Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
Like any American whose family on both the paternal and maternal sides has been in this country since well before the American Revolution, I am kind of a genetic mutt. However, it seems that most of my DNA is Irish, the rest being from Scotland, England, Wales, and the Iberian Peninsula, so basically, I’m Celtic. Most of my Irish seems to come from my mom’s side of the family with Travis’s who came from the Old Country and eventually settled in Illinois. My favorite uncle when I was a kid was my uncle Ted. He was as Irish as they come, and according to my mom uncle Ted help begin my great love of beer when I was just a babe.
I have come rather belatedly to the conclusion that I am a son of Erin. In addition to my love of a good beer, when I look at my temperament I see the Irish come through in my readiness to fight, my love of laughter, and my occasional melancholy. I love Irish songs like The Minstrel Boy and Garryowen as well as songs that were made famous by Irish soldiers like “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.“
On my dad’s side I descend from Scottish nobility, not that it matters in this country. But when I was younger I found it a source of pride, especially the military tradition that came with it, and for that matter I still am, but I have become more cognizant of my Irish heritage. This is a heritage that I plan on doing research on in the near future.
As much as the Irish are a part of the rich tapestry that make up America, and the celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day has become a fest that most Americans revel in, the Irish were not welcomed with open arms. They were poor, Roman Catholic immigrants, fleeing persecution and famine in the Old Country. The tradition Irish song, The Wearing of the Green includes this verse:
I’ve heard a whisper of a country
That lies beyond the sea,
Where rich and poor stand equal
In the light of freedom’s day.
When they arrived in the United States the found themselves at the bottom of the white man’s world, despised and often violently persecuted by Americans of the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic “Know Nothing” movement. They were accused of being agents of the Pope, and wanting to overthrow Protestant America. As such they had to work hard, and they also stayed together in predominant Irish neighborhoods, and in time they became a political constituency that even non-Irish politicians could not ignore. In a time when other groups of immigrants are discriminated against and demonized, often for their religious beliefs I think that we cannot forget the Irish immigrants, and those who are of Irish descent, those whose ancestors were persecuted in the Old Country as well in this country need to think twice before doing the same to people who are fleeing political and religious persecution as well as war and famine. My Irish heritage has made me feel a closer bond with immigrants than almost anything.
As a historian I want to do that because I wonder if any of my Irish-American ancestors fought with any of the Civil War Irish regiments. I have always been particularly fond of the Irish Brigade of the Army of the Potomac and many times I fly the flag of the 69th New York Volunteer Infantry, also known as the 1st Regiment of the Irish Brigade alongside my 34 Star Circle Union Flag outside my house, especially this time of year. The motto of the regiment, Faugh A Ballagh (pronounced “Fah-g Ahn BAY-Lick”) means “Clear the way!”
Approximately 150,000 Irish immigrants fought in the Union Army during the Civil War, many hoping that their display of loyalty would put a stop to anti-Irish discrimination, but despite their gallantry and sacrifice on the battlefield it did not. With casualties mounting and the institution of the draft which hit poor people and immigrants the hardest, many Irish staged draft riots in 1863. Eventually the Irish would be accepted, but what happened to them has happened to almost every other group ethnic and religious immigrants who have come to America to be free.
Whenever I go to Gettysburg I stop at the Irish Brigade memorial near the edge of the bloody Wheat Field and speak of its service during the war and the absolution granted to it by its chaplain, Father Corby before it went into battle that hot summer afternoon of July 2nd 1863. Likewise I tell the story of the young Colonel Paddy O’Rorke, the first Irish Catholic to graduate from West Point who died leading his regiment at Little Round Top, not far from where his kinsmen were fighting at the Wheat Field.
So I wish you a Happy Saint Patrick’s Day even as I reflect more on my Irish heritage and raise a pint or two; after all a bird never flew on one wing. Sláinte.