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DOCTOR WAS OFFICIALLY "DEAD" FOR YEARS

Leinster Leader, February 9th 1974
 
Dr. was officially “dead” for years
 
The remarkable story of a Co. Kildare doctor, who was officially regarded as dead for some years, but in reality was a prisoner of the Japanese, was recalled with the death during the week of Dr. Jeremiah O’Neill, Lower Dodder Rd., Rathfarnham, native of Athy. He was aged 68.
   Dr. O’Neill was serving with the Indian Medical Service with the rank of Colonel in Malaya during World War 2, when the Japanese troops broke through the centre of the peninsula and routed the defending forces. Dr. O’Neill, who with several colleagues was serving at a post along the Slim River, was subsequently reported killed in action, and a telegram to this effect was received at the family home, Mount Offaly, Athy. In fact he had managed to escape through Jap lines with two companions, one an officer in the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders, the other an Irish corporal from Donegal, Paddy Mearns. After three months hiding in the dense Malayan jungle, they were captured soon after they had secured a native boat to make the journey to Burma. Brought by rail to Singapore, Dr. O’Neill was subsequently charged with espionage before a military tribunal and later related that he did not understand a word of what his captors were saying during his trial. He was sentenced to one year’s solitary confinement and five years hard labour. Naked in his cell measuring 7 feet by 5 feet, he was subjected to cruelty and extreme deprivation, and later his family, following the joyous re-union, was amazed that he managed to retain his sanity. He was one of two thousand prisoners held at the notorious Outram Road Prison. After spending a year of solitary confinement in a cell in which the only “furniture” was one block of wood, he was given 3 ½ years hard labour before his release by British forces. Less than one in ten of the prisoners survived their ordeal.
His family and friends in Athy attended anniversary Masses for him during the years when he was presumed dead, and his “widow” was granted a pension
 News that he was alive was conveyed to Gardai in Athy and the Garda who received the message on the phone ran all the way to the O’Neill home, where he informed Dr. O’Neill’s father, the late Dr. Jeremiah O’Neill senr., the then Kildare Co. Coroner. The released prisoner was extremely weak when put aboard a hospital ship to Bombay where his brother, the late Dr.John O’Neill - who died last year - was also serving with the Indian army. Many of the nurses and doctors in the Indian Medical Services were Irish.
As the ship berthed, Dr. Jeremiah O’Neill recognised a former colleague, Dr. Vincent Lee of Carlow town, who had gone aboard. The astonished Dr. Lee, on recovering his composure exclaimed: “But Gerry, you are supposed to be dead!”.
 Flown to London, Dr. O’Neill immediately telephoned his family and there was a great rejoicing when he subsequently arrived home. After spending over a year recuperating, he resumed his service with the Indian army and was the only white officer at Rasmuk. He was to witness some appalling scenes when he remained on after the departure of the British forces.
 Later he retired from the Indian Medical Service and lived in Co. Wicklow before entering a practice in London from where he retired 3 years ago.
 Dr. O’Neill’s brother, Dr. Joseph O’Neill, is now carrying on an unbroken family tradition stretching over 100 years, of medical officer to St. Vincent’s Hospital, Athy, a post previously held by his late father and grandfather.
The funeral took place from St. Michael’s Church, Athy, to Geraldine Cemetery, Athy, following Requiem Mass.
 Chief mourners: Mrs. Marjorie O’Neill (wife); Dr. Jeremy O’Neill, Dublin and Mr. John O’Neill, Switzerland (sons); Mr. Patrick J. O’Neill, Co. Registrar, Naas and Dr. Joseph O’Neill, Athy (brothers); Mrs. De Courcy McDonnell, Mount Offaly Athy; Mrs. J. Carbery, Athy and Mrs. Georgina O’Neill, Athy (sisters).

The remarkable story of a County Kildare doctor who was officially regarded as dead for some years is recalled by the Leinster Leader in February 1974. Our thanks to Roy O'Brien.


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