Obituary: Dom Hugh O'Neill
Friday 25 February 1994
A GUEST at Worth Abbey who was considering a religious vocation asked Father Hugh out of the blue, 'How do you know you made the right decision?' The prompt answer came back, 'You never know. You make a decision and keep sticking to it.'
Fr Hugh O'Neill was patient and wise, quick-witted, humorous and unfailingly courteous. He never failed to impress. His spare figure, bright blue eyes, ready smile and his gift for making people wanted will be remembered far beyond Worth, his home in Sussex for most of his last 40 years. He was sent to the abbey in 1955, and remained there, except for a short spell at St Peter's, Dulwich, in 1983-86, for the rest of his life. He held a variety of appointments - Novicemaster, Guestmaster, Subprior - but never high office; he seemed to prefer it that way. In many ways he was a very private person.
He played a full part teaching in the school. He taught French, and language was an abiding interest. He wanted the exact word, its derivation and pronunciation. He loved sport; he was a superb tennis player and keen squash player. As a rugby referee, playful and precise, he would bend down to touch one blade of grass with his finger as the place for a scrum or penalty.
Father Hugh was born Niall O'Neill, at Bangor, Northern Ireland, in 1914. Schooled by the Jesuits at Beaumont, near Windsor, he went up to Wadham College, Oxford, in 1933. While at Oxford he was one of the undergraduates that the Roman Catholic chaplain, Monsignor Ronald Knox, invited to live in the University Chaplaincy at the Old Palace. This was one indication that he was already a committed Catholic; it was also the beginning of a lifelong friendship with Knox.
O'Neill's first career was in the Indian Civil Service. He entered the ICS in 1937, when the British Raj was at its height. The next 11 years were the most eventful and formative of his life. It was a time of rapid change for India. From the Central Provinces, he was moved to the seat of government at New Delhi. He held a series of senior administrative offices which left their mark in his habits of tact, reserve and laconic analyses of people and situations. In New Delhi, he lived a full social life that might easily have turned the head of any young man.
Yet, when O'Neill left the ICS, aged 33, it was with a clear purpose. His deeply held faith in Christ had been growing over the years into a vocation to the priesthood. His spiritual mentor turned his thoughts towards a Benedictine vocation.
O'Neill entered monastic life at Downside Abbey, in Somerset, in 1948, taking the name Hugh. His fellow novices, younger then he, learnt to appreciate his wisdom and humour. He would coach them in Latin and in public reading while enduring their giggles at his 'God' voice, deep and sonorous. He was like 'an old war-horse surrounded by gadflies', said his novice-master.
Hugh O'Neill made his vows at Downside and, after a period of studies at Sant'Anselmo in Rome, was ordained priest in 1954. He went to Worth. In his last days there, as his strength failed after four operations bravely borne, he became a precious hub for community life: loved by his monastic brethren, lay colleagues, former pupils and his visitors alike.
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