St. Patrick’s Day! Fun! Beer! Green hats! Parades! More beer! Every year just about everyone in America announces that they, too, have green Irish heritage. They do this on the 17th of March, St. Patrick’s Day, in order to claim credentials granting themselves permission to partake in the festivities, usually in a chilly March drizzle. That the festivities and frivolity are for celebrating a Catholic saint’s life and death in Ireland 1,600 years ago somehow gets lost in the mix of green fun, patriotic parades, frothy beer and general foolishness. The concept of so many Americans, even if rather incredulously, now claiming Irish heritage is one of the most astounding ironies of American history. For there was a time in America not so long ago when voluntarily claiming Irish identity was an act of social and economic suicide, an act that automatically rendered one to the very bottom of society, the object of officially sanctioned and widely practiced ridicule, bigotry and discrimination, even public hatred and murder. To be branded with Catholic Irish identity was to be universally ostracized, in America. As improbable as it sounds today, right beside Black Americans and Native Americans, Irish-Americans were the original victims of hate crimes, even before someone invented the concept of “hate crimes”.
Black, brown, and .. white. Why was this? Well, most of it has origins in history long before the Irish arrived in America in large numbers. For that part of the story, a story that had always been told by non-Irish, the separately posted article, “Terrorist Or Freedom-fighter? Irish”, has a summary. It describes the centuries-long reign of terror inflicted on the native Irish in their homeland as certain key events were taking place in America – like the Revolution, the Constitution, the Civil War – before Ellis Island opened. It’s worth looking over, because it explains what came next, in America. If you don’t know that earlier part of the Irish story – and almost no Americans do – then you don’t really understand why the US Constitution guarantees many of the fundamental citizen rights – like religion, arms, property, vote – that it does. It also helps explain a lot about slavery in America. Actually, you can’t fully understand the Irish experience in America unless you also know about the centuries of ruthless British occupation of Ireland and the barbaric treatment of its “sub-human” natives. And you can’t really understand the slavery imposed in America unless you understand the serfdom imposed in Ireland. Both racism and rights in America have very deep British roots indeed.
The article “Irish-American” is sort of my own personal postscript, with a bunch of additional unknown 20th century stuff that completes the story for America’s Greatest Generation.
What is more difficult to research is recent Irish history, especially the America part of the story, so distorted as it has become under various forms of interest-group-driven politically correct censorship. This nonsense is driven by the lucrative politics of cheap “victimhood”, and thrives on the fact that victims cannot be held accountable. Since Irish-Americans have never been regarded as a “victim” group, today almost no one, including even those of actual Irish heritage, knows the true story of the Irish-Americans. This is even more incredible considering the really huge number of Americans who now claim Irish ancestry. Most of what is known and bandied about concerning Catholic Irish-Americans these days is, as usual, just so much fable. (Of course, the nonsense is also a testament to the way we now emotionally “educate” our young, a self-esteem “feel-good” process driven primarily by self-serving interest group propaganda, rather than by objective fact within a context equitably considering the whole. It’s no longer about “us”; it’s all about “me”.) The truth about Irish-Americans is a world of difference from what the vast majority of Americans today, including all those millions of immigrants who came to America in the 20th century, imagine.
If you don’t know and tell your own story, then you can’t control the narrative.
Even the annual St Patrick’s Day celebrations are filled with all sorts of utter nonsense that has very little to do with the actual history involved. Most of this nonsense has been an effort to cover up or gloss over the ugly truths, to hide past bigotry, and to help others believe that only their group has ever experienced difficult times in America. Up until quite recently, anyone who wanted to come here simply dived feet first into the boiling American caldron; from that moment forward, it was sink or swim on your own merit, on your own effort. In the past, if you could swim in the caldron, you would eventually succeed, and the nation would benefit. If not, you would sink where you arrived, and the nation would still benefit. Simple. The thinking was that artificially propping up losers and whiners simply diluted the can-do “American spirit”. Of course, most of those saying such things were those who had already made it.
A small steady stream of Irish had been immigrating to America since the 1500s, and had gradually become a noticeable portion of the American population, but their “great flood” came in the mid-1800s, beginning shortly before the country exploded in civil war. That great 19th century wave of “Famine-Irish” peasants were a whole separate population, purposefully set apart and shunned in America even by earlier Irish-Americans, by the so-called Scotch-Irish and even by other American Catholics. Like those before them, the Famine-Irish dove in, but they started even below the very bottom and gradually clawed their way up against really enormous concerted opposition, and somehow succeeded. Crammed like cockroaches into disease-ridden city slums, conscripted into military service right off the ships, these millions of illiterate and impoverished people were literally everyone’s favorite, and entirely expendable, punching bag. It is these people, the Famine-Irish, to whom the vast majority of true Irish-Americans today owe their proud heritage.
Many of the more unseemly traits, mild ethnic slurs, and other popular prejudices and negative stereotypes we associate with the Irish today, usually in a joking manner, such as fighting, drunkenness, explosiveness, fornicating, etc., were the deliberate focus of a whole century of concerted Irish-American effort to overcome, to erase — in order to just rise above all the prejudices, to put it all behind them, to get gainfully employed and gradually to move up the socioeconomic ladder, to “assimilate”, and become “American”. To see these things return as the object of laughter and jokes, just as the bigoted Brits and their minions had promulgated and popularized them throughout America earlier, is actually a slap in the face of Irish-American ancestors. But it’s ok, because they were white and European, right? Such people don’t have a “right” to claim “victimhood”. “If the Catholic Famine-Irish were victims, and yet they succeeded so quickly, both men and women, in just two or three generations, against such odds, then what does that say about MY “victim” excuse?” Thus the Irish simply could not be victims, so it was wise that they never even tried to claim victimhood. The Irish in America, of course, didn’t actually succeed; they were just Irish “lucky”.
Try these little factoids:
- Millions of white Irish came to America on the same slave ships that brought black Africans to America.
- Then they died in greater numbers than any other group to end slavery in America.
Until commercial aviation became widely available to the internationally traveling public in the late-1940s, after the end of World War II, all immigrants from other continents traveled to America on ships. While steam began to propel passenger ships in the mid-19th century, sail-driven ships continued to be used until the end of the 1800s because they existed in large numbers and were considerably cheaper to operate. For traveling passengers there was a huge difference in fares between steam and sail. Thus, during the second half of the 19th century, steam ships made of steel were primarily used by the wealthy, while sailing ships made of wood were used by the destitute. Steam ships traveling either direction between America and England could make the trip past Newfoundland in less than three weeks. But sail ships traveling westward across the North Atlantic had to tack against the prevailing winds and rough seas on voyages that could take up to three months from England to America. (Sailing ships could use those same winds to return to the British Isles in just three or four weeks.) Violent storms for much of the year in the North Atlantic, peaking in winter, could be especially brutal to the relatively small wooden ships, and simply terrifying to passengers who had never sailed before. (Those strong west-to-east headwinds are still a problem for North Atlantic travelers today, requiring aircraft to burn far more fuel than they otherwise would. A wide range of American aviation interests maintain a huge international airport near the small remote city of Bangor, Maine, primarily for this and related bad weather emergency situations.)
To get to America with a sailing ship, it was usually more efficient to first sail south from England all the way past Portugal and the Canary Islands to northwest Africa, catch the winds across the South Atlantic to the Caribbean and New Orleans, and then follow the Gulf Stream north along the American coastline to Charleston, New York or Boston, with an average voyage time of 9 to 12 weeks. (If the destination was Australia, the trip could last over five months.) The ships could also transport freight along this major trade route. It’s even possible to consider those easterly “trade” winds as a permanent conveyor belt. Just consider that the Bahama islands in the Caribbean were built by sea organisms feeding on sands rich in iron which were reliably carried from the Sahara across the Atlantic for millions of years. The same reliability applies to the westerly Gulf Stream.
Irish immigrants had traveled to America (and Canada) on sailing ships in steady but small numbers since colonies began being established in the early 1500s, and 250 years later some of their descendants were elected to the First Continental Congress in 1774, participated in writing the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and fought in the American Revolutionary War against the British monarchy. However, during the mid-1800s, destitute Irish immigrants came to America in really large numbers, the greatest such ethnic migration to America until that of modern day Latin American Hispanics. Today, most people share an interest in this great 1840-1870 flood of Irish immigrants – one that peaked just before the very deadly American Civil War (1861-64) but continued for a half century thereafter. Beginning as a quite noticeable stream during the 1830s, the huge Irish diaspora dropped below its peak level around 1870 and began to revert back to a noteworthy stream during the 1890s – when poor immigrants from eastern and southern Europe and elsewhere, usually on steam ships, began to pour into America in a more orderly and governed fashion after Ellis Island opened in New York Harbor.
Prior to the opening of Ellis Island near the end of the 1800s (in 1892), Irish immigrants — sickly, uneducated and impoverished after four centuries of oppressive British crown rule, which included assorted efforts at systematic ethnic cleansing, property confiscation, slavery, usury, disenfranchisement, mass murder, population seeding, excessive taxation and wars — came to America mostly on super low-fare slave ships they called “coffin ships” because so many passengers died en route. The ships were usually European three-masted sailing cargo vessels converted for the purpose of transporting slaves. A few armed thugs were usually hired to keep the passengers from mutiny. Conditions were far worse even than the modern equivalent – maggots who traffic in human labor from Asia to America, and without the incentive of pay for live bodies at the end. Embarking from Liverpool with small crews, the voyage usually took an average of ten weeks of sheer misery.
Such three-masted merchant sailing ships had been plying the seas for centuries, and many ferried passengers. One such ship, the Mayflower, had bought the first permanent settlers from Plymouth to Cape Cod in 1620. That voyage, tacking against the prevailing winds, had taken almost 10 weeks (68 days; 96 days if you count an initial aborted attempt). A decent depiction of the hardships of such travel is contained in the 1952 Spencer Tracy film, “Plymouth Adventure“, even though those passengers had much more space and provisions than did the Famine Irish. Ship design and construction had slightly improved over the next 240 years, by 1860, but the fundamental conditions remained the same until steam ships became the norm by 1900.
(The Steven Spielberg film “Amistad” (USA, 1997) concerns an event that occurred aboard a two-masted Spanish slave ship sailing from Cuba in 1839. “La Amistad” had taken on 44 slaves purchased from the larger three-masted Portuguese slave ship “Tecora” at a transfer auction in Cuba before sailing for other Caribbean islands but ending up instead, thanks to the Gulf Stream, off Long Island, New York. “Tecora” had acquired the slaves from African slave traders in British-protectorate Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast. All of this transpired as the great Famine-Irish exodus was beginning aboard similar ships.)
(In “The Emigrants” (Sweden, 1971), around 1850 a small group of poor Swedish families makes it from a small rural village in southern Sweden all the way up the Mississippi to Minnesota (which has a climate and geology not so different from that in Sweden). Based on a series of four great novels by the Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg, the story continues in “The New Land” (Sweden, 1972), as the main family struggles to make a life in the very tough Minnesota wilderness, about 180 miles northeast of Minneapolis. Taken together, these two Jan Troell films are an excellent depiction of mid-19th century European immigrants to America, other than the Irish, prior to the opening of Ellis Island.)
During just one decade of great Ireland Famine years of the mid-1800s, over 2,000,000 starving Irish left their small island homeland for America crammed like so much stacked merchandise into those coffin ships, allocated only so many square inches of space each. Few of them understood where America was or how long the trip would take, so almost none was adequately prepared for the voyage ahead. Many were not even certain that their ship’s captain would not sell them into slavery for Caribbean plantations operated by other monarchies as had been a British crown practice for centuries. Since their penniless “white nigger” passengers had no sale value upon arrival in America, there was no need for ship owners and crews to care for them with adequate food, sanitation or medical attention. With no insurance value, most were not even listed on ship manifests. If many, or even all, of them died on the trip, it was just fate that had no detrimental cost. The ships had mortality rates of around 30%. It is estimated that in that one single decade from 1844 to 1854, over 300,000 of their Irish passengers – men, women and children – died of diseases such as malnutrition, dysentery, dehydration, cholera, typhus and scurvy before arriving in America, their bodies simply dumped overboard at sea. Those who made that treacherous voyage had almost zero hope of ever returning home, so, if they survived, they put everything they had into making life in America work. The whole experience was one long one-way “do or die” journey of misery. (See Footnote #1.)
The millions of Irish who braved such a perilous voyage during the mid-19th century were not so very different from those of many other cultures of the time also trying to reach North America. The Irish just faced an urgent decision whether to die like animals ignominiously of starvation under British crown oppression in their homeland or die trying to reach a better chance of life elsewhere. Many who left believed that their death or banishment had always been the objective of their British masters since the time of Henry VIII anyway. From the homeland to the promised land, it was one long awful journey of Darwinian survival. And still they came. And still the misery didn’t stop at journey’s end. Arrival in America was just the beginning, but at least they were still alive and now there was a faint light in the distance.
Welcome To America
One of those who managed to survive the journey was a 25 year old young lady named Bridget from County Wexford in southern Ireland who arrived alone in Boston at the height of the famine in 1849. She married a poor Irish immigrant she had known back home named Patrick and settled into the filthy and violent slums near the Boston harbor. She soon lost her first-born son and her husband to cholera, but managed to gradually build, on her own, a small retail business while caring for and raising her remaining son and three daughters in a slum far worse and more brutally deadly than any existing today. She succeeded. Bridget built a successful business, lived to age 64, and died in 1888, the year her grandson was born. Her legacy found a prominent place in American history.
