Edinburgh World Heritage - Learn more about the O’Neill family and the remarkable family business which Luke started in Edinburgh


Learn more about the O’Neill family and the remarkable family business which Luke started in Edinburgh

The Italian state as we now know it came into existence in 1861.  Before that the Italian peninsula was occupied by separate states, one of which was the Kingdom of Naples.  That Kingdom changed hands many times and in 1734, two years before Luke O’Neill was born there in 1736, it was conquered by a Spanish Army.  The memorial says that Luke was nephew of ‘the most illustrious Arthur James O’Neill, Duke of the Holy Roman Empire, General in the Spanish service and Governor General of Arragon’.  How come someone with the distinctly un-Spanish surname of O’Neill was a senior officer in Spanish service?

In fact many O’Neills served the Spanish Crown with distinction.  The family traced its history to the legendary warrior king of Ireland, Niall of the Nine Hostages, who is said to have been responsible for bringing St. Patrick to Ireland.  Hugh O'Neill (1550-1616), the second Earl of Tyrone opposed English control of Ireland.  After defeat at the Battle of Kinsale in 1601 he and other leaders were forced to leave Ireland.  Many O'Neills then fled to Spain and Portugal as part of a movement that became known as the Flight of the Wild Geese.  Arturo O’Neill, as he was known in Spain, fought in many battles in Europe and North and South America and was governor of the Spanish colony of Florida. With this family background it is not surprising that Luke O’Neill was born in the Kingdom of Naples.

What is more surprising are the trades that Luke that took up after arriving in Edinburgh in the 1780s. Instead of embarking on a military career like many of his family, Luke began manufacturing fireworks. Before developing a few years a later a family firm of statuaries which was to go on to achieve success in producing the first phrenological heads in Britain. Throughout his life in Edinburgh, Luke lived and worked in the Canongate and his gravestone can be seen in the Kirkyard today.

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