John O’Neill was the elder of at least two brothers from St Mary’s Roman Catholic parish, Greenlough, Co. Derry. Born around 1820, probably in the townland of Ballymacpeake [Google Maps], John first married his third cousin Biddy Mulholland, from the adjoining townland of Eden, on 17 October 1851, and they had four children:
- James Stafford, born in 1852, nothing more known of him, perhaps died young;
- Catherine, born in 1854, emigrated to New Zealand about 1875, married Davie Bourke in Dunedin in 1879, and died of colon cancer in 1909 aged 55;
- John Junior, born in 1856, emigrated to New Zealand in 1877 with his sister Jane, as well as his uncle and aunt Patrick and Margaret Cassidy and three cousins. John married Nellie Herlihy, daughter of an Irish miner, at Naseby in 1892, but Nellie died a few months later, apparently of appendicitis that came on her on their first outing after their marriage. John married Margaret Doorley, also an Irish miner’s daughter, at St Joseph’s Cathedral, Dunedin, in 1894, and they had six children. John died in Ranfurly in 1945 aged 89, and Margaret died in 1948 aged 80.
- Jane, born in 1858, married John Mulholland, 19 years her senior, within 14 months of arriving in New Zealand, and they farmed near Ranfurly. John died in 1920 aged 81, and Jane probably retired to South Dunedin with her daughters Rose and May, where she died in 1940 aged 82.
In June 1861, nearly two years after Biddy Mulholland’s death, John O’Neill Senior married another third cousin, 17-year-old Ally O’Neill, and they had at least six children:
- Anne, born in 1865, nothing more known of her;
- Margaret, born in 1867, left Ireland with her cousins Neal O’Neill and Mary-Jane O’Neill. After they arrived in Port Chalmers, Margaret travelled to Ranfurly by buggy and pair with her half-sister Jane O’Neill Mulholland and Jane’s husband, John Mulholland. The cost of a ship’s fare from Rockhampton, Australia to Port Chalmers was £2, and Margaret may have travelled under the pseudonym of Mrs Jackson (according to a story told to Patrick O’Neill in the late 1970s by Margaret’s daughter Margaret Conway). Margaret worked at Patearoa sheep station for 10 shillings a week. In 1894, she married Charlie McErlane, a neighbour (and possibly a distant cousin) from Co. Derry, and she lived for the rest of her life as a neighbour of her sister Jane O’Neill Mulholland, in Central Otago. Margaret died in 1945 aged 78, and Charlie died in 1946 aged 86.
- Harry, born in 1869, inherited the farm on which his father had lived. He married Theresa Hughes from Rocktown, Co. Derry, in 1910. Theresa died in 1933 aged 52, and Harry died in 1950 aged 80.
- James, born in 1871, nothing more known of him (his name may imply that his half-brother James Stafford, born in 1852, may have been dead by now).
- Alice, born in 1878, was still at home at the time of the 1901 Census. She apparently married in the USA, and died in Pennsylvania.
- Daniel, apparently died in Pennsylvania.
John O’Neill Senior died at Ballymacpeake in 1900, and his second wife Ally died in 1919 aged 75.
Four of John’s children emigrated to New Zealand, and three of these lived in the Maniototo region of Central Otago, centred on the town of Ranfurly. Several of the surnames in this region mirror the surnames of the area in Co. Derry where the O’Neills came from: O’Neill, McErlane, Mulholland, McCloy, McAtamney.
Contact between New Zealand and Ireland was maintained occasionally: around 1918, my grandfather John Stafford O’Neill, on leave from the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in France, visited his uncle Harry in Ireland. In 1961, my father, John Stafford O’Neill Jr, wrote to the parish priest, Fr Hegarty, and received some news of relatives. About 1975, Monie and Vin Dennehy visited Ballymacpeake, possibly the first visit between the Irish and New Zealand branches of the family since the First World War. About the same time, cousin Nellie Cuttance also visited Ireland. In 1977, after the 1961 letter was refound, I contacted the same parish priest and received a response from Mary McErlean. In 1984, my sisters Mary and Therese O’Neill visited the McErlean and O’Neill families in Ballymacpeake. Therese married a local man in 1988, taking the wheel full circle!