Historical Happenings for September 2020

Who Fears To Speak Of ’98

by Mike McCormack, NY State Historian

The 1700’s was a Century of Revolution.  When England’s American colonies struck for independence in 1775 during an age of the Divine Right of Kings, it was an unheard of act.  Yet it not only succeeded, it inspired France to revolt in 1789 and 1792 and they too succeeded.  Another attempt inspired by America took place in 1798 as the Irish rose to break the shackles of Empire.   Yet, that one’s not in our history books because it failed, though it was equally justified.  It didn’t even earn the term revolution; if mentioned at all, it is called a rebellion.  Revolution is defined as the forcible overthrow of a social order in favor of a new system while rebellion is defined as an act of defying the authority of an established government.  After King William defeated King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, a century of oppression drove the Irish into a depressed rage.  By that time, the religious prejudice, long a factor in English-Irish relations, had changed.  William offered a fair treaty in 1691 to end the fighting, but it was broken by England’s Irish administrators to insure power to their own class by the subjugation of all others. The basis of that power was a privileged position accorded to Church of Ireland members.  All others were subjected to Penal Laws that restricted their economic existence, including Presbyterians and other dissenting Protestant sects, though not as severely as Catholics.  Then came Theobold Wolfe Tone.

A Protestant graduate of Trinity College, he returned to Ireland after two years as a Lawyer in London and, influenced by Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, he developed a philosophy of national independence based on religious suffrage.  In September 1791, he wrote his greatest pamphlet: An Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland.  Aimed at non-Church of Ireland Protestants, it urged support of Catholic emancipation and was praised by Catholic and Dissenter alike.  He was invited to Belfast and helped organize the Society of United Irishmen. They called for a union of all Irish to peacefully block English influence by parliamentary reform. They even chose a color to symbolize their new Union; it was a blend of St. Patrick’s Blue for the Catholic tradition with Orange for the Protestant tradition. The blended green became identified with Irish nationalism ever since.  Tone then formed a second branch of the United Irishmen in Dublin with patriot Napper Tandy. 

Meanwhile, exaggerated reports of their activities were coming in from informers seeking favor with the Brits.  However, there was no evidence on which to arrest anyone.  Then in 1795, a representative of France’s Minister of Foreign Affairs called on Tone to determine the chances of success for a French invasion.  France had been fighting England ever since they supported the Americans in their Revolution.  France’s representative was arrested as a spy and Tone was exiled to America.  That turned Tone from a parliamentary reformer to a military advocate.  In America, he contacted the French Minister in Philadelphia to determine if the French were serious in aiding a full scale rising of the United Irishmen.  He went to France and secured that aid and in December 1796, a French invasion force sailed for Ireland.  On board, in the uniform of a French Adjutant General, was Theobald Wolfe Tone.

On December 21, a French fleet with 12,000 troops arrived at Bantry Bay, but the ship carrying the invasion commanders had separated from the fleet.  The landing was delayed until their arrival, but as they waited, a full scale hurricane scattered the French fleet.  One by one the ships returned to France.  It was later revealed by a British Admiralty official, that the captain of the commanders’ ship had accepted a bribe to take the Commanders on an alternate route.  Tone returned to France to plead for another expedition.  Meanwhile in Ireland, the United Irishmen were defined as disloyal and had become targets of a new group formed among Church of Ireland men who felt that not enough was being done to exterminate ‘Catholic troublemakers’.  They called themselves the Orange Order; they raided homes d businesses, murdered Catholic tenants and burned their homes to the ground.

Society headquarters shifted to Dublin where men like Lawyer Thomas A. Emmet, Doctor William McNevin and Lord Edward Fitzgerald were involved.  Fitzgerald had served in a British regiment in the American colonies and felt that the guerrilla tactics of the colonists should be used.  Under his influence, the Society grew from a reform movement to an underground army. The leaders argued to wait for French aid, but Lord Edward urged a general rising across the country.  An informer gave the names of the leaders and location of their meeting to Dublin Police who arrested them all except Fitzgerald.  On March 30, the Brits put the country under Martial Law and there followed brutal methods of interrogation – a wooden triangle to hold a man for flogging with a cat o’ nine tails; a portable traveling gallows to half-hang a man and pitch-capping by massaging a mixture of tar and gunpowder into the hair and setting it alight with agonizing effect.  Fear of pitch-capping caused many to crop their hair short even though they ran the risk of being identified as United Irish supporters; they earned the name Croppys.  The song The Croppy Boy may now have more meaning for you.

On May 23, 1798, individual groups of United Irishmen rose in several counties but  were put down by soldiers billeted there.  With no central command to the rising, government successes soon led frenzied Orangemen to engage in ‘croppy hunts’ causing entire villages to flee before them.  The once well-planned reform movement had degenerated into clashes between leaderless mobs and the Brits easily won control.  General Cornwallis, recently defeated by an American army made up primarily of Irish emigrants, was given a chance to redeem himself by a furious King George III.  In June he sailed for Dublin.  Meanwhile, the Brits drove the largest group of rebels in Wexford back to a final stand on a hill near Enniscorthy.  That hill, once covered with wild berrys, had the old local Gaelic name of Fidh naGcaer (Fidh – the Hill; na – of; Caer – the Berrys); it was now covered with people.  Unable to pronounce the Irish, the Brits called it Vinegar Hill, which was also appropriate for what happened there was bitter wine indeed.  On June 21, 10,000 British troops, with 20 pieces of artillery, opened a bombardment on the 20,000 men, women, and children herded together on the summit.  After a day and night of assault, the Irish were massacred.  By August 20 it was over.  The rebellion lasted three months and cost more than 25,000 lives of which only 2,000 were loyalists.  But what happened to the French aid?

That answer came 2 days later on August 22 as General Humbert and a force of 1,000 French troops arrived at the wrong time and at the wrong place – Killala Bay in County Mayo on Ireland’s west coast.  Tone was following with a larger force and behind him the indomitable Napper Tandy with yet more troops.  Could the rising begin again?  The word went out: The West’s Awake!  Humbert recruited a thousand local Irish and marched on the English at Castlebar.  He routed them and marched inland.  Cornwallis consolidated the powerful British army and split his forces to surround Humbert and the Irish.  On September 8, he closed the net at Ballinamuck, County Longford.  Humbert was hopelessly outnumbered.  After a half-hour battle, he surrendered his 850 troops and 1000 Irish allies to the British army of 30,000.  The Irish were slaughtered to a man while Humbert and his forces were repatriated back to France as honorable foes, but not before British Captain Packenham disgraced Humbert on the field of battle by taking his sword and stripping his epaulets.  An angry Napoleon dismissed Humbert to a position in the French colony at New Orleans where he later retired.  However, he and Packenham would meet again 14 years later as now General Packenham led the British forces in an attack on New Orleans in the American War of 1812 and Humbert came out of retirement to fight by Andy Jackson’s side to defeat his old enemy; but that’s another story.

