Republican News · Thursday 27 January 2000

[An Phoblacht]

John O'Neill and the Fenian Invasion of Canada

Feargal O'Hanlon Memorial Lecture 2000

John O'Neill

Derek Warfield of the world famous ballad group the Wolfe Tones delivered the Annual Feargal O'Hanlon Memorial Lecture in Monaghan town on 16 January. Volunteer Feargal O'Hanlon of Monaghan, with his comrade Seán Sabhat of Limerick City, gave his young life in the cause of Irish Freedom on 1 January 1957. The lecture was attended by relatives of Feargal O'Hanlon and by Wicklow Sinn Féin's Gerry O'Neill, whose great grandfather was a brother of Fenian soldier John O'Neill, whose exploits in the Fenian invasion of Canada were the subject of the lecture.

Warfield has marked O'Neill's achievements in song with the ballad John O'Neill Nebraska on his Liberty 98 album.


We carry here an edited version of Derek Warfield's Lecture entitled `General John O'Neill - His Life and Times'.


When I was a boy, I attentively read the history of my native land and of her public men. I wept over the speeches of her orators and asked myself whom of these Irish Patriots I would seek to emulate... I decided that eloquence will not do unless it be that which flashes from the cannon's mouth.

John O'Neill

General John O'Neill, Irish patriot, Fenian, American soldier, hero and community activist, was born on 9 March 1834 at Drumgallon, Clontibret, County Monaghan. He was the third child to John and Mary O'Neill, small farmers in that parish. He is remembered in the parish today by the GAA Club, which bears his name, Clontibret O'Neills. John O'Neill's father died six weeks before young John was born. He was assisting a neighbouring family, all of whom had the misfortune to be struck down with disease.

Young John O'Neill inherited his father's charitable qualities and was to suffer the same fate as his father, when he died a premature death from pneumonia on 8 January 1878. He died at Omaha, Nebraska and is buried at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery. A monument to his memory was unveiled on 19 October 1919, when Eamon de Valera visited the city on a mission throughout the United States to seek support for the Irish Republic.

John O'Neill's mother left Ireland with her two other children. John left in 1848 and joined his mother in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He started work for a Catholic publishing house, locally at first, and then travelled widely in eastern Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. He eventually ended up in Richmond, Virginia in 1855. He opened a bookstore in that city. John O'Neill did what most young Irish emigrants did in order to meet his fellow exiles - he joined the Emmet Monument Association, which operated in every major US city. The real motive of the Emmet Guards, as they were known, was military training for young men who at a future date would turn that training to serve for Ireland.

John O'Neill showed his patriotism from an early age. ``When I was a boy,'' he is quoted as saying, ``I attentively read the history of my native land and of her public men. I wept over the speeches of her orators and asked myself whom of these Irish Patriots I would seek to emulate... I decided that eloquence will not do unless it be that which flashes from the cannon's mouth.''

O'Neill was impulsive, a man of action, not one to wait around. He stayed in Richmond for two years, then sold his store and moved to Baltimore, Maryland. There, he joined the US Cavalry for five years and was enrolled as a private in Troop G, second US Dragoons on 30 May 1857. He was described as a hazel-eyed man with a dark complexion and stood five feet and six inches. He was, I am sure, filled with excitement at the prospect of his new career. He reported to the Federal Barracks, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and his regiment was swiftly sent to Utah, where the Mormon War was in progress. He deserted the Army in Utah, and he explained this as a protest at the inaction of his unit against the Mormons.

He then found his way to San Francisco, where he spent the next few years. The city was then a mecca for the Irish. The Gold Rush had lured thousands to the Golden Gate. The Irish were both wealthy and influential in comparison to their fellow emigrants in the east coast city slums. San Francisco was also the new home to political exiles and patriots; escapees from Van Diemen's Land Terence Bellew MacManus, Batholomew Dowling and John Mitchel lived there. John O'Neill met his future wife Mary Ann Crowe in San Francisco.

