THE LITTLE IRISH CHURCH OF ST. MARY OF THE SORROWS

Maj. Gen. McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign, aimed at capturing the rebel capitol at Richmond, was beaten back after the Seven Days Battles 150 years ago in June, 1862.  Union forces, including the partial Irish Brigade, made it back to relative safety, but suffered almost 16,000 casualties during a strategic retreat.  Lee’s army had taken the offensive, but lost close to 20,000.  Convinced that McClellan no longer posed a threat to Richmond, Lee moved his army into northern Virginia and headed for Washington via Maryland.

Many Irish immigrants had signed on to build America’s railroads, so it was no surprise to find names like Cunningham, Hammil, Maher, and Doyle among those who had built the Orange and Alexandria Railroad in northern Virginia which now stood right in the path of Lee’s advancing army.  These and other Irish workers had built a small town around one of the railroad’s stations and the community became known as Fairfax Station.  One of the first projects of the Fairfax Station Irish was the erection of a Catholic church.  They labored in their off-hours to put up a small frame building in Sept, 1858 and pooled their money to buy a bell.  The new St. Mary of the Sorrows Church at Fairfax Station had barely opened its doors when the Civil War began.  Many of the Fairfax Station Irish joined the totally Irish Regiments that had been formed in the Confederate Army such as the First Virginia Regiment which became The Emmet Guard and the 27th Virginia Infantry which was called The Virginia Hibernians.

The little town of Fairfax Station was strategically located between the important railroad station and a main road to Washington, DC.  The Union Army had taken the railroad depot at Alexandria in order to protect the Capitol and southern forces occupied the station at Manassas Junction on the other side of Fairfax Station making the area the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting of the war.  In July, 1862, General Lee sent his best commanders, Generals Stonewall Jackson, J. E. B. Stuart and James Longstreet up through Virginia to intercept the Union Army of General Pope who was en route to join forces with the army of General McClellan that was then moving back toward Washington after the Seven Days Battles.  Lee and his forces met the Union Army on August 30 and fought what came to be known as the Second Battle of Manassas or, as the Union referred to it – Second Bull Run.  Three days of fierce fighting left 1,744 Union dead and another 8,452 wounded.  Unlike the calamitous retreat at the First Bull Run a year earlier, the Union withdrawal was orderly and the Confederates, weary from battle and low on ammunition, broke off and did not pursue them.  Although Lee had won the battle, he had not achieved his objective of destroying the Union army and the Union forces had successfully stopped an invasion of the north.

During the battle, two gallant Union officers were lost, Major Generals Kearney and Stephens.  Major General Philip Kearney had been a hero of the Mexican War where he fought at the side of General Robert E. Lee.  When Lee heard that his former comrade had fallen, he ordered both bodies returned to the Union camp.  Under a flag of truce, amid the roar of artillery and the thunder of an approaching storm, the bodies of Kearney and Stephens were carried by Confederate Honor Guard to a tent at a makeshift field hospital which had been set up beside the little Irish church of St. Mary of the Sorrows.

Hundreds of wounded were treated on the high ground around St. Mary’s.  A terrible storm made the scene one of confusion as wounded men lay dying in the mud waiting for a doctor to reach them.  It was to this scene that a woman from Washington, DC came to offer her help.  She had spent the first year of the war tending wounded in Washington, and hearing of the heavy fighting, made her way to Fairfax Station.  With two assistants, she set up an operating room inside the little Church and assisted the surgeons in their tedious tasks.  She moved tirelessly among the wounded, cleansing wounds, writing letters, and praying with them until a doctor was available.  While serving the many wounded in these deplorable conditions, she conceived a plan for a civilian organization that could act quickly with proper medical supplies and trained staff in any emergency – in peacetime or in war.

A final Confederate raid forced the evacuation of the wounded amid terribly unsanitary conditions, and the brave little lady from Washington was among the last to leave.  The advancing Confederate troops found the station and most of the town destroyed by fire, but as if by a miracle, the little Church was barely touched.  Only a few of its pews had been used by the Union Army for firewood.  Years later, when President Grant heard of this, he ordered $765. in war damages to have them replaced, for the Church of St. Mary’s had earned a special significance in American history.  It was there that the heroic little lady from Washington, DC had conceived the idea for a noble organization.  The lady was the angel of the battlefield, Clara Barton, and the organization was the American Red Cross. . . and the little Irish Church of St. Mary’s where it all started is still in use to this day, but as a national shrine.

