One of the most colorful leaders in the early development of Nebraska was General John O'Neill, founder of O'Neill. After leading several ill-fated raids against British military posts in Canada 1866-1871, O'Neill lost his leading position in the Fenians - an American organization promoting Irish independence. Born in Ireland in 1834, he was a U.S. Army officer from 1857 to 1864, when he became active in the Fenians. In 1871, though in disfavor with the leading Irish-American society, O'Neill did not give up the cause.
Thousands of Irish were leaving troubled Ireland to settle in crowded American cities. O'Neill became interested in founding agrarian colonies in the West. For his first colony, he selected Holt County, on Nebraska's frontier. The first colonists arrived in May 1874, and his fourth and last group arrived in 1877. General O'Neill died the following year, but the town was already the county seat and growing.
Though there were numerous Irish settlements in Nebraska, O'Neill was the largest formal Irish colony. Its citizens have always been proud of their Old World heritage.