by Mike McCormack, AOH Historian
On 8 January, 1878 – 140 years ago – General John O’Neill breathed his last in Omaha, Nebraska. Today, his memorial is greater than a tombstone and even greater than a monument – it’s an entire City! O’Neill, Nebraska is the county seat of Holt County and Nebraska’s Irish Capital; it also has the world’s largest permanent shamrock, made of green-tinted concrete, covering the entire main intersection of the city. Who was this man that he be remembered so proudly?
John O’Neill was born in Drumgallon, Co. Monaghan, on 9 March 1834 to John and Mary O’Neill. His father died six weeks before he was born. His mother, unable to make a living in Ireland, emigrated to the United States in 1835 with two children, settling in Elizabeth, New Jersey. John stayed with his grandfather, a staunch supporter of Irish Nationalism with a deep hatred of Englands presence in Ireland. The grandfather saw to it that his grandson received a good education and made sure that he knew Irish history. In December 1848, at 14, filled with his grandfather’s views on England, John left to join his mother. After arriving in New Jersey he completed his education and took a job with a Catholic publishing company as a salesman. He traveled throughout New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia.
In 1855, he settled in Richmond, Virginia and opened a bookstore. To meet other Irish exiles who shared his antipathy toward England, he joined the local branch of the Emmet Monument Association founded to train men who would free Ireland. In 1857, he enlisted in the 2nd U.S. Dragoons and served in the Utah War (May 1857 – July 1858), afterward moving to California where he met his future wife Mary Crow, an Australian of Irish parentage. He later joined the 1st Cavalry and from March to July of 1862 served as a sergeant in the American Civil War’s Peninsular Campaign. On 27 June, O’Neill was promoted from sergeant to second lieutenant for gallantry. In 1863 he was promoted to first lieutenant in the Fifth Indiana Cavalry for his courageous leadership. In December, he received a citation for bravery at Walker’s Ford, where he was wounded in the leg. In the summer of 1864 he was appointed Captain in the 17th United States Colored Infantry, but was forced to resign due to the wound received the previous year. Later that year he married Mary and settled in Nashville where they had three children over a span of ten years.
While in Tennessee, O’Neill reconnected with the Emmet Monument Association which had now become the Fenian Brotherhood. When the Fenians split over the best way to free Ireland, he aligned himself with the group who wanted to invade Canada and hold it hostage for Ireland’s freedom. He said, I have always believed in striking at England wherever we could reach her, and wherever the English flag floats and the English government is recognized and there are English soldiers in arms to defend the flag and maintain the government. I hold that the Irish people, particularly the Irish Exiles whom her oppressive laws have driven from their native land, have a right to go there and make war on England.
General Tom Sweeny, a native of County Cork, was in charge of a plan which included a series of co-coordinated raids from Chicago, Buffalo and Maine. Command of the Buffalo expedition was entrusted to O’Neill who crossed the Niagara River at the head of 800 men on the night of 31 May 1866 and captured Fort Erie. He moved to Ridgeway where he defeated a British and Canadian force. In the end the invasion was stopped by U.S. authorities who blocked supplies and reinforcements at the border. The other crossings were also stopped. Ridgeway made O’Neill a Fenian hero as it was the only success in the many Fenian campaigns against Canada. The Brotherhood appointed him ‘General of the Irish Republican Army.’ and he became president at the end of 1867. After two more failed attempts in May 1870 and October 1871, he turned his attention to his other great passion – the resettlement of Irish families from the slums of eastern cities.
He traveled throughout the west in search of the best place to settle and decided on Nebraska as it possessed an abundance of pure water, fertile land and millions of acres of free government land. In 1874, O’Neill embarked on a lecture tour along the east coast, offering his impoverished countrymen a better standard of living if they would resettle with him in Nebraska. He was convinced they could succeed in rural America better than in the poverty of the miserable slums in which they then resided. In his lectures, he quoted from the writing of the Reverend Stephen Byrne, OSD, Let the crowded tenement houses of eastern cities, where the very atmosphere is poisoned by the occupancy in one house of 20 to 40 families and where morality itself is greatly endangered on account of association that cannot be avoided, answer. Let the unnamed and unnumbered graves along the canals and railroads of the United States, answer. Let the forlorn and forgotten creatures who, having neither homes nor friends, lie down and die in the common hospitals of the country, answer. The response comes home to us in a hundred forms that as a people, while doing more than any other to build up this great Republic, we have been negligent, not to say reckless, in regard to our individual interests.
O’Neill set up the first Irish colony in Nebraska in Holt County in the city that today bears his name – O’Neill, Nebraska. His second colony in Greenley County was seen by him as just the start of many that would cover America’s plains with Irish families. His legacy still exists in those successful farming communities especially in the spirit of Irish generosity that is part of their culture today. In 1877 while on a speaking tour, John O’Neill the consummate Irish and American patriot, became ill and returned home to Nebraska. His condition continued to deteriorate and after being admitted to St. Joseph’s Hospital, Omaha in November, he suffered a stroke and died on 8 January 1878.