On October 12, Wolfe Tone and reinforcements arrived in yet another disjointed piece of the overall revolution.  They ran directly into a waiting British fleet.  Tone commanded a battery of ships guns, but after 6 hours the French fleet was destroyed, and Tone was captured.  On October 16, Napper Tandy, with yet another fleet, landed in Donegal and learned of Humbert’s surrender and Tone’s capture.  He wisely sailed back to the continent.  Wolfe Tone was taken to Dublin and sentenced to be hanged as a traitor.  He requested to be afforded the death of a soldier, to be shot, rather than hanged, but his request was denied.  He died in prison of a neck wound at the age of 35.  History records his death as a suicide but there remains some doubt.  The rank and file of the United Irish society were pursued and eliminated.  Loyalists, believing that all Catholics had all been part of a conspiracy to slaughter them, intimidated the majority of the population into a slave-mentality that crippled the spirit of resistance for a whole generation.  Ireland remained a most depressed country until Daniel O’Connell began raising the cause of Catholic emancipation once again in the 1840s and the Irish began to raise their heads.  When they did, they heard the voice of Thomas Davis and the Young Irelanders resurrecting the doctrines of Wolfe Tone who was now recognized as the Father of Irish Republicanism.  Tone’s revolution was, in fact, the very first thrust for National independence.  Previous risings were merely attempts at reconfiguring relations with the Crown.  The 1569 and 79 Desmond rebellions; the 1593-1603 Nine Years War of O’Neill, O’Donnell and Maguire; the 1640-42 Confederation War in support of Charles II; the 1690 Rising in support of the Jacobite claim to the Crown would all have left Ireland still a colony of England.  As the spirit of true independence once more began to beat in Irish hearts, a verse appeared in the April 1843 edition of the rebel newspaper, The Nation.   It read:

“Who fears to speak of ‘98?  Who blushes at the name?
When cowards mock the patriot’s fate, who hangs his head for shame?
He’s all a knave, or half a slave who slights his country thus;
But true men, like you men, come fill your glass with us.

Historical Happenings for June 2020

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)

Historical Happenings for May 2020

Historical Happenings ─ Margaret ‘Captain Molly’ Corbin
by Mike McCormack AOH NY State Historian

More than 200 guests gathered at the Captain Molly Memorial at West Point’s U.S. Military Academy on 1 May, 2018, for a re-dedication Ceremony. Recent developments revealed that Margaret Corbin was not in fact buried there as had been believed since 1926. After the grave was accidentally disturbed in 2016 by excavators building a wall nearby, the opportunity for forensic testing of the remains presented itself and the tests revealed the remains were of a middle-aged man who lived in the Colonial period. However, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) who erected the memorial felt that she was too important to be forgotten. With National Military Cemeteries and the US Military Academy a decision was made to schedule a special re-dedication of the monument to Margaret’s valor and celebrate her legacy regardless of where she may be buried. But just who was Captain Molly?
She was born Margaret Cochran in November 1751 on the western PA frontier to Irish immigrant Robert Cochran and his wife Sarah. When just five years old, her father was killed in an Indian raid and her mother was kidnaped. Margaret escaped and was raised by an uncle. At 21, she married farmer John Corbin. When America’s Revolution began, John enlisted in the regiment that General ‘Light Horse’ Harry Lee called the ‘Line of Ireland’. As was common at the time, Margaret went with him, joining other women in cooking, washing and caring for the wounded; it was there her dominating personality won her the nickname ‘Captain Molly’. On 16 November 1776, while stationed at Fort Washington, NY, they were attacked by the Brits. John Corbin’s cannon crew was being decimated by enemy fire when John was killed. Margaret sprang into action and began loading and firing the cannon by herself until she was wounded by grapeshot which tore her shoulder, mangled her chest and lacerated her jaw. After the fort was captured, the wounded were ferried across the river to Fort Lee, then by wagon to Philadelphia.
Margaret never fully recovered from her wounds and was left without the use of her left arm for life which was a terrible blow for a such a previously dynamic Irish-American woman. She had no way to earn a living and even needed help bathing and dressing. In June, 1776 the Commonwealth of PA gave her $30.00 in recognition of her bravery, but that didn’t go far. Then in 1779, impressed with her service, Congress made an unprecedented decision; they granted her a pension of half a soldier’s monthly pay and clothing allowance; she even got a rum ration and some back pay. With this act, Congress made her the first woman to receive an American military pension. At war’s end she was transferred to the Corps of Invalids at West Point, where she helped, as best she could, with cooking and laundry. In Major Boynton’s History of West Point, she is described as ‘appearing with an artilleryman’s coat over her skirts, she was coarse, red-haired, wholly wanting in feminine charms and one of her biographers recorded that used swear words.’ She died in Highland Falls, NY on 16 Jan 1800, at the young age of 48. In 1909 a plaque was set to her memory in Fort Tryon Park near the Fort Washington battle site noting that she was ‘the first American woman to take a soldier’s part in the War for Liberty’ and the park entrance was named Margaret Corbin Circle. A large mural depicting her in the battle also decorates the lobby of nearby 720 Fort Washington Avenue.
In 1926, the 50th anniversary of American independence prompted a search for her forgotten burial site. An overgrown grave was discovered and a body exhumed and identified by the wounds she incurred and the DAR had her re-interred with full military honors in the West Point Cemetery and erected the memorial, making her the only Revolutionary War veteran so honored. Despite the recent discovery that she was not really in that grave, the DAR decided to rededicate the memorial to her memory since her story is so important. DAR President Ann Dillon noted: “it epitomizes the very reason our organization was founded”. At the ceremony, Jennifer Minus, New York State Officers Club President said: “It’s important to remember that Margaret Corbin’s life and actions are not folklore; she was an actual woman who lived, fought and was recognized by name in Congressional and War Department records. Military spouse and widow, wounded warrior, prisoner of war and disabled veteran, she remains an inspiration to all who serve.” Colonel Diane Ryan, on behalf of the Military Academy added: “She is not just a role model for female cadets, she is an example to all Americans of what women are capable of when put to the test. Let this monument serve as a reminder to us all.” Karen Durham-Aguilera, Executive Director of National Military Cemeteries, followed by saying: “her bravery and legacy as one of the first women to fire an artillery cannon in the defense of our nation, continues to transcend and inspire women in military service even today.”
This story was taken from the New York State 2021 calendar which will be available soon.