The American Civil War broke out in April 1861 and during the year all cavalry units were ordered to report to Washington DC. Having been reinstated in the US army, John'O'Neill journeyed to the East Coast by way of Panama, a passage that took close on four months. He was promoted for gallantry at Caines Mill on 27 June 1862 and the next year was made a first lieutenant in the Fifth Indiana Cavalry at Munfordville, Kentucky. O'Neill had a stormy career in the US Army, often at odds with his superiors, but he was hailed for his courageous leadership in a successful Union assault on troops under Confederate commander John Hunt, better known as ``thunderbolt of the Confederacy''. Another citation for bravery came at Walker's Ford in December 1863, where he was wounded in the leg. He was out of the front line for the rest of the war and was married in November 1864 and settled in Nashville, Tennessee.

During the War, the wider American public were extremely tolerant of Irish revolutionary groups. The English had prolonged the war by their actions. At the start, many believed that war with England was inevitable. The English had sent 11,000 troops to the Canadian provinces. The English government had allowed the Confederates to build and equip ships in their dockyards. They had also encouraged diplomatic efforts at recognition of the Confederacy. The Fenians were getting lots of nods from people in high places and US Secretary of State Seward was very pro-Irish Independence.

Both President Lincoln and his successor, President Johnson, believed that Irish Independence was consistent with the best interests of the United States.

The Washington government went to great lengths to understand the nature of the Fenian movement and they instructed Ambassador Adams in London to tour Ireland to ascertain the level of support and influence the Fenians had in Ireland. Adams reported that the Fenians had wide support and that the Catholic Church was one of its greatest enemies. This was seen when Cardinal Cullen refused a funeral service to Terence Bellew MacManus, whom the Fenians had brought to Dublin for burial all the way from San Francisco. Nonetheless, the MacManus funeral was a massive show of strength which established the power of the Fenian movement in Ireland and America.

It showed that the Irish race, now scattered throughout the world, could unite in grief and it could do more.

The Fenian Brotherhood had been founded in New York in 1858. Fenian strength grew during the war. The focus of Irish revolution was now for the first time centred outside Ireland. The Fenians had for some time discussed the merits of an invasion of Canada. It was first suggested at the convention in Chicago in 1863. There were sound military reasons why no attempt could be made to invade Ireland. There were 3,000 miles of ocean and the English navy between the Fenians and success. Not all Fenians supported the Canadian plan and there were deep divisions over its implementation, which led to a split in the Brotherhood between the Randall Roberts faction and the O'Mahony faction.

At a Convention in Philadelphia in 1865, General Tom Sweeny was charged with implementation of the invasion plan. It called for a multi-pronged invasion from Chicago in the West to New York and Maine in the East. `Fighting Tom', as he was known, was born in Dunmanway, Co. Cork. He had a long and distinguished career in the army and he was chosen to guard the remains of the assassinated President Lincoln. There is no question that he would have been successful had not the American government intervened.

What was the position of the US Administration? They had sold the Fenians guns and ammunition; they had met with Fenian leaders; on all occasions they had given the same answer when the question was posed - would they recognise the Irish Republic? Secretary of State Seward said they would ``recognise accomplished facts''.

Tom Sweeny said that the minimum number of men required for the invasion of Canada would be 10,000, with three batteries of artillery, 2,000 rounds of ammunition per man and 500 rounds per gun. In order to provide these supplies, Bonds were issued; they were signed by John O'Neill. In April 1866, 4,200 muskets were purchased from Bridesburg Arsenal in Philadelphia. They were distributed amongst the Fenians from Massachusetts to Illinois. The plan to buy artillery fell through and the Fenians would have to depend on the spoils of war for this.

O'Neill had been given command of a large group of ex-soldiers, both Union and Confederate, (Fenians having fought on both sides), in the Nashville area in February 1866. He was commissioned as Colonel of the 13th Regiment of the Fenian Army of Liberation. On 10 May, Adjutant General Tevis issued orders for the various states to proceed to their assembly points and await further orders. John O'Neill pulled out of Nashville with 200 men by train on 27 May. He picked up Colonel Owen Starr with 140 men at Louisville, Kentucky. In Indianapolis, he was joined by Captain Heggarty with 100 men and in Cleveland by 300 more.

O'Neill had come to command the raiding party not by choice but by default, as many of Sweeny's appointed generals simply did not show up. He took command as the highest ranking officer. He received orders from Sweeny to proceed to Buffalo, New York.