The Irish were still coming to America on converted cargo ships forty years after Bridget arrived when Ellis Island opened in 1892. (The nearby Statue of Liberty had been dedicated six years earlier.) Although millions of Irish immigrants had preceded her for over a half century of far harsher circumstances and had never seen either Lady Libertas or Ellis Island, the very first immigrant to step off a ship onto Ellis Island was Annie Moore of County Cork, Ireland, who was either 15 or 17. Arriving near the end of the great Irish diaspora, she settled in New York’s 4th Ward, in a rough and tumble seaport slum, and soon married a German baker. They had ten (or 11) children, five of whom survived to adulthood. She died in 1923 at age 47 (or 49) and is buried in Queens next to five of her children. Her story is very common for Irish-Americans. Her age and the fact that she was traveling alone was also not uncommon; many such immigrants lost relatives on the very dangerous journey throughout the 19th century. But in this case, her parents, who had traveled to America two years earlier, saved up enough money to pay for her and her two younger brothers’ fare on a steam ship that had taken only 12 days to reach Ellis Island. After Ellis Island opened, most immigrants arrived in America aboard steam ships, and the cheap “coffin ships” faded into the past. Today Annie Moore has the remarkable distinction of having her life-sized likeness cast in bronze in two different statues, one on Ellis Island New York and one in Cobh Ireland. It is indeed a fitting tribute to her and to all of her countrymen who also journeyed to America during those tough times, including to those who did not survive the journey.
Until it became possible to ride in a very comfortable jet airliner for several hours in order to get from Europe or Asia to New York or San Francisco (roughly around 1950), those who left for North America during the 400 years from 1550 to 1950 were the bravest of the brave, and those who survived the toughest of the tough, of their native cultures. They were the people who struck out on their own, leaped from the comforting familiar to the dangerously unknown, to risk a very treacherous voyage and face certain great adversity at their destination, and all with literally nothing in their pockets. Upon arrival, they all – man, woman and child – would discover that their arduous journey had only just begun. They had to make a life commitment to succeed against great odds as free souls in a new world, or die trying. There was no turning back, no second chances if things didn’t work out so well, no government helping hand. Such were the brave people who made America, built it from the ground up, and then defended it repeatedly in deadly wars.
From 1820 to 1870, long before Ellis Island opened in 1892, over seven and a half million immigrants came to the United States — more than the entire population of the country in 1810. Nearly all of them came from northern and western Europe – about a third from tiny Ireland, almost a third from huge Germany, and the rest in much smaller numbers from a dozen other countries. Even though both of their numbers were large, there were significant differences between the Famine-Irish and the Germans. Unlike the penniless and illiterate Irish, most Germans arrived with educations, including craft skills, and had enough money to get started in America; they tended to migrate to the Midwest in search of farmland and work, to start their own small businesses. The largest settlements of Germans were in New York City, Baltimore, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Milwaukee, but generally their numbers were widely dispersed over a much larger portion of the country and thus not as blatantly apparent as were the huge numbers of Famine-Irish concentrated in big city slums, mining towns and iron and steel mill centers. Those immigrants from everywhere who succeeded gradually built in a huge wilderness a great nation with a truly vibrant culture – something of truly great and real value – a rich society that made its mark on the world as a place where free people without interference from despotic rulers could thrive, could create and defend a special place that would then attract people from all over the world seeking an enormously easier path to freedom and success than those who went before them. Everyone who showed up in the magic that was America after World War II could simply demand as their birthright all that America’s ancestors had given their precious blood, sweat and tears to build and defend for their children.
But the Irish who left Ireland during the 19th century, and all the many millions of their American descendants, always kept a special place in their hearts for their Emerald Isle. Ellis and Ireland – Isle Of Hope, Isle Of Tears.
The Second Half Of The Journey
After four centuries of systematic British confiscation, oppression and exploitation in their homeland, when the Irish stepped off the ships in America they were still treated as little more than dumb animals – suitable only for the very bottom rung of society. Overt hatred, distrust, and contempt from natives was the universal welcome. Part of it was due to their large numbers, but most of it was due to history. The Brits and their minions in America, usually by now in the American upper classes via entrenched trade, manufacturing and finance, took three centuries of their instilled officially sanctioned bigotry and re-packaged it all for a struggling multi-ethnic American audience. These Irish gave birth to something never before seen in America – slums (or “shantytowns”). Funneled, herded, crammed by abject poverty immediately into huge and teeming disease-ridden city slums, those four million new Irish immigrants gave the United States an incredible sudden increase of 15% of its population, in an era when it was in some ways like British-ruled Ireland – “every man and woman for themself, no assistance forthcoming” and with rules heavily tilted in favor of the masters, and filthy jails, or worse, awaiting “trouble makers”. Tuberculosis, cholera and smallpox were constant scourges in the city slums; in Boston the Irish could expect to live about 14 years after arrival – about the same life expectancy as Irish slaves sold to squalid European plantations in the Caribbean.
There’s an interesting side story of disease and hard labor to the Irish reputation for hard drinking. In the American slums, as in the Irish workhouses, beer and alcohol was at least a much safer drink than the “drinking water”, so filled with sewer-born diseases as it was. The Irish didn’t know it (no one did), but the brewing process killed germs, including those causing cholera and typhoid, so beer drinkers had a much less probability of dying in those workhouses and slums. The “wisdom” of the time held that such diseases were air-born, and it wasn’t until a Doctor Snow studying diseases in 1854 London discovered that none of the workers at a brewery using city water contracted such diseases, while many others living in the same neighborhood drinking the same water did. The city water was heavily contaminated by sewage, but it took decades for that knowledge to reach the slums of America’s big cities. (The first step to better health for all citizens was to keep the two types of water separate; the next step was to purify all water used for human consumption. But it wasn’t until 1908 – a half century later – that the water utility in Jersey City (NJ) became the first in America to use full scale water chlorination.) “In the meantime, Fella, have a beer (or a bottle of moonshine).” The remedy was also very helpful in suppressing the constant pains of backbreaking labor before the advent of pain pills and microsurgery, as anyone who has suffered a ruptured disk near the base of the spine knows so well. Better drunk than insanely suicidal from the constant pain of a severely pinched sciatic nerve – a common malady among men engaged in hard labor. Of course, few of those involved with the 19th century Temperance Movement had to live with the constantly painful consequences of very hard labor.
“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world. But then you read.” — James Baldwin (1924-87), Black American writer and social critic, author of “Notes Of A Native Son” and “The Fire Next Time“.
In mid-19th century America, even in mainstream newsprint, thanks to the officially sanctioned and supported institutional prejudices of the older Scottish, Welsh and Scotch-Irish snobs and British bigots, as well as many other recent immigrants competing for any available crumbs in the “employment” arena, the Irish became widely known in America, right there on Page One, including of the ever judgmental New York Times, as “white niggers”, a term still encountered in the South a century later, as late as the 1950s. In this case, the signs couldn’t exclude a race, but they could exclude “an inherently stupid and criminal” nationality and a “conspiratorial” religion. Not “Whites Only”; rather “No Irish!” or “Paddies Not Wanted!” or “Off Limits To Irish” or “Non-Irish Welcome”.
There has been a tendency in recent times for many to view the matter as one of religion, to assume that the strife of the time involved all Catholics, when the truth is more selective. The problem was essentially one with economics at the core, of the many consequences of a sudden very large influx of a particular ethnic group that led to wide-spread discrimination against that group, a group which just happened to have certain characteristics such as belief in a particular religious faith. Much more than their religion, it was their strong and very distinctive Irish brogue that made them easily distinguishable. In time, it became customary to include all Catholics into accounts of what at the time actually involved almost exclusively Irish Catholics, and even more specifically those Irish Catholics who flooded into the US during the famines in Ireland in the 19th century. It was not so much anti-Catholic discrimination as it was anti-Famine-Irish Catholic discrimination. This group suffered almost as much from other established Catholics as it did from the broader population, other Catholics who went out of their way to set themselves far apart from the Irish in no uncertain ways, and critical factors in that discrimination were its recent arrival in large numbers and the limited means, including literacy, initially available to that group to defend itself. For centuries deliberately denied by their British masters the right to educate themselves, they were immediately at the malicious mercy of anyone and everyone who could simply read.
Thus even the overt bigotry in newspapers, the only public communications medium of the time, was safe in the knowledge that it would not be seen by its “stupid” targets. Pervasive universal prejudice was a constant irritant. Journalists routinely described them as corrupt, drunken, illiterate and clannish, and political cartoonists portrayed them as sub-human freaks. At a time when there was no radio, television, internet or social media, newsprint was the most effective way of widely disseminating propaganda and bigotry, and many newspapers, owned by the upper classes, were at the forefront of the ugly campaign. The fact that the Famine-Irish couldn’t read, much less counter, those newspapers certainly didn’t serve to constrain the effectiveness of their efforts. Survival without gainful employment meant to beg, borrow or steal, which then reinforced the stereotypes. Employers were reluctant to hire them except for lowly hard labor positions, because their reputation for drinking and fighting was detrimental to securing decent jobs. These were the people, the natural born patsies, automatically presumed guilty of whatever bad things happened in American society, and they filled jails and prisons everywhere. (Even 75 years later, the stereotypes lingered. On the eve of WW I, most Irish-Americans were still locked in low-status blue-collar jobs.) Asinine stories originating in England of the Church in Rome plotting to take over the country via armies of Irish Catholics marching mindlessly to the Pope’s orders were routine, and Irish Catholic church burnings and priest and nun killings in eastern America were also common. Of course, almost no Famine Irish, for centuries purposefully deprived of an education, even knew, or cared, where Rome was.
Bigotry in America against the Catholic Irish was especially pervasive during the Ireland Famine years, but it was also rather widespread there even well before the 1840s. Ireland had long been a favorite place to pick up strong hard-working laborers for difficult construction projects in the US, especially those for railroads and tunnels. Famine-Irish labor built thousands of miles of America’s huge network of railroad lines in the eastern half of the nation at a cost of one life per mile. And they punched miles-long railroad tunnels through the mile-high Appalachian Mountains by hand for less than a dollar a day. Hard labor Famine-Irish serfs, of course, had also built, mostly by hand, the world-famous railroads in Britain. Known as impoverished men willing to do the toughest jobs under atrocious conditions at very low wages, companies would hire groups of men in Ireland, ship them to the US, process their immigration papers, and put them to work. (No, Irish workers imported by the thousands for hard labor or cannon fodder in America were not “illegal immigrants”, nor were the millions of Famine-Irish refugees. They were all documented, officially approved for entry, and usually had their phonetic English-spelled names assigned and recorded by American bureaucrats.) When the projects were finished, or the men were no longer able to work, they were simply fired and abandoned into a society that viewed them just as did the British, as sub-human creatures, unworthy of partaking in “normal” human society. In 1832, for example, well before the great immigrant flood began, the newspaper in a small town near Philadelphia reported that nine unnamed members of a large Irish Catholic labor crew then constructing a nearby railroad line had died of cholera. (The location is near Malvern, PA, about 10 miles west of Villanova University, founded 10 years later.) Since it was then very common to deny medical care to such expendable people, nothing further was recorded about these men, and the event quickly disappeared with the passage of time, a tiny item about nine dead white niggers of no financial worth and thus of no consequence.
Over 160 years later, in 1995, old internal files of the now-defunct railroad company, marked as ‘not for release beyond the railroad office’, revealed that 57 men (not “nine”) had died in a labor shanty at the “Duffy’s Cut” section of the rail line in August 1832 – three decades before the Civil War. Railroad contractor Philip Duffy had hired the Irish laborers to work in Pennsylvania’s nascent railroad industry, specifically to lay the line by hand through the area’s densely wooded hills and ravines. The workers came from counties Donegal, Tyrone and Derry and sailed for over two months aboard the John Stamp to Philadelphia. Less than two months after their arrival in June, all 57 were dead, buried and forgotten. Their families back home had watched the men leave for work in America, and vanish forever without a trace. That, too, was not uncommon; vast America seemed to swallow up Irishmen by the thousands, and never did spit them out.
In 2009, an archaeological team unearthed the remains of several bodies discovered buried next to the rail line. Analysis of the bones and other artifacts found at the site, including a wide range of hand-crafted Irish smoking pipes adorned with shamrocks, indicated that these were the men mentioned in the newspaper article and company files. Further analysis of the bones, however, revealed that the cause of death had been, not cholera, but blunt force trauma. It is now believed that the brief newspaper article had alerted local vigilantes who, fearing a spread of the disease, descended on the shanty and summarily slaughtered all 57 “sub-human” laborers with guns and clubs, an also not uncommon practice of that period in America, and one almost never worthy of even recording in the press. Only six bodies were recovered by the archaeological team, and only one of the six identified. One of the bodies was of an Irishwoman who apparently had been hired as crew cook. The battered remains of John Ruddy of Donegal, who was just 18 when he left, were returned to Ireland for burial – 177 years after he had sailed off for a job. The other five were re-interned at a nearby cemetery. It is believed that the other 51 men are still buried at Duffy’s Cut, perhaps beneath the rail bed, but excavation of the deep burial site was halted when Amtrak, which now owns the land, would not issue permits for additional digging because of the site’s proximity to the still-operational railroad tracks. So today Amtrak passengers ride comfortably over the murdered bodies of the expendable Catholic Famine-Irish men who built the line, 180 years ago, in America.
