Flag Day

June 14th is a special day for us in America. It is a day set aside to honor our national emblem – the stars and stripes. It is flag day, a day when we should all be flying our flag, but just why is it flag day, what does it mean, and what is our flag anyway that it should have a day of its own.

What is our flag? Well, when you describe it in terms of material, it is only a piece of cloth, dyed with a little blue and red that makes a design which is the symbol of the United States. And that may be all that it is to some; to those who show it no respect, to those who make clothing from it, to those who have the audacity to burn it.

But that piece of cloth is much more than material. Its more than a symbol, it’s an emotion; it’s a frame of mind. For you see the design on that banner wasn’t simply selected because it was the most attractive or the most appealing; there is a story in that flag.

In British North America, each of the 13 colonies had its own flag. When they dared to unify and challenge the Crown for their liberty, they sought a banner that would represent and define that unity and that freedom. On June 14, 1777, 222 years ago today, the Continental Congress enacted a resolution that the flag of these United States be 13 stripes alternating white and red to represent the purity of their new nation and the blood spilled to win it. In the corner would be 13 white stars on a field of blue to represent a new constellation in the heavens – it was to be called the United States of America. Later, when the country began to grow, the flag grew as well. In 1794, when Vermont and Kentucky entered the Union, two more stars and two more stripes were added, but Congress later ordered the stripes restored to 13 as a remembrance of the 13 original colonies, and allowed that a new star would be added for each new state.

That’s how it was born, but like most siblings, the real story is in how it grew up. It had a few Irish godfathers to help it. It had a violent birth, and the first to carry it into battle was Commodore John Barry, the Irish-born father of the American Navy. It was also carried by General William Thompson of Co Meath, who became the first commissioned officer in the new United States Army, and scores of others who gave their lives that it might fly unchallenged over a free nation.

But those who gave their lives, didn’t give it for a piece of cloth, they gave it for an ideal. They gave it so that new constellation would not disappear. For you see, that new flag was a symbol of freedom not race; it represented unity rather than an ethnic group, it represented an idea instead of a nationality – it was for everybody. And, I guess in that respect, it was the first of its kind.

And everybody in America supported it, whether their heritage was Jewish, Italian, Polish, Greek, German, or Irish. But it held a special place in the hearts of the Irish for this was an emblem that represented all they had ever hoped to achieve, but were denied in their own land. Like Barry and Thompson in the American Revolution, they felt an emotion for this noble emblem, and came to its aid at every call.

In the War of 1812, the British had to be reminded that our United States was not just a temporary union, and they ran from its colors in the final battle of that war at New Orleans where it was carried by General Andrew Jackson, the son of Co Antrim immigrants.

When a great civil war threatened to tear it in half, among the Americans who rallied to its protection were Thomas Francis Meagher and the famed Irish Brigade who left many a son of Erin on the battlefield so that the stars and stripes might not fall. It has been carried against oppression by the fighting 69th and led many an Irish heart to victory for his adopted land, and there is a fair measure of Irish blood in the red of its stripes.

Yes it has flown victorious in battle, but it has also draped the coffins of America’s heroes – from her ‘footsoldiers’ to her Presidents. It has a grand and glorious history that star spangled banner of ours, and I daresay there’s not another one that can match it. It is a proud ensign that bows to the flag of no other nation on earth. The only time it can legitimately be lowered is in honor of a deceased American. Yet, there are five locations where even that cannot happen – even upon the death of a President. Under no circumstances is the flag ever lowered over the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia – its reputed birthplace – over the national memorials of the Alamo, the U.S.S. Arizona at Pearl Harbor, and the tomb of the unknown soldier, and the last one, probably because no one can reach it, is the American flag planted on the moon.

There has been much praise written for that grand old ensign of ours, and it is fitting that some of its most memorable praise came with a bit of an Irish flavor. When Francis Scott Key wrote the Star Spangled Banner, the tune he used was an old melody attributed to the legendary Irish harpist Turlough O’Carolan. And it was never praised with more respect than by one of America’s favorite Irish sons – George M Cohan. Call it what you will, the Star Spangled Banner, Old Glory, the Stars and Stripes, or the Grand Old Flag; June 14th is our flag’s birthday. Long may it wave.

