O'NEILL, Augustus John Henry (b. 1792), of Bunowen Castle, co. Galway; 8 Leinster Street, Dublin, and 19 Grosvenor Street West, Mdx.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press

Constituency

Dates

Family and Education

b. 23 June 1792, 1st s. of John David Geoghegan (afterwards O’Neill) of Bunowen Castle and Gertrude, da. and coh. of Robert Fetherston of Whiterock House, co. Longford. educ. Trinity, Dublin 1807. m. Jan. 1829, Elizabeth, da. of Robert Baring Bellamie of Sandford House, Som., 1s. 1da. suc. fa. 1830.

Offices Held

Biography

According to a contemporary, O’Neill ‘could not be called a good looking man, he had dark staring eyes, rather pale complexion and slightly pitted with the smallpox, with hair having a tendency to curl’.1 He had a distinguished background, being paternally descended from the Irish monarch of the fourth century, Niall of the Nine Hostages. The senior branch of the family had expired in the reign of Charles I and it had been the desire of successive generations of the Geoghegans, as heads of the family, to assume the name of O’Neill. It was only when O’Neill’s father became accountant-general to the exchequer in Ireland that the family felt confident they would reclaim the title. George III accepted John Geoghegan’s application in 1808 and the family assumed the name of O’Neill.2 When the mayor of Hull inquired of O’Neill’s background in 1826, the marquess of Clanricarde declared him to be ‘a gentleman of a very old family, great respectability and considerable property ... chiefly in the county of Galway’.3 O’Neill’s father was in fact a close friend and political ally of Henry Grattan I*.

Little was known of O’Neill when he made a speculative visit to Hull shortly before the 1826 general election. The Hull Rockingham declared that it knew nothing of him: ‘We suspect that he does not know all who may be useful to him in his electioneering campaign, or he would not have presented himself as third man, when neither a first nor second has entered the field’. He had in fact invited the burgesses to sign a requisition requesting him to stand. Between 500 and 700 did so, and ten days before the nomination he made his appearance. The rumour in the town was that he had come to Hull to contest a seat as a result of a wager struck at his London club. The truth of this is unknown, but he pursued an active campaign, taking care to cultivate the wives of the freemen, an observer describing him as ‘one of the very best canvassers I ever met’. According to another witness

he had a fair display of jewelry, which he took good care to show. His manners were very volatile, and to look at the man, a keen observer would say that he really could not make up his mind to imagine that he was firm in his statements for there was a flightiness of manner about him. He looked as wild and harum-scarum as an untrained colt, yet, he was possessed of sufficient suaviter in modo to carry his point.

He quickly established his popularity with the lower order of freemen and in his published address, in which he described himself as a relative of the earl of Antrim and Sir George Fetherston*, cited his support for free trade and a revision of the corn laws, and his hostility to Catholic emancipation. After an acrimonious contest, in which he boasted of connections that would benefit the people of Hull and promised that a ship of 800 tons would be built there if he was elected, he was returned at the head of the poll. At the declaration he described his victory as that of the ‘independent freemen’ over ‘powerless Whiggism’, while the Hull Packet attributed his success ‘to an active and assiduous canvass, and to his frequently addressing the public’.4