In such a context it is not difficult to understand what gave rise to the term “White Nigger” in America – human slaves, but without the responsibility of ownership, and thus of no value or consequence to anyone, “disposable”, “expendable”, of considerably less value than work horses or mules. It was a distinctly British bigotry imported to, and embraced in, America, and all due to nothing more than a tyrannical regime’s unsuccessful centuries’ long campaign to deny a people their own religion and impose its own, to either bend the native Catholics of Ireland to its imperial will or eradicate them entirely. Just ask yourself: Why would Frederick Douglass, the great black American abolitionist, go to Ireland in 1845 as the Famine was beginning? Here among the Irish “I find myself regarded and treated at every turn with the kindness and deference paid to white people.” He was not the only former black American slave to visit Ireland, or Britain. It was, of course, of no small irony that a black American slave was regarded in higher esteem by the British than were their own lowly Irish serfs in front of their faces – the very root of the “superior” mindset, born in a monarch’s religious arrogance, that led to black slavery in America. That bigotry survived in America, and in England, long after the American Constitution had made such an arrogant religious imposition impossible in the United States of America, and the ever-hypocritical British have always been very adept at arrogantly passing judgment on “lowly” others while conveniently absolving themselves – the epitome of self-anointed birthright entitled “superiority”.
“Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground.” – Frederick Douglass.
But one stereotype eventually served them well. “The Irish don’t whine; they fight.” In America the Irish soon learned that the best way to fight was to (1) get educated, and (2) learn the rules, master the process, and beat the jerks at their own game. Hatred of the Irish was especially intense partly because the Irish bitterly resisted denigration and soon took to politics as an avenue to express their grievances. Starting first in the slums, they steadily organized block by block to create precincts of voting blocs, then wards, and finally over decades to take over whole city governments. The Irish learned how to exercise their rights in America, while never forgetting their responsibilities; they started up the ladder as firemen, police officers and soldiers.
The struggle to escape the dismal city slums in America was long and laborious, never accomplished in a single generation. One needed to make smaller but solid steps upward which the children could then use as their base platform to climb further. No Irishman could rest until he had assured himself that his kids would start from a firm position significantly higher than he had, no matter what was required to accomplish that. Sometimes there was a hope that perhaps the process could be hurried if one was willing to go into the deadly and completely unregulated mines, to begin the long crawl up from far below the bottom. It was almost never true; untimely death in the mines was even more certain than it was in the slums. Those who remained in the slums eventually discovered the power in democratic America of groups voting with one voice. Those in the mines far from urban areas, and in the Pittsburgh iron and steel mills, quickly found themselves embroiled in deadly struggles to create and build America’s labor unions.
“What do they feed ya’ Irishmen in Pittsburgh?”
“Steel. Steel and pig iron furnaces so hot a man forgets his fear of hell. When you’re hard ‘nugh, tough enough, other things, … other things, Michaleen.” (John Ford’s “The Quiet Man” (USA, 1952))
Very few struck it rich in precious metals “out West”, so the Irish struggle for social justice was unrelenting. Having lived for centuries under dictated laws specifically designed to keep them down, they gradually learned how to use democratic laws to their advantage. Unfortunately, not everything could be solved at the ballot box. Starting in the 1830s, violent anti-Irish Catholic rioting occurred in many northern cites, the largest in 1844 in Philadelphia. These routine tumultuous confrontations were a product of nativist determination to use xenophobia for political gain, to prevent the Famine-Irish from achieving their own political gain. In May and July 1844, for example, Philadelphia suffered a series of bloody rioting during a period of economic depression as anti-immigrant mobs attacked Irish-American homes and Roman Catholic churches before being suppressed by the militia; Protestants, Irish-Catholics and local militia fought in the streets, sixteen people were killed, dozens were injured and over 40 buildings were demolished. The Protestant rioters also burned down St. Augustine’s Church, which placed severe financial strain on the Augustinian friars, who then had to close their recently established Villanova College. (Villanova, which had opened just two years earlier, reopened in 1846 and graduated its first class in 1847.) It was thuggish mob hatred as an open aspect of mainstream American culture, specifically designed to intimidate, marginalize and contain a specific portion of the population deemed unworthy of equal participation and permanently relegated to the very bottom rung of society.
(In 2016, in a really great game, underdog Villanova (11,000 students) beat favorite North Carolina (30,000 students) 77-74 in the very last second for the NCAA Basketball National Championship. Sometimes sweet irony smiles on those who know history, even if a little overdue, and a college basketball court is probably the very best place for America’s best to experience it.)
As the tide of impoverished Famine-Irish immigrants rose during the 1840s it also gave rise to xenophobic political movements, most notably through secret societies like the “Know-Nothing” group. Native-born Protestants saw these huge numbers of new people as job-stealing threats to America’s cultural and religious identity and were determined to combat that threat by any means possible. In 1855 the Know-Nothing society came out of the closet in the form of the American Party; it had a blatant anti-Famine Irish political platform that included strict immigrant restrictions, a 21 year residency requirement for citizenship, and a prohibition of foreign-born people from ever holding public office. Similar to other perversions imported straight from bigoted Britain, this was a huge “main-stream” political party whose purpose was to discriminate against those recently arrived “sub-human” serfs from Ireland. In 1856 the party won almost 22% of the national popular vote – the largest “third party” vote in American history. (Despite the large number of votes it secured in that election, the American party managed to secure only the 8 electoral votes of Maryland. Two years earlier, the party, with its power base in New York state, had won 35 of the 76 House seats it had contested.) But before the next election in 1860 the party began to fracture along pro- and anti-slavery factions as the states lined up on either side of that North-South issue. When the Civil War erupted in 1861 many party members, and others, saw a practical solution to their “white nigger problem” – the Draft. The war was quickly seen as a way to put very many of those impoverished Irish immigrants into military uniforms to fight the deadly war for them. (It was a familiar role. Large numbers of indignant, expendable Irish soldiers and their ethnically segregated regiments, of course, had been critical to the expansive power of the British empire for centuries.)
The Fighting Irish
With every step along the way was the military. Many hundreds of thousands of Catholic Famine-Irish men volunteered or were drafted into military service soon after they stepped off those slave ships, first for duty in the Mexican-American War (1846-48), and then later either for the North or the South in the Civil War (1861-64), depending on whether the chance port of arrival was New Orleans or New York, Charleston or Boston. At least the army offered jobs with pay, food and clothing, something the larger society did not. Their numbers in military uniform during wars were huge. Many commanders on both sides of the Civil War readily granted that the side that lost a particular battle was the side that ran out of Irish soldiers first. Of course, if they were only Irish, they could easily be sacrificed at will, even against each other. Irish soldiers thus were just war munitions, like bullets. A clever trick of cash-strapped Lincoln’s draft law was that a man could buy his way out with the then huge sum of $300. But to people who had been denied the right to even possess currency in their homeland, had therefore arrived penniless to a place that forbad them decent employment much less a respect above the sub-human level, that sum of money was obviously intended to make sure just who the draftees would be. $300 in 1860 would buy as much as $7,195 buys today. Major riots in 1863 were the inevitable consequence, and large parts of New York City went up in flames until Army soldiers, many of them Irish combat veterans fresh from the Gettysburg killing fields, arrived to restore order literally by firing, as ordered, on anyone who moved.
In addition to the millions of Famine Irish streaming into the US during the Civil War period, all very easy prey for those filling male draft quotas in the North and the South, Great Britain, in fact, even delivered to the North over 100,000 fresh Irish conscripts, whom it regarded as little more than its own slaves, rounded up in Ireland for use as Northern cannon-fodder. (See Footnote #1.) Britain could have just as easily delivered those conscripts to the South, as the American Civil War was, in fact, a matter of intense debate in Great Britain, with most of the people and press supporting the South. Great Britain’s nobility never could figure out which side to support to its greatest self-interests, especially considering its religious affinity with the original Southern colonies, all that useful aristocracy “plantation” cotton, tobacco, etc., needed for Britain’s rapidly growing industries and trade, so delivering all those Irish conscripts to the North was essentially a matter of hedging bets – at little cost. (The British were kept very well informed on the likelihood of the South seeking to secede and the probability of the South prevailing in a war with the North, by their astute and well-connected consul in Charleston, Robert Bunch.) The sanctimonious British have always been quite adept at pointing the finger at others while totally disregarding their own treatment of the Irish serfs right under their noses, in their very own exploited plantation next door; it was all so “in-bred”, so self-serving, so “British”. To the aristocracy, slavery was no big deal, especially considering that the British had been selling Irish slaves for centuries, including to French, Spanish and Portuguese plantation colonies in the Caribbean and to Muslim pirate kingdoms in Northern Africa. (“Never underestimate the value of a European education.” – Famine-Irish Confederate Army Captain under command of Union Army “Major Dundee” (USA, 1965), as they battle and defeat equally ruthless Apache renegades and French irregulars separately – in Mexico – after the Civil War.) (You have to know a lot of history to fully understand this film. Earlier the 1846 war with Mexico, the first time that the young American nation engaged another republic in combat, also took full advantage of Famine-Irish soldiers.) This regard, or disregard, for the Irish settled deeply into the popular British mentality, and later had little difficulty becoming part of American culture, too.
After Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (on New Year’s Day, 1863), a total of approximately 180,000 black Americans, both free men and “run-away” slaves, served in the Union Army during the Civil War. They were enormously out-numbered by the illiterate Famine-Irish serfs who also served. The Irish fought in huge numbers, for example, at Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, where two armies totaling 166,000 men left a staggering 8,000 men killed and another 28,000 wounded by single-shot small arms – in less than three days of running skirmishes. Over 11,000 men were listed as captured or “missing” – for a total combined loss rate over 28% (47,000), in one single battle. These figures exceed even those suffered on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day in 1944. Just three months earlier, in September 1862, a total of 125,164 soldiers met at Antietam in Maryland, just 50 miles northwest of Washington DC – 87,000 Union under General McClellan and 38,000 Confederate under General Lee. Before Lee withdrew, 22,726 men (18%) had become casualties – 14% Union and 27% Confederate. In the bloodiest single-day battle in American history, a staggering 3,675 men laid dead in fields that are today just a one-hour drive from the nation’s capital. Neither Antietam or Gettysburg were decisive. How is it possible to waste so many American men so quickly, for one battle that ends in a draw? (One woman was killed in her kitchen by a stray bullet in Gettysburg, but no other civilians were recorded as harmed as a consequence of these two colossal battles.)
Almost 100 years later a young American President in 1962, himself a fourth generation direct descendant of Famine-Irish, would observe that history is made by those who write it. It is not by accident that so little is known of the critical contributions of countless thousands of Famine-Irish soldiers in almost every battle of the American Civil War. For centuries denied by their British rulers the freedom to teach and learn in schools, the Famine-Irish could neither read or write – a harsh reality that made it easier for others to view them as “sub-human”. But they could fight. Still, there were no letters home to wives or parents, no journals, no praising news articles, for later generations to research. It is not even known with any certainty how many of them fought, or died, in that war, on both sides, and even many of their names died with them, their blood enriching forever vast expanses of lush American countryside. Often their bodies were simply dumped in ravines and covered over, the locations not even marked as grave sites, and forgotten – in America. Dead war horses or dead Irish soldiers – it was all the same rotting stink that had to be covered over, grave stones not required even if the soldier’s name was known. Even today an interesting American quirk is that almost none of those legions pontificating as Civil War “experts” or Civil War “historians” are Irishmen. Talk, of course, is the cheapest thing there is. These “experts” will cite every state, town, creek, family, unit and farm in the nation, but one word they never mention is “Irish”.
Of the 750,000 men who died in the American Civil War, only half were ever identified. The problem persisted even in conditions far less chaotic than the battlefield. Of the 45,000 Union soldiers held under sickeningly atrocious conditions at the infamous Andersonville POW camp for just 16 months, over 13,000 (30%) died. Of those 13,000, almost 1,000 had their names listed as “unknown” – in a stationary POW camp. Very many of those never recovered or labeled as “unknown” were young men from the Emerald Isle who survived the treacherous journey to America only to vanish into bloody war and become … fertilizer. As is common of conscripts, they were very young, unmarried and alone. Their deaths ensured that many of the young women who had survived the same journey would not raise Irish sons in America. Many hundreds of thousands of Famine-Irish men were simply herded onto coffin ships that sailed away, never to be heard from again. There’s a good reason why America’s soldiers, her “dogs of war” (Shakespeare: “Julius Caesar“), beginning finally in 1906, wear those very important double metal “dog tags” – one to facilitate death notification and one for later body identification. The latter tag remains with the body, often forcibly lodged in the roof of the mouth. “He shall not be forgotten.”
Fortunately for Union soldiers, their commander at Gettysburg was Irish-American General George G. Meade. Like Meade, Civil War Irish-American Union army generals Michael Corcoran (friend of Lincoln), Philip Sheridan, John Reynolds, John O’Neill and Thomas Meagher (See Footnote #2), among others, had learned engineering and Napoleon’s strategies at West Point from Irish-American dean and author Dennis Mahan. Unfortunately, so had the South’s General Robert E. Lee.