The sun was rising on the morning of 1 June when John O'Neill landed his men in Canada, just opposite Black Rock, New York. The US government had closed the port of Buffalo to all departures, so O'Neill marched his men three miles down river and they crossed from Pratt's Iron Furnace Docks. Five flags were unfurled - three green flags with harp, sunburst and `Erin go Bragh' and two Stars and Stripes. Rifles and ammunition were distributed once they had landed. The invasion was on.

General Sweeny issued a Proclamation: ``To the people of Canada. We have come among you as foes of British rule in Ireland. We have taken up the sword to strike down the oppressor's rod, to deliver Ireland from the tyrant, the despoiler, the robber...'' O'Neill marched his force into the village of Fort Erie. It was on Erie courthouse the Irish Tricolour first flew over an Irish Army. The men were marched to a position north of Frenchman's Creek, where a defended camp was established. By dawn of next morning, a force of 1,000 Canadian militia under Colonel Booker lay Southwest of O'Neill, with 1,800 British regulars under Colonel Peacock to the North.

O'Neill moved his troops into a strong position in line of battle and engaged Booker before he could link up with Peacock. The engagement, which became known as the Battle of Ridgeway, was decided by a ruse of O'Neill's, who had no cavalry. He used mounted officers and riderless horses, which the enemy mistook for cavalry. The British force formed squares, the traditional defence against cavalry. O'Neill ordered bayonets to be fixed and the Irish charged to their war cry ``Fag a' Bealach''. Booker's force - the Queen's Own Rifles - was routed and earned the title ``Quick Out of Ridgeway''.

Booker suffered nine dead and 37 wounded, while the Irish lost five dead and 17 wounded.

Meanwhile, a British force had recaptured Fort Erie. When the Fenians returned there, they offered the British the chance to surrender but the Irish officer, Michael Bailey, who rode forward with the offer under a white flag, was shot dead. After a fierce battle, the Fenians recaptured Fort Erie.

O'Neill now faced a decision. Expected Fenian reinforcements had not arrived. A superior British force was on its way. What decided the issue was the action of the US authorities. US General Grant had been to Buffalo to see the situation for himself and had ordered General Meade to prevent further crossings into Canada. Colonel Sherwin had mustered a Fenian force of 4,000 but now they were unable to leave. O'Neill knew that he needed the benevolent neutrality of the United States if he was to have any further success. He had to withdraw. Transports arrived to take the Fenian army back to Buffalo and by 2am on 3 June 1866 the Fenian invasion of Canada was over, 48 hours after it had begun.

Two further unsuccessful invasion attempts were made by John O'Neill in 1870 and 1871. He then turned his attention to his second great passion - his project for the resettlement of Irish families on the prairies of Nebraska. He travelled the West and decided that Nebraska would be the most advantageous State for his plan. With the help of the Catholic Church, he gave over 100 lectures to the Irish in the slums of every major US city.

O'Neill pointed out the advantages of a life on the land for the Irish, most of whom had come from a rural background. He found the going tough as the Irish had heard the stories of the hardships endured by the early settlers and preferred the security of city jobs, despite the slum conditions.

The first Irish colony in Nebraska was set up by O'Neill in Holt County in the town that bears his name today - O'Neill, Nebraska. He had very ambitious plans and his Nebraska colonies in Holt and Greenley counties were seen by him as just the start of many that would cover the plains.

Many of O'Neill's settlers were successful but many were to accuse him of opportunism. He was blamed for the weather and the harsh conditions. To his credit, he was always capable of seeing the big picture. His legacy is in the communities that exist in Nebraska today. These settlements are thriving and successful farming communities. John O'Neill can claim credit for the spirit of generosity that is still part of these communities today.

People in Ireland and Nebraska who inherit John O'Neill's Fenian tradition, his love of liberty, the right of men and women to share their lives and work in the freedom and peace we all desire, can be proud of him. The Fenian legacy has endured and let those who still cherish it in Nebraska and in Monaghan ensure that the principles John O'Neill stood for - freedom for the Irish people - are not forgotten.

Lesser men are remembered with whole libraries and in monuments of stone.

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