Historical Happenings for April 2020

THEY WENT TO SPAIN

by Mike McCormack AOH Historian

Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia in 1812 was a turning point in the Napoleonic Wars, leading to his abdication and restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. Russia then played a central role at the post-war Vienna Congress of 1814 as a leader of anti-revolutionary forces. This suited the Bourbon kings who once again ruled and allowed the formation of the French Communist Party (PCF). Then, in 1920, after the death of Lenin, his successor Josef Stalin established a new ideology for the Communist International. He called it Marxist-Leninism and redefined the theories of both Lenin and Marx to establish a new meaning to benefit establishing a global Communist world.  It reformed civil law, made marriage secular between social-and-legal equals, facilitated divorce, legalized abortion and voided the political power of the upper and middle class and  privately owned businesses. The Marxist–Leninist world view was totally atheist denying religion in the affairs of human society. The PCF as the French Section of the Communist International adopted the new ideology.  In 1921, they spread it to Spain where the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) was founded. The PCE was legalized by the Second Spanish Republic in April 1931 and  gained much support.  Soon the Republic began introducing the atheistic doctrines of the new Communist ideology. In May 1931, anti-clerical violence broke out all over Madrid and south-west Spain. The government’s slow response disillusioned the population and reinforced their view that the Republic was determined to persecute the Catholic church.  In December a new reformist, liberal democratic constitution was declared and included strong provisions to secularize the previously Catholic country by abolishing Catholic schools and charities; many committed Catholics strongly opposed.   Churches were closed down, unspeakable atrocities were committed against priests and nuns and sacred artifacts were destroyed or stolen.  Then in July 1936, a rebellion was led by General Francisco Franco which marked the beginning of the Spanish Civil War.

Due to  international politics at the time, some saw it as either a class struggle, a religious war, a struggle between dictatorship and  democracy or between fascism and anarchism. In reality it was the result a polarization of Spanish life and politics that had developed since the introduction of communism. On one side, the Nationalists were mostly Roman Catholics, ranking members of the military, middle-class landowners and businessmen. On the other side, the Republic was supported by urban workers, agricultural laborers and members of a newly educated lower class.

The war became notable for the passionate political division it inspired and for the many atrocities that occurred, on both sides. Organized purges occurred in Republican areas to eliminate suspected opposition and revenge killings took place in areas controlled by Franco’s Nationalists.  As the execution of thousands of priests and nuns took place, New York’s Archbishop Cardinal Hayes asked New Yorkers to cry for Spain.  The Church hailed Franco as a deliverer but never sanctioned violence in retribution for the atrocities against his followers.  While Stalin sent volunteers and weapons to the Republicans, many nations officially took a neutral stance.  That neutrality faced serious opposition from sympathizers in the U.S. and other European countries leading to International Brigades.  Thousands from all nations voluntarily went to Spain to aid in the fight on either side.

The new Irish Free State joined an International Committee for Non-Intervention and passed The Spanish Civil War (Non-Intervention) Act in 1937 making it a punishable offence to travel from Ireland to Spain for any who would volunteer to serve in Franco’s cause.  However, while the IRA sent 300 men to support the Republicans, former IRA General Eoin O’Duffy led 700 Irishmen to fight for Franco as a result of the violence being perpetrated against Catholics and clergy.  By the end of the war, more than 6,000 Irish had volunteered in the Christian cause creating unofficial Irish involvement in the Spanish Civil War on both sides.  County Councils passed resolutions of support for Franco and requiem Masses were said for the fallen showing the support of the Irish people for the cause of Spain’s persecuted Catholics though today’s Irish government will not recognize that. Of 500,000 deaths in the War, 200,000 were combat-related: 110,000 Republicans and 90,000 of Franco’s Nationalists, the rest were civilians, but the destruction of a world-famous library’s priceless manuscript collection is lamented by historians to this day.  Another Irish Free State legislation, the Merchant Shipping Act of 1937 restricting Irish shipping to Spain was finally repealed on 27 April 1939 after Franco’s forces defeated the Republicans.  Franco set up a military government under which the PCE was repressed with specific laws banning Communists.  General Franco ruled anti-communist Spain until his death in November 1975 and was always grateful to the Irish who followed O’Duffy and were proud to claim, “We went to Spain!” which had a special meaning in the 1940s; it wasn’t just for a holiday!  The Irish volunteers who were ready to fight Communism in Spain were convinced that the cause of Franco was the cause of their Church and rose to its defense; every Hibernian should be able to relate to that.

Historical Happenings for March 2020

MARCH 17
Mike McCormack, NY State Historian

March 17 is a special day on our calendar because it marks the return to God of our beloved patron saint in the year 461 AD.  It was in that year that a humble missionary passed to his eternal reward.  Today he is revered around the world as Saint Patrick, patron Saint of Ireland, the Archdiocese of New York, the nation of Guiana, and hundreds of towns and parishes across the globe. But there are many other events which occurred on this day throughout history which also make it memorable; for example on March 17:

1014, High King of Ireland, Brian Boru, marched from Kincora, his stronghold at Killaloe, Co Clare, bound for Clontarf, and the battle that would break Viking power in Ireland;

1737, the first St Patrick’s celebration in America took place sponsored by the Charitable Irish Society of Boston;

1763, before the United States was even established, the first St Patrick’s Day celebration was held in New York City;

1766, it is recorded that a Saint Patrick’s Day Dinner in New York featured twenty toasts, the nineteenth of which declared “may the enemies of Ireland be tormented with itching, without the benefit of scratching“;

1776, the British evacuated Boston leaving the city to the American patriot army. General George Washington made the password of the day “Saint Patrick”;

1804, Jim Bridger, American scout, fur trader, and mountain man, was born;

1858, in a Dublin back room, James Stevens and Thomas Luby founded the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which was supported by the Fenian Brotherhood in America;

1871, the first professional baseball league – the National Association of Professional Baseball Players  was founded at Collin’s Saloon on Broadway and 13th Street in New York;

1889, Harry Clarke, the most celebrated stained glass artist of the age, was born in Dublin;

1899, An Claideamh Soluis (The Sword of Light), the official newspaper of the Gaelic League first appeared;

Many past march readings have discussed our Patron Saint, so this month we will focus on another great and glorious character from the pages of Ireland’s history and that is the first one listed above: the Emperor of the Irish: High King Brian Boru.  Brian mac Cennetig was the youngest son born to Cennetig (Kennedy) mac Lorcáin, King of Thomond, and a prince of the Dal Cais Clan.  His birthplace was near Killaloe, Co. Clare at about 940 AD.  At the time, Ireland was besieged by Viking warriors who raided up and down Ireland’s rivers from their strongholds at Dublin, Waterford, Limerick and other seaside settlements.  The tribal structure of the Irish provided no unified opposition  and, as a result, some clans sided with the Norse out of fear, some clans fought the invaders, but only when they were threatened.  Some clans even ignored the threat and continued to fight among themselves over local disputes. 

