In the civil rights arena, America gets a lot of the press and always has. Many of the worst atrocities and biggest conflicts in the movement happened in the United States, and they continue to happen to this day. Hollywood has made plenty of movies chronicling the American fight for civil rights, including one about the fateful march from Selma in 1965 that raised awareness and inspired equality all over the world, especially in the north of Ireland where another civil rights movement was being born.
Once upon a time, the American government worked. Bipartisan agreements made sure laws and budgets were passed, the court system wasn’t overloaded and exhausted and Presidents were kept in check by legislators, rather than the other way round. I know it sounds like a faerie tale in today’s day and age but it is true. People in government once did their jobs. America even had a law on the books that refused support or arms to any country that was designated as a human rights abuser and it could actually take a stand against others in that arena without being a complete laughingstock. To be sure, these embargoes always depended on which lobby had the most influence on the American government at the time, but occasionally the U.S. actually lived up to its own hype. On this day in 1979, the U.S. even stood against one of its biggest allies when it refused to send arms to the Royal Ulster Constabulary (the RUC) in the North of Ireland on the grounds that the British government was violating the human rights of the citizens who lived there. To say that the powers that be on both sides of the puddle were upset by this stance would be an understatement, but there was no easy way to get around it thanks to Ad Hoc Congressional Committee for Irish Affairs.
Many of Ireland’s great Fenians scattered to the wind to avoid prison when their various uprisings failed. More than few of them ended up on America’s shores and promptly set about creating organizations that furthered the Irish cause within the United States. One of those powerful men was John O’Mahony, the founding member of the Fenian Brotherhood in America.
Kathleen O’Brennan is one of three revolutionary sisters whose lives were totally changed by the Easter Rising of 1916. Her sister Lily was heavily involved in the Rising and the cause of Irish freedom and her other sister Aine, became an Easter Rising widow when her husband was executed for his role in the revolt. Kathleen wasn’t in Ireland at the time of the Rising – but this didn’t stop her. She fought for Ireland from the United States earning a difficult reputation and a spot in the history books of her own.
Last year on International Women’s Day I was in Derry, exploring the murals that were off the beaten path. I found many honoring the women of the area – including one that was painted in honor of International Women’s day itself. I find that looking through my pictures of them now is just as inspiring as it was then, and I think sharing my favorites on both sides of the puddle is especially powerful on today of all days.
While we’re on the subject of racism, sectarianism, and discrimination, here’s another tale of Anti-Irish (and Anti-Catholic) riots…not in Belfast but from right here in the United States. Back in 1844, the Protestant extremists were called Nativists, despite the fact that they were descended from immigrants and were not natives in any way. Ignoring that truth entirely, they felt that they were the established rulers of the area and were not pleased with the influx of Irish coming into the States. They began a large scale propaganda war promoting discrimination against the Irish and set out to spread their sectarian platform against Catholicism. By the time the Nativists in Philadelphia were done venting their anger, there had been riots for months, a lot of Catholic churches and businesses had been torched, over 200 people had fled their homes, and fifteen people were dead. Over fifty more people were injured by the end of the fight.
Today I give you a story of the Irish in America during the Civil War. Throughout American history the Irish have always had a connection to discrimination – first being discriminated against (No Catholics, No Irish) and then gaining a generalized reputation for discriminating against others. Part of this stems from their own persecution that developed into a deep distrust of anyone outside of their own communities. Some of it is just the age old misconceptions of the Irish in general – that they’re all devoted to shenanigans, violence and little else.
If you buy into those generalizations, you may assume that the Irish Brigade fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. Thankfully, you’d be totally wrong. They were a highly effective tool for the North, though many were conflicted and unsure of their allegiance. The Union promised them more freedoms and rights, even if they had to fight for them – but many also worried that emancipation would involve more people who would challenge them in their struggles to find even the lowliest of jobs. But in the end, the Fighting Irish committed to the North and when they did, the North gained a company of men that were brilliant fighters who seemingly would never give up.
The Irish Brigade was nearly decimated more than once but they continued to fight even when they lost more than half their numbers. In the battle of Fredericksburg, their numbers fell from 1600 to a measly 256. It was during that battle that General Robert E. Lee allegedly referred to the Irish company as the “Fighting 69th”. They bled through some of the biggest battles of the Civil War and were disillusioned, tired, and only about 500 strong on July 2nd, in 1863, when they fought in the battle of Gettysburg.
As they prayed near Cemetery Hill before they went into battle, the soldiers knew that they were grossly outnumbered and likely to die. They made their stand in a place that would henceforth be known as the Wheatfield, where they were part of an attack designed to stall the Confederate forces that were advancing. The Brigade initially forced them back, fighting dirty with all they had – hands, knives, bayonets, clubs, and muskets. It was such a fierce melee that one of their opponents was quoted as saying that it was “the hottest and sternest struggle of the war.” Ultimately, after losing over one third of their already skeletal numbers they were pushed back, but their ferocity had slowed the South enough that the Union line held until reinforcements arrived.
In the end, during the entire Civil War, only 2 other Union brigades lost more people than the Irish. There is a beautiful statue of a Celtic cross with a mourning Irish Wolfhound that’s been raised on the battlefield in Gettysburg to commemorate their sacrifice. Gettysburg is hallowed ground to many but near the cross you can almost hear the battle cry of the Brigade – Fág an Bealach, which means Clear the Way. And the nickname that General Lee had given the unit, has stuck around for more than a century, living on even now. The Wolfe Tones wrote a song about them that the Dropkick Murphys have resurrected and covered. Also, since 1907, the Fighting 69th has been a unit in the National Guard Of New York. They have fought in both World Wars and served with distinction in almost every conflict to this day.
Gentlemen, thank you for your service.