The prestigious Irish family of O'Neill (also found in the rarer spellings of O'Neal and O'Neale) claims descent from Domhnall, grandson of Niall Glun Dubh (Black Knee), King of Ireland, who was killed by the Norsemen circa 890 A.D. The family are said to have the oldest traceable genealogy in Europe, a remote ancestor being Niall of the Nine Hostages, the legendary 4th Century High King of Ireland. Traditionally, Irish family names are taken from the heads of tribes, revered elders, or some illustrious warrior, and are usually prefixed by "Mac" denoting "son of", or "O", grandson, male descendant of. The given name Niall, genitive "Neill", derives from the Old Gaelic "nia(dh)", champion, and O'Neill has the distinction of being one of the first hereditary surnames ever adopted in Ireland. The O'Neills were the chief family of the Cinel Eoghan, their territory being Tir Eoghan (modern County Tyrone, and parts of Counties Derry and Donegal). Their race formed two main branches - the northern Ui Neill of Ulster, and the southern Ui Neill of Thomond. The former clan held the title "Earls of Tyrone", and the red hand of Ulster is taken from their Coat of Arms; the latter were chiefs of Bunratty in County Clare. Church recordings include Michael O'Neal who married Ellen Sherry at Bridgetown, County Clare on 13th July 1865. The family Coat of Arms is a silver shield with two red lions combatant supporting a dexter hand couped at the wrist, in chief three red estoils, in base waves of the sea therein naiant a salmon all proper. The first recorded spelling of the family name is shown to be that of Domhnall O'Neill, which was dated circa 1000, in "Ancient Annals of Ireland", during the reign of Brian Boru, High King of Ireland", 940 - 1014. Surnames became necessary when governments introduced personal taxation. In England this was known as Poll Tax. Throughout the centuries, surnames in every country have continued to "develop" often leading to astonishing variants of the original spelling.
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