The Order was founded in Belfast in 1915 by Father James Kearney O’Neill. James K. O’Neill was a native of Ballycastle, where he studied at the Classical School in Downpatrick. He enrolled in St. Malachy’s Diocesan College in February 1872 and entered Maynooth in September 1875. In 1906 he was appointed parish priest of the Sacred Heart Parish, Oldpark Rd., Belfast.

Belfast circa 1910 looking down High Street towards the Albert Clock.

Father O’Neill was at that time, greatly influenced by the Pope Leo XIII encyclical Rerum Novarum (‘of revolutionary change’). This open letter from the Pope was passed to all Catholic patriarchs, primates, archbishops and bishops and addressed the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working classes at that time. It struck a particular chord with Father O’Neill, who bore daily witness to the plight of oppressed and demoralised Catholics in Belfast and the wider area.
With the approval of Bishop John Tohill, Father O’Neill circulated copies of Pius X’s first regulations for the Lay Apostolate among the many conferences at that time under his supervision. He arranged regular meetings at which lectures were given on the social teachings of Leo X111 and Pius X, enlightening those in attendance, in turn plotting the course for a new organisation to rise.

Pope Leo XIII Born March 1810 – died July 1903

The parish presented all the drab appendages of industrialisation at its very worst. It offered a challenge to its new pastor who brought to it qualities of intellect, earnestness and vision. With a genuine sympathy and sincerity, he was quickly recognised by the local community as a dedicated priest and born leader.
He despised sectarian strife and believed that Catholic social principles, intelligently and adequately applied, would at once supply a remedy for the existing social problems.

St Malachy’s Church circa 1920

A conference at that time proposed his study and promotion of Catholic social principles among the remaining meetings of the already established St. Vincent de Paul Society in the diocese of Down and Connor, and it was here that seed took root.
That seed which fostered his Catholic social principles, faith and education, grew tall and proud in 1915 to form the Knights of Saint Columbanus, which is still thriving today, over one hundred years later.

British Troops in Belfast 1921

Fr. O’Neill (then Canon) died on 18th March 1922 and is buried at the rear of Saint Patricks Church in Ballyvoy, Co. Antrim. The Order pays tribute to Canon O’Neill every May, by the celebrating Holy Mass at the Church, which is attended by representatives of the Order from all over Ireland.
In placing the Order under the patronage of St. Columbanus, our founders were mindful of his missionary zeal in bringing the good news of salvation to all. To this day, the Order is a society of Catholic laymen, acting in close co-operation with their bishops, still delivering the work of the Apostolate.
Ballyvoy church, the site of the resting place of Fr. Canon O’Neill

Canon O’Neill’s grave, Ballyvoy