Roughly one of every four American men of military age served in the American Civil War. (See Footnote #2.) If you imagine that all this is “ancient history”, consider this: The last veteran of the Civil War was laid to rest in 1959, the year Soviet Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev toured the United States as guest of President Dwight Eisenhower. Two years later, Famine-Irish descendant John Kennedy became President.
Subsequent generations of Catholic Irish men also led and fought, far out of proportion to their numbers in the larger society, in the Spanish-American War (1898) and the follow-on Philippine-American War (1899-1902), World War I (1914-1918), World War II (1939-45), Korea (1950-53), Vietnam (1955-75) and in every other of America’s many smaller wars, both declared and “undeclared”. And it certainly wasn’t for money; as late as the 1970s drafted American ground soldiers with college degrees were paid all of $2.00 for each day they managed to stay alive in the jungles of Vietnam. That’s how much their lives were worth to their “grateful” nation; truth be told, American soldiers were worth much more to surviving relatives dead than alive – IF they had paid up their maximum $10,000 group life insurance premiums.
Irish men have often been regarded throughout the world as “natural born fighters” or “natural born soldiers”, labels often intended by self-anointed “elitists” as derogatory slurs. But it’s true. (It’s still true today; my decades of service with the US Army all over the world are full of fond memories of Irish-American soldiers I met everywhere I went.) Irishmen put their money where their mouth is; to them, “we” is actually “we”, not “someone else” who actually does the hard stuff for “very special me” – who then gets to reap the vicarious self-image in “the home of the brave”, for doing nothing except talk. Maybe it springs from the anger always burning deep in the souls of Irish men, an anger born and nurtured through centuries of brutal injustice, injustice continuing long after their departure from their own homeland. “Yes, son, some things ARE worth dying for. Pass it on to your son.” A common example was second-generation Irish-American Audie Murphy, the single most decorated combat soldier among the 16,000,000 American men who served in World War II. Another example was the US Navy’s five Sullivan brothers from Waterloo Iowa killed in that same war. By the time they poured into England by the hundreds of thousands in 1940 to prepare to storm the beaches of Normandy, less than a century after their starving great-grandparents had escaped the prison workhouse camps in Ireland to flee to America, they were just those audacious, indistinguishable, over-confident “damned Yanks” – who would plow through hell all the way across Europe, past a different version of concentration camps*, and on to Berlin itself before resting. The US Army’s rolls, throughout American history, are full of famous Irish names, men who defined “duty”, “honor,” “country”, “leadership”, “justice”, “freedom” – for all mankind. Most seem to prefer service as ground soldiers – Army, Marines, Special Forces, SEALS, CIA – to deal with people, the good and the bad, face to face. “De oppresso liber.” (“To free the oppressed” – US Army green beret Special Forces motto.) Irish soldiers set the standard; it’s in their blood. (And they prefer smart, strong women with grit, pluck and a winning smile who share their values. Freckles and red hair are nice, too.)
(*It always strikes me as macabre when I listen to the sanctimonious Brits expound with such righteous indignation on the evils of Soviet gulags and Nazi concentration camps. Both Hitler and Stalin, of course, learned all they needed to know about such things from the slightly earlier British treatment of the native Irish. The British-colonial playwright George Bernard Shaw, a rapid anti-Semite born in Dublin and favoring extreme methods to rid society of its useless human refuse, was an ardent admirer of both psychopaths, more vocal about it than many other such Brits of the period.)
The Irish were not just good soldiers. The military invasion of Normandy and many similar US and allied landings in Europe and the Pacific during World War II would not have been possible without the determined efforts of Irish-American Andrew Higgins. Higgins, born to Famine-Irish immigrant parents in 1886 in land-locked Nebraska, had gradually worked his way to New Orleans, where he started a small boat-making company that became one of the world’s biggest industries employing over 85,000 workers. During the 1930s he fought hard to finally get the US Navy to adopt his invention – the flat-bottomed and ramped-bowed “Higgins boat”. By the time of the war, more than 96% of US Navy crafts were “Higgins boats” (or “Landing Craft, Vehicle and Personnel (LCVP)”), which were rapidly also adopted by the British, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and Indian navies. After the war General Eisenhower stated, “Andrew Higgins … is the man who won the war for us. … If Higgins had not designed and built those LCVPs, we never could have landed over an open beach. The whole strategy of the war would have been different.” And undoubtedly far more costly to American and allied lives, not only in Europe, but throughout the Pacific, too. And very many Irish-Americans were among the American soldiers who also freed tens of thousands of British POWs from Japanese torture and labor camps all over Asia and the Pacific.
The period after the Civil War to the end of the century (1860-1900) was all about westward expansion, the growth of the Mid-west, rapid industrialization and urbanization. America was under construction. But as hard-rock mines and brutal factories and plants rose and proliferated, so did the polluted and disease-ridden cities around them, which in turn steadily lowered worker health and life expectancy. The increasing disparity between the rich and everyone else undermined Americans’ belief that theirs was a nation of equal and self-reliant citizens just as much as did the South’s efforts to re-build a two-tier society. On the bottom rung in the South were still black-Americans; everywhere else it was the Famine-Irish and their offspring. America was taking shape largely on the permanently bent backs of these two huge minority groups. But while Reconstruction laws tried to temper the exploitation of the blacks, there was nothing to ease life for the Famine-Irish. So the Irish work horses gradually turned to themselves, to building good schools, strong unions and effective political groups.
While many thousands of Irish ended up in the iron and coal mines and railroad towns of Appalachia, many more thousands of Famine-Irish were lured to the huge Anaconda copper mines of Butte Montana, which quickly challenged Boston as the largest Irish community in the world after Dublin. Butte, thanks to Irish-American “Copper King” Marcus Daly, was one of the few places in America that did not place “No Irish” signs in shop windows, or “Irish Need Not Apply” signs in employment offices. (Daly had immigrated alone from County Cavan to New York during the Famine in 1856 at the age of fifteen.) But the mines later also drew large numbers of other poor immigrants from northern Europe. Needless to say, when they did go to work in the hard-rock mines, where very high casualties were common, the Irish workers soon found themselves embroiled in brutal and bloody fights for limited jobs and also on the front lines of union organization efforts. Especially in the coal mines, iron mills and steel mills of Appalachia, they often paid a high price for such efforts. Coal was not just for heating homes and offices; it was critical to running railroads and firing the furnaces of iron and steel mills – the stuff needed to build America. These were the “essential elements” required to build the nation in the 19th century, and right there on the front lines in every backbreaking facet were cheap Irish laborers. Company officials usually hired the infamous quasi-police Pinkerton organization to break up union efforts in the mines and mills. (The Pinkertons, established in and existing for a century after 1850, were essentially a ruthless mercenary “policing” army-for-hire, by either government or industry, larger and better armed than the US military between the Civil War and World War I.) Pinkerton thugs (“contractors”) were definitely not above beating workers with baseball bats, kidnapping them from their homes at night, killing or maiming them with guns and even hanging them by the neck in public, always with real local police conveniently looking the other way if not actively facilitating their efforts. It was all a form of officially sanctioned organized terror, not so different from long familiar experiences with the British back home in Ireland.
Another, and later, quasi-legal “police” force was the Baldwin-Felts “detective” agency, formed in the early-1890s and based in Virginia. This group of glorified mercenaries was primarily employed by the owners of railroads and coal mines, but also by both federal and state government agencies, to destroy labor union efforts in the coal mines, mainly in Appalachia but also in Colorado. West Virginia is Appalachia country, and Big Coal owned West Virginia, had bought the state government, the state militia, the state police, the justice system and all corresponding local officials in the vicinity of coal mines. The mines depended on cheap labor, which was still mostly Irish labor. But now standing with the Irish in the mines and shantytowns were smaller numbers of black Americans, too. The miners trying to unionize never really had a chance; it was just too easy to summon all the bigotry of the previous century and focus in on those who threatened to reduce profits to everyone else. Company owners, with the help of the state and local officials plus the Pinkertons and Baldwin-Felts groups, were largely successful in destroying Irish efforts to unionize workers in America’s most brutal jobs. The anti-union efforts were aided significantly by the arrival in America of a new flood of poor immigrant laborers from eastern Europe after Ellis Island opened in 1892, who served to further cheapen the value of such hard labor and those who did it. Among Baldwin-Felts’ places in American history were their roles in the bloody battles of Matewan (1920) and Blair Mountain (1921), the largest labor uprising in US history, during the West Virginia coal mine-union wars of the early-20th century. The federal government eventually sent in a force of about 2,100 US Army soldiers, and the force of about 10,000 miners, many of whom had served with that Army during World War I and did not wish to fire on it, laid down their weapons. Peace had been restored. However, as soon as the federal forces departed, the state arrested now unarmed and defenseless miners by the hundreds and put them in chains while the owners bought in new immigrant strike-breakers to work the mines. A decade later, when the Great Depression of the 1930s led to another round of union efforts, mine-worker union membership had fallen from more than 25,000 to less than 1,000. (After minor efforts in 1947, 1952 and 1966, the Greatest Generation in 1969 finally succeeded in establishing the federal Mine Safety And Health Administration (MSHA) with a strong set of mandates and then followed that up with even more stringent laws in 1977; these two acts very significantly reduced health and safety hazards in all of America’s mining operations, especially the most dangerous – soft Appalachian coal.)
Sometimes the Irish won the battles only to lose the war. During a depression in 1892 – the year that Ellis Island opened and changed everything for immigrants to America – the super-rich Andrew Carnegie, via his plant manager Henry Frick, let loose the Pinkertons on mostly Irish striking steel workers at the Homestead Steel Works near Pittsburgh in one of the most serious factory labor disputes in American history. These workers and their families had been in America for decades battling oppressively brutal adversity at every turn just to survive, to better their lot, and maybe even to get a small step ahead. While Carnegie conveniently vacationed in his native Scotland, Frick pushed steel production while trying to break the strikers, including with a day-long gun battle between workers and Pinkertons that resulted in 12 dead and dozens wounded. After several more bloody battles, the union workers defeated the Pinkertons, but Frick turned to government to ensure that steel magnate Carnegie succeeded in breaking the union. The company and its Pinkerton army enjoyed the tacit support of the local police, the state governor and the state militia (all backed by the Carnegie-supported political machine). After the town was finally placed under martial law with 4,000 state militia, the company tried to restart the mill furnaces by importing mostly black strikebreakers, so as to characterize the inevitable resulting conflict as race-driven (“white niggers versus black niggers”). In trying to stop the strikebreakers from entering the mill, six more workers were wounded by militia bayonets, but public support for their cause was eroding.
Andrew Carnegie had immigrated to Pennsylvania from Scotland at age 13 with his quite poor family. He was 26 at the start of the American Civil War, but did not serve in the military. He did, however, support the Northern war effort with business. After realizing handsome profits from various railroad, oil and ironworks ventures during the war, Carnegie built his first steel mill in 1874 and, realizing huge profits with the British Bessemer process and cheap labor, began building and buying more. Just 15 years later, by 1890 Carnegie’s steel mills had made him the world’s richest man, and he then embarked on a philanthropic binge to give most of it away by building 2,800 libraries and such other esteemed landmarks as Pittsburgh’s Carnegie-Mellon University and New York’s Carnegie Hall.
But, in the interest of maximum company profits, he steadfastly refused to better the lot of the “sub-human” men who produced his steel. Carnegie was quite familiar with the Irish; they had, after all, laid the oil pipelines, built the railroads through the mountains, kept the railroads running during the war, mined the coal and iron for the mills, and manned the furnaces in the mills – all of which hard labor made Carnegie’s every venture possible. And Pittsburgh was only 150 miles over the Appalachian Mountains from the Gettysburg battle fields. In his mills, the Irish steel workers labored 12 hours a day, six days a week, in jobs that paid poverty-level wages for labor that was so grueling that most men had to “retire” by age 40 – if they survived so long. There were no safety standards, no minimum wage laws, no overtime pay, no worker’s compensation, no unemployment or life insurance, no vacation time, no medical or health benefits, no social security or pension programs, no maternity leave, or any of the other assists that most American workers today take for granted. This was still the case in the early 20th century, as late as 1920, in America. (Most of these employment assists were rather recent gifts from America’s Greatest Generation, some of whom are still with us; this was the generation so reviled by their Baby Boomer children – who benefited so enormously from them.) It’s not much of a stretch to grant that the impressive library in your home town was built by the back-breaking labor of Irish immigrants slaving to produce the steel that also made America’s railroads, bridges, ships, pipelines, skyscrapers and great cities possible. (Carnegie sold his steel company to J.P. Morgan in 1901 for today’s equivalent of $370 Billion.) But, after the 1892 Homestead battles, other steel mill owners who had not sold out to Carnegie offered low wages and deplorable working conditions to match Carnegie’s. With the arrival of many new (“cheap”, non-union) workers from Eastern Europe streaming in via Ellis Island’s orderly, organized and humane fashion, by 1900 not a single steel plant in Pennsylvania remained unionized, leaving their workers nakedly vulnerable to total exploitation by owners following the Carnegie example. So the union wars would begin anew, gradually with the help of new laws. The union battles in America, of course, were duplicated in Ireland, and both by around 1910 became characterized by the socialist philosophy which would become international communism (“Workers Of The World”.) World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 Russia then lit fires of change throughout Europe, and America, too.
