements and recognise the importance of the role he played. Very few men of such eminence have been so averse from publicity. His earlier life can be briefly summarised. He was born at Dungannon, the son of a well-known Irish, barrister. After his schooldays in Belvedere, where for one year he was also Prefect of Studies. He then taught for one year in Clongowes. While he was in Belvedere he took his B.A, degree in Classics in the Royal University, but he showed such remarkable talent for modern languages that he was set aside to specialise in them. From 1889 to 1891 he spent one year at the University of Prague and another at the University of Paris and took his M.A. in modern languages with first-class honours. He then went through his philosophy and theology at Milltown Park, where he was ordained in 1895. Fr, O'Neill was a fast worker, but that is not the explanation of how he contrived to complete his whole studies for the priesthood, philosophy and theology, between 1891 and 1896. He seems to have done one year of his philosophy immediately after his noviceship. He went to Tronchiennes for his tertianship in 1897. In 1895 began the series of mishaps that eventually led him into the wrong chair in the National University. In that year he competed with Miss Mary Hayden for a Fellowship that was to lead to a Professorship. He was regarded as Miss Hayden's superior, despite her impressive accomplishments, but he came up for examination so tired and distraught with the preparations for his ordination that she won by the narrowest margin. Yet, though she won the Fellowship, she was debarred from becoming Professor as the old Royal University did not admit women professors. Fr. O'Neill therefore taught modern languages in the University until 1901, when on the death of Thomas Arnold he was made a Fellow and raised to Arnold's former chair of English Literature. However be lost this chair in 1909 on the foundation of the National University. Robert Donovan, who had deserved well of the Irish Party by his leading articles in the Freeman's Journal, had to be appointed to a chair. Unfortunately, knowing but one language, he was only qualified to fill the chair of English Literature. So a chair of English Language, now abolished, was created for Fr. O'Neill from which he also taught part of the English Literature course. It was just because he was not really the dry and unimaginative pedagogue that his somewhat prim manner suggested that he was dissatisfied with this arrangement.
As a lecturer he was well worth hearing, for everything that he said was the result of long and able critical meditation. Though always respectful of the opinions of others his own were very firm and not easily shaken. His lectures would doubtless have been more stimulating to young people had not his habit of reticence induced him to state briefly or not at all his reasons for his critical verdicts. But those verdicts were sound and, if one attends less to the notes than to the selections in his Five Centuries of English Poetry, one discovers a cultured and personal taste in the anthologist. His lecture on a poem by Donne would sound like a series of remarks overheard on a poem that he was reading for the first time. Similarly his judgments, on the work of young authors, though always kind, read like criticisms of well-known writers. Praise or condemnation were both downright, though he loved to praise and hated to condemn. The truth is that in judging a poem he took no account whatever of the reputation of the author or of his presence.
This critical integrity, merely a sign of the love of truth, required both the self-confidence that comes of clarity of mind and moral courage. Anyone who has tried to tell an artist that his work is bad knows the courage that he needs, and Fr. O'Neill had nothing of the brutality that makes such plain speaking easy. It was this courage that made him willing to champion unpopular courses. He was a Baconian, openly professed, and wrote two books on the controversy : ‘Could Bacon Have Written The Plays’? and ‘The Clouds Around Shakespeare’. He was an active helper in all university projects. One of his few opportunities for apostolic work was when he became for a year or two Director of the University Sodality. He was also invaluable as a contributor and editorial consultor to the three periodicals for the University reading public - the Lyceum, the New Ireland Review, and Studies. He was never editor himself. This unselfish man had a gift far rarer and fairer than that of initiating good works, a gift for serving energetically the good works initiated by others. He also founded a musical society in the Royal University and rather inadequately called it the ‘Choral Union’. But this leads to the consideration of another gift of his.
Fr. O'Neill was a noted pianist and something of a composer. Be cause, like the poet Grey, he ‘never spoke out’, his playing was not so eloquent as he could have made it. But his brilliant technique and general musical ‘usefulness’ were never in doubt. He was in great request as examiner at the Feis or in Clongowes. He was also frequently invited to accompany singers in public. He was the friend of the late Arthur Darley and many other of the finest musicians of this country. Both as performer and promoter he played a prominent part in the musical life of the city, in which he has no successor,
In 1923 Fr. O'Neill startled the Province by asking to be sent to the Australian Mission, as it was then. Several motives, ill-health and dissatisfaction with his chair at the University among them, have been said to account for his request. But (to give a personal opinion) his chief motive was his approaching compulsory retirement from his chair. To be a professional idler such as most retired gentlemen are expected to be was distasteful to him. And he needed to retire before he was too old to go to Australia. Moreover Dr. Mannix was anxious to get distinguished professors for his new seminary in Werribee. Fr. O'Neil answered the call and was allowed to go.
