John O’Neill fulfilled his boyhood dream as he marshaled an 800-man army to the war front in the final hours of May 1866. The Celtic blood of the Irish-born soldiers coursed just a little quicker as they embarked on an expedition they hoped would ultimately result in the eviction of the British from their homeland after 700 years of foreign occupation. “The governing passion of my life apart from my duty to my God is to be at the head of an Irish Army battling against England for Ireland’s rights,” O’Neill declared. “For this I live, and for this if necessary I am willing to die.”
What’s remarkable is that O’Neill’s men did not march off to battle over the sod of Ireland, but through the cobbled streets of Buffalo, N.Y.
The Irish-American army boarded barges and crossed the Niagara River to undertake one of the most outlandish missions in military history — to kidnap the British colony of Canada, hold it hostage and ransom it for Ireland’s independence. In fact, the self-proclaimed Irish Republican Army attacked Canada not just once, but five times between 1866 and 1871 in what are collectively known as the Fenian Raids.
This little-known coda to the Civil War was one more spasm of violence — in addition to the 1863 draft riots and the 1870 and 1871 Orange Riots between Irish Catholics and Protestants that killed scores of New Yorkers — indicative of the difficulty that confronted the Irish in assimilating into American culture. It took more than a generation — decades, in fact — for the Irish Catholic refugees who arrived in the United States after the Great Hunger struck Ireland in 1845 to blend into the American melting pot.
In the centuries that followed the 1171 invasion by King Henry II’s English forces, Ireland’s colonial rulers had attempted to extinguish the island’s religion, culture and language. When the potato crop failed in the 1840s and 1850s, causing one million people to die, some Irish were convinced that the British were trying to exterminate them as well. One million people fled the island to North America in one of the largest migrations in human history. Disease and death tore through the holds of the aptly nicknamed “coffin ships” that bore them across the Atlantic. Some emigrants reported that death was so common on the ocean passage that sharks stalked their ships, awaiting their next meals as corpses were tossed overboard.
Those who flooded the United States in unprecedented numbers after the Great Hunger were unlike any newcomers the country had seen before. They were not immigrants in search of political or religious freedom, but refugees fleeing a humanitarian disaster. They hungered for food, not the American dream. They practiced an alien religion, Catholicism, and an estimated 25% spoke Irish instead of English. They were desperately poor and sickly, uneducated and unskilled.
Upon their arrival, the Irish faced the blistering scorn of anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant “Know-Nothings.” The more threatened the Irish felt, the more they turned inward, like a snake coiling itself for protection. They had been able to survive seven centuries of British colonization by refusing to be acculturated, so why should they behave any differently in the United States?
The Irish clung together in church parishes and organizations such as the Fenian Brotherhood, an Irish republican organization founded in 1858, that used the United States as a safe haven to plot a revolution in Ireland. While the Fenians could have simply devoted money to the cause of Ireland’s liberation, some like John O’Neill arrived in America so “radicalized” by their experiences that they instead offered their blood.
Like many of the Irish who fled to the United States, O’Neill witnessed unspeakable horrors during the Great Hunger before coming to America as a teenager. He spent his childhood at his grandfather’s knee listening to the heroic tales of 17th-century ancestors who had the bravery to stand up and fight their occupiers rather than assimilate into their culture. He joined tens of thousands of Irishmen who fought on both sides of the Civil War and saw their service in the bloody crucibles of Bull Run, Antietam and Gettysburg as training for the real fight they wanted to wage — one to liberate Ireland.
Drawn by a plan to strike the British Empire at its closest point, Canada, rather than an ocean away, O’Neill joined the Fenian Brotherhood, which established its own Irish government in exile and had its own constitution, senate, president and capitol building, dubbed the “Fenian White House,” in the heart of New York City’s Union Square.
Even after living nearly 20 years in the United States and taking a Confederate bullet in defense of the Union during the Civil War, O’Neill considered himself an Irish-American in that order — Irish first, American second. With his soul permanently scorched with hatred of the British, the 32-year-old O’Neill led the Irish Republican Army across the international border south of Niagara Falls and announced their claim to Canada by hoisting an Irish flag to replace the Union Jack flying over historic Fort Erie. Using surplus weapons and ammunition that had been purchased from the U.S. government and smuggled into Buffalo, O’Neill’s men emerged victorious at the Battle of Ridgeway. It marked the first triumph by an Irish army over forces of the British Empire since 1745.
With his supply lines cut by the American government, O’Neill was forced to retreat back to the United States, but not before vowing to return to Canada soon. He would prove to be a man of his word. However, O’Neill’s subsequent attacks in 1870 and 1871 failed.
Still, he refused to heed the call of those urging Irish-Americans to break out of their insularity and integrate into American culture. Instead, he sought to remove his brethren altogether to isolated colonies on the Great Plains. “We could build up a young Ireland on the virgin prairies of Nebraska and there rear a monument more lasting than granite or marble to the Irish race in America,” wrote O’Neill, who died at the age of 43 after transplanting several colonies in Nebraska. He was buried under the prairie sod — 4,000 miles from his beloved homeland — underneath a marker with the inscription: “God Save Ireland.”
Christopher Klein is the author of When the Irish Invaded Canada: The Incredible True Story of the Civil War Veterans Who Fought for Ireland’s Freedom, available from Doubleday. More at www.christopherklein.com.
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