Except for the coal mines of Appalachia, Butte is also one of the last resting places of Tommy Knockers in America. Tommy Knockers are the spirits of departed miners that help living miners find ore while warning them of impending cave-ins and also, as a side talent, snatching up various items left lying around unattended. Mythical creatures in Welsh, Cornish and Devon folklore, they are the equivalent of Irish leprechauns and English and Scottish brownies. In the 1820s immigrant Welsh miners brought tales of the knockers and their theft of unwatched items and warning knocks to western Pennsylvania, where they gravitated to work in the mines. Cornish miners, much sought after in the years following the 1848 gold rush, brought them to California. In 1881, these miners and their folklore, along with a great flood of Irishmen, gravitated to the Anaconda copper mines in Butte, creating a major bustling multi-ethnic, quite cosmopolitan, and mostly Catholic, city way out in the middle of vast unpopulated lands of the Rocky Mountains. Butte was the town where South London’s young Charlie Chaplin, on a vaudeville tour in 1913, first saw motion pictures (“flickers”) and realized the potential for him to use the medium to best exhibit his very considerable talents. Escaping the utter poverty of his Victorian youth, Chaplin enjoyed great success in his adopted country and quickly became the world’s most famous man. (In 1952 Chaplin’s adopted country during the McCarthy era unjustly denied him re-entry to the US; he lived his remaining years in Switzerland.)
In the early 20th century, the immigrant flood to America became more characterized by people from impoverished places other than Ireland, and many of them also gravitated to hard labor jobs such as those in mining towns like Butte. Still, the Irish remained dominant around Anaconda, and the years 1915-1920 were especially trying for Butte, which had over the preceding years seen the deaths of many hundreds of miners. A single mining disaster in 1917 alone took another 168 lives, right before a deadly influenza epidemic (1917-19) decimated much of the city’s remaining population.
How the global influenza pandemic of 1917-19 affected the United States, and especially Butte, was illustrative of the conditions still existing for impoverished immigrants in the early 20th century America. Health officials in Butte tried valiantly to limit public gatherings, such as closing church services and saloons – gatherings which were highly conducive to spreading the disease – but they did so by decree and law enforcement rather than by first enlisting the support of such entities, so their efforts were frequently ignored. The Irish had bought with them to America the only institution they had been able to trust for the previous three centuries – their own shadow ethnic Catholic church structure. After they arrived in bigoted America, they realized that this was a very wise decision, that the church was still more trustworthy than the government, or the newspapers. And for illiterate workers, the saloons were critical to keeping informed, to getting the news, especially of the gathering storm clouds for the Irish War of Independence (1919-22) back home. Furthermore, alcohol was important to hard rock miners (and similar hard labor workers everywhere) to numb constant intense body pain, especially from back injuries, before the age of wonder drugs and microscopic surgery, as well as for fighting off water-borne diseases like cholera in the ever-dangerous slums. (Even if they didn’t know the science, they did know that the beer and alcohol kept a lot of workers working.) Routine death from a range of diseases was intimately familiar to all people from 18th and 19th century Ireland; it was just another “normal” part of life, and it was still common at the beginning of the 20th century for the Irish “white niggers” in America, especially in huge slums around which tough jobs were available. In the US, the four areas with the highest incidence of influenza deaths occurred in mining and refinery towns – Rocky Mountain Montana and Colorado hard rock mines and Appalachian Mountain western Maryland and Pennsylvania coal mines and Pittsburgh steel mills – and on railroad and other major construction projects. In those places living conditions were not much different than they had been in the Ireland they fled. Before it ran its course, over 5,000 influenza deaths occurred in Montana alone, right on the heels of the 1917 Anaconda mining disaster and the military Draft for WWI, during which many young men “bought the farm” for their survivors with their deaths on the WWI killing fields of Europe. (Low-cost group life insurance policies for WWI soldiers was of substantial worth ($10,000) for that time, and the biggest incentive possible for men to endure the risks of cannon-fodder in aristocracy-led wars far away.)
Most of the Anaconda mines closed after World War II in 1947 after producing over the previous 65 years 95,000 tons of copper, and Butte remains the longest continuously operating mining town on Earth. When Chile and Mexico nationalized Anaconda’s mines in those countries in the early 1970s the company collapsed. Today the Butte mines are mostly idle, and the city struggles to stay alive. Anaconda left behind the largest toxic waste site in North America, and the miners left behind a huge white statue of Our Lady Of The Rockies on a mountain top high above the city.
The pervasive prejudices heaped on the Irish by the upper business and trade classes in America, even in the newspapers, were a clear signal for other recent immigrants, including those from poor Catholic countries like Poland and Italy, to safely climb on the anti-Irish bandwagon. The Irish became every frustrated immigrant’s favorite punching bag, the low man on the totem pole. No wonder the Irish in America developed a reputation as fighters, that the first three world boxing champions were all Irish, including John L. Sullivan, who won over 450 fights in his career and held the heavyweight title from 1882-1892. Centuries of fighting the British and the almost unbearable rigors of Irish life was just basic training. Now, when not fighting for survival against all other European immigrants everywhere and for social justice in American mines, mills and slums, they could usually be found fighting for America in the military.
Building Ethnic Communities
It was always about the principles. The Catholic Famine-Irish actually believed in important things like the Bill of Rights, One Man/One Vote, By And For The People, Rule Of Law. It was in their blood, a natural part of their being, driven into their souls over centuries of dogged resistance to British crown oppression. Furthermore, all the hatred and bigotry directed against them in America actually did them one big favor: It forced the natural development of ethnic communities in which members could depend on similar others for support, forced those communities to become more closely knit and rather quickly self-sufficient. The Irish transplanted to America the only structure in Ireland beyond the immediate family they could depend on – the church community. The Irish Catholic churches in America provided natural foundations around which to develop such communities.
Those communities set very high standards, and then assisted their members to achieve the standards. While nutrition, medicine and hygiene were important to staving off disease and death, absolutely critical to success in America was a very solid education in the fundamentals, including in the spoken American-English language, and in American democracy, government, law, economics, justice, culture, history and civic duty. Interestingly, one aspect that was not included in the curriculum was the history of Ireland. (The legends and tales lingered, but who really knew where or why they originated?) As tough as it was in America, these people were anxious to put the past behind them and to seek their futures working within a system that afforded them the opportunity to do so. Besides, all the history they knew had been passed down verbally over centuries; who knew which of it was true and which was myth? Just as interesting was the fact that the religion was secondary to the greater objectives. Consecrated a bishop in New York in 1838, Famine-Irish John Hughes’s first New York crusade was to get his huge flock educated. He passionately believed that the future of the Irish in America depended upon education and first went to battle trying to improve treatment of impoverished Irish children in the city’s public schools. When that effort proved less than stellar, he soon threw his energies into building a Catholic school system that would educate Irish Catholic children the way he thought they should be educated. By the end of his tenure, Hughes’s diocese contained over 100 such schools, and the concept had become universal for the global Catholic Church. Not content to build just primary and secondary schools, he founded or helped to found Fordham University and Manhattan, Manhattanville, and Mount St. Vincent colleges. (An excellent article by William J. Stern on this subject can be found in the City Journal, 1997, published by the Manhattan Institute. More on this subject below.) Above the local schools were also the 28 Jesuit mission universities when other universities were closed to them. There is very considerable strength and benefit in such ethnic-religious communities. With time and success the hatred from others turns to jealousy, and a whole different kind of group dynamic hurdle needs to be overcome. Eventually, for various self-serving reasons, the larger community comes to see that such groups need not be included in the general curriculum. In a culture today so very heavily based on “victimhood”, with its inexorably lowering standards, independent success often breeds contempt.
In addition to fighting, the Irish also did a fair amount of building. Although many were destroyed during Ireland’s many wars and “troubles”, Ireland still has more surviving castles than any other European country, some of which are just spectacularly beautiful and reveal exquisite craftsmanship. Who do you think actually built all those great monuments to enormous foreign wealth and power fully exploiting readily available and permanently impoverished native labor and talent? That long practice continued in America.
The Erie Canal, a key waterway in New York with 36 locks raising and lowering grain barges 565 feet that runs about 363 miles (585 km) from Buffalo on Lake Erie to Albany on the Hudson River, and which opened up the Great Plains to the Atlantic shipping lanes, was built almost entirely by Irish-Americans. When the canal connected with the Hudson River, the nation suddenly had a cheap inland waterway from New York City all the way to Detroit. The route cut transport costs in half and enabled the “world’s bread basket” on the American Great Plains to flourish while also opening up the West for settlement and establishing New York City as a global trading port. Irish labor did all that, by hand. In addition to the grain, another major barge cargo was life-essential salt from Syracuse, the primary American salt producer throughout the 19th century after the canal dramatically lowered transport costs to New York City ports. Under construction from 1817 to 1825, and enlarged between 1834 and 1862, the canal was the most successful and influential human-built waterway and one of the most important works of civil engineering and construction in North America. It had a significant impact even on state borders even as it was being built, and a number of “border wars”, on the borders and in Congress, played out as any state or territory that could vied for direct access to lake waterfront where ports could rise – and enable that state to participate directly in sea commerce. (The US is, after all, a federation of semi-independent states which often rely on the federal governing body to arbitrate disputes.) Although no longer in use, today many Irish towns dot the canal’s path across New York state.
Ask most people if they know who built the American transcontinental railroad, also considered one of the greatest American technological feats of the 19th century, and almost all of them will say the Chinese did. And that is true. But it’s only half true. Most of the construction engineers and supervisors were Army veterans who had learned their trade keeping the trains running during the American Civil War. The Central Pacific, which laid rails eastward from San Francisco, facing a labor shortage in the West (and, as with the military and mining, few “feminists” demanding their “fair quota” of such brutal jobs), did rely on thousands of Chinese immigrant laborers. The principle workers on the Union Pacific, which laid rails westward from Council Bluffs Iowa through the Rocky Mountains, on the other hand, were those “damned, quarrelsome” Catholic Famine-Irish immigrants, mostly Civil War army veterans. The two crews completed the line when they met in Utah in May 1869, and shook hands, just four years after the Civil War ended at Appomattox Virginia.
As with the Anaconda copper mines, both of these major construction projects that made America saw Catholic Irish-American communities rise and take root right next to their engineering accomplishments. Many still exist today; you just have to look closely to recognize them as anything other than “average American”. In other places it’s more difficult to detect their presence. Those who, for example, carved out the miles and miles of tunnels that became subways and aqueducts and conduits deep inside the granite of Manhattan, the life-sustaining arteries of a great metropolis, were eventually absorbed by the teeming humanity they made possible above.
Another of countless obscure Irish-American builders of some note was Thomas Casey, born in 1831 to second generation Irish immigrants in up-state New York, about 50 miles north of Syracuse. His father had distinguished himself in the Mexican-American War (1846-48) and continued to do so as a Major General in the American Civil War (1861-65). One of his brothers went on to serve as a Rear Admiral in the Pacific and his younger brother was a Lieutenant who died fighting the Sioux. At age twenty Tom graduated first in his class at West Point and was commissioned an officer in the US Army Corps of Engineers. He returned two years later in 1854 to teach engineering at West Point for five years, until his services were required before and during the Civil War in building and improving various military fortifications, principally in Maine. (Confederate soldiers used Canada as a safe base of operations from which to conduct raids and attacks on Northern targets in New England.) After the war, in 1877 he was assigned to the Office of the Chief of Engineers in Washington DC. Over the next ten years he designed and built the “State, War and Navy” building (now the Eisenhower Executive Office Building) and designed and completed the majestic George Washington Monument, still the world’s tallest stone structure. At age 64, now Chief of Engineers Major General Casey retired from the Army, but went on to design and build the Thomas Jefferson Building – which houses the Library of Congress, the most extensive literary repository on Earth, a beautiful palace dedicated to collective human knowledge, research and education, a magnificent temple to the literacy that had been deliberately denied his ancestors in Ireland. Before he died in 1896, Tom Casey indeed had left his mark for the ages on the best of America.
After Ellis Island opened in 1892, the Italians joined the Irish in building the world’s first subway. The underground mass transit system opened without fanfare in 1897 and moved 250,000 passengers on its first day, without horses. The subway ran through downtown Boston and used electric motors invented by naval officer Frank Sprague that also made skyscrapers and mega-cities possible.
Most other national-ethnic-religious immigrant groups also had similar effective support structures for their own members, but almost all of them were driven out of business by the mid-twentieth century through the rise of government welfare programs – paid for by “someone else”. Rather than help citizens to stand on their own in a teeming meritocracy, the emphasis after about 1970 in America became to make them dependent on a socialistic government buying votes. Today, the only communities in America that approximate the large Catholic Irish communities of yesteryear are a few Asian communities, but unfortunately these, too, are fading. There is some effort in some cities to build such natural ethnic-religious support structures in large Hispanic and smaller Muslim communities, but these communities are evolving in a vastly different America with enormously changed values in social and economic environments that are incredibly easier. And the natural effect of the much larger mediocre native group today tends to actually dilute the dynamic efforts of the smaller and more energetic ethnic-religious groups.