George Washington’s Irish

In this month (July) when we celebrate America’s independence, it would be good to recall the part played by the Irish in that watershed in history. The Father of our country had a great deal of respect for the Irish. It was a respect born of admiration for their dedication to the revolutionary cause. Early Irish settlers in America fled English tyranny in the old world and were determined it would not follow them to the new. Its no surprise therefore, that when separation from England was first proposed, the Irish were its most enthusiastic supporters. When the issue finally came to rebellion, that support became the backbone of Washington’s army. Charles Beard in The Rise of American Civilization, wrote, “Native Irish who came by the hundreds, if not by the thousands, bearing the scars of age-old conflict with England, flocked to the American Army when the standard of revolt was raised.”  When British forces left Boston to destroy the rebels at Lexington and Concord, their Major Pitcairn declared, “We will drive the Yankees and Irish to cover. ”  Not only were there 147 Irish among the minutemen that fateful Apr 19, but when the `Shot Heard Round the World’ was fired and the smoke cleared at Old North Bridge, among the dead were 22 Irish who had routed Pitcairn’s redcoats and given their lives in America’s initial bid for independence.

In July, 1775, when the Continental Congress was in need of finances, a plea was sent to the people of Ireland seeking support for the Irish in America. While Henry Gratten pleaded the cause in the Irish Parliament, funds collected in Dublin, Cork, and other cities were sent to America. Irish-born Oliver Pollack personally raised over $300,000 to help finance the revolution, and ended up in debtor’s prison for his efforts. War journalist George Clarke noted of him, “Pollack knew the British in Ireland and that was enough for him.”

The largest ethnic group to sign the Declaration of Independence were those with Irish roots, Charles Dunlop of Co Tyrone printed the first copies, and the first man to read it before Congress was Charles Thomson of Derry – Secretary of the Continental Congress. With the revolution underway, the Irish swelled the ranks of Washington’s rebel force in record numbers.

Dr. Davis Ramsey noted, “The common soldiers of the state were, for the most part, Irish.” British General Clinton wrote to his Secretary of War, “Immigrants from Ireland were to be looked on as our most serious antagonists”, and a letter from Ambrose Serle to the British Secretary of State went as far as to say, “Great numbers of Irish are in the rebel army”, and recommended that they be prohibited from leaving Ireland because “they add strength to the rebel army.” Even the Royal Gazette estimated that Washington’s forces were about half Irish.

The tenacity of the Irish was a great asset to the patriot cause. Froude, the eminent British historian, noted, “Washington’s Irish supporters were the foremost, the most irreconcilable, and the most determined to push the quarrel to the last extremity.” According to Major General Marquis de Chastellux, “On more than one occasion Congress owed their existence, and America possibly her preservation to the fidelity and firmness of the Irish.”  General Henry Lee’s memoirs noted that the Pennsylvania line, “might have justly been called the Line of Ireland.”  What more gallant group could Washington have asked for than John Brady, revolutionary scout; or Major John Kelly who destroyed the bridge at Stony Point saving the American retreat from Trenton; or Capt. William O’Neill who held the British in check at Brandywine. Ranked among Washington’s most trusted officers were Irish-born Generals Wayne, Sullivan, Irving, Shee, Lewis, Butler, and Commodore John Barry. Washington’s personal Secretary was Major Charles McHenry and his Irish Aides de Camp included Joseph Reed, Joseph Carey, Stephen Moylan, and John Fitzgerald indicating just how deep that trust was. When General Montgomery was killed leading the attack on Quebec, Washington publicly mourned his trusted and valued Irish friend.

After the war, Lord Mountjoy stated in the British Parliament, “America was lost through the action of her Irish immigrants.” George Washington acknowledged America’s debt to the Irish in a letter thanking them for the part they played in winning America’s independence. He wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette that “the people of Ireland need that critical moment to shake off the badges of slavery they have so long worn.”

On the day of the British evacuation of New York, Washington sought out a man whose contribution was known to very few. Generally considered a collaborator, he was in fact Washington’s highest intelligence agent, and had been living an extremely dangerous existence in the middle of the British as a tailor to their officers and gentry. He was a daring Irishman with the unusual name of Hercules Mulligan; Washington revealed his identity and service by publicly taking Mulligan to breakfast.

Washington and the founding fathers continuously demonstrated their trust in America’s adopted Irish sons and daughters. The first President wrote of his pride in accepting membership in the Friendly Sons of St Patrick, and when Thomas Jefferson campaigned for President, he selected Thomas Addis Emmet – Irish rebel and brother of Ireland’s martyred patriot, Robert Emmet – as one of his campaign managers.

Ireland gave America soldiers to win her freedom, and those soldiers left another legacy in true Irish fashion. Alan Lomax, renowned American collector of folk songs noted the presence of the Irish in Washington’s continental army by the songs those soldiers sang. He wrote, “If soldier’s folk songs were the only evidence, it would seem that the armies that fought in the early American wars were composed entirely of Irishmen.”

