Our Town O’Neill: Town Founder Sculpture

Pure Nebraska
Published: Aug. 25, 2022 at 1:02 PM CDT|Updated: Aug. 25, 2022 at 3:24 PM CDT
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O’NEILL, Neb. (KOLN) - There is a new sculpture outside the Holt County courthouse that honors the man who is credited with founding the town of O’Neill.

We caught up recently with Natalie Butterfield to talk about the sculpture, and the contributions of General John C. O’Neill.

“John Charles O’Neill was born in Ireland, and emigrated to the United States during the so-called potato famine,” Butterfield said. “He went on to have a distinguished career in the Union Army during the Civil War. After the Civil War, he was involved with a movement that sought to get freedom of Ireland from British rule. He was involved with that for a while. When the organization did not meet its aims, he pivoted to other things to help his countrymen. He began helping Irish people who were living in crowded cities in the east migrate out the to Great Plains. They were able to settle in more agricultural areas and take advantage of the Homestead Act.”

You could say that John Charles O’Neill is the founder of “Our Town O’Neill”. There is a new sculpture outside the courthouse in his likeness for people to see and enjoy.

“The idea behind the statue had been kicking around for a while,” Butterfield said. “The former mayor of O’Neill in the 1908′s, Lois Schafer, thought we needed a statute of John O’Neill. She knew of bronze artist Herb Mingery, and knew he would be the right person to do it. It wasn’t until 2017, her husband passed away, and she asked for memorials to go to the sculpture. In 2019, our organization, the Fenian Women’s Auxiliary, took up the cause and started the ball rolling as far as fundraising. Our main fundraiser was what’s on the ground below the sculpture, and that’s this brick shamrock plaza.”

The effort to build the sculpture was a community-wide effort.

“We had huge support from the county, from the area,” Butterfield said. “Even though Lois was certain Herb was the right one for the statue, we had to ask him. He agreed to do it, and then our question was what pose did we want John C. O’Neill to have? Herb Mingery is so good at portraying movement. So in this pose, he his showing movement. He is taking a step upward and forward, because that described the man’s life and contributions. He’s possibly drawing his sword, and his left hand is open. One of the ancient symbols of the O’Neill clan is a red hand. It’s an open hand, which means generosity of spirit and open handedness. Again, showing the character of John C. O’Neill.”