Tommy & John
William O’Neill’s book on early American history, shown through the eyes of Irish
by Sarah Dobs
With a long and celebrated Irish heritage of his own, Menomonie author William O’Neill drew inspiration for his new book from the strength his ancestors had during one of the bleakest moments in their history.
In Tommy and John, O’Neill crafts a story about American history through the eyes of the two titular characters, John Gillespie and Thomas Meagher, who emigrate from Ireland during the potato famine.
“There’s nothing glorified about it,” O’Neill says of the book’s context. “It’s very gritty and down to earth.” While he strove to attain historical accuracy in his text, O’Neill says he also didn’t want it to unfold like a history book.
O’Neill obtained his doctorate in English Literature from the University of Minnesota (and taught there for many years), and during that time he read a lot of James Joyce. The stories of the Irish literally ran through his blood, he recalls.
“In 1861 my mother’s grandfather fought in the Civil War,” shares O’Neill. “I don’t know much about him, but I guess he was some inspiration.” At a time in history when many families just wanted to forget about the terrible conditions, O’Neill wants to reveal it.
The book follows the lives of Tommy and John who start as friends, but circumstances cause them to go their separate ways. There is much to be learned from his book, especially the character and endurance of people. He hopes that after reading his book readers are “understanding and compassionate for the miseries these people went through.”
We could never know the trials Tommy and John went through first-hand, but O’Neill brings the past a bit closer. “History is more fictional than fiction,” he says.