A LITTLE GREEN IN THE RED, WHITE AND BLUE
by Mike McCormack, NY State Historian
June 14 is a special day for America and especially for the Irish in America. It is a day set aside to honor our national emblem ─ the stars and stripes. June 14 is Flag Day, a day when we should all be flying our flag in its honor. Why is it flag day, what does it mean, and what is our flag anyway that it should have a day of its own?
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 symbolizing these 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 or to those who have the audacity to burn it. But that piece of cloth is so much more than material. It’s even more than a symbol, it’s an emotion and it’s a frame of mind. The design on that banner wasn’t simply selected because it was attractive; 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 them all and define that unity and that freedom.
On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress enacted a resolution that the flag of these United States should 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 that the stripes be restored to 13 in remembrance of the 13 original colonies, and allowed that only a new star would be added for each new state.
That’s how it was born, but like most infants, the real story is in how it grew up and 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 and most of those in General Washington’s forces just happened to be Irish! 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 the new constellation would not disappear, for that new flag was not like the flag of any other nation on earth. It didn’t represent a race, an ethnic group or a nationality as other flags did – it represented freedom for all races; a truly radical idea. And, in that respect, it was the first of its kind on earth.
And everyone in America supported it, whether their heritage was Jewish, Italian, Polish, Greek, German, Irish or other. Yet 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 emblem and came to its aid at every call. In the War of 1812, the British had to be reminded that our 21-year old United States was not just a temporary union. They kidnapped American seamen who they claimed were English subjects; of course they were our Irish immigrants who they didn’t want to face once more in battle as they had in the Revolution. And those same Brits 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 County Antrim immigrants. When a great civil war threatened to tear that flag 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. And while it has flown victorious in battle, it has also draped the coffins of America’s heroes, from her foot soldiers 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 and that tradition was started by an Irishman at the 1908 summer Olympics in London. NYPD Patrolman Matthew McGrath was a Tipperary-born hammer thrower on the American team and, as the team approached the King of England’s Royal Box during the opening ceremony where all teams dipped their nation’s flags in respect, McGrath broke ranks and stepped up to the American flag bearer and said, Dip our flag and you will be in hospital tonight. The flag was not dipped and caused an international incident. Many said the Irishman just wanted to insult the English King, but team-mate, Mayo-born discus thrower Martin Sheridan cleared that up at a news conference. Sheridan spoke for the entire Olympic team when he pointed to the American flag and said, That flag dips to no earthly king. That precedent is still followed today. The American Flag has never been dipped to anyone since that day in 1908. The only time the American flag 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. The last one is because no one can reach it; it’s 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 poem, Star Spangled Banner, it was put to the tune of a popular song of the day: To Anacreon in Heaven, but the melody, to which that popular song was written, was a planxty composed by the legendary Irish harpist Turlough O’Carolan. And it was never praised with more respect than by one of Irish-America’s favorite sons: George M Cohan. Call it what you will: the Grand Old Flag, Old Glory, the Stars and Stripes or the Star Spangled Banner; June 14th is our flag’s birthday. Long may it wave.
(repeated from June 2010 by request)