Soon after entering the House, O’Neill had some dealings with John Cam Hobhouse* concerning his collection of Byron’s works.5 He voted against Catholic claims, 6 Mar. 1827, 12 May 1828, and brought up a hostile constituency petition, 6 June 1827. He was unable to attend the Dublin election committee owing to illness, 26 Mar.6 He spoke and divided against the disfranchisement of Penryn for corruption, arguing that the evidence of 1807 and 1819 was irrelevant, 28 May, and spoke in similar terms against the disfranchisement of East Retford and ‘this too rapid progress of reform’, 11 June 1827. He campaigned steadily against both bills thereafter, asking whether any Member could ‘lay his hand on his heart and in the face of his country declare that he has not expended a single shilling in these practices?’, 14 Mar., and whether ‘the honest freeman is to be deprived of his privilege because his neighbour has abused it?’, 2 June 1828. He voted against the Coventry magistracy bill, 18 June 1827. He seconded Sir James Graham’s unsuccessful motion in favour of the Wakefield and Ferrybridge canal bill, 3 Mar. 1828. He was in the minority (as a pair) for repeal of the prohibition of the use of ribbons at elections, 20 Mar., and protested that proposals to shorten the duration of polls would prevent many out-voters from polling, 23 May. He was in the majority against reducing the salary of the Wellington ministry’s lieutenant-general of ordnance, 4 July. He presented a petition from Irish kelp traders for the tax to be maintained on imports of alkalis and gave notice that he would bring forward a motion concerning their grievances, 8 July. This he did, 15 July, but he withdrew it after receiving assurances from ministers. He divided with government on the silk duties, 14 July 1828. O’Neill was, of course, listed by Planta, the patronage secretary, as ‘opposed’ to their concession of Catholic emancipation. He presented and defended hostile petitions, 9 Feb., 10, 12 Mar., and voted accordingly, 6, 18 (as a pair), 23, 27, 30 Mar. 1829. On 26 Feb. he unsuccessfully moved for returns indicating the number of petitioners on both sides of the issue, in order to gauge the strength of feeling. Next day he clashed with his colleague Daniel Sykes, who had presented a favourable Hull petition, demanding to know ‘How many signatures?’, and, when told, insisting that the majority in Hull were opposed to further concessions. Following the home secretary Peel’s introduction of the measure, 5 Mar., O’Neill accused him of misleading the country and declared, ‘I dare ministers to a dissolution; they know they could not carry the measure if the present Parliament were dissolved’. On 27 Mar. he explained that ‘the greatest objection I feel to the present bill is that it affords to the Catholics the power of legislation on all matters connected with our church, whilst we are not permitted to interfere in the most trifling degree with theirs’. He divided against Daniel O’Connell being allowed to take his seat unhindered, 18 May. He obtained returns of the number of borough electors, 25 May. On 2 June he seconded and was a minority teller for the Ultra Lord Blandford’s motion for parliamentary reform, which he argued would result in better protection against the Catholic party. He presented a Galway petition complaining of misapplication of money granted for public works, 5 June. In his last known activity in the House, he was in the minority for the abolition of colonial slavery, 13 June 1829.

During the early months of 1830 O’Neill’s health faltered and he suffered a further blow when his father died that April. The Hull Rockingham of 10 July reported various rumours that his arrival in the town was imminent but doubted them. William Denison*, advising Gilbert John Heathcote* on his pretensions to Hull, informed him, 16 July, that ‘O’Neill, not having paid his bill, cannot stand’. He was also suspected of being involved in a gambling scandal. Nevertheless, he issued a statement professing an intention to return, citing his ‘adherence to the cause of Protestant ascendancy’, his defence of the voters of East Retford and his attempts to ‘narrow the power of the great, and extend that of the people’. Summing up his politics, he declared, ‘though returned on what is called the Tory interest, I neither did, nor could, give a regular support to government’. Although his election committee reformed to draw up a formal requisition to him, very few signed it, and no one of any great consequence in the town. As a result O’Neill retired at the 1830 dissolution.7

He returned to politics in the 1840s, trying to secure a quay for Bunowen and offering Peel, as premier, his services and advice on Irish matters. Reconciled to Catholic emancipation, he apologized to Peel for the criticisms he had made of him in 1829 and was granted an interview with him in the autumn of 1844, when he declared his intention of returning to the House.8 A convert to O’Connell’s campaign for repeal of the Union, in April 1845 he seconded William Smith O’Brien’s* address to the county electors of Down, defending Peel’s policy, thanking him for the Maynooth grant, but insisting that only repeal would solve Ireland’s problems. In the autumn of 1846 he was disappointed at not being offered the chance to contest Clonmel or Dungarvan at by-elections, even though he was willing to contribute up to £1,000 to the expenses. He bitterly attacked O’Connell over this at a meeting of the Repeal Association, for which he was widely applauded.9 O’Neill never did return to the House. His last known public act was to deny some accusations made against him in 1853 (when he was in London) by a witness to the commissioners investigating the corrupt practices at Hull elections. He denied that a peer had sent him £1,000 during his election and that his total election costs exceeded £12,000, maintaining that they had been no higher than £4,700. He had sold his Irish estates, but his movements after August 1853 are unknown.10

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: Martin Casey

Notes

  • 1. Hull Celebrities ed. W. Gunnell, 449.
  • 2. Liber Munerum Pub. Hiberniae, iii. 103; Mss Sources Hist. Irish Civilisation, ed. R. Hayes, ii. 247.
  • 3. Hull Central Lib. Wilson-Barkworth mss, Clanricarde to W.W. Bolton, 1 June 1826.
  • 4. Hull Rockingham, 20, 27 May, 10, 17 June; Hull Advertiser, 12 May, 16 June; Hull Packet, 10 June 1826; Hull Celebrities, 449.
  • 5. Add. 36463, f. 317.
  • 6. The Times, 27 Mar. 1827.
  • 7. Hull Rockingham, 10 June, 10, 24 July 1830; Lincs. AO, Ancaster mss X111/5/5b.