After Jim O’Neill and his younger brother Dick finished their modest football careers at Norwood, they spent the rest of their days and achieved a fair measure of fame as opal and gold prospectors in Outback Australia. They made headlines in 1908 when, with a younger companion, Fred Blakeley, and a savage three-quarter-dingo pup called Jethro, they cycled for two months across difficult country from the NSW opal fields of White Cliffs to Darwin. Jethro trotted some 2,400 km, killing sheep and goats along the way, only to expire when run over by the wheel of a traction engine while sleeping at the end of his journey.
In 1915, Jim and Dick arrived at Coober Pedy in the Stuart Ranges after trekking from Tarcoola through harsh terrain with two horses, a dray and 100 gallons of water. They not only rescued the unsuccessful pioneer opal prospectors there but also struck it rich themselves. In nine months they made £17,000 – at a time when £850 would buy a very fine seven-room house in Adelaide – and their method of living underground would earn them more headlines as “the moles of the desert”. Ten years later, however, Dick was dead and Jim, his fortune gone, was off on the trail of gold.
Jim was born at Port Elliot on 8 November 1871, the ninth child of Arthur O’Neill and his wife Esther, née Barry. Esther died in Adelaide on 4 January 1876 after the birth of her 11th child – almost certainly Dick. Newspaper reports indicate that Jim attended the Norwood Commercial College in 1883. He was among the new players for Norwood in 1890 and was named in the team to play South Adelaide at the start of the 1891 season.
In 1893 Jim was a member of the small party which took the first batch of camels overland from SA across the Nullarbor Plain to the Coolgardie goldfields.
Back at Norwood in 1897, Jim played as a backman or follower and was a member of the team which squeaked home against Collingwood, 7.9 to 7.8, before a paltry Adelaide Oval crowd of 2,000 on 14 June. He was at centre half-back when Port Adelaide humiliated a weak Norwood 10.14 to 3.1 at Adelaide Oval on 20 August. He also played against Geelong, which thumped Norwood 11.10 to 4.9 at Adelaide Oval on 15 September. Dick joined him at Norwood in 1898 as a promising junior.
It was not a good time for Norwood and the O’Neill brothers felt the lure of the bush. After Dick’s death, Jim went it alone. During a nine-month expedition in 1928 he pegged out a prospective gold-mining site for the Emu Mining Company at The Granites on the SA-WA border, 300 miles from Alice Springs and 460 miles from Wyndham. A quiet, careful man, he would not be drawn on the killing by a white man of 17 Aborigines in the area. Jim sparked lively anthropological debate with his discovery of the primitive Jervois skull in a mulga bush in the Jervois Ranges 700 miles east of Alice Springs in the latter part of 1929.
P Robins, D Cox, S Britt July 2019