Brian’s brother, Mahon, became King of Thomond following the death of their father in 959 AD and attempted to cement relations with the Vikings and establish a lasting peace, but his younger brother Brian shared no such desire.  In fact, ever since Brian had learned of the death of his mother in a Viking raid when he was just a boy, he harbored a hatred against the Vikings that guided the rest of his life.  Too young to participate in Clan activities at the time and too old to be treated as a child, he was sent to be educated – most likely at Clonmacnoise.  There he studied Greek and Latin, but the parts he studied hardest were the battle tactics of Greek and Roman generals.  When he returned to the Dal Cais, he urged the study of Viking weapons and battle methods with the idea of waging war on the invaders, but Mahon could not be convinced.  When he was old enough, Brian broke away from his brother and with a band of followers, waged a guerrilla war on Viking settlements.  A skilled tactician, he made use of mounted cavalry, which had never been used by the Irish before.  He won many decisive victories and instilled fear in the enemy as well as the Irish clans who had allied with them.

Brian’s campaign gained popular support and many joined him, including his Brother Mahon, who finally renounced his truce with the Vikings. Their combined forces drove most of the Norse from Southern Ireland, including their leader Ivar.  Eager for revenge, Ivar returned ten years later and captured and killed Mahon. Brian succeeded his brother to the throne of Munster, bringing with him a re-fueled hatred of the Vikings.  Soon after, his forces met and defeated Ivar’s army, killing Ivar, and striking Viking influence in Southern Ireland a serious blow.  Brian returned to his boyhood home at Killaloe and in 1002 built his fortress stronghold.  It was called Kincora, deriving its name from the Irish Ceann Coradh, meaning ‘the head of the weir’.  It was located on a hill overlooking the Shannon – a site now occupied by the Catholic Church.  It guarded a part of the river that was wide enough to hinder an attack, yet shallow enough to drive cattle across.  Brian ruled from Kincora and exacted a tribute from the Munster Clans in return for his protection.  The cattle tribute was driven across that shallow part of the Shannon in the shadow of Kincora.  Tribute in Irish is Boroimhe, and from this, Brian became known as Brian of the Tributes or Brian Boru.  With this value from tribute, he paved new toads across the province, erected churches and rebuilt monasteries and monuments destroyed by raiding Vikings.

In the northern part of Ireland, Malachy the Second, followed Boru’s lead when his forces defeated a Norse army to take Dublin in 980 and Malachy became King of Meath. About the year 987, Brian was undisputed ruler of southern Ireland, yet he had no official title.  In Ossory, in Leinster, and in Connaught, his voice and his arm were felt everywhere. But a divided authority is favorable to invasion, so the Viking power began to loom up to its old proportions. Sitrick ‘silken beard’ one of the ablest of Viking leaders, was then at Dublin, and his constant raids were so formidable, that they produced an alliance between Brian and Malachy.  The alliance lasted three years, and in 997, with reinforcements  from the North, the Vikings were routed by Brian and Malachy in Wicklow, with the loss of 6,000 men and all their chief captains. Immediately after this victory the two kings, according to the Annals, entered into Dublin, and the fort thereof, and there remained seven nights, burnt the town, broke down the fort, and banished Sitrick from thence.

Finding Brian’s influence still on the rise west of the Shannon, Malachy, having vainly endeavored to secure the alliance of the Northern Hy-Nial, submitted to Brian allowing Boru to peacefully take over his lands.  Boru was granted the title “Ard Ri”, meaning “High King”. This made him one of the first – and last – kings to effectively unite Ireland under one monarch. The rivals to Brian Boru’s rule were numerous, however, both among the native Irish and the remaining Norse. In 1013, Maelmordha, King of Leinster, revolted and allied with the Vikings. They summoned reinforcements from Boru’s other Irish rivals and the Viking nations, as far away as Normandy and Iceland.  On March 17, 1014, Brian Boru led his forces out of Kincora headed for Dublin and the pages of Irish history.  The two forces met on Good Friday, April 23, 1014 on the field of Clontarf. Nearly 4,000 Irishmen were killed at the Battle, including Brian’s son Murrough, but the Viking/Leinster forces suffered even heavier losses.  At the end of the battle, what little remained of the Norse forces retreated to their ships. But before all the invaders fled, a fleeing Norse leader, Brodar, came upon Brian’s tent and attacked the Irish leader in prayer thanking God for the victory.  Then in his late seventies or early eighties, Brian was able to wound Brodar who struck Brian a mortal wound.  Brodar was captured by Brians attendants and left tied to a tree by his own intestines.

With Boru gone and his strong influence absent, Ireland soon fell into chaos and anarchy. There would never be another king powerful enough to rule all of Ireland.  In 1016, Connaught men raided and destroyed Kincora. As his descendants feuded among themselves in 1062 for the crown, Aodh O’Connor burned Killaloe and destroyed the rebuilt Kincora.  He claimed it for himself and feasted on the two sacred salmon kept in a pool within the walls of the palace

Historical Happenings for February 2020

FATHER TOM O’REILLY

by Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian

On a trip to Atlanta some years ago, I met Father Thomas O’Reilly – figuratively, of course, – since Father Tom passed away back in 1872. Yet in March 2007, he was honored with the City of Atlanta’s Phoenix Award in appreciation of his heroism and outstanding contributions to the City and citizens of Atlanta. It simply just begged the question: who was this remarkable man?
Born in Drumgora, Co. Cavan, in 1831, Thomas O’Reilly graduated All Hallows seminary in Dublin and was sent to the American south as a missionary priest in the area of Atlanta where Masses were held in private homes. In 1848, a wooden-frame church was built by a fellow Irish missionary, Father John Barry. The people named it the Church of the Immaculate Conception. That was remarkable since it was dedicated in 1849, six years before the Church had even defined its official dogma that Mary had been conceived without original sin. During the 1850’s prosperity abounded in Georgia; cotton was king and new factories were the order of the day as well as a new influx of Catholics. In 1861 Father Thomas O’Reilly was appointed pastor of Atlanta’s first Church and its missions. 

