Liberty: Fenians and Libyans

John O'Neill

How will historians in the year 2100 treat current events?  They will face the same conundrum all historians do: how does one reconcile individual actions, and actors, with systemic shifts?  The events in Libya right now offer a great example.  Masses of Libyans have risked their lives to demand democratic, responsive government.  Their courage, like that of their brothers and sisters in East Central Europe two decades ago or across the Arab world today, can only be admired.  Many of them have paid with their lives, or lost loved ones.  I am deeply saddened when I see postings that suggest such people are frauds.

Why do people rise up against tyranny?  Why do they risk their lives, taking up arms against forces far more powerful than themselves?  Those who impugn the motives of the people of Libya (or Egypt or Bahrain or …) cannot understand, perhaps, the power of the drive for justice, for respect.

I quote here from a speech by “General” John O’Neill, one of the leaders of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (aka, Fenians) in the USA after the Civil War.  O’Neill had been a captain in the Union Army; badly wounded (he seems to have lost the use of one arm) in 1863, he left the cavalry and became a captain, commanding a company in the 17th US Colored Infantry.  After the Civil war, O’Neill led the faction of the Fenians who wanted to invade Britain’s nearby colony, Canada.  He did so in 1866, winning a minor skirmish against Canadian irregulars (the so-called Battle of Ridgeway) before turning himself and his men over to the American army [promised supplies and reinforcements had not shown up].  O’Neill led two other abortive Fenian raids into Canada; in his 1870 abortive raid, in Vermont, he got arrested and stood trial.  On 30 July 1870, he made the following speech [the judge sentenced him to two years in jail; Pres. Grant pardoned him].

“As one of a persecuted race [the Irish – for those of you not familiar with 19th-century usage of the term “race”, the Irish were a race, the English were a race, etc.] – as one who had suffered at the hands of tyranny and oppression in my native land, I came to this country full of hopeful confidence that I should enjoy that liberty which was denied me at home.  I came to America like thousands of my countrymen, because I had been oppressed at home. … I could not, while fighting in the armies of the United States, when face to face with those who would haul down and trample beneath their feet the flag of freedom, and baring my bosom to their bullets – I could not forget that I was born in another land – a land oppressed and tyrannized over.  I cannot now forget it; I never shall forget it.  No matter what may be my fate here – I am still an Irishman, with all the instincts of an Irishman. … I may have been imprudent in my endeavors to ameliorate the condition of my native land.  There is a diversity of opinion on that subject, as there always must be upon such subjects.  Had George Washington failed in his endeavors, he would have been a rebel, and treated like a rebel by this tyrannical government that I would like to strike a blow against.”

We look back in wonderment at the folly of O’Neill’s invasion, or of the incessant risings in Ireland throughout the 19th century.  Yet do we not hear the echo of his sentiments in the cries of those in Benghazi, or, before them, in Tunis or Cairo, or today in Manama?  How much did John O’Neill in 1866 differ from Mohammed Nabbous (the Libyan blogger shot by a sniper in Benghazi just hours before the French airstrike) in 2011?  Every time I see that word “rebels” attached to the insurgents in Libya, I think of John O’Neill’s comments about George Washington.

How does a French historian come to know this story of US and Irish history?  John O’Neill had no children; his brother, Charles, was my great-great-grandfather.

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