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An Irish Civil War Hero Gets His Due in Vermont

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William McKone
  • William McKone

It was 150 years ago this week in Burlington’s City Hall Park that John Lonergan, commander of Vermont’s “Irish company,” was welcomed home as a Civil War hero. To mark the occasion, Lonergan’s great-granddaughter, Montréal resident Maureen Slattery, is scheduled on Saturday to unveil a historical marker in the park that describes her ancestor’s valor on the killing fields of Gettysburg.

But the plaque omits mention of another notable, and controversial, aspect of Lonergan’s life. He was the leader of the Vermont branch of the Fenian Brotherhood, a forerunner of the Irish Republican Army. Like the IRA, the Fenians waged an armed campaign to end British rule of Ireland.

Following the Civil War, Lonergan helped organize a pair of failed raids into Canada from staging areas in St. Albans. The Fenians’ quixotic aim was to pressure Britain, which ruled Canada as a colony, to surrender control of Ireland.

William McKone, the organizer of the July 27 ceremony in City Hall Park, details Lonergan’s eventful life in a 2010 biography titled Vermont’s Irish Rebel. The white-bearded McKone recently offered a capsule version between bites of Kilree chicken and sips of Woodchuck cider at Rí Rá Irish Pub on Church Street.

Lonergan (1837-1902) immigrated to Vermont in 1848 as a famine refugee and member of a rebel family on the run from repression as well as from hunger. He worked with his father in Winooski as a cooper. Seeking military skills to apply to the cause of Irish freedom, Lonergan in 1862 formed a company of fellow Vermont Irishmen who volunteered to fight the Confederates. Their important contributions to the Union victory at Gettysburg earned Lonergan the Medal of Honor.

McKone said he had no choice but to acquaint contemporary Vermonters with Lonergan’s exploits. “He reached out of the grave, grabbed my ankle and said, ‘You’ve got to tell my story,’” McKone related. Lonergan is buried in St. Joseph Cemetery in the Old North End.

McKone, 76, has an interesting story of his own.

He described himself as “the ultimate flatlander,” who grew up on the dusty plains of south Texas. McKone served in the U.S. Army in the 1950s and later became an intelligence analyst for the National Security Agency, working at a post in Cold War-era West Germany for six years. McKone resigned from the NSA in 1983 in protest, he said, of President Ronald Reagan’s decision to tap Americans’ phone lines.

Asked to spill a few secrets, McKone demurred, drawing a distinction between himself and NSA leaker Edward Snowden. “I signed a lifetime oath not to reveal information” about the NSA, McKone noted. “I’m honoring it.”

He came to Vermont soon after quitting the NSA because it’s “the best place to live,” he said. McKone does occasional work from his home in Cambridge as a translator of Russian, German, Czech and Slovak. At age 61, he earned a master’s degree in military history from Norwich University.

McKone also takes part in Civil War reenactments, and was pleased to pose in his woolen Union uniform in City Hall Park on a recent 90-degree afternoon.

He’s making his debut as a playwright on the evening of the dedication of the Lonergan marker. Any Chance for Glory, a one-act show developed from McKone’s book, will be staged in Burlington City Hall Auditorium at 7 p.m. on Saturday.

“I’m not the sort to retire and fade away,” McKone remarked at Rí Rá, which he refers to as “my branch office in Burlington.” Indeed, the doughty Irish American might take as his motto the Irish battle cry inscribed on the Lonergan marker in City Hall Park: Faugh a Ballagh — “Clear the way!”

“Heroes of Gettysburg” Civil War reenactment. Saturday, July 27, 4 p.m. in Burlington City Hall Park; dedication of historical marker at 5 p.m.; program in Burlington City Hall Auditorium from 6 to 8 p.m. Free. Info, 644-2433. 18th-vt.org

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