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Lament for Art O’Leary

More than three hundred years ago, in 1691, the Treaty of Limerick was offered by the English to end hostilities between the Irish followers of King James and King William of Orange. By the terms of that treaty, all who took arms against William were to join the English Army or quit Ireland. If they agreed, religious freedom would be guaranteed to those who remained. On October 5, the Irish under Patrick Sarsfield, accepted the terms, laid down their arms and marched out of the besieged City of Limerick. Only 1,046 of the 14,000 Irish forces turned to William’s banner. The rest sailed away to form the Irish regiments in the armies of Europe. Ireland never saw them again, and their grieving families called them `na Gaena Fiadhainne’ – the Wild Geese.

History tells how well the English kept their word, for in 1697 they reversed the terms of the treaty and enacted The Penal Laws – which have been denounced as the most repressive laws ever enacted against a nation. It marked the beginning of a national persecution never before approached in its severity. Professor Leckey, a prominent British historian, stated in his History of Ireland in the 18th Century, It was not the persecution of a sect, but the degradation of a nation. And indeed, when we remember that the greater part of it was in force for nearly a century, that its victims formed at least three-quarters of the nation, that its degrading and dividing influence extended to every field of social, political, professional, intellectual, and even domestic life, and that it was enacted without the provocation of any rebellion, in defiance of a treaty which distinctly guaranteed the Irish Catholics from any further oppression on account of their religion, it may be justly regarded as one of the blackest pages in the history of persecution. The persecution began with the seizure of 750,000 acres of land and forbade the Irish their religion, an education, a profession, a vote, property, and countless other rights. One of the laws even forbid an Irishman to own a horse valued at more than 5 Pounds, and that was the cause of one brave man’s death.

Art O’Leary was the son of one of those Wild Geese and like his father, he entered the service of Austria. A brave and courageous soldier, he was soon elevated to the rank of Captain of Hussars in the Cavalry of Empress Maria Theresa’s Austrian Army. In 1773, he traveled to his ancestral homeland with his wife, Eileen O’Connell of the Derrynane O’Connells and aunt of the Great Liberator, Daniel O’Connell. Since a good Cavalry Officer and his animal were inseparable, the Captain brought his mount – a beautiful brown mare with a white star on its forehead – with him from Vienna. In Ireland, the captain attended a local horse race; he entered and took the top prize much to the surprise of the local English gentry.

The local landlord approached him after the race and offered him 5 Pounds for his horse. The Captain laughed at the insulting offer, but the landlord, who was also the local magistrate, demanded the horse or the Irishman would be arrested for owning an animal worth more than the 5 Pounds that the law allowed. That a free-born Continental Officer should part with a fine cavalry steed at the behest of an alien landlord was more than O’Leary could tolerate; he again refused and departed. He was declared an outlaw and troops were summoned to apprehend him. On May 4, 1773, they caught up with the 26-year old O’Leary near the town of Carriganimy, near Macroom in Co. Cork, and shot him dead. His startled horse ran back to the courtyard at Rath Laoi where his family was staying. His wife ran to it, leapt into the blood-stained saddle and the horse took her back to Art’s lifeless body. Distraught, she reached into her very soul and, in an ancient Gaelic tradition, delivered a tearful caoine (lamentation) for her dead husband.

Art O’Leary was interred in the old Kilcrea Abbey in County Cork, built by Cormac MacCarthy, the builder of Blarney Castle. His wife, Eileen, expanded on her grief and left more than 400 lines of a traditional Caoine (keen) or lamentation in the Irish language. As a literary work, the Lament for Art O’Leary is one of the last of its kind and has taken its place as one of the great pieces of Gaelic Literature, translated centuries later by Frank O’Connor. Today, it serves to keep alive the memory of a proud Irishman, the terrible times in which he lived, and a love remembrance that began with:

Long loss, bitter grief
that I was not by your side
when the bullet was fired
so my right side could take it
my fine-handed horseman!

