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When the Irish Invaded Canada

18 June 2019

From The Wall Street Journal:

Late in the evening on May 31, 1866, a private army of several hundred Irish rebels marched through Buffalo, N.Y., and crossed a narrow section of the Niagara River into the British colony of Canada. An unlikely invasion had begun.

The commander of the force, John Charles O’Neill, was a native of County Monaghan who had immigrated to the U.S. as a child and served in the Union Army during the Civil War, suffering severe injuries at the Siege of Knoxville in 1863. O’Neill was a member of the Fenian Brotherhood, the American branch of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, an oath-bound secret society dedicated to the violent overthrow of British rule in Ireland. A largely forgotten figure in the annals of Irish history, O’Neill emerges as the quixotic hero of Christopher Klein’s “When the Irish Invaded Canada,” which details a madcap series of cross-border Fenian raids between 1866 and 1871.

The Irish revolutionists were a quarrelsome lot, riven by factionalism, financial mismanagement, British informers and a major strategic dispute. O’Neill was among those who believed that an invasion of Canada, led by Irish-American veterans of the Civil War, would be the first step in winning Ireland’s freedom, an idea vociferously opposed by James Stephens, the leader of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, who thought a Canadian incursion would be “suicidal.”

“The objective point is Ireland,” Stephens insisted, “not Canada, Japan, or any of those distant regions that do not concern Irishmen.”

By the time O’Neill’s ragtag army reached Canadian soil, we are told, 200 of the soldiers had abandoned the cause, “some dissuaded by second thoughts, others lured into passing saloons by the gratification awaiting at the bottom of a whiskey bottle.” Yet on June 2, a few miles from the border in the village of Ridgeway, the Fenians succeeded in defeating several hundred Canadian militiamen. The victory marked, according to Mr. Klein’s accounting, the first time Irish soldiers defeated forces of the British Empire since the Battle of Fontenoy in 1745. It was the high moment of the Fenian raids, a symbolic victory over British hegemony that, according to the Nation newspaper in Dublin, “fills our people with tumultuous emotions impossible to describe, impossible to conceal.”

. . . .

A few days later, a Fenian force of a few hundred men repeated the farce 80 miles to the west, marching upon a large gathering of Canadian militia and British troops at Trout River. The retreat was closer to a stampede. “Had the Fenians remained upon the ground ten minutes longer,” wrote a New York newspaper, “not one of them would have been left to tell the tale.”

Upon returning to the U.S., O’Neill, who had escaped conviction in the Ridgeway invasion, was found guilty of violating U.S. neutrality laws for his role in the Eccles Hill disaster. In true Irish nationalist tradition, he gave a stirring speech from the dock on July 29, 1870: “No matter what may be my fate here—I am still an Irishman, and while I have tried to be a faithful citizen of America, I am still an Irishman, with all the instincts of an Irishman.” President Ulysses S. Grant, who sputtered his contempt for the Fenian troublemakers, eventually issued an unconditional pardon. “The lure of the Irish vote,” Mr. Klein writes, “ultimately proved too powerful for Grant.”

. . . .

His military career over, O’Neill turned to real estate, urging Irish families from the East to relocate to settlements he established on the Great Plains. “We could build up a young Ireland on the virgin prairies of Nebraska,” he wrote, “and there rear a monument more lasting than granite or marble to the Irish race in America.” The town of O’Neill, Neb., is named for him.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

PG did a little checking and found that O’Neill, Nebraska, is a town of about 3,700 people located in Northeast Nebraska near the South Dakota line.

O’Neill has not let memories of its Irish founding die and is the home of the world’s largest permanent painted shamrock, located in the middle of the town’s main intersection.