                   Father Thomas O’Reilly

Then came the Civil War and Atlanta became the military manufacturing and supply depot for the South. The city also became a main medical center with at least ten hospitals where thousands of wounded were treated. These hospitals occupied much of Father O’Reilly’s time. In 1864, the Union Army, led by General Sherman, laid siege to Atlanta during which Father O’Reilly ministered to both Union and Confederate wounded. He became a hero to both sides, hearing confessions, answering letters, saying Mass and performing last rites. On 2 September, 1864, the city fell to General Sherman who evicted many residents to allow housing for his army. Many were Father O’Reilly’s parishioners, but Catholics among the boys in blue now crowded his church on Sunday.
In the autumn of 1864, General Sherman, planning his ‘total war’ march to the sea at Savannah, ordered the entire city burned. An outraged Father O’Reilly sent word to Sherman that burning homes and churches was beyond the normal rules of warfare. Sherman was unresponsive. Father O’Reilly pleaded for a compromise that would spare his church. Sherman rejected the request. Father O’Reilly sent word that a number of Atlanta’s merchants and tradesmen who had not gone to war stood ready to defend their churches and among them were an Irish group known as The Hibernian Rifles. Further, he warned Sherman that the Union army had a high number of Irish Catholics and stated, ‘If you burn the Catholic church, all Catholics in the Union army will mutiny and if not, they will be excommunicated’. Sherman considered having Father O’Reilly executed, but feared mutiny among his Irish troops and finally relented. Then, an emboldened Father O’Reilly asked that the other churches be spared, as well as City Hall and the Court House since they were in close proximity to his church and the fire might spread. Sherman changed his orders to spare City Hall, the Court House and five churches including Immaculate Conception, Central Presbyterian, St. Phillip’s Episcopal, Second Baptist and Trinity Methodist. As the Federal Army moved out on its infamous march to the sea, only one-third of Atlanta survived with about 500 brave people and Father Tom O’Reilly. From this they would rebuild.
Feeling that their old church would be out of place in the new city going up around it, the parishioners built a new church on the same spot which stands to this day. Sadly, Father O’Reilly did not live to see it completed. In 1872, the ravages of war which had ruined his health, caused his death at 41 in a Virginia sanitarium. His remains were brought back to his beloved parish for the largest funeral ever held up to that time. Father O’Reilly was buried in a vault prepared beneath the altar of the rising new Church. As a result of Father O’Reilly’s heroic stand, and the bravery of the Hibernian Rifles, the City of Atlanta deeded the Hibernians a burial plot in Oakland Cemetery in 1873. The five churches and the City also erected a monument to Father O’Reilly on the grounds of City Hall. On 10 December, 1873, the new Church of the Immaculate Conception was formally dedicated and local newspapers described it as one of the most handsome in the South and an ornament to our city.

In 1879, General Sherman returned on an inspection tour of Atlanta’s Fort McPherson. He was surprised at the progress of the city, to which he gave a toast at a local reception. Surely, as he rode through the re-born city, he noticed the new church and the memory of the gentle but persistent Father O’Reilly had to come to his mind, for religion had finally won in his own life as well ─ at the time his son was studying for the priesthood! Although never a religious man, Sherman’s foster mother, Maria Ewing, was a devout Catholic of Irish ancestry as was his wife, Ellen. Sherman now lies in the Roman Catholic Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis.

On 18 October 1945, eighty-one years after his brave and defiant intercession, the Atlanta Historical Society erected a monument to Father O’Reilly in gratitude for saving the churches and City Hall in 1864. In truth he was like so many other courageous clerics from Father Murphy of Boolavogue to Archbishop ‘Dagger John’ Hughes of New York, but he was not as well known outside Atlanta. Ironically, his burial place was soon forgotten as the memory of this heroic priest began to fade especially with the new arrivals in the bustle of a growing metropolis. Then, in 1982, the Church of The Immaculate Conception caught fire and the roof fell in. It broke through the concrete floor of the church to reveal a long-forgotten crypt. In it were the coffins of Father O’Reilly and his successor Father Cleary. The discovery resurrected the story of this hero of Atlanta and the crypt was made accessible to pilgrims. A small adjacent room contains museum-style glass cases with artifacts of the Church’s history and the resurrection of Atlanta from the ashes of the Civil War. In one of those cases, beside a portrait of Father O’Reilly, lies his membership ribbon from Atlanta AOH Division 1!

Historical Happenings for January 2020

WASHINGTON AND HIS MONUMENT

By Mike McCormack, AOH Historian

George Washington held a special place in Irish hearts. No, he was not Irish, but he did have an Irish cousin named McCarthy by marriage.  However, he did appreciate the contributions of the Irish in his Colonial Army. During the revolution, he even issued a proclamation in honor of the high percentage of Irish under his command, declaring March 17, 1780 a holiday for the Army. It was their first holiday in two years and he wrote it was “an act of solidarity with the Irish in their fight for independence“. He also had two Irish-born Aides-de-Camp: Lt. Colonels John Fitzgerald and Stephen Moylan.  When the Revolution ended, no man commanded more respect than he. After building a fighting force that won independence from the most powerful kingdom on earth, in 1789 he was unanimously elected President and defined the new office. He denied the trappings of power by refusing a kingship and, despite considerable pressure to do otherwise, gave up his most powerful position after two terms since he felt that a President could never become as powerful as the king they just fought. Though many wanted him for a third term, in 1797 he retired and went home to build a business with Irish-born Lt. Col. Fitzgerald.

Progress towards a memorial in his honor began in 1833 – the 100th anniversary of his birth – as the Washington National Monument Society began collecting donations.  By the mid-1830s, they had more than $28,000 and they started construction believing that the appearance of the Monument would spur further donations. In 1848 a cornerstone was laid in an elaborate Fourth of July ceremony and construction continued until 1854, when donations ran out. The next year, Congress voted to appropriate $200,000 to continue the work but, they halted it before the money was allocated. The reversal came because of a series of shameful events.

The Society had also encouraged the donation of memorial stones to be used on the inside walls and organizations, societies, businesses and foreign nations donated blocks of marble, granite and sandstone. However, one stone stopped not only the Congressional appropriation but construction altogether.  In 1854, Pope Pius IX contributed a block of costly variegated marble from the Temple of Peace in Rome built in 366 B.C.  It bore the inscription, ‘From Rome to America’.  The stone, 3 feet long, 18 inches high and 10 inches thick was stored with other gift stones from across the States and the world, waiting to be installed.

On the night of 5 March 1854, several anti-Catholic Know Nothing nativists tied up the night watchman, stole the Papal stone, broke it with sledge hammers and threw it into the Potomac to insure that the monument would fit their definition of ‘American.’ Two stones donated by Ireland were also lost. The watchman was fired and the Society put up a $500. reward for the thieves.  They were never caught.  Know-Nothings then ran a fraudulent election and took over the Society whereby Congress rescinded its $200,000 contribution.  Know-Nothings added 13 parts to the Monument – all of which were of such poor quality they were later removed.  Unable to fund the project, they returned all records to the original Society in 1858. 

