Neill O’Neill who died on October 10, 2017, aged 36, was a journalist, Managing Editor of The Mayo News, and President of Westport Chamber of Commerce.
Warm, honest, engaging, and driven by a deep ambition to always ‘do the right thing’ and better the community by inspiring others with his relentless energy, he was a central figure in the continuing development of Westport and perfectly encapsulated its spirit of cross community engagement by harnessing this power and using it to improve the town and the lives of its people.
You would need to travel many miles from Westport and Mayo to find someone who did not know him or know of him. He was equally at home in the heat of the Mayo County Council chamber or having banter on the sideline of a soccer match and could seamlessly blend the personal and the professional aspects of his life while remaining conscientious, fair and measured in his views. Neill O’Neill was a person with a perfect blend of all that is good about humanity: a caring partner; loving son, brother, and uncle; loyal friend; talented writer; proud community activist; passionate public-speaker; emotionally intelligent leader; amateur photographer; immutable musician; occasional sportsman; and a full-time messer. Above all, he was blessed with a kind heart, a strong mind, and a nature that is somewhat impossible to describe in words.
Neill saw and lived life as the miracle it is. He did not do ‘regrets’, and ‘what if’ was not part of his lexicon. He never stopped for a minute to contemplate the impact his energy and enthusiasm for life had on the people or world around him. That he was all these things at the same time and to everyone is some achievement in itself. But to those who knew and loved him that was just normal for Neill.
Neill was born on July 10, 1981 in Mayo General Hospital, the youngest boy and fourth of five children to Mary and Colam. His birth was, unlike the remainder of his life, pretty unremarkable. Early portents of the future arrived in the drama surrounding the decision of what his name would be. His parents were dissuaded from naming him after his father by a family friend who said “when the phone rings you will always be asking whether they want to speak with Senior or Junior”.
He lived all his early life in Moyhastin, just over a mile outside Westport, and was educated at the CBS national school on the Newport Road and then at Coláiste Rís where he made friendships that remain to this day. Leaving school, Neill was troubled by the choice between further education and a desire to see the world and bring his ‘experience’ to a wider audience. He studied English, History, Politics, and Philosophy for a while, which led him towards a career in journalism, where he began his association with the communications and media world, making connections and impressions that would last throughout his later career.
Interspersed with his education was a period of work and travel. Like all things associated with Neill, he did not conform to a specific stereotype in this part of his life either. He started as a glass-picker in Matt Molloy’s bar, where he became the favourite of both patrons and especially the late Geraldine Molloy. He would later return to the bar trade when he ran the Asgard Bar and Restaurant at Westport Quay for a while with his great friend Kevin Joyce. Their Head Chef at the time recalled that it was the best job he ever had once he got used to taking orders from someone who knew more about food than he did. He also tried his hand at building for a time, but as expected, not in a typical manner. During the construction of the M4 motorway he lived for a while in a caravan with his friends and co-workers in a compound that closely resembled a post-hurricane trailer park. And of course, Neill saw no barriers in the fact that he knew absolutely nothing about civil engineering or road building and even less about how to drive a six tonne dumper! He took on the challenge and succeeded, through sheer ambivalence to the perceived wisdom. This approach would be replicated consistently throughout his short life.
He also travelled extensively throughout the world and with some cunning, charm, and no small amount of goodwill, he managed to keep a one-year world-trip going for at least twice that amount of time. It was on one of these trips, eleven years ago that he met Emma Joyce and struck up a relationship that lasted the rest of his life. To say that Emma tamed him would be a disservice to them both. In contrast, Emma smoothed some of his rough edges and in doing so allowed Neill to flourish by providing constant love and support and helping him to become the person he was and wanted to be.
On returning to Westport Neill spent a brief time working at The Mayo News as a general reporter and this experience gave him his true calling and ignited his passion for newspapers and their role in bringing local stories to life. He also spent some time teaching at his old secondary school as a substitute, one of the few examples in his life where he was content to take a backseat role.
Neill O’Neill was undoubtedly a man of words, they were his playground. He was always in demand for Best Man duties, performing the role on at least half a dozen occasions with his usual mix of mischief and sincerity. It is difficult to express how much he loved his work as a journalist and writer as evidenced by his return to The Mayo News in 2010 as Managing Editor. Assuming the challenge of managing the business while growing readership and revenue, Neill led his team through a series of subtle but important improvements designed to lessen the impact of online media on the local news cycle and their successful work continues to be recognised both nationally and internationally through various awards.
Ever the showman, he also participated in the RTÉ TV show The Local Eye which brought the TV cameras inside three local newspapers throughout the country to tell the story behind the stories and reinforce to the public the special importance of the local newspaper to life in rural Ireland. Neill revelled in this environment and was immediately at home in front of the camera as he showcased life in Westport and Mayo to a wide spectrum of people in a manner which brought much personal satisfaction to him and much entertainment to the viewers. He was proud but not boastful of his input and his only gripe being that some of what he felt was his better material was left on the cutting room floor at Montrose. Although many others breathed a huge sigh of relief that footage of some of his nocturnal activities did not make it into the final programme.
Loving what you do makes it easy to get out of bed in the morning, and loving his work as a journalist allowed Neill to contribute to life in Mayo in so many other ways. He was an active member of a number of local boards, community groups, and sporting organisations, including Westport Chamber of Commerce, the Strategic Enterprise Committee of Mayo County Council, the Westport 250 organising committee and many others representing a wide sample of interests and issues. He was indefatigable in his approach to any issue, rational but always ambitious in what could be achieved when people worked together towards a common goal. When Neill was involved in something you were guaranteed that it would be done to the very best level possible and without much rancour or disagreement, although he never demurred from the challenge of a differing perspective. This is especially true of his involvement in establishing a cross-community forum on the future of Westport House, where he skilfully managed many differing views and kept them all focused on the goal of ensuring that the future of a key piece of Mayo’s heritage and tourism infrastructure was not only secure but that it would continue to grow and develop.
Neill O’Neill is survived and hugely missed by his parents Colam and Mary; partner Emma Joyce; brothers Conor and Finbar; sisters Aoife and Orla; nephews Thomas, Ruairi, Donagh and Cian; nieces Kelly, Siofra, Alannah, Daria and Sarah; brother in law Tom Bourke; sisters in law Aisling and Gemma, uncles, aunts, cousins and by the Joyce family. He was predeceased by both sets of grandparents and by his nephew Seán O’Neill, beside whom he was laid to rest in Aughavale cemetery after a very emotional but beautiful funeral Mass.
Neill left this world far too soon but in this short time he made an indelible imprint on his town, his county, and the lives of those who knew and loved him. His death was a huge shock but his life will be remembered forever and his memory will bring comfort to those who mourn his tragic loss. Unique. Inspirational. Unforgettable. Ní bheidh a leithéid arís ann.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.