On the boat out to Australia he was still his mildly cheerful and companionable self. He was always ready to give a piano recital to the old ladies. And, notwithstanding the prestige that members like Fr. H. Johnson and Fr. W. Owens gave to our party, Fr. O'Neill was our star in the eyes of the passengers. But he cut his ties with Dublin slowly and one by one. Even in the Bay of Biscay he was still acting as a member of the Editorial Board of Studies, for he revised and passed a poem by one of his companions and sent it to the Editor.
In Werribee he held the posts of Professor of Church History and of Modern Languages until a few years before his death. He also, needless to say, directed the choir and promoted concerts and plays among the students. He read papers and spoke before various Catholic societies in Melbourne.
But his career in Australia is chiefly notable as the time when he produced his finest books. In Dublin besides the works already noted, several anthologies and books of selections, and innumerable articles and pamphlets, his chief work had been Essays on Poetry and a biography of Blessed Mary of the Angels. But in Australia he discovered his power for historical narrative. He became deeply interested in the beginnings of the Church in Australia and produced two fascinating biographies of that period, one on Fr. Julian Tenison Woods, the other on Mary McKillop, Mother Mary of the Cross. In these works all his deepest loyalties gave more than usual fire to his writing. And a later work on the Jesuit Reductions of South America, ‘Golden Years on the Paraguay’, is worthy to stand beside them. Up to the end he was filled with projects for new books. He thought that he could prove that all the Scholastics had been wrong in their doctrines on Beauty. Perhaps his intention to publish this thesis was evidence of failing powers. But he never admitted old age as a valid reason for ceasing to work, When a few years ago he was relieved, of most of his duties he could not, or would not, understand the reason of his superiors. But the truth that the shadows were gathering figuratively must have been forced upon his attention when they began to gather literally. More than a year before his death he became blind or almost blind. One can give him the only praise that, after all, any man can deserve : he found a great work to do for God and did it.
The following is taken from an appreciation which appeared in The Dungannon Observer of July 26th :
“The news was received in Dungannon and Clonoe districts with the deepest feelings of regret of the recent death of Rev. George O'Neill, S.J., the noted author and essayist and former Fellow of the Royal University and Professor of English at University College, Dublin. Son of the late Mr. George F. O'Neill, Inspector of National Schools, Fr. O'Neill was born in County Antrim in 1863, but at an early age came to reside in Dungannon, to which his father was transferred. His father's family came from Clonoe district, and for both Dungannon and Clonoe the late priest had always a warm spot in his heart. When the Convent of Mercy in Dungannon celebrated its golden Jubilee two years ago, Fr. O'Neill wrote a poem in honour of the occasion. The late Cardinal MacRory was a close friend of Fr. O'Neill, and the Cardinal was highly appreciative of his spiritual writings. When the Cardinal visited Australia for the Eucharistic Congress in 1929, he made a journey to Werribee College to see Fr. O'Neill, who was then ill. By the marriage of his sister to the late Dr. Conor Maguire of Claremorris, Fr. O'Neill was the uncle of the Chief Justice Conor Maguire. He was also related through marriage to Most Rev. Dr. Dr. D'Alton, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland.
Fr. O'Neill died on July 19th.
May he rest in peace”
Irish Province News 22nd Year No 4 1947
On 28 July a special Mass was celebrated at Gardiner Street for the late Fr. George O'Neill (Viceprovince), an obituary notice of whom appeared in our last issue; in addition to the Chief Justice, Mr. Conor Maguire, a nephew, and other relatives, His Excellency Sean T. O'Kelly and Mr. McEntee, Minister were present.
◆ James B Stephenson SJ Menologies 1973
Father George O’Neill 1864-1947
Not many of ours have distinguished themselves so brillinatly in two different sections of the Society, poles apart from each other. Fr George O’Neill was in that category, being renowned both in Ireland and Australia.
Born in Dungannon in 1863, he was educated at Belvedere College. He displayed a remarkable talent for modern languages and literature, and he was outstanding in his degree examinations. He became Professor of English literature at the Royal University in 1901, succeeding Thomas Arnold. It was during this period that he produced his book so well known to students of English “Five Centuries of English Literature”. He was a keen advocate of Bacon as the author of Shakespeare’s plays and published two works on that subject “Coiuld Bacon have written the Plays?” and “The Clouds around Shakespeare”.
In 1923 Fr O’Neill volunteered for the Australian Mission. This was just the beginning of another illustrious career, more remarkable when one recalls that he was 60 years of age at the time.The 24 years he spent in Australia added to his fame as a writer, lecturer and musician, for he had considerable also in music, being something of a composer himself. His finest books were written in Australia : “The Life of Father Julian Tenison Woods”; “Mother Mary of the Cross”; and “Golden Years in the Paraquay”.
He died on July 19th 1947, 84 years of age, ending a life of continual service of God, right up to the end, and leaving behind him works that will ever keep his memory green.