In 1876, the Centennial of the Declaration of Independence, Congress appropriated another $200,000 and the partial monument, which stood as a public embarrassment for 18 years, was now ready for completion.  Construction resumed in 1879 under Irish-American Lt. Col. Thomas Casey of the Army Corps of Engineers.  He strengthened the foundation to support more than 40,000 tons, followed the original plans and even incorporated the 170-foot tall pile of memorial stones which had been a target of ridicule by the media.  Casey recognized that the donors wanted them to be a part of the memorial, so he installed all 193 stones as part of the interior walls. However, he was unable to find the same quarry stone used earlier, resulting in the bottom third of the monument being a slightly different color than the rest.  On 6 December 1884, a 100 ounce aluminum capstone was put in place during an elaborate dedication ceremony. In the 1880s, aluminum was a rare metal, selling for $1.10 an ounce and used mostly for jewelry. All four faces of the pyramid-shaped capstone are engraved with related information and the words Laus Deo (Praise be to God) are prominently engraved on the east face. At the time, a 55.5 foot base and a height of 555.5 feet made it the tallest building in the world; it is still the tallest free-standing stone structure in the world and was, by law, the tallest building in Washington D.C.

I wrote this story in the Hibernian Digest and in conversation with our NY State Treasurer, Tommy Beirne, he informed me that the Pope’s stone had eventually been found and I should check out that part of the story.  Knowing that Tommy is well informed in Irish and American history, I did just that.  I learned that in June 1892, divers digging foundations for a new pier discovered the corner of a large stone.  It was a sharply cut and beautifully polished piece of variegated marble about six inches thick, a foot and a half high by three feet long.  One side had the damaged inscription: Ro—t—merica, cut deep in Gothic characters.  In the crowd of spectators was an elderly gentleman who struck the stone with his cane. Shouting, Where did that thing come from?  It’s the Devil’s own work and it’s come back from hell where it belongs, at which point the old man ran off.  He was obviously an old Know-Nothing leftover!  The stone was stored in a small shed nearby for safekeeping until it could be donated to the Smithsonian.  However, on the night of 19 June, the crew locked the shed door and left for a supper. When they returned, the stone was gone.  Nobody ever found out what had happened, although in May 1959, the local Evening Star printed an urban legend that the stone was buried under 21st and R Streets, N.W.  Our thanks to Tommy for the ‘rest of the story’.

Memorial stones are now accepted only in very rare circumstances, such as the admission of a new state to the union or replacement of a previously donated stone.  At any rate, a new “Pope’s Stone” was commissioned by a priest in Spokane, Washington and installed in the monument by the National Park Service in 1982. Later that same year, the Vatican did indeed donate another stone to replace the first.  It is made of shiny white marble and is now inside the Monument, at the 340 foot level, on the west wall of the stairway. The inscription is “A ROMA AMERICAE” (Latin for From Rome to America.) Although it’s not the original, it’s a good reminder of the resilience of those it represents.  Then on March 17, 2016 it was announced that the offer of a plaque from Ireland was accepted by the director of the National Park Service. The presentation was made in May 2016 by Senator Mark Daly of the Irish Seanad Éireann, Irish Spokesman for the Irish Diaspora.  After 183 years, the monument is now complete!

Historical Happenings for December 2019

GEORGE WASHINGTON’S CHRISTMAS IRISH

by Mike McCormack, AOH National Historian

There were a few Irishmen living in and around Trenton, NJ prior to the Revolutionary War. Among them were Paddy Colvin and Sam McConkey, who ran two Delaware River ferries; Paddy Lamb, who resided near Quaker Bridge on Assunpink Creek; and John Honeyman, a retired British soldier, now a butcher and cattle-dealer in nearby Griggstown. They were all there during a very special Christmas.

Toward the end of 1776, George Washington’s patriot army retreated from New York through New Jersey, headed for the Delaware River with the British army in hot pursuit. On 1 December, he sent a message to Congress in Philadelphia to quickly line up a fleet of boats at Trenton to get him across the Delaware into Pennsylvania. Wexford-born Captain John Barry contacted his friend Cavan-born Paddy Colvin who set to the task. No bridges spanned the river and yet it had to be crossed quickly or the patriot army could be trapped on its banks. Colvin owned the closest ferry to Trenton and knew all the fords and obstacles of the river and how to avoid them. He also knew who owned other ferries and boats and where they could be found. He placed all this valuable information, as well as his ferry, at the service of Washington’s patriot army. On 3 December, Washington’s advance guard reached Trenton, and Colvin began ferrying them across the Delaware. Early on December 8, Washington crossed with the rear guard. Colvin was at his post continually and with his fellow ferrymen, got the army safely across, just as the British entered Trenton. A disappointed Cornwallis found all boats safely moored on the Pennsylvania side of the river, which was now an impassable barrier between him and the disorganized patriot army he had hoped to capture on the Jersey shore. Cornwallis left a force to hold Trenton and re-located to Princeton. Washington set up headquarters in Pennsylvania about half a mile north of Colvin’s Ferry.
Concerned that the British would build their own boats or bring them over land to attack him, Washington decided to cross the Delaware on Christmas and surprise them first, but he needed to know the disposition of the British in Trenton. He met with Armagh-born John Honeyman, a local butcher and cattle dealer who had retired from the British army, but was now supporting the patriot’s cause. As a butcher, Honeyman had traded with and was familiar to the British and their Hessian allies. From him, Washington learned of the meager force of Hessians left by Cornwallis to guard Trenton. Under the pretense of having escaped from Washington’s camp, he was sent back to the Hessian camp to inform their commander, Col. Johann Rall, that the colonials were in no shape to attack. He told Col. Rall that Washington’s men were demoralized, suffering dreadfully from the cold and hunger and that many were even unshod. Hoping that the Hessians had been lulled into a false sense of security, Washington chose that bitingly cold Christmas night to cross the ice-choked Delaware River and surprise the unprepared Hessian force who would likely have spent the previous night celebrating Christmas. Like most of Washington’s clandestine operators, few formal records exist of Honeyman’s activities, but his actions were recognized and celebrated by friends and family after the revolution.

Washington then arranged with Paddy Colvin to cross at a few ferries since Colvin knew the river better than anyone and was trusted as a friend of Capt. John Barry. Like Honeyman, Paddy Colvin’s name would have been forgotten were it not for Rev. A. Lambing who, in 1885, found a mention of him in an old Trenton paper. He resolved to know more about him, and made him a subject of investigation.1 Fortunately he did, for were it not for Lambing’s research, Colvin may have suffered undeserved anonymity in history just like Honeyman. From Lambing we learned that Patrick Colvin of Co. Cavan, bought a ferry on the Delaware River in 1772 and for 20 years, Morrisville, PA was known as Colvin’s Ferry. Considering the number of times that Washington’s forces were transported across the Delaware, it was most fortunate that the ferry was in the hands of a patriot like Colvin. Colvin’s Ferry – the oldest ferry on the Delaware – was less than 2 miles from Trenton. Other ferries were McConkey’s Ferry 9 miles above Trenton, Howell’s ferry 4 miles above and Dunk’s ferry 10 miles below.
So it was that on Christmas night and the morning of St. Stephen’s Day, 1776, Washington quietly crossed the Delaware into New Jersey in a biting wind and snow storm, successfully surprised the Hessians and captured Trenton. Washington knew the importance of holding Trenton and that Cornwallis would soon be on his way back to recapture it. He decided to stand and fight, but the rest of his army was still on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware. Furthermore, he had about 1,000 prisoners to lock up. W.H. Davis in his History of Morrisville wrote: A long fatiguing march to McConkey’s Ferry would have been a great hardship to men so severely tried. There seems to be no escaping the conclusion that they crossed at Colvin’s Ferry. Thus, Washington re-crossed the river and mustered the rest of his forces to cross and fortify Trenton before Cornwallis could arrive. On 30 December, Washington crossed back into New Jersey at McKonkey’s Ferry, with his troops crossing simultaneously at several Ferries.2 All the necessary boats were waiting, but the river was still choked with large masses of floating ice being carried rapidly by the swift current and extending out from both shores. Navigation was near impossible but Colvin supervised the crossing with great skill.