For the Famine-Irish as a group, the turning point came towards the end of their great migration flood peak, in New York in 1870 – in violence. There had been violent riots in New York during the Civil War protesting the conscription of recently arrived penniless immigrants for use as Union cannon fodder (Draft Riots of 1863). Among the Famine-Irish then there was special resentment that the same type of “entitled” people who were oppressing them in Ireland were now forcing them to die in a war opposed to oppressing others in America – using Irish serfs in a war to free Black slaves. So it was. The Civil War was decided and Black Americans were free, but despite colossal Catholic Irish war casualties, Catholic Ireland was still enslaved and Famine-Irish American were still oppressed, so emotions were still raw seven years later. Post-war Reconstruction laws, especially the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) to the Constitution (citizenship, due process, equal protection), were assisting the blacks, but nothing was assisting the Famine-Irish. The “Orange riots” that took place in Manhattan in 1870 and 1871 involved violent conflict between “Irish” Protestants, called “Orangemen”, and Irish Catholics, along with the New York City Police Department and the New York State National Guard. (The Orangemen were extremist descendants of those favored Protestants from Scotland, Wales and Britain who had been “planted” in Ireland by the British crown church-state in order to displace and disenfranchise the Catholic Irish natives.) On 12 July 1870 a parade was held in Manhattan by “Irish” Protestants celebrating the victory at the Battle of the Boyne – an event long used by Protestants transplanted into Ireland, and their descendants, to pour salt into already gapping Catholic Irish wounds, to intimidate and insult and lord it over the “perennial losers”. The annual “Orange” parade was a practice, like so many others, imported to America by British bigots deeply steeped in the long history of Ireland’s oppression. Although the New York police intervened to quell the fighting, 8 people died as a result of the 1870 riot.
The Battle of the Boyne had been fought 180 years earlier in July 1690 between two rival claimants of the English throne – the Catholic King James II (of Scotland) and the Protestant King William III (of Orange in southern France, who had deposed James in 1688) – near Drogheda on the east coast of Ireland. William’s 36,000 disciplined forces had faced James’ army of 25,000 mostly raw Irish recruits. (Total casualties for such a large battle – about 2,000 killed – were rather low, but weighted against the Irish forces. Due to his loss of courage and rapid exit from the battlefield, James was definitely not enshrined in honor among the Irish, who continued the fight without him until the Treaty of Limerick in 1691.) The Battle of the Boyne, won by William, was a turning point in James’ unsuccessful attempt to regain the crown and ultimately helped ensure the continuation of transplanted Protestant ascendancy and the ever greater subjugation of the native Catholics in Ireland under the ruthless power of the British crown and its entitled nobility. It mattered not that the crown had to be imported from outside England as long as the Protestants maintained their highly favored position over the “sub-human” locals with the help of the British military and “legal” system. One of the outcomes of William’s victory at Boyne was the introduction of the draconian Penal Laws in Catholic Ireland. (See “Terrorist Or Freedom-fighter? Irish“.) Another was to step up the “plantations” of favored Scottish, Welsh and British Protestants imported into Catholic Ireland to supplant the locals. The Orange Institution is a Protestant fraternal organization founded a century later in 1796 and based in Belfast “northern” Ireland dedicated to the memory of William’s Protestant invasion victory over the Catholics at Boyne – in Catholic Ireland. Because of the continuing anti-Catholic Penal Laws and repeated “troubles” in Ireland, all of this history two centuries later was still strong in the memories of those who had desperately fled Ireland to emigrate to America, and especially among those who had been herded into New York City slums and fought in the American Civil War. The city was then run by the Tammany Hall political machine – which the city’s power elite, as an “entitled nobility” of its own, had been using to keep the teeming immigrant multitudes under control. (See the 2002 USA film “The Gangs Of New York”.)
The following year (1871) the New York “Orangemen” again requested police permission to march. (A good analogy of this can be made by imagining a parade of many thousands of hooded Ku Klux Klansmen carrying burning crosses marching under massive police guard through downtown Birmingham Alabama in 1968.) Fearing another violent incident, the parade was initially banned by the city’s police commissioner with the support of Boss William Tweed, the head of Tammany Hall, the Democratic Party political machine which controlled the city, and the state government in Albany. The Catholic Archbishop applauded that decision. But Protestants objected, as did newspaper editorials in the Herald and Times and a petition signed by Wall Street businessmen. Intense anti-Famine-Irish bigotry was still an integral part of the American status quo. Not only was the ban seen as giving in to the bad behavior of a Catholic “mob” that had objected to the march the year before, but fears were voiced about the growing political power of Famine-Irish Catholics, the increasing visibility of leftist Ireland nationalism in the city, and the possibility of radical political action. (Yes, among the huge numbers of Irish-American Catholics were those elements who at that time could be characterized as “radical nationalists”, those who were willing to go to militant extremes to secure the freedom of their home country. The huge numbers of Ireland-born among the population of Manhattan fueled fears in England of the rise of an “Irish nation” in the United States. Sometimes that nationalist fervor spilled over in opposition to perceived attempts to re-create in America the same permanent oppression of their homeland – a domestic fervor which the British and Scots-Irish were quick to exaggerate and exploit. A century later, during the 1960s, the exact same “thinking” accompanied Dr. Martin Luther King’s organized Black sit-in demonstrations against similar practices of the “entitled” in America – which the Civil War was supposed to end. The back-shadow of “communist manipulation” of the Black community had replaced the back-shadow of “nationalist manipulation” of the Irish community – a perennial “fear” fanned by the British, including those in America, and their minions.)
The pressure generated by these concerns among the city’s elite, on top of pressure from good-government reformers against Tweed’s corrupt regime in general, caused Tammany to reverse course and allow the march; Tammany needed to show that it could control the immigrant Irish population which formed the majority of its electoral power. The city’s power elite wanted to crush the Irish Catholics and put them firmly and permanently in their place. The Governor, a Tammany man, rescinded the police commissioner’s ban, and ordered that the Orangemen marchers be protected by the city police and the state militia, including cavalry. On 12 July 1871 the parade proceeded with highly visible protection from 1,500 policemen and five whole regiments of the National Guard (Militia) – about five thousand armed men, many on horse-back.
The Famine-Irish came out in force. The resulting riot caused the deaths of over 60 civilians – mostly Irish laborers – and three Guardsmen. Over 150 people were wounded, including 22 militiamen and 20 policeman. Property damage was extensive, and about 100 people were arrested. However, despite their attempt to protect their political power by allowing the parade to go forward, Tammany Hall did not benefit from the outcome, instead coming under increased criticism from newspapers and the city’s ruling class surveying the resulting death and destruction and now having second thoughts about the “wisdom” of their earlier “thinking”. Passions kept forcibly bottled up in Catholic Famine-Irish hearts for 330 years could not be easily kept in check by American replacements for the British military, no matter what the cost to them. Tweed obviously could not keep the Irish in line, and his Tammany Hall would fall shortly afterwards. And the Catholic Famine-Irish, the key voting bloc for Tammany, were rapidly filling the ranks of both the police and military in America and also moving into city precinct politics themselves. If “the higher classes will not govern, the lower classes will.” What was still not possible back home in Ireland was becoming reality in far more egalitarian America – where votes count. Using Irish “cops” to round up drunk and disorderly Irishmen in “Paddy Wagons”* was one thing, but expecting them to fire on countrymen opposed to importing the “entitled” atrocities of Ireland to America was quite something else – especially after so very many of them had just died in war to end slavery by the “entitled” in America. After 1871 the activities of the Orange Order were banned for a time and the Order dissolved, but did gradually resurface on a smaller more subdued scale later. The Orangemen parades in America were over (but they continue even today in “northern” Ireland). (See Footnote #3, Syracuse Orange.) And, while the Orangemen were gone, such huge cross-burning Ku Klux Klan demonstrations did still greet Irish Catholic Al Smith in New York as he sought his party’s nomination for presidential candidate a whole half century later in 1924.
(*“Paddy” is based on a phonetic misspelling of the common Irish name “Patrick”, with its nickname “Patty”. American English today has hundreds of words and phrases, especially very common slang terms like “cop” (or “copper”), that owe their origins to the Famine-Irish; since they were illiterate and didn’t record their contributions to American vocabulary in writing, those origins are difficult to trace without a solid knowledge of the spoken 19th century Irish Gaelic language, which was distinctly different from both British and American English.)
The Cathedral And The Schools
While they were busy with the Erie Canal, the Civil War and the Orangemen, the Irish also found time to build the magnificent neo-Gothic St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. In 1855, one-quarter of the population of Manhattan was born in Ireland, but the cathedral was the result of one man’s will – Irish Catholic Archbishop John Hughes. In a rather rural area that was miles north of the city at that time, excavation and foundation work began by hand in the late-1840s on a site that had been purchased by the Jesuits in 1810, and the cornerstone was laid in 1858. Work was halted during the Civil War, resumed in 1865, and was completed in 1878 – to make the very firm statement: “We are Catholic and we are Irish, and we are here to stay.” The Irish who built the cathedral over those 30 years even had to use arms to defend it against very concerted and relentless efforts by “natives” to destroy their work. If you know where to look, you can spot bricked-over embrasures in the cathedral walls through which defenders could aim rifles. (Deep beneath the cathedral is a quite large crypt containing many burial vault rooms for the families of famous and wealthy people who made significant contributions to finance the cathedral’s construction. Among them are Archbishop Hughes and his eight successors, all Irish-Americans.)
The tough John Hughes was born on a “tenant” farm in 1797 and raised in County Tyrone (“northern” Ireland) under the tyranny of the Penal Laws and Orangemen bigotry. He emigrated with his parents to Pennsylvania in the US at age 20 in 1817, became a priest in 1826, and was appointed a bishop of New York at age 41 in 1838 at the beginning of the great Famine-Irish flood. In New York he was a relentless campaigner on behalf of the uneducated Irish immigrants, and when he failed to secure state support for parochial schools, he founded the independent Catholic school system which quickly became an integral part of the entire Catholic Church structure. The schools soon earned a reputation as among the best in the nation. Paying taxes through the nose to support the British church-state while also paying to keep alive their own Catholic institutions was a practice imposed on the dirt-poor Irish back home for centuries. In America, however, it was not a crime to educate your children. Considering the pay-off for their kids, Irish-Americans figured that the extra burden of parochial schools was worth it (until the Baby Boomers around 1975, a century later, began using a different calculus to decide that it wasn’t). Those schools did more than anything else to rapidly place the Famine-Irish on a footing equal to everyone else, a solid footing that enabled them to move forward with an even chance of succeeding. And the Irish knew it; those schools, with their tough and high standards, were definitely worth the sacrifice, and more. Their steady advancement firmly established education as The Critical Key to success in America, and their school doors were opened wide to the new flood of like-minded immigrants streaming through Ellis Island from eastern and southern Europe at the turn of the century.
Historian Daniel Walker Howe concluded that Hughes “labored to bring a largely working-class Irish community into a meaningful relationship with Catholic Christianity” while at the same time working “to conciliate middle-class Catholics and Protestant well-wishers whose financial support he needed for his amazingly ambitious program of building” not only a great cathedral but first-rate schools as well. By combining his staunch American patriotism with staunch devotion to a nineteenth-century papacy deeply suspicious of all liberalism, especially American liberalism, Hughes “succeeded in fostering a strong Irish-American identity, one centered on the Catholic faith rather than on the secular radicalism of the Irish nationalists who competed with him for community leadership.” So, in the midst of a really huge wave of Irish serfs escaping oppression in their homeland, it fell to a strong-willed Irish-American priest to temper Irish-American anger against their oppressors in both Ireland and America – and focus them on more productive endeavors.
The cathedral, built of brick clad in marble and filling a full city block, is comparable in size to European counterparts with spires that rise 330 feet. It can accommodate 3,000 people. At the time it opened its doors, it dominated the area now known as “Mid-town” as the tallest structure in New York and the second-tallest in the country. During the following decades, the city steadily grew by expanding north to, around and beyond the cathedral. Like its hated “white nigger” parishioners who built it, the cathedral stood its ground, defended its place, and measured up. The majestic monument to that effort, “St. Pat’s”, is located on the east side of Fifth Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets in what is now midtown Manhattan, directly across the street from Rockefeller Center’s 39-floor International Building. Sixty years after it opened its doors, when the towering city reached the steps of St. Pat’s in 1937, the Rockefellers commissioned a gigantic 45-foot tall bronze statue of a straining Atlas holding the planet on his shoulders and positioned it in front of their 512-feet-tall centerpiece skyscraper – directly opposite and pointedly facing the front doors of the cathedral. St. Patrick’s responded with a small statue of a Jesus child holding Earth in one hand – and facing Atlas with a smile. Today, however, when people talk about St. Pat’s, they tend to leave out the “Irish” part, and paint it as just a “Catholic” cathedral. (Even “The Godfather” managed to cloud the matter by having a key part of that iconic Italian-American story filmed inside St. Patrick’s cathedral – which, of course, had been there well before the Italians, and the Mafia, began arriving in America in large numbers.) The cathedral and associated buildings were declared a National Historic Landmark in 1976.
Still, if the Orangemen were not enough, there were always secret hate groups like the Black Legion, large off-shoots of the Ku Klux Klan that itself traces its American roots to the British Orangemen of “northern” Ireland. (See “Walt Kowalski”.) These organized anti-immigrant hate groups, primarily focused on Irish (but also on Polish and Mexican) first-, second- and third-generation immigrants, were still operating on the eve of World War II in 1940, especially in the Mid-West auto manufacturing belt and in the American South. Such secret hate groups were not above ritual murder to drive their anti-immigrant fervor home to more recent arrivals.
