You can’t really be an Irish historian without studying at least a little bit about Bloody Sunday. Many have devoted their whole lives to what happened on that day, forty-five years ago. Many books have been written, movies and documentaries have been filmed and the controversy surrounding the massacre that occurred in Derry is still going strong. The families that were torn apart that fateful Sunday still relive it every day and they all have questions that still need answers. Until the day they finally get justice, I think it is their voices that need to be heard, not mine.
On the night of January 4th (or the wee hours of the 5th) in 1969 a potent Irish landmark was born in The Town I Love So Well. The place that has since been known as Free Derry Corner stands uniquely in between three different busy roadways in the Bogside area of Derry city. At the time of its christening Free Derry Corner was a row of occupied houses but they are long gone these days. All that remains now is the gable wall with its stark black and white message that is still as true as ever. It is a monument to the neighborhood, the residents who have lived and died there, and the struggles and complicated past of Derry.
It’s not that I haven’t been writing. It’s that I haven’t been able to write about anything until this came out. It’s not about Ireland. It’s about humanity and ‘Merica. It had to happen before I returned to my regularly scheduled program.
My heart has been pretty heavy since the news hit about yet another massacre in the States. I have been quiet and reflective; not sure I was going to say much of anything publicly. After all, I did not know any of the victims and we all already know that it’s a horrible tragedy. However, […]
I arrived in Derry during a downpour, even though the sun was still peeking through the gathering storm clouds. By the end of the trip, I felt like the weather was a perfect metaphor for the city itself. Derry is rare. It is dark, but light pierces through it. It is grey but full of color. It is gathering and ready, but still and waiting. It is tragic and beautiful. Derry is a very special place.
It’s rare that I get to post anything that is located close to me in this blog. Being so far away from what I usually write about means that while I’ve visited most of the places I feature, they are quite far away by the time I get to write about them. This one is close to home in many ways, and I am saddened to write about it at all. You see, I live very close to Berkeley, California, and I worked there for years so the recent tragedy there is very close to my heart.
This last weekend in Merrion Square, hundreds of Dubliners saw an outdoor viewing of one of my favorite movies in the world – Dead Poet’s Society. The proceeds went to various suicide prevention and mental health programs in Ireland which is incredibly encouraging. Here in the U.S., our entire health care system is broken and the worst victims of this are those who suffer from mental health afflictions. Whenever something that is this tragic and heartbreaking happens, we always hope that it will change the dialogue and the system, but it rarely does anything to truly help, except at a grass roots level. Our politicians can’t admit that the reality of how poorly we treat our citizens is appalling because then they would actually have to come up with a way to change it – and that involves a complete revamp of mental and physical healthcare. Continue reading
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.