Meanwhile, Cornwallis, hearing of the fall of Trenton, left two regiments to fortify Princeton and marched back to Trenton. Washington sent out small units, under Co. Offaly-born Col. Edward Hand, to harass the oncoming British. These small bands succeeded in slowing Cornwallis down, inflicting heavy casualties, but the British force still arrived in force by late afternoon on 2 January. Washington was ready. The Second Battle of Trenton began with the armies facing each other, only 200 yards apart at a small bridge on either side of Assunpink Creek. Cornwallis made three attempts to take the bridge, but each one failed and Cornwallis withdrew for the night. Hundreds of British dead and wounded were recovered from the bridge and Cornwallis told his army, Rest now, we’ll bag the fox in the morning.

That night, Washington’s army built up their campfires to burn all night and silently slipped away. A small group was left behind to noisily build fortifications as if they were planning to defend at dawn, but also to cover the sound of the rest of the army slipping away. Washington and his force led by General John Sullivan, son of Co. Kerry immigrants, snuck away in the night. Another local Irishman, Paddy Lamb, guided them along back roads around the British forces to launch a surprise attack on the British force left in Princeton. Cornwallis awoke in the morning to distant cannon fire as the attack on Princeton had begun. He quickly divided his army and sent a force to relieve Princeton but they were too late to prevent another American victory. Meanwhile, darkness put an end to the second battle of Trenton. The British were driven back everywhere. Assunpink creek ran red with British blood as the entire campaign was decided in the patriot’s favor. As Washington went into winter quarters, he was master of New Jersey. The war had finally turned in his favor and new recruits poured in thanks to a courageous group of Irishmen who helped Washington’s army when they needed it most.

McConkey, the owner of other ferry where Washington crossed some troops was also an Irishman by birth. Historian John D McCormack, editor of the Potter’s Journal whose painstaking research into the early history of New Jersey brought many obscure records of the Colonial period to light, was a native of Ballingarry, Co. Tipperary and no stranger to conflict. As a boy, he had been held by a British Police Squad that commandeered his family home during the Young Irelander uprising in 1848. McCormack wrote, Colvin was a Catholic and McConkey was a Presbyterian in religion. Yet I find that these two Irishmen, holding religious beliefs so divergent, laid their theological differences upon the altar of their country, and made common cause to secure our independence. It is a rule that has but few exceptions 3 and also a story that has few more laudable heroes. Washington’s army endured a bitterly painful Christmas so that we might enjoy a peaceful one. Let us remember their saving sacrifice this year as we celebrate the birth of our heavenly savior.

1 Catholic Historical Researches, edited by Rev. A.A. Lambing, July 1885, Page 19
2 Extract of Lawrence H. Hale letter written to Theodore W. Bozarth:
3 History of Bucks Co. PA, Chapter XLII & XLIII, 1804:

Historical Happenings for November 2019

THE IRISH BRIGADE COMES HOME TO NEW YORK

By Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian

Prior to the American Civil War, the regular Army was small reflecting the logic that America was best defended by hundreds of volunteer militia units. Many were little more than glorified fraternal organizations, filled with men who liked to parade, drink, and sometimes drill.  New York had the Continental Guards, German Black Sharp-shooters and Hungarian Kossuth Rifles among others.  Not to be outdone, the Irish formed the O’Connell Guards, Irish Rifles and Irish Zouaves.  The more serious of these units were mustered into a formal state militia.  On October 12, 1851, the 69th New York State Militia Regiment was officially organized.  It consisted of eight companies of 643 men each, most of Irish birth or parentage. Within a year it topped 1,000. The regiment would go on to earn fame and glory during the Civil War as a key part of the Irish Brigade. The heroic sacrifice of the Irish in battle boosted the reputation of the Irish in America and provided a new and more ennobling meaning to the term “fighting Irish.”

When the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter in April 1861, Regimental Colonel Sligo-born Michael Corcoran called for the American Irish to join the 69th.   More than 5,000 applied for only 1,500 billets and 11 days later, Corcoran and his regiment marched down Broadway and steamed away to defend the Union capital in D.C.  The first test for the 69th was the Battle of Bull Run.  In their first battle, the inexperienced Union army cut and ran back to D.C., but one unit that earned praise was the 69th Regiment who stayed to provide cover for the fleeing troops.  They were the last to leave the field suffering 97 casualties and 95 captured, including Colonel Corcoran.  The 69th returned to NY to rebuild their tattered ranks. Acting Commander, Captain Thomas Francis Meagher, began recruiting from the Hibernian House on Prince Street. When thousands of Irish responded, Meagher requested permission to form a Brigade. The Army was against forming ethnic brigades, but since England was trading with the Confederacy, they felt that fielding an Irish unit might just give the British pause and so they agreed and the Irish Brigade was born. It included the 69th, 88th and 63rd NY regiments and, later, the 28th Mass and 116th Pennsylvania.  Some joined for the $300 signing bonus which was sent to family in Ireland, some out of a sense of duty toward their adopted land and some because of British support for the Confederacy. 

