Major the Hon Robert William Hugh O'Neill



(Robert William) Hugh O’Neill was born on 8 June 1883, son of Edward O’Neill, 2nd Baron O’Neill of Shane’s Castle, County Antrim, and Lady Louisa Katherine Emma O'Neill (née Cochrane). Educated at Eton College and New College, Oxford, he was called to the English Bar (Inner Temple) in 1909.

On 17 July 1903 he was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the North of Ireland Imperial Yeomanry, serving until he resigned his commission on 11 March 1908. He commanded a mounted detachment in the Ulster Volunteers in 1914.

Soon after the outbreak of war he applied for a commission and on 17 September 1914 was appointed captain & adjutant in the 12th (Service) Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles, part of the 36th (Ulster) Division.

Newspaper reports suggest that prior to his posting to the 12th Battalion being confirmed, he took command of the newly-established 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons Service Squadron at Enniskillen prior to the appointment of Captain Strettell. The Fermanagh Times of 15 October, for example, reported that:

Recruiting for this cavalry squadron, we are glad to say, has brisked up slightly during the past week, but so far only about fifty men have joined and a large proportion of these hail from outside Fermanagh. Captain the Hon. Hugh O'Neill has now taken charge of the men and is pushing forward the work of training the new recruits with all possible speed. Shelters are being erected for the horses and the men are comfortably housed.

O'Neill arrived in France with the 12th Battalion on 5 October 1915. On 23 December the following year he transferred to the General List and the following February was appointed Court Martial Officer, First Army Headquarters. However he returned home on leave soon after for parliamentary duties and to see to his private affairs (he had become Member for Mid-Antrim in a by-election in 1915).

In February 1918 O’Neill was made Deputy Judge Advocate General in Egypt with the temporary rank of Major. In December 1918 he returned home on leave. He relinquished his commission on 20 March 1919. In October that year he was awarded the French Chevalier de l’ordre du Merite Agricole.

O'Neill served in various parliamentary roles over the following decades, and at the beginning of World War 2 joined the North Irish Horse officers’ emergency reserve.

On 17 June 1929 he was created 1st Baronet O’Neill and on 11 February 1953 1st Baron Rathcavan.

He died on 28 November 1982, aged of 99.


O’Neill’s older brother, Captain the Hon Arthur Edward Bruce O’Neill, was killed at Ypres on 6 November 1914 while serving with the 2nd Life Guards, the first Member of Parliament to be killed in the war.

His nephew (Arthur Edward Bruce’s son), Shane Edward Robert O’Neill, 3rd Baron O’Neill, commanded the North Irish Horse in World War 2, and was killed in action in Italy in 1944.


O'Neill at Eton, c.1900


Northern Whig and Belfast Post, 17 October 1931


The first image shows O'Neill as a 2nd Lieutenant in the North of Ireland Imperial Yeomanry in 1905. The full image can be seen here. The second image, a studio photograph by Alfred D. Kissack (photographer) Windsor, shows O’Neill as an Eton school boy, wearing a blazer with wide pale lapels, a striped shirt and wide pale tie; his boater has leaves and badge with Dreadnought on the hat band, the bow on his right. From a brown/dark purple leather photograph album with heavy brass clasp containing photographs of Eton school boys. Some gold tooling and gold-tooled initials on the front cover, F.G.A-R. c.1900. Image No.1039940 © National Trust/ Jeannette Scott & John Browning.


This page last updated 21 October 2023.