The Death of Arthur O’Neill MP
This piece was written for radio by Mark Duncan and broadcast on RTÉ Radio One's The History Show on 2nd November 2014.
Privileged or poor, public personality or private individual, it really didn’t matter.
The First World War was democratic in its delivery of death.
On November 4th, 1914, three months to the day after Britain had declared war on Germany, the indiscriminate horror of what had been unleashed in Europe was reinforced by news that it had claimed the life of its first MP.
Arthur O’Neill, who had represented the Mid-Antrim constituency since 1910 and a Captain with the 2nd Life Guards, was killed fighting in Belgium in circumstances that press reports of the time did little to illuminate.
O’Neill was an Irish Unionist cut from aristocratic cloth. The biography of his life everywhere emphasised status and privilege.
The eldest son and heir of Baron O’Neill, once a Conservative MP for Co. Antrim, he had been educated at Eton and had married the daughter of the Marquis of Crewe with whom he lived in the splendour of Shane’s Castle on the shores of Lough Neagh.
It was this background that shaped O’Neill’s political outlook, in particular his opposition to nationalist efforts to secure Home Rule for Ireland.
In September 1912, he had joined with a quarter of a million Protestant Ulstermen in signing a Covenant pledging resistance to a measure that, they believed, threatened their civil and religious freedoms and the very integrity of the British Empire.
But O’Neill offered more than his signature to the anti-Home Rule cause. Decorated for military service in South Africa in the late 1890s, he also lent his experience to the Ulster Volunteer Force, commanding the North Antrim regiment of a movement whose militancy only abated when war in Europe intervened.
Arthur O’Neill’s involvement in that war lasted only three weeks and his death, aged 38, robbed a wife of her husband and five children of their father. The youngest of those children, a boy, was only two months old in November 1914. His name was Terence, who, on growing up, would follow the father he never knew into the political life. In time, Terence O’Neill would become the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, a state that had hardly been imagined let alone realised at the time of his father’s death.