When the Civil War broke out in 1861, thousands of Irish immigrants volunteered to fight for the North and South. Close to 140,000 Irish joined the Union Army, the vast majority of them a part of the 63th, 69th, and 88th New York, the 116th Pennsylvania, and the 28th Massachusetts, known collectively as the Irish Brigade. They were led by the incomparable Thomas Meagher (pronounced Mar), an Irish native whom the British banished to Australia for leading a rebellion in 1848 following the great potato famine. Meagher escaped Australia and made his way to America where he continued to fight for Irish independence. Meagher believed that the Irish should fight for the Union in order to prove their loyalty to the Union and to overthrow the Southern aristocracy, which was so reminiscent of the British aristocracy they so valiantly fought for over 700 years. This was essential in order to ensure the Irish survival in America.
Before leaving for the war and following a Mass by Archbishop John Hughes, the Irish Brigade was presented with a beautiful silk flag. The banner, with a gold harp, white clouds, and sunburst on a green field would become conspicuous and feared on many battlefields. Across the bottom of the flag was their motto inscribed in Gaelic: “Who never retreated from the clash of spears.” Indeed the Irish Brigade was the most decorated of all brigades, revered for their courage, and as one General quipped “IF the Irishmen ever run, I’ll Run.” General Sumner would ask before each battle “Where are my green flags.” Lincoln, following a Union victory, picked up a corner of the Irish flag, kissed it and said, “God Bless the Irish flag.” The Irish brigade would charge into every battle screaming “Faugh a Bellagh” (Clear the Way). As we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day it is fitting to ask how the Irish came to play such an important role in American history and why they were “who never retreated from the clash of spears.”
For the better part of 800 years the Irish lived in a land they could never call their own. In 1122, Pope Adrian IV issued an edict permitting Henry II of England to conquer Ireland in order to “tame the wild savages.” For the next 7 centuries no Irishman could enter a court of law as anything other than a criminal. He could not worship his God in a church or in public without risk of imprisonment. He could not attend school at any level. He could not marry, conduct business, or mingle with any English Protestant. He could not participate in his favorite sports, or sing his favorite songs. He could not speak his language.
What did the Irish do to deserve such unjust and cruel punishments? They refused to become English. The very pope who commanded their conquering was coincidentally history’s only English pope. So with the Blessing of God, the English spent 752 years attempting to eradicate all that was Irish from the face of the earth. Still the indigenous culture - lively and infectious - would flourish as the English control would slowly fade. The occupiers themselves would succumb to the infectious liveliness of the Irish culture. English would marry Irish, a James would become a Seamus, and a Mary a Maire. The remedy of this sickness was to strip the Irish of all human dignity. English Parliament declared “No quarter be given to any Irish Papist.”
And yet this perfectly constructed plan, one of the most sophisticated attempts in human history to deny a people their basic rights of human dignity, failed completely. The English attempts to eradicate Catholicism only had the opposite effect, making them intensely more loyal to their religion. While their harps were burned and harpists hung, the harp became the national symbol, one to be found on many flags and banners. While their language was banned, epic poems were written and recited in Gaelic, all but ensuring the survival of the ancient tongue. In short, the Irish remained defiantly Irish.
By 1845 the British were using Ireland as their primary farming resource, raping the land for all it could produce, in order to feed its vast empire. Their farms and land were used to graze British cattle and sheep and to grow oats and barley. What were left were small patches of dirt in which only the potato could grow. It was said that an Irishman would eat up to 10 pounds of potatoes a day. In late September of 1845 a most foul and stomach turning stench filled the crisp Irish Autumn air. The potatoes had spoiled and their blackened roots released an almost acidic stench throughout the land. Agricultural experts of the time estimated that over half of potato farms would be affected by the blight - in other words over 500,000 Irishmen would inevitably starve. The Irish would continue to beg their British occupiers to allow them farm their own fields for nourishment but their pleas fell upon deaf ears. The Irish farmers began to fall into the depths of dejection. Frederick Douglass during his 1847 tour of Ireland wrote: “I find myself not treated as a colored man but as a man, not as a thing but as child of a common father.” But he would later comment he had not seen such misery as he had in the emaciated Irish farmers. It was not unlike “the degradation of the American slave.” He saw families in windowless mud huts, dirty, ragged, and gaunt from starvation. But the Irish refused to “retreat from the clash of spears” and their spirit “Cleared the way” as they immigrated in droves to a land of opportunity, a land of equality - the United States of America. The British even as they systematically starved the Irish still could not eradicate that infectious and lively culture.
Never had so many immigrants come to the shores of America. More than 1.5 million Irish escaped the island of Erin. They were peasants without any skills or trades. They were illiterate and lacked any education. They were the poorest and most wretched of the American population. The New York Tribune called the Irish homes in New York “Dens of Death” while drawing cartoons depicting Irish immigrants as debauched apes. British descended elitists in America hated these Papists and formed the Know Nothing party in the hopes of displacing the Irish immigrants from America.
Regardless, the Irish refused to leave this land founded on the ideals of life, liberty, and a pursuit of happiness. When the war broke out, the ever-loyal Irish felt impelled to fight for the Union Cause. If this were a war truly testing whether any democracy founded on such ideals “could long endure” then they must fight to see it endure. They must fight to eliminate the aristocracy, “to damn all gentleman” and prove the only aristocracy is in the mind. In defiance against authority a popular drinking song could be heard sung throughout the streets:
We’ll beat the bailiffs out of fun
We’ll make the mayor and sheriffs run
We are the boys no man dares dun.
The Irish brigade suffered the third highest number of battlefield casualties of any Union brigade. Of the 7,715 men who enlisted in its ranks some 4000 were either killed or wounded. As a testament of the Irishmen’s bravery, 11 of its members were awarded the Medal of Honor. The Irish had permanently imprinted their legacy in the annals of American liberty.
In 1848, a man by the name of Patrick left New Ross, Ireland for American shores. He would valiantly fight in that country’s greatest war and then would raise a family. More than half a century later his great grandson, John, would ascend to the heights of American power. In 1963 President Kennedy would arrive in Ireland to pay homage to his great grandfather. He was greeted as royalty and hailed as the “Prince of the Irish.” President Kennedy in a speech to the crowd said “It has taken 115 years to make this trip” and that he was there to explain why the actions of Irishmen long dead still mattered.
He would recall the history of Ireland in his speech, Ireland’s misery and her triumphs. He would remind the crowd that even in 1960 America many doubted an Irish Catholic could lead a country. He would talk about the time in which his great grandfather fled his motherland for the Atlantic, that “bowl of bitter tears” as James Joyce wrote, tears shed by the Irish mothers as their children died in the treacherous journey across the Atlantic.
What was it Kennedy asked that got so many families through centuries of persecution, subjugation, starvation, eviction, tragedy, and war? Why was it that leaders like Thomas Meagher never lost their faith in God or cause? He concluded that the “quality of the Irish is the remarkable combination of hope, confidence, and imagination.” That same infectious and lively spirit which resisted British subjugation would cause the Irish to flourish and prosper in America. That combination of hope, confidence, imagination and an unwillingness to retreat from the clash spears became an integral part of the very fabric of this nation. Mementos throughout the country celebrate the great accomplishments of Irish Americans. The impact of the Sons of Erin permeate American culture.
It is the living, however, who need these markers of the dead in order to truly make sense of the Irish place in this world- more than 80 million people with Irish blood no longer look for a place to call home. For them, unlike their ancestors of old, memory is no longer a burden but the very material for stories that will forever be passed on in song and tale of the great survival skills of the Irish who “Riamh Nar Dhruid O Spairn Iann.”