General John O’Neill wanted to find somewhere in North America where Irish emigrants could build a community and thrive. A devoted Fenian, the County Monaghan-born O’Neill emigrated to America in 1848 at the height of Ireland’s Great Hunger. He enlisted with the Union and fought in the American Civil War, though it is for the Irish invasion of Canada that he is best remembered.
In 1866, the Fenian Brotherhood gathered to invade British Canada with the intention of using it as leverage for Irish independence. As the story goes, when the group gathered to prepare, the man intended to lead the fighters into Canada was a no-show, so General O’Neill took charge. He led the first Fenian invasion of Canada on June 1, successfully capturing Fort Erie and giving Canadian troops some cause for concern before withdrawing back into US territory on June 3. In 1870 and 71, he participated in two further raids – the Battle of Trout River and the Pembina Raid. After the second, he was imprisoned, serving time in Vermont.
While in prison, O’Neill began dreaming up a plan to start an Irish colony in the US. In a letter from that time, he wrote “I have always believed that the next best thing to giving the Irish people their freedom at home is to encourage some of them to come to this country either from choice or from necessity to take up lands and build homes in America.”
Once released, O’Neill spent much of 1872 and 73 searching for the ideal place for the Irish to settle. He traveled through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri before setting his sights on Nebraska. In November 1873, he purchased land from an agent named Patrick Fahy, and in the first few months of 1874 O’Neill traveled throughout Pennsylvania telling the Irish there about the opportunities that awaited them farther west.
A small group of colonists arrived in Nebraska in April 1874 with General John O’Neill, and thus O’Neill, Nebraska was born. The first settlers built a basic shelter for themselves temporarily, which they would later dub the “Grand Central Hotel,” and set to learning the ways of prairie farming. The following winter, General O’Neill returned to the eastern US to recruit more potential colonists, and did the same again in 1876, leading over 100 people back across the US with him. O’Neill died in 1878 of a paralytic stroke, but the citizens of his namesake town persevered.
According to an historical account on the O’Neill Chamber of Commerce’s website, the first few years were not easy for the settlers. But the quality of life improved, the town grew, and it held on tightly to its Irish heritage.
The 1960s saw a resurgence in this pride, with O’Neill’s first official St. Patrick’s Day parade celebration in 1967. It included a parade, a beard contest, and a banquet for Notre Dame coach and O’Neill native Frank Leahy. The following August, a group of O’Neill residents staged an invasion of Winnipeg in memory of the city’s founder. Two years later, Norbert Tiemann, then the governor of Nebraska, named O’Neill “the official Irish capital of Nebraska."
If you live in or know of a city, town, or even a street with a distinctly Irish name and history, let us know in the comment section! There’s so much Irish influence to be explored.
*Originally published in February 2015.