A Month For Bravery

On September 13, the members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians celebrate one of the major holidays of their Order – Commodore John Barry Day. It is not a day unique to that Order, for it has been commemorated on the American national calendar more than once. There were even statues erected in his honor back in the days when Americans remembered with gratitude the contributions of this dedicated man. Today, few remember his deeds. The American Heritage dictionary doesn’t even list his name, and his statue in front of Independence Hall, Philadelphia, is just a platform for pigeons unnoticed by passers-by. It is truly unfortunate that so few remember because, during his lifetime, Barry gave so much to America at a time when she needed it most. It has even been said that had it not been for John Barry, the American Revolution would have been lost. Dr. Benjamin Rush said in his eulogy at Barry’s grave side, “He was born in Ireland, but America was the object of his devotion, and the theater of his usefulness.” A sea captain in colonial America, he seemed destined for a prosperous career in the colonies, but his integrity and sense of justice led him to risk all in the patriot cause. With nine years experience as a seagoing Captain, and five successful commands to his credit, the young Irishman was warmly welcomed, and given command of a ship under the authority of the Continental Congress. Eight months after the first shots were fired at Lexington, Captain John Barry took the helm of a new 14-gun vessel aptly named, Lexington. He quickly trained a crew, and began the task of supplying and supporting Washington’s ground forces.

He captured British ships and took their cargo for the patriots. He captured an armed British vessel when ammunition was scarce, and a supply ship when food was at a premium, he then came to Washington’s aid when the leader was planning to cross the Delaware. He organized seamen and joined the land forces which crossed the river in boats supplied by his friend, Patrick Colvin. Barry was held in such high esteem that Lord Howe made a flattering offer to Barry to desert the patriot cause. “Not the value or command of the whole British fleet,” Barry replied, “can lure me from the cause of my country which is liberty and freedom.” The last sea battle of the American Revolution took place as Barry was returning with a shipload of bullion from Havana, and was set upon by three British ships. He destroyed one and outdistanced the other two, returning with the precious cargo which was used to establish a National Bank for the new nation. Even after the war, this courageous seaman assisted America by transporting Virginia tobacco to Holland to repay America’s war debts.

In recognition of his experience and bravery, Washington asked the popular naval hero to form and train a class of midshipmen, who would form the nucleus of the new American Navy. Barry himself was named the ranking officer, and granted Commission number one making him Father of the American Navy. He died on Sept 13, 1803.
Years later, in 1920 to be exact, another Barry bravely fought the Brits. This time in Dublin during Ireland’s War of Independence. On Sept 21, a British lorry, heavily guarded by armed soldiers, was being loaded with supplies as a voice from the street called, “Drop your rifles and put up your hands.” It was a group of Irish Volunteers. Suddenly, one of the soldiers fired, then a fusillade erupted as Volunteers and soldiers dueled with revolvers and rifles. When it was over, one soldier was killed and four wounded, and the Volunteers fled. The British spotted one young man hiding under their lorry and pulled him out. They threw him into the back with their wounded and sped off. An official statement that day from British HQ stated that, “One of the aggressors had been arrested.”

The aggressor, as it turned out, was an 18-year old medical student named Kevin Barry. Kevin had joined the Irish Volunteers when he was only 15. His job was to cycle to various parts of the city delivering orders and correspondence between officers of the movement. In his position as courier, young Kevin knew all of the leading figures, and the British knew they had a prize catch in young Barry. Questioning and persuasion began in earnest: Kevin refused to betray the movement. He was offered amnesty and freedom, yet he refused. He was tortured for days on end, and still he refused. Finally, he was charged with murder and sentenced to death by hanging.

Late at night, Kevin was taken to see the scaffold that would end his life the following morning. With incredible cruelty and mental coercion, he was again pressured to reveal the names of his officers and comrades. In return he was promised a full pardon, his tuition paid at any Medical school in the world, and a pension of 2,000 Pounds Sterling a year for life. Kevin, visibly shaken, listened to the officer in silence, then glanced up at the beam from which hung the noose. “Yes,” he said, “I think that should hold my weight.”

On November 1, at 8 AM, his hands tied behind him, a slender 18-year old boy was led to the gallows at Mountjoy Jail where his short life was ended. Later Father Albert, one of Kevin’s last visitors, reported that Kevin’s last words were, “Hold on to the Republic.”

In this month of September, as we are reminded of two Barrys and Bravery, we are also asked to remember the bravery of those whose stories – unlike the Barrys – may never be known. They lie forever in the rubble of the Twin Towers that were destroyed on September 11. We’ll never know how many Irish died in that horror, but we do know that in the rubble were found close to six hundred Claddagh Rings. Remember them all in your prayers.