Peter O’Neill was born in Coona, Cork, a descendant of the O’Neil clan of Co. Tyrone. He attended a hedge school in Inch, studied classics at Kilworth, and then began ecclesiastical studies at the Irish College in Paris, eventually teaching Celtic language and literature there. An exceedingly popular curate, he was appointed Parish Priest of Ballymacoda in East Cork in 1786.
At this time the United Irishmen movement was very active in Ballymacoda parish. A local man was suspected of being a traitor and was executed. Though wholly innocent, Fr. O’Neill was arrested and accused by the British of being implicated in the killing. He was arrested in 1798 and brought to Youghal where he was flogged – 275 lashes – and unsuccessful attempts were made to make part with information. He was promised his freedom if he revealed the names of the United Irishmen who had confessed to him. He rejected the offer of freedom.
Finally, a statement was forced from him under torture. Distraught, he first wrote that he deserved his sufferings but later protested his innocence and decried the conditions under his confession had been extorted. He stated that he was allowed neither to be present nor to be represented at a court of inquiry on his case held in 1799 and that the court had failed to acquit him merely because of inaccuracies in his memorial.
However, he was held in prison for two years before being transported in 1800 in the Anne which sailed from Cork a few days before an order arrived from the lord lieutenant to stop his departure. He was transported to Botany Bay as a convict. He was pardoned in 1803, returned to Ireland again took up duties as a Parish Priest in Ballymacoda. He died on June 29th 1835 and is buried in Ballymacoda churchyard.
He was uncle to a prominent fenian Peter O’Neill who was born two years earlier in 1832.
Statue in memory of Fr. Peter O’Neill, Youghal, Co. Cork
Stone at the entrance of Ballymacoda Church