The Irish Brigade saw some of the war’s harshest battles and they earned a reputation as the most courageous unit in the Army of the Potomac. After one battle, President Lincoln visiting the troops lifted a corner of the Irish battle flag, kissed it and said, God Bless the Irish Flag.  Meagher had ordered 69-caliber smoothbore muskets for his men.  They were considered obsolete, but very effective at close range which was the style of fighting he wanted because they fired the more deadly buck and ball ammunition and could take down 3 men at a time.  Close up fighting made the Brigade fearsome, but also produced heavy casualties since they had to get up close to be effective.  The Brigade fought in every campaign of the Army of the Potomac, from the peninsular campaign in 1862 to the surrender of Lee at Appomattox in 1865.  At Fair Oaks, Gaines Mill, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and every major battle fought by the Army of the Potomac, the figure of General Meagher was seen leading his men into battle.  Between campaigns new Irish were recruited to replace the fallen.  Among all their battles the three most costly were Antietam, Fredericksburg and Gettysburg.  The Sept, 1862 battle of Antietam was the deadliest day in American history, with 23,000 killed and wounded. The Brigade suffered 540 casualties and Gen McClelland later wrote, The Irish Brigade sustained their well-earned reputation, suffering terribly in officers and men, and strewing the ground with their enemies, as they drove them back.  Three months later, the Brigade assaulted Confederate entrenchments along Marye’s Heights in Fredericksburg achieving international fame with the tenacity of their attack and eliciting cheers from their rebel adversaries, many of whom were Irish themselves.  The next day, only 280 of 1,300 men were able to report for duty. Gen. Robert E. Lee later wrote, Never were men so brave. They ennobled their race by their splendid gallantry.  In July 1863 at Gettysburg they successfully countered a Confederate offensive near Little Round Top losing 202 men killed out of 530. When Lee finally surrendered to Grant at Appomattox in April 1865, the Brigade was there.  One rebel officer told a Union officer, the only reason you won was because you had more Irish than we had!  On May 23 and 24, 1865 they paraded in review in Washington D.C. and in the following months, they returned to their homes to celebrate the new national holiday declared by President Lincoln two years earlier — Thanksgiving.  Returning  to New York, they received a tumultuous welcome from not only the Irish citizens, but from all who had followed their courageous history.

In post-war America, the Irish still faced poverty but discrimination had diminished. Many Americans accorded the Irish a new level of respect since many thousands had made the ultimate sacrifice defending the Union and, as a testament to their bravery, 7 were presented with the Medal of Honor.  Soon it became unfashionable to discriminate against the Irish and the NO IRISH NEED APPLY signs began to disappear from Help Wanted ads.  And that was perhaps the greatest victory for the Irish Brigade.  Of the 7,715 men who served in its ranks, 961 were killed and more than 3,000 were wounded – more than ever served in its ranks at any one time. The 69th NY suffered 75 per cent casualties while the British Light Brigade memorialized by Alfred Lord Tennyson for riding into the ‘Valley of Death’ lost less than 37 per cent.  There is no famous verse for the Irish, but author Joseph Bilby in his book Remember Fontenoy wrote, The Irish Brigade was, many said, the best brigade in the Army of the Potomac. Some said it was the best brigade in the whole Union army and perhaps the best infantry brigade on either side. Today, others with the perspective of history have come to believe it may have been the best infantry brigade that ever was!

Historical Happenings for October 2019

CHARLES STEWART PARNELL

by Mike McCormack, NY State Historian

On October 6, 1891, Ireland lost her uncrowned king.  His name was Charles Stewart Parnell, a Protestant Squire from Avondale in Co. Wicklow, the son of an English father and an American mother. The maternal grandfather for whom he was named was Charles Stewart: Commanding Officer of U.S.S. Constitution (Old Ironsides) during the War of 1812; the U.S. Navy’s first Rear Admiral (an appointment made by President Lincoln in 1862); and a genuine hero. On February 20 1815, with a strategy described by James Fenimore Cooper as, the most brilliant maneuvering in naval annals, Stewart, heavily outmanned and outgunned, soundly defeated and captured two British ships off the coast of Spain. He was awarded the freedom of the city of New York and the thanks of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania who presented him with a gold sword.

Young Squire Parnell was indeed of respectable stock and in 1875 was elected to the House of Commons where, it was expected; he would serve dutifully and create no great sensation.  Parnell however, inherited his grandfather’s strong sense of moral justice and he took up the cause of Home Rule ─ a program calling for an end to the British Parliament in Ireland and the establishment of an Irish Parliament with full control of Ireland’s domestic affairs.  In taking up the cause, Parnell became the champion of the Irish people.

Landlords in Ireland, reacting to the changing European economy, were turning their holdings from farming to cattle grazing and thousands of tenant farmers were being dispossessed.  Parnell supported Michael Davitt’s Land League against the rack-renting landlords, and eventually became its President.  He urged tenant opposition to landlords through boycotts and rent refusal, and in 1879, sailed to America to address the U.S. Congress on the problem.  His sister, Fanny, set up an American Land League to raise and channel relief funds to the Irish League in order to defend the tenant farmers in court, making dispossession at least costly for the landlord.  The significance of this action is evident from British statistics which show that between 1849 and 1882, 482,000 families had been evicted.

In spite of the League’s limited success, a virtual land war continued between landlords and tenants.  The Crown reacted with arrests, but the situation remained tense. In order to avert open rebellion, the Land Act of 1881 was passed. It was a weak law, but it defused the situation until the government could act.  The Land League was declared illegal and its leaders arrested.  In the House of Commons, Parnell was accused of fomenting rebellion, but refused to answer the charge declaring that he drew his support from the people and he would only allow the people to judge him; he saw no need to defend his actions to England.  Referred to as the uncrowned King of Ireland, Parnell was at the height of his popularity, though his health was beginning to fail.  He threw his support to Gladstone in the 1886 British election, and engineered the defeat of the Tories.  He was now at the height of his power as well.  Gladstone fulfilled his promise to Parnell and introduced a Home Rule Bill, but it was defeated by the House of Lords.  Parnell demanded another; in the eyes of many he was becoming too powerful. 

Soon, a series of articles appeared in the British press accusing Parnell of instigating a crime-wave against the landlords and a special commission was appointed to investigate.  In spite of perjury and bribery, Parnell defeated his detractors but he made many enemies in Parliament, even though they dared not act against him.  Their opportunity came when an MP named Capt O’Shea filed for divorce from his wife naming Parnell as co-respondent.  Parnell, in typical fashion, gave no defense to Parliament. Instead of feeding the scandal, he chose to save his career by working harder than he had ever worked in his life despite his failing health.  Gladstone used the incident as an excuse to rid himself of Parnell and agitated against him.  The Catholic Church joined the detractors and publicly condemned him as an adulterer for his affair with Kitty O’Shea.  Parnell began to lose support among the Irish for the first time since he devoted his life to their welfare.

On Sept 27 1891, he attended a public meeting in Galway against the advice of his doctors.  He had promised to speak, and would not disappoint those who had remained loyal to him.  It was his last appearance; on October 6, he died. He was buried at Glasnevin beside Daniel O’Connell after a funeral procession that could only be termed magnificent.  In the eyes of some he had erred and was punished.  The tragedy of Parnell is that, in spite of his dedication and superhuman efforts, England was able to sow division among the Irish.  Parnell shall nevertheless be eternally remembered for the words he defiantly spoke in Parliament which are now engraved on his monument in O’Connell St, Dublin: No man has a right to fix a boundary to the march of a nation. No man has a right to say thus far shalt thou go and no further. We have never attempted to fix the ne plus ultra to the progress of Ireland’s nationhood and we never shall!