O’Neill – Nebraska’s Irish Capital

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My wife is originally from the quaint little village of Stuart in north-central Nebraska. Occasionally, we take a jaunt back to her hometown along Highway 20. Along the way is the City of O’Neill. A community that has stuck in my mind because of shamrocks. Yes, shamrocks. There’s one on their monument sign and one in the center of town that is painted on the concrete at the intersection of Highways 20, 275, and 281.

History of O’Neill, Nebraska

The county seat of Holt County, O’Neill was named after “General” John O’Neill, a native of Ireland and veteran of the Civil War here in the United States. He wasn’t an actual general, but he did command three Fenian raids into Britsh-ruled Canada, which garnered him the rank in the minds of his followers.

After the raids he drew Irish colonists to the site of what was to be O’Neill in north-central Nebraska. He also lured other groups of Irish settlers to other nearby locations in the Elkhorn River Valley. In 1879 a special election resulted in moving the county seat for Holt County to O’Neill. With that designation in hand and the arrival of not one, but two rail lines, the community had a prosperous end to the 19th century.

O’Neill’s population grew steadily until its peak in 1980 of 4,049. To this day the town is still the regional economic hub for the surrounding farms and ranches along the northeastern edge of the Sandhills. Its downtown is still an active and attractive center to the community, highlighted by the historic Golden Hotel sitting on the same intersection as the famous shamrock. In 1969 the Governor of Nebraska proclaimed O’Neill the “Irish Capital of Nebraska”. The townspeople have worked tirelessly to live up to that title ever since.

Annual St. Patrick’s Day Celebration

But let’s end the history lesson and get back to the shamrocks! The one that is painted in the intersection noted at the start of this post is not some minor clover that hasn’t been repainted in years. It is a massive, sprawling 65-by-55-foot shamrock of colored concrete that at one time was the “largest shamrock in the world”. That is until Millerage Inn in Oyster Bay, NY apparently couldn’t think of something original to do and made a larger one.

Beyond the size of this shamrock is the fact that it sits at the main intersection in town. Each year they shut this intersection down (with sufficient detours) to host the event. That’s a bold move! Even though the shamrock is made of stained concrete, the City elects to give it a new coat each year before the festivities. And it’s not just a couple of workers from the O’Neill Public Works Department rolling on the paint by themselves. The repainting of the shamrock is an event that allows others to join in.

The shamrock becomes the focal point of the St. Patrick’s Day celebration. Throughout the event, a variety of activities take place on and around this special clover. There have even been marriage proposals and weddings that have taken place while standing (or on bending knee) on this painted landmark.

This same intersection also hosts traditional Irish dance performances and the crowning of the St. Patrick’s Day king and queen. The St. Patrick’s Day Grand Parade also crosses over the shamrock as it marches through downtown O’Neill.

St. Patricks Day Festivities - Image courtesy of City of O'Neill, NE

St. Patricks Day Festivities – Image courtesy of City of O’Neill, NE

Too Much for One Day

However, there’s too much going on in O’Neill for St. Patrick’s Day to contain it all in one day. The schedule of events in 2022 was so long, it covered two pages and stretched out over five days. That is a lot of green beer! It also means Rubens, potato bars, and even a fish fry. There’s plenty of tasty food with an Irish twist to be had.

Other activities include a fun run, a kids’ carnival, karaoke, a magic show, and a dodgeball tournament. Ever seen a “greening of the pond”? Well, it happens each year Gil Poese Recreational Area in Carney Park. Then there’s the Irish Walk of Fame Induction Ceremony. The Irish Walk of Fame is a group of sidewalk plaque insets “dedicated to honoring all who have extraordinarily given of their time and talents to keep and preserve O’Neill as the Irish capital of Nebraska.” Much like the Hollywood Walk of Fame, these inductees are given their own plaque implanted into a sidewalk panel in town.

Irish Walk of Fame, O'Neill NE

Irish Walk of Fame – Image courtesy of City of O’Neill, NE

Other Activities in O’Neill

O’Neill is also a stop along the Cowboy Trail, one of the longest rails-to-trails projects in the United States. Currently at 187 miles long, the goal is for it to span 321 miles and serve as part of the Great American Rail Trail.

The O’Neill Chamber of Commerce also has a long list of things to do when visiting town. On top of the recreational and historical sites, the community offers several events like Summerfest, the Holt County Fair, and the Hometown Christmas.

Expressing a Brand

One of the best ways to draw attention to your community is to create a brand and express that brand every chance you get. The shamrock is an obvious and ideal way to communicate O’Neill’s brand that is based on the Irish cultural history of the community. The shamrock in the middle of the highway intersection is just the start of that brand expression. As stated earlier, the shamrock is also prevalent on the entrance signs along Highway 20/275 at the East and West ends of town. Many of the business signs throughout town are green or have a shamrock on them as well.

Welcome to O'Neill Sign

Welcome to O’Neill Sign – Image courtesy of City of O’Neill, NE

Both the City’s website and the website of the Chamber of Commerce have a decidedly Irish look and feel to them. Even the City’s autoreply when you message them on Facebook links back to their Irish Capital of Nebraska brand.

O'Neill Facebook Auto Reply

Irish to the Bone

Over the years O’Neill has worked hard to nurture that cultural base into making themselves a Destination Town. Cultural/Historical Destination Towns like O’Neill can work, but the effort needs to go well beyond an annual celebration. O’Neill has made those strides and continues to spin that theme that has made them the Irish Capital of Nebraska.

So if you happen to visit O’Neill during St. Patrick’s Day, hold up your green beer in a salute to the city’s leaders and say “Sláinte“!