The brother of nationalist leader Eoin MacNeill, James McNeill served as a high ranking civil servant in the British Indian Civil Service in Calcutta. Though unconnected with his brother's Easter Rising in 1916, McNeill was arrested and gaoled by the British Dublin Castle administration. On release he was elected to Dublin County Council, becoming its chairman. He served as a member of the committee under Michael Collins, the chairman of the Provisional Government, that drafted the Irish Free State Constitution. He was subsequently appointed as Irish High Commissioner (ambassador) to the Court of St. James (the United Kingdom.) When the first governor-general, Timothy Michael Healy retired in December 1927, James McNeill was proposed as his replacement by the Irish government of W.T. Cosgrave and duly appointed by King George V as King of Ireland.
In office, McNeill clashed with the King's Private Secretary when he insisted on following the constitutional advice of his Irish ministers, rather than the Palace, in procedures relating to the receipt of Letters of Credence accediting ambassadors to the King in Ireland. He also refused to attend ceremonies in Trinity College Dublin when some elements in the college tried to ensure that old British-rule Irish anthem God Save the King rather than the new Irish anthem, Amhrán na bhFiann was played.
When Eamon de Valera was nominated as President of the Executive Council in 1932, McNeill opted to travel to Leinster House, the parliament buildings, to appoint de Valera, rather than require that he go to the Viceregal Lodge, the Governor-General's residence and the former seat of British Lords Lieutenant, so as to avoid embarrassing de Valera, who was a republican. However McNeill's tact was not replied to by de Valera's government, some of whose ministers sought to humilate McNeill as the King's representative, by withdrawing the Irish Army's band from playing at functions he attended, demanded he withdraw invitations to visitors to meet him and in one notorious incident, two ministers, Sean T. O'Kelly and Frank Aiken publicly stormed out of a diplomatic function when McNeill, there as the guest of the French ambassador, arrived. In a fury McNeill wrote to de Valera demanding an apology for his treatment. When none was forthcoming (merely an ambiguous message from de Valera that could be interpreted as partially blaming McNeill for attending functions that ministers had been invited to), he published his correspondence with de Valera, even though de Valera had formally advised him not to do so. De Valera demanded that King George V dismissed McNeill. The King however engineered a compromise, whereby de Valera withdrew his dismissal request, and McNeill, who was due to retire at the end of 1932, would bring forward his retirement date. McNeill, at the King's request, resigned on 1 November 1922. De Valera later admitted that his government's treatment of McNeill was unfair and unwarranted. He sought to make amends by appointing McNeill's widow (who had been de Valera's secretary at one stage) as an Irish ambassador.
James McNeill died in 1938.
King of Ireland:
Governors-General of the Irish Free State
Domhnall Ua Buachalla