What Was Your Name in the States?

Michael Redmon’s column about Owen O’Neill the Younger reminded me of a contact and some research about Owen O’Neill the Elder, the doctor who was the father of the county engineer, surveyor, and city councilman.

A few years ago I was contacted by a historian researching for a book on the Mormon War in Utah in the mid-1850s, in which Dr. O’Neill was a civilian doctor employed by the U.S. Army, at least briefly. The historian was contacting all the local O’Neills whom he could find, looking for descendants of his quarry and perhaps a trunkful of diaries, letters, whatever that might be of interest. Well, I couldn’t help with that—I immigrated from Ireland in 1956, and knew of no connection with Dr. O’Neill, although I was curious as to the area of Ireland from which Dr. O’Neill had emigrated, which might possibly indicate some very distant connection.

What little is known of Dr. O’Neill mentioned Tipperary as his birthplace, although there were no birth records to support that. In addition, there was his medical education, which was in Ireland, not, as your column suggests, in Northern California – I don’t think that there were any medical schools in California in the 1850’s and ’60’s, and in any case O’Neill was working as a doctor with the U.S. Army before coming to California, so….

But there was also, in those days, no University of Dublin. Trinity College, which did have a medical school, was the only university in Ireland, but no Catholics were allowed to attend, and it had no record of an Owen O’Neill, and only after 1900 was University College Dublin (UCD) opened, mostly for Catholics.

So, if O’Neill was a Catholic from birth, as he seems to have been, where did he acquire his medical education?

Another problem; there apparently are no records of O’Neill’s participation in rebellion against the English (the Fenians, the active organization of the time, rose in 1845), no court, jail, or transportation records at all. As to Tasmania, if he was transported to the penal colony there (again no records) why would he escape, return to Ireland, where he might be re-captured, and then ship out to America, as he did—His entry port was Boston, on an immigrant ship from Ireland, and there is a record of that.

So, my guess (and it is a guess) is that Owen O’Neill wasn’t his real name; he may have had trouble with the law, and emigrated, and changed his name, but in the mid-19th century there were no passports, no travel documents, and he may have simply adopted the Owen Hugh O’Neill (Eoghan or Owen and Hugh O’Neill were both famous Irish chieftains and Earls of Ulster, both led rebellions against English rule, and are heroes in Irish history, names well known to all native Irish).

The medical education? Here again, no clear answers….There were of course no medical boards or examining bodies, no certifications – an ambitious man might set up as a lawyer, or a doctor, or a dentist, with little training or book-learning, and as long as he (no women) did little harm, get away with practising a profession without any formal training.

Remember that song of the Gold Rush? “Oh what was your name in the States? Was it Johnson or Thompson or Bates?” I suspect that the good doctor may have sort of fictionalized his past, and perhaps his education. Hopefully he did little harm.


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