Domestic American politics is not as clear-cut as most today would have them – as some sort of stark difference between right and left, between conservative and liberal. It’s first necessary to carefully define your terms. In America both the liberal Democrat Party and the conservative Republican Party have undergone significant changes in their political outlooks over just the past forty years under the powerful influence of the Baby Boomers and especially “feminism”. Both parties today are very different from what they were during, say, the 1960s, a half century ago. For example, the Famine-Irish Catholics tended to gravitate toward political liberalism, but a Kennedy enabling-liberalism that was significantly different from today’s Pelosi dependency-liberalism. Enabling-liberalism (“classical” liberalism) strongly supported civil rights laws that broke down artificially imposed constraints. Today’s dependency-liberalism draws heavily on the tactics of women’s lobbies to use those laws to advance rights without responsibilities. Most of American liberal “thinkers” today draw their values from snobbish European aristocratic “elitism”, from supremely arrogant people like Cromwell with his religious crusade against a religion held by “sub-humans”. Such liberal “elitists” today maintain power by carefully cultivating subordinate herds of “victims” and then doling out other people’s money to keep them dependent (and under political control). The process derives from a socialist philosophy holding that “the masses” are stupid and helpless people who need an “elitist” cadre to “take care of them” (after the “elitist” cadre takes care of itself first). Today’s dependency-liberalism is reflected in politicians creating, building and “championing” huge permanently whining “victim” groups that can be maintained as dependents, in reality or in theory, in order to ensure political power of the “elitists” ad infinitum, while also keeping a tight rein on the herds.
Unfortunately this political philosophy has been so successful over the past forty years that it has significantly infected “conservatism”, too, which results in a political philosophy that doesn’t know what it is. (Listen to Democrat Senator Harry Reid’s incessant whines about Republicans seeking to deprive his daughters and granddaughters of medical care, as if this wealthy man, made wealthy solely through his long service in government, had no such responsibility himself. It also presumes that his daughters and granddaughters have no such responsibility for themselves. Republicans are no better with their own whines about Democrats trying to steal the futures of “our children”, also as though parents had no such responsibility themselves. And no one in either party will ever give voice to any view that might be perceived as even remotely disparaging of our all-perfect women and their super-sensitive majority voting bloc, so it’s all fawning praise all the time, all rights with never a mention of the other half of our society’s responsibilities. It’s all about building your own permanent dependent voting blocs, about government assuming responsibility for everyone – using money confiscated from “someone else”, which are those who manage to succeed in America.) True conservatism is actually the political philosophy of the Libertarian Party, a party that now barely draws 3% of the popular vote in America, so it’s anyone’s guess just what the “conservative” Republican Party really stands for, despite the fact that it consistently draws about half of American voters. (The process has been hopelessly clouded by the sole need to win women’s votes in order to get elected and remain in office, so both parties are chasing the same group of ever more demanding and dependent women voters, just with different rhetoric.)
Kennedy, as an Irish-American, and more importantly as a direct descendent of Famine-Irish, was, naturally, interested in freeing people from constraints that kept them from living up to their own independent potential, who would then assume their just share of the responsibility on their own – and then moving on to the next worthwhile challenge. (See Footnote #2 to “Irish-American”.) As a consequence of both major parties chasing the same herds of dependent voters, and most especially women voters, only the tiny Libertarian Party espouses such enabling values today. Kennedy, a 1960 Democrat, could not have won election without appealing to a far wider cross-section of America than that represented by his own party, or by Catholics, or by Famine-Irish; he had to bring along a significant number of conservative voters, too. In fact, there are those today who regard Kennedy as a conservative, which, by today’s liberal standards, he was, despite his Democrat Party membership. (Over 20% of Catholic voters cast their ballot for his Republican opponent.) But since conservatism has changed, too, Kennedy today may actually feel more at home personally with the tiny Libertarian Party. To understand such things it’s important to understand the critical difference between enabling people to realize their own potential, which was the Famine-Irish mantra, and making people permanently dependent on government, which was anathema to the Famine-Irish. The one thing that most drove the Famine-Irish during the 19th century and well into the 20th century was social justice under one set of laws that balanced rights and responsibilities and were applied equitably to everyone. The Irish: “You learn the rules, you master the process, and then you beat the jerks at their own game – on your own merit.” There is no “special” in equal, and all rights come with corresponding responsibilities. There is no place for birthright entitlement, including entitlement derived from gender, a simple accident of birth … in America.
Or so they believed.
(Above all else, the Famine-Irish despised birthright entitled nobility, under any subterfuge, including gender.)
Just fifty years after the utter devastation of its Civil War, America would become a global super-power. What made all of this possible were millions of first- and second-generation immigrants, free to compete in the American caldron, and the largest numbers of those immigrants were Famine-Irish who steadily moved out of the slums and the mines and the mills to seek their futures all over the country in every endeavor out there. The only relevant questions in America by 1910 were, “How big do you want to dream?”, “How hard can you work?”, and “How big a risk are you willing to take?” America’s greatest gift was, and remains, freedom of opportunity – the freedom to get off your ass and do something, on your own merit, your own effort.
And what of Bridget, the Irish women who lost her first son and her husband to cholera in the Boston slums? Her name was Bridget Kennedy, and just three generations later, her great grandson, John, overcoming four centuries of virulent anti-Catholic Irish bigotry in the British Isles and in America, and using the family fortune for which his great grandmother had laid the foundation in the terrible slums of Boston, returned to Ireland in first class as President of the United States. There was, of course, some great irony in Great Britain that the very bright and popular leader of the “American Camelot” was Irish — one of those despised “sub-human undesirables”. And while the forgotten Bridget was building alone the foundation of the Kennedy clan’s fortune in the deadly Boston slums during and after the Civil War, just forty miles away in Concord the very privileged and entitled “feminist”, Louisa May Alcott, was leisurely penning her idyllic “Little Women”.
And of course, Scarlett O’Hara, too, was the daughter of an Irishman – the penniless Irishman born in 1801 in County Wicklow who later built “Tara”, just south of Atlanta, out of nothing. (Tara is an Irish-Gaelic pronunciation of “tower house” – which was a type of small, tall Medieval stone Irish “castle” built by the thousands for various clans, chieftains and families during the 13th-16th centuries, before the British began their systematic theft of the entire island.) It was indeed ironic that it fell to the British actress Vivien Leigh to immortalize one of the most enduringly iconic characters in all of American cinema – the incredibly spoiled and perennially fickle American woman-child – an actress whose closest friend in London girls school had been the Irish actress Maureen O’Sullivan. Totally self-involved, demanding and useless, Scarlett has a million unearned rights and not a scintilla of a sense of responsibility for anything or anyone beyond her glorious self. Even acres of dead, dying and maimed soldiers is nothing but an irritant standing in the way of her own immediate wants. Even after her entire privileged class had finally been relegated to the dustbin of history, her whole world now just smoldering ashes, she remains ever oblivious to new realities, still blaming others for the consequences of her own free choices. Not much has changed among America’s “entitled” nobility women in the ensuing 150 years – except that Scarlett O’Haras are now cheaper by the million. The most pampered, the most promoted, the most protected, the most privileged and the most powerful group on the planet still excels at nothing more than incessant whining, at constantly making demands of everyone else. As Scarlett showed us all: American women have RIGHTS; they do NOT have responsibilities. Everyone else has the responsibilities of ensuring whatever rights American women decide to demand for themselves at any moment in time.
The sweeping novel had been written by Margaret Mitchell, the privileged descendent of Atlanta immigrants from Scotland, who knew full well the lowly status of Irish immigrants in America. She wrote it during the Great Depression while another American women, Dorothea Lange, the daughter of second generation German immigrants, was chronicling in stark classic photographs the plight of the poor and forgotten – particularly displaced farm families, sharecroppers, and migrant workers, mostly immigrant families – and distributing them to newspapers throughout the country. It was enough to break every Irish heart that it was the daughter of an Irishman, even in fiction, who in her “Gone With The Wind” showed American women how to pick and choose only those goodies of life they like, while leaving all the hard parts, including the costs and the blame and the danger and the risk, to “someone else” – and all in the interest of “equality.” Scarlett’s behavior was an early sign of a crippling disease that would eventually reach epidemic proportions among American women, who were quick to infect as many of their off-spring as possible with the same twisted dogma. In 1939 Scarlett’s behavior was most striking to audiences all over the globe, but as the huge rising Baby Boomer herd fed leisurely at the incredibly bountiful trough provided to them by their Greatest Generation parents from 1945 to 1970, the disease gradually became known as the very common Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or NPD. It’s still as disgusting as ever, of course, but now it’s just “normal”. For American women, busily creating their own nobility class, it wasn’t really “Gone” after all.
Thankfully it was Rhett Butler who was man enough to give the few American men left today what is still their very best retort: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
Today everyone like to champion America as “a country of immigrants” as if it still is the same country that greeted immigrants of the past. But, in fact, the differences between what greeted past immigrants and immigrants of today are the differences between night and day. Since the two Americas are vastly different places, it is simply not possible to equate the two. Most Americans today, for example, don’t seem to understand that the first major government labor laws and “safety nets” didn’t come into being until the 1920s and 1930s when America was well on its way to becoming a global power on the backs of its many millions of ruthlessly exploited immigrants of the previous century.
America’s first great wave of immigrants lasted about sixty years from about 1835 to 1895 and consisted mostly of many millions of illiterate, starving, penniless people who came from an island in the North Atlantic to become America’s expendable work horses and Civil War cannon fodder. They were the “Famine-Irish”, and they had LOTS of kids. About 70% of them survived, as did about 70% of their many kids.
But blatant “profiling” was the standard operating procedure in every social endeavor from Day One, even in the newspapers they knew the Irish couldn’t read. There was no one buying their votes with social welfare entitlements paid for with money confiscated from the earnings of “someone else”, no very favorable loans and other government policies and programs for their women, no food stamps or housing assistance or unemployment insurance, no workplace safety laws, no disability or veterans benefits or pensions, no Medicaid or Medicare or Social Security or “Obamacare”, no free emergency care at hospitals, no government “redistribution of wealth”. The main thing the military offered their men was clothes and food for the day. There were no laws banning discrimination or mandating affirmative action quotas, no talk radio, no political TV “news”, no Hollywood movies championing the Famine-Irish, no tenured university programs to study their history and culture, no special months set aside to praise their contributions, no powerful lobbies incessantly churning out self-serving propaganda, no Fourth Estate politically correct censorship protecting them from criticism, no demanded or provided infantile “safe zones”.
There was no incessant government, media, academic and lobby pandering to self-anointed eternal “victim” Famine-Irish groups ad nauseam in perpetuity as is the practice in America for our majority women and minorities, including recent immigrants, of today. There was no grating childish effeminate “Great American Whine” constantly polluting all breathable air around the globe wailing from the most comfortable nanny state on the planet.
For the millions of Famine-Irish there was only the traditional family unit, their church community, and a society that offered opportunity to all willing to seize the chance to work damned hard for it – after they paid their dues and earned their way. And with zero help from anywhere else, that was enough. With survival and advancement paramount, there was little time or patience or money for luxuriating in the bassinet of introspection, self-analysis and navel study. Literally everything they did they did for their kids. There certainly was no eternal wallowing in self-pity. The millions of Famine-Irish had no time or tolerance for basking in victimhood; they clawed their way up the only way possible – by battling on their own in the bloody trenches until their survivors had proven themselves, to themselves, and earned their way forward on their own merit.
America’s second great wave of immigrants lasted about 50 years from 1892 to 1942 and consisted mostly of better educated poor people from Europe who came to finish what the Irish had begun and then put the finishing touches on what became contemporary American society between 1950 and 1970. Together the Famine-Irish and the Ellis Island immigrants also fought two world wars, a war in Korea and another war in Vietnam while putting in place the magic cornucopia that greeted the post-war Baby Boomers. These two groups, almost completely on their own, built America and handed it gratis to their 80,000,000 Boomer children. By 1950 America was a completely different country from what it had been just 100 years earlier, and by 1975 America had become a land of a million rights where all the responsibilities were strictly for someone else. “Now that all the really hard stuff is done, America now belongs to everyone, free for the taking. It’s all built, maintained, funded and defended by god and someone else for very special me to vegetate in.”
The items mentioned here only scratch the surface of the true Irish-American history. Any whiners of today need only spend a couple of hours reading up on the miserable story of the hard-working and long-suffering Catholic Irish or “Famine-Irish” immigrants to America in the one century between 1830 and 1940 – the century not so long ago that laid the foundation for America to become a world super power. Deemed totally corrupt and entirely incorrigible sub-human cannon fodder, those Irish even had to educate themselves, usually in church affiliated schools that rapidly gained a reputation as among the best in the country. At the end of that single century America’s Greatest Generation stood tall, and very many of them were Catholics whose grandparents had come from a small island on slave ships. Three generations were sufficient for them to rise from serfdom and some of them to national and even global leadership. In addition to giants like Ambassador and Senator Daniel “Pat” Moynihan and tough but fair House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, one of them, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, thanks in no small part to his tough great grandmother, would even return from proving himself in war to eventually become President, and then make a triumphant visit to his ancestral home as “leader of the free world”. (See Footnote #4.) What Catholic Famine-Irish-Americans accomplished against all odds, despite all the pervasive crushing discrimination and ethnic bigotry, and completely on their own, at home and on the battlefield, set the standard for all other American immigrant groups.
