O’Neills in Portugal: Lasting Irish Connections

The story of the O’Neills is a long and illustrious one. Perhaps the most appropriate pertaining to the family is that of a quotation by a fourteenth century poet who said ‘to compare any clan with that of the O’Neills one may as well contend with the ocean’. Many other lines and poems have been written in their honour.  Different branches of the Clan emigrated and spread throughout Europe.
A branch of O’Neill dynasty has been in Portugal since the eighteenth century and left their influence in the realms of diplomacy, politics, military, literature and commerce. The first born son of Carlos O’Neill and his wife Ana Joao Torlades had an illustrious diplomatic career. He had friends in royalty and moved in aristocratic circles. One lineage of descendants with mixed European marriages ended with an unmarried woman without issue. There is a Portuguese genealogy for Jose Maria O’Neill and three Portuguese volumes are cited for the name. Amongst names of Irish descent there are thirteen entries for O’Neill. There is a published biography about the life and work of the controversial Portuguese prose poet and writer, Alexandre O’Neill (1924-1986). The name O’Neill is frequently heard and seen in Portugal today.
                                First son of Carlos and Ana, Jorge Torlades O’Neill (1849-1925), became head of the Clan. His eclectic and secluded early nineteenth century summer style residence in Caiscais near Lisbon was completed in 1900 with a peculiar mix of forms and styles including neo-Gothic and neo-Arab elements.  Although wealthy and well connected he went bankrupt and sold the mansion in 1910. It was originally known as Torre de Sao Sebastiao after a small seventeenth century chapel that stands nearby.  Now in bad state of repair the chapel still stands and is maintained by the Dominican fathers who hold a religious service in English once a week.
The property was purchased by an aristocratic banker, Count Castro Guimaraes, who modified and lavishly decorated the mansion as a family home with countless artistic and cultural treasures.  On his death the property with its garden style park were donated to the Caiscais Municipality in 1931 for public use. More recently it has been opened as the Museu Conde de Castro Guimaraes, one of two principal museums in the town, and is a popular place to visit without charge.*
A special feature of the mansion is a well preserved decorative vaulted shamrock ceiling on the ground floor known as the clover room. The shamrock also features above a decorative tiled fireplace and in metal as decoration on a door handle. There is a dedicated room with portraits and several mementos including paintings, decorative screens, scripts and maps from an exhibition in Ireland recounting the story of the Irish in Europe including Portugal 1600-1800.**
Lasting Irish Connections
Another name of Irish descent is Almeida Garrett (1799-1854), renowned statesman, poet, playwright and writer who went to England in political exile from 1823 to 1832. Ennobled, his full name and title was Joao Baptista da Silva Leitao de Almeida Garrett, Viscount de Almeida Garrett.  Institutions carry his name and associations are dedicated to him.  An avenue in Lisbon is named after him.
Historical connections and friendship between Portugal and Ireland continue through diplomatic, cultural and social activities. Many events are organised through the Irish Association in Portugal with support from the Irish Embassy and patronage from other institutions. They include organised lecture visits, literary evenings and play readings with performances focussing on Ireland’s writers and poets and landmark events in the history of Ireland.  An annual gala evening to celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day is a prime activity.  In 2016 a major focus for the Irish Association is the centenary year of the Rising (1916-2016).
 Ita Marguet, April 2016
Note:    Acknowledgement is given to sources used in this text.  It follows a visit to Lisbon and Caiscais, March 2016, and a number of published articles on Ireland and its historical connections to the wider world. *Book Museu Conde Castro de Guimaraes, Biblioteca Conde Castro Guimaraes – Roteiro, edicoes Camara Municipal de Caiscais, 2009 (currently out of print). **Strangers to Citizens:  The Irish in Europe, 1600-1800, at the National library of Ireland, Dublin (2008).