Joe O'Neil was born in Gateshead, on 4th December 1936.
His secondary education was at St Cuthbert's Grammar School in Newcastle, after which he attended Durham University to study English.
He gained a lower-second-class honours degree in 1958, and the following year started teaching at Dursley Grammar School in Gloucestershire. He moved to Ullathorne Grammar School, Coventry in 1961, to St Joseph's Grammar School, Hartlepool in 1967, and to St Leonard's Comprehensive School, Durham, in 1970.
In 1974 he left the Durham school to become a senior advisor to South Tyneside council.
When Bill Egner retired in 1976, Joe O'Neil was appointed Headmaster of what was now the Harton Comprehensive School. On his arrival, many of the school's traditions (in particular, The Atom) seem to have come to an end.
He served for just over 10 years, and he died in December, 1986, at the early age of 50.