A Great Day For The Irish

Welcome to the month of Saint Patrick, a time of joyous celebration among the Irish around the world. And why do we celebrate? Because we’re Irish. It’s been said that the Irish passion for their heritage gets stronger, the further they are from the Emerald Isle, and that may partially explain the popularity of this day, for whether or not they were poor in material possessions, the Irish always managed to carry with them, their unique culture, traditions, and religion. And Saint Patrick is part of all three. As a result of the diaspora of the Irish throughout the world, no one in the entire litany of saints is better known, more loved, or greater celebrated than our patron.

It should be no surprise then that the tradition of parading in St Patrick’s honor started thousands of miles from the Emerald Isle, among Irish soldiers serving in the British army right here in America. St Patrick’s Day had previously been celebrated with a dinner, like the one recorded in 1737 hosted by the Charitable Irish Societies of Boston, or in 1762 hosted by John Marshall near St Peter’s Church in New York City. However, when local Irish regiments were invited to attend, they marched in military manner to the banquet. The first march we’ve found reference to was held in 1766, with fifes and drums and all, and a
tradition was born. Years later, when many Irish marched away under Washington’s banner to help establish this new nation, civilians still paraded in the cities on March 17. General Washington even observed the feast in the field by making the password on March 17: St Patrick. As a result, it can be said that honoring the memory of our patron saint became
one of America’s first traditions.

In the years that followed, this Irish American tradition was ex-ported around the world with the result that today, there are at least 250 annual parades in honor of our patron saint across 44 states, in addition to countless parades in Ire-land, Canada, Australia, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, Buenos Ai-res, and every country to which the children of Erin have
been scattered. But it all started in New York when the informal parades became formal right after the American Revolution. In 1784, the Friendly Sons of St Patrick were formed, and soon took over organizing the parade in lower Manhattan. In 1790, a Brooklyn parade was organized, and another – organized by a convention of Irish Societies – soon followed.

By 1843, and for some years thereafter, there were two major parades in Manhattan as well as the one in Brooklyn with the parade organized by the Convention of Irish Societies gradually emerging as the main one. In 1853, the Ancient Order of Hibernians first marched, and thus began an association that led to their assuming responsibility for that event. Today the
Parade Committee is a separate corporation though the committee are AOH members who still plan, organize, and manage the largest ethnic demonstration in the world.

In the early days, the route of the parade required a great deal of stamina to complete. As the city grew, the parades got longer. The 1899 parade started at Washington Square and marched to Brommans Union Park for the traditional banquet. Brommans was located at 133 St and Willis Ave in the Bronx – a distance of about six miles from the starting point. It was
the only time the parade entered that borough, although the Bronx was not the only borough to have been visited by the Manhattan parade, for the Brooklyn Hibernians took the parade over the Brooklyn Bridge to march in their streets several times. In 1909, another borough entered the picture as the Queens AOH – 1,000 strong – were given the honor of becoming the
first to cross the recently completed, but as yet unopened, Queens borough Bridge. That honor was accorded in recognition of the Irish laborers who constructed the span. After parading through Queens, they proudly marched over the new bridge to join the New York parade, led by a unit of Silver Greys – AOH members over 70 years in age – in horse-drawn carriages. The record for the longest parade however, was established in 1904 when the annual march started at 26th street and Fifth Ave, marched to 126 St, turned west to Seventh Ave, then north again to 155th St, and proceeded west again to the Manhattan Casino at 155th St and Eighth Ave – a distance of 8 miles.

Today, there are parades in many local communities on dates surrounding March 17. As in the beginning, there is still a common link between them all. On the one hand, that link is the common reverence for St Patrick which all true Irishmen cherish.

On the opposite extreme they are all subject to the terrible Paddy-bashing of the media prompted by misbehaving Amadans* in green plastic derbies, drinking green beer! Each year on March 17th, there are those who drag our heritage through the streets, and those who parade it. St. Patrick’s Day is not an excuse for a party, but a reason for pride – pride in an Irish Christian heritage that is second to none. Those who debase themselves on that day are either not Irish or are Irish in name only, and their condition at the end of the day is a direct reflection of their appreciation for, or ignorance of, their own heritage. Further, those who respect that heritage don’t call their patron saint by a nickname; the difference between Paddy’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day is the difference between the office Christmas party and Midnight Mass – the only thing they have in common is the date. *Amadan – Village Idiot