O’NEILL (O’Neil), TERENCE JOSEPH, soldier, civil servant; b. 1802 in Ireland; d. 21 July 1872 at Gaspé, Que.
Terence Joseph O’Neill arrived in Canada in 1829; he was serving in the British army, a member of the 30th infantry regiment. When he left the army in 1832, he was entitled as a former captain to a land grant. He settled at York (Toronto), and went into partnership with Patrick Burke in a firm of auctioneers.
In 1836 the St Patrick’s Society was founded at Toronto, and O’Neill immediately became a member. During a meeting the following year, the president of the society refused to propose a toast to Daniel O’Connell, the Irish leader, and denounced him. O’Neill, after a violent controversy, “could no longer countenance the Orange hypocrites.” He therefore left the society’s ranks, and a few months later joined William Lyon Mackenzie* and the Reformers for a struggle against the Orangemen. During the election of 1841 he was a campaign worker for Isaac Buchanan*.
Having been appointed, on 14 Aug. 1861, inspector of prisons and asylums in the Province of Canada and in New Brunswick, O’Neill had to live at Kingston for some months each year, but he kept his house at Toronto. His role consisted of making the rounds of these establishments, the most important of which were the Kingston penitentiary and the provincial mental asylum at Toronto.
At this period there was not one of these institutions “whose material resources were complete.” Some were waiting for a proper building then under construction, others were occupying quarters ill suited to their purpose, with no hope of getting out of them rapidly. Furthermore, the administration of the penitentiaries lacked firmness: the prisoners bribed their warders, bought on the black market, and indulged in homosexuality. So long as he held the post of inspector, O’Neill made persistent efforts to ensure that work was given to prisoners and that defaulters were whipped.
On 22 May 1868, at the time when a federal commission of directors of penitentiaries was set up, O’Neill was chosen as one of the directors. His great problem was always “What must be done with the prisoners.” He accepted the presidency of the commission in 1869, and the following year went to Ottawa to live, with his wife Anne. It was during this same year that the federal government decided to have prisoners work in return for pay; they were thus able to assist their families.
By the time O’Neill died, improvements had been made in the penitentiary system, in particular at Kingston: reforms in discipline and working; conditions, improved sanitation in the quarters, separate cells, new buildings. In addition, a reduction in the number of recidivists was apparent. Obviously part of this success is attributable to O’Neill, though it also reflects the prosperity of the country. He was a hard working and well-intentioned official, who had the public interest at heart.
O’Neill died at Gaspé, probably during one of his numerous tours of inspection.
PAC, RG 8, I, AI, 220–21. Canada, Sessional papers, III (1870), pt.1, no.2; IV (1871), pt.6, no.60; VI (1873), pt.6, no.75. Rapport du bureau des inspecteurs d’asiles, prisons, etc., pour l’année 1863 (Québec, 1864), 1–30. Constitution (Toronto), 29 March 1837. Middleton, Municipality of Toronto, I, 181–212.