(A similar process for the Irish took place in Australia, which unfortunately had not benefitted from a successful colonial revolution against the “birthright entitled” British nobility. So the way forward for the dirt-poor Irish who flooded into Australia in the mid-19th century took longer. Australia became a very distant place where the crown shipped off Irish “undesirables” convicted of “crimes” – a huge colony “plantation” populated by “criminals”. Typical was John Kelly from County Tipperary who in 1841 at age 20 was convicted of stealing two pigs and sent to prison in Australia for seven years. (The Irish were not permitted to own property, so anything found in their possession – including currency, harvested crops or farm animals – was presumed stolen from landlords.) After serving his time in prison he found work as a carpenter and two years later married Ellen Quinn near Melbourne. They named their first-born son Edward, or “Ned”. But the family was never able to escape the attention of the Victoria colonial police during a time when colonial police actions were considered above reproach and often above the law, especially in outlying areas. Three years after the death of his father at age 45, Ned was only 14 when he first got in trouble with that law. Ten years later Ned Kelly was the most famous outlaw in Australian history, with very many of his countrymen considering him a rebel hero. In 1880 at a hotel in rural Glenrowan, Ned’s younger brother, Dan, and two friends died in a shoot-out with over 100 police, and a wounded Ned was taken prisoner. Five months later he was hanged at the age of 25. Today there is much about the Aussies that is pure Irish, even as their famous fierce independence gradually fades. (Still, I happen to regard the Aussies as more “American” than are even today’s Americans.)
And then there’s this. This is an authentic version of the original “Garyowen” by the US Army Strings, complete with Irish pipes and fiddles, often heard as a military marching tune in old US Western movies involving the US Army’s famous 7th Cavalry Regiment. The 7th Cav, a Regular Army unit of about two thousand men formed just after the end of the American Civil War, itself was known by its official nickname “The Garyowen”. The unit, which included its own band and used trained horses usually taken from the wild, was manned mostly by Famine-Irish veterans who had survived the American Civil War, and it played a key role in the development of the American West. The unit also included black soldiers, usually former slaves, and employed many Native Americans as scouts. The legendary 7th Cav was a true cavalry unit that still used horses specially trained to carry its infantry troopers, often over great distances – from Missouri to North Dakota to California to Texas and everywhere in between. Land wars, railroad thrusts, cattle rustlers, outlaw gangs, Indian wars, gold rushes, lost travelers, corrupt syndicates, homesteaders, water wars, land grabs, cold-blooded killers from Europe and everywhere, range wars, mining disputes, wagon trains, vigilante justice, claims disputes, cattle drives, Western Union telegraph lines, Pony Express mail service, … Big Trouble everywhere. “Send for the cavalry!” One small group of tough disciplined men tried to impose some order, some sense of security, in a vast untamed land that embraced neither. During its first 15 years, the 7th Cav marched 182,000 miles from Kansas and throughout the Dakota Territories and Montana – a distance equal to 7.3 times the circumference of Earth. By the end of the 1800s those men had covered a distance equal to that from Earth to the Moon, with hundreds of trouble stops, and dead and wounded soldiers, along the way. …. Endless deep blue skies strewn with big clumps of soft cotton; the Great Plains, dust and hot sun and strong breezes, wavy grasslands; the Rocky Mountains, snow and frigid winds and ominous clouds, icy streams; and there on the craggy trail a company of the 7th Cavalry, 100 war horses powerful and beautifully brown in fast trot two-column formation, now speeding up then easing up ever forward, Springfield carbine rifles, strong men with ruddy faces in dusty blue uniforms, straight backs tall and proud and easy in the saddle, a distinctive black Stetson trooper’s hat with gold cord, brim ever perpendicular to the spine, and, tying it all perfectly together, the unmistakable Garyowen signature. …. (Now play that tune again, while re-reading the previous sentence; focus your mind on the trotting horses, hear the hooves keep gait with the beat, feel your body rock in the saddle. What do you see? What do you feel?) If you have the right imagination, you can feel the same connection felt by those proud troopers astride their galloping steeds. This is pure “Americana”. You can’t get more “American” than that – even though much of it, including the soldiers, goes straight back to Ireland. (See Footnote #2 below.)
Those on the Emerald Isle might see something a little different. The Garyowen tune originated centuries ago as a drinking song (“Eóghan’s Garden”) in Limerick, Ireland, and became popular through the 5th Royal Irish Lancers of the British Army in the 18th century. It was adopted by New York’s Irish-American 69th Infantry Regiment before the Civil War in 1851, and by the 7th Cavalry Regiment after the Civil War in 1866. In 1981 the tune became the official marching tune of the US Regular Army’s mighty 1st Cavalry Division. All three of these American units are combat infantry units, but the 7th Cav built its unique story in the American West. So the Garyowen tune has very deep Irish roots, but it was strong Irish-Americans, in dedicated service to the greater good, who gave it a new identity, a new spirit, a new image, and a prominent place in American history. (See Footnote #2.) (See also Footnote #1 to “Walt Kowalski – An American Man“.)
Tip: You can hear different renditions of the Garyowen several times through the John Ford film about the West Point US Military Academy, “The Long Gray Line” (USA, 1955). This fine film (which is a bit on the sentimental side) focuses on the remarkable true story of US Army Master Sergeant Martin Maher, who immigrated to America from County Tipparary in Ireland at age 20 and soon went to work as a staff employee at West Point in 1896. Two years later he joined the US Army and remained at West Point as an athletic instructor, first as an enlisted man for thirty years and then as a civilian for another twenty years. MSG Maher retired after Word War II in 1946 after fifty years of service to West Point, died in 1961 at age 84, and is buried in the West Point Cemetery. The role of Maher is played by Tyrone Power, and the role of his wife, fellow Irish immigrant Mary O’Donnell, is played by Dublin-born Maureen O’Hara. Most of the film was shot on the grounds of West Point, about 50 miles up the Hudson River from Manhattan. During his half century at the famous academy, the popular Marty Maher and his wife, with their distinctive Irish brogues, knew many of America’s greatest military leaders in both world wars, including Omar Bradley, James Van Fleet and George Patton, and many of their sons, while they were all still cadets. One of them, Dwight Eisenhower, ended his second term as US President in the year Sergeant Maher died. (Ms O’Hara, by the way, who became an American citizen in 1946, in 2014 was still going strong in Idaho and still speaking proudly and assertively with her Dublin accent.)
If you listen carefully, you’ll hear occasional background strains of the Garyowen or “John’s Garden” in many of John Ford’s films, including “The Searchers” (1956). The famous Hollywood director’s parents were also immigrants from Ireland who came to Boston in 1872, settled in Portland Maine, and proceeded to have eleven children – five of whom survived to adulthood. Over a half century of directing 140 films, the complex Ford (who was born as John Feeney) never strayed from his strong Irish heritage (“The Informer” – 1935, “Young Cassidy” – 1965) while showing the world his beloved America, and its ideals, through great classic motion picture stories – for which he eventually became a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Many of John Ford’s movies dealt with the American Old West, and he had a special regard for horse soldiers and their disciplined steeds. His famous “cavalry trilogy” – “Fort Apache” (1948), “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon” (1949) and “Rio Grande” (1950) – was finally capped with “The Horse Soldiers” (1959), all four with his friend John Wayne in the lead. Especially in the last film, you can see Ford’s love for his subject in the way he films (or paints) long columns of mounted war horses; the audience is left to wonder how it’s possible to get such powerful and beautiful animals, much less intelligent men, to charge straight into blizzards of ear-shattering cannon and gun fire. But they did. (Ford included in his “The Horse Soldiers” a part for the great black American tennis champion, Althea Gibson, and Ms Gibson refused to speak in the script’s “Negro” slave dialogue, to which Ford did not object.) While he had directed the military news cameramen filming the US D-Day invasion of Normandy, Ford’s western films are beautiful moving paintings of the Old West, carefully selected majestic settings for scenes that often seem to overwhelm mere mortals placed in them, and he knew that the only light cavalry that was ever a match for the 7th Cav were Native American dog soldiers, especially those of the Cheyenne tribes.
Bagpipes, by the way, were probably introduced to northern Europe by the Romans and first appeared in Scotland around the time of Henry VIII in 1547 where they soon replaced the trumpet in battles. By 1580 they had found their way over to Ireland, but remain even today very strongly associated with the Scottish Highlands, not native to Gaelic Ireland.
Another son of Famine-Irish immigrants who made his mark in the arts was born in 1888 in a New York City hotel room to touring actor James O’Neill (born 1846 in County Kilkenny) and Mary Ellen Quinlan (born 1857 in New Haven, Connecticut, to Irish immigrants from Tipperary). Their son’s name was Eugene O’Neill, and he became a playwright who is today widely regarded as the father of American theater drama, still the only American playwright to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (1936). O’Neill’s early adult years were somewhat less than auspicious. After a year at Princeton he went to sea, living a derelict’s existence on the waterfronts of Buenos Aires, Liverpool and New York City, submerging himself in alcohol, attempted suicide, and came down with tuberculosis. Recovering in a Connecticut sanatorium, he decided to get his life in order and at age 25 began to write plays. Taking inspiration from Greek and Shakespearean tragedies, as well as from August Strindberg (Sweden 1849), Anton Chekhov (Russia 1860) and Henrik Ibsen (Norway 1828), for the next 25 years with such complex and weighty masterpieces as “Desire Under the Elms”, “Mourning Becomes Electra”, “The Iceman Cometh” and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”, he elevated the American stage to a level fully equal to that of Europe. Broadway had “arrived” on the work of an Irish-American. Yet, despite his success, O’Neill died in 1953 as broken and tragic a figure as any he had created for the stage. (“The Irish think too much.”) (See Footnote #5.)
“I’ll write about happiness if I ever happen to meet up with that luxury.” – Eugene O’Neill
The Irish have been a continuous key participant in American history for over 400 years, but most especially over the 125 years between 1840 and 1965. For better or worse, and probably due in no small measure to their sheer numbers, no other group contributed so much to putting America where it was by 1970 – on top of the world.
They never marched to the Pope’s or anyone else’s tune, and no one ever had to lend them a hand. Seemingly just as eager to put their America past behind them as their Ireland past, eventually even their churches faded into the background, swallowed up by the larger Church, the larger culture. And all the agony of the previous century just seemed to gradually drift away into the ether. (Actually, a lot of people, even in Catholic schools, now with a “multi-ethnic” flavor, actively sought to suppress the embarrassing truth about the Famine-Irish past, or to dilute it among a much more nebulous (all) “Catholics”, etc.. It was just more of the same old self-serving nonsense, just a lot more subtle, but it did serve to help dissipate the old ethnic rivalries.)
Actually, now that I think about it, even though as a boy I was the target of ethnic slurs I didn’t understand, no Catholic or Irish entity, person or publication, EVER told me that I or mine were victims in any fashion. So we never became victims. We just got on with life as we found it, and tried to make it better. People have a natural predilection to write history so that their own group looks considerably more admirable than it actually was. The Catholic Famine-Irish did not write their own story, not at their old home in Ireland and not at their new home in America, and by the time they were able to write it, conditions no longer seemed to warrant focusing on the past, so the full story got lost in the larger culture. (The Famine-Irish, much more interested in actually doing stuff, were never all that much into pathetic navel-contemplation or self-adulation anyway.) Still, there are important lessons in that story, so it should be told.
But if it isn’t told, it isn’t learned, and we just repeat the same mistakes, have no real basis for judging ourselves, or others. It’s important for today’s immigrants from everywhere to learn the story of yesterday’s immigrants so they have at least some frame of reference to measure their own behavior, their own struggles, their own accomplishments. Ignorant of any standard, the standard can be set as low as possible. Today in America religion and church communities have largely been replaced by sports and political teams where partisan parishioners can melt into a collective “we” identity, however corrupt and superficial, larger than themselves to fill the emptiness in their fake lives. The Hispanics now flooding into America would do themselves a favor to check out how the Famine-Irish made it in America, and keep a good record of their own progress. If they don’t, you can bet your last dime that lesser humans will come along and rewrite or erase their story just to make themselves look better, mainly in their own pathetic minds. They should also make sure that their story isn’t full of the usual bullshit propaganda made up by special interest groups and lobbies “advancing” their own group at the expense of others.
St. Patrick’s Day in America is not about St. Patrick or even about Ireland; it’s about immigration to a nation that offers the precious freedom for responsible people to realize their own potential, unencumbered by offensive “elitists” seeking to exploit them for their own purposes – through either oppression or dependency. St. Patrick’s Day is about seizing the opportunity that America offers and running with it. It’s about learning the rules, mastering the process, and beating the jerks at their own game, on your own merit – to keep us all moving forward in a robust and vibrant society.
America does not offer happiness. No functioning society with a viable future does. America offers the free opportunity for you to get off your ass and pursue your happiness, to chase your dreams, follow the rainbow. And most of the immigrants who came to America during the two centuries before the Baby Boomers did just that. Some failed, but most succeeded, and rather spectacularly, too, considering the boiling caldron that had greeted them. Those who spend their lives whining in the mirror with a sickening self-pity that fails to place themselves in the larger context of all of us are guaranteed to marginalize themselves. This is most especially true of those who do so generation after generation ad nauseam so as to cripple themselves and their group in perpetuity. There are few humans more tiring than those who always have someone else to blame for their own failures to measure up.
What was the single most important reason for the success of the Famine-Irish? No one, including the Famine-Irish themