This one is just for the locals here on the wrong side of the puddle in California. It’s rare that San Francisco gets good rebel music these days – in fact, it’s about to become even more rare. Sean Daly and the Shams are one of the only semi-local Irish rebel bands here and this Saturday night will be their last performance in the bay. They’re going out with a bang and playing with Derek Warfield and the Young Wolfe Tones for one night in San Francisco.
41 years ago on Halloween a mysterious American man named “Mr. Leonard” pulled off a serious trick. He hired a helicopter for an ‘Aerial Photo shoot’ in Ireland. It was thought to be a scouting mission for a movie or a book of photography – at least that is what Mr. Leonard told Captain Thompson Boyes, the pilot. Captain Boyes was instructed to fly to a field in Stradbelly in order to grab the photography equipment but when he landed, he was met with armed gunmen instead. “Mr. Leonard” vanished from the scene while Captain Boyes got to know his new masked passengers, much to his own distress. He was informed that he would not be hurt as long as he followed instructions and he wasn’t but he wasn’t given a choice about being involved in a daring prison break either. If he wanted to live, he was going to aid in the escape of Irish Republican prisoners Seamus Twomey, JB O’Hagan, and Kevin Mallon from Mountjoy Prison.
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.
Michael Gaughan, an IRA man died 40 years ago today while on hunger strike in Parkhurst Prison. When people think of hunger strikers, the name that almost always comes to mind is Bobby Sands, but there have been countless male and female prisoners who have used that form of protest throughout the years. When Michael asked for political status and was denied, he like many others before and after him, went on a hunger strike.
The demands were political status, the chance to wear his own clothes, a guarantee of education and release from solitary confinement and a transfer to an Irish prison. He joined a strike already in effect in support of Delours and Marian Price who wanted the same. As usual, these demands were ignored by the British Government.
At that time, it was Britain’s policy to force feed inmates. This was often done by forcing a block between the teeth to hold the mouth open while a tube was passed through a hole in the block into the throat. This brutal method often resorted in broken or loose teeth and lacerations in the throat, both of which Michael’s brother John attested to. Michael was force fed 17 times during the course of his strike, but his weight still dropped and his health declined.
There is a controversy surrounding his death. The last time he was force fed was June 2nd, 1974 and he was dead at age 24 by the next day. Prison officials stated that he died of pneumonia due to his declining health, but the Gaughan family stated that he died after prison doctors injured him fatally when food lodged in a lung punctured by a force-feeding tube.
Following his death the policy of force feeding prisoners came to an end and the government said they would meet the demands that he had been fighting for, since only a week before they had met the demands of Loyalist prisoners who were on a hunger strike. In an all too familiar move, the British reneged on their promises to the Irish prisoners, though not the Loyalist ones, soon after making them.
Michael Gaughan is remembered in song and history. “Take me Home to Mayo,” is also known as “The Ballad of Michael Gaughan,” and has been recorded by many Irish musicians, including the Wolfe Tones and Christy Moore.
“I die proudly for my country and in the hope that my death will be sufficient to obtain the demands of my comrades. Let there be no bitterness on my behalf, but a determination to achieve the new Ireland for which I gladly die. My loyalty and confidence is to the IRA and let those of you who are left carry on the work and finish the fight.” – Michael Gaughan
Rest in Peace Sir.
B October 5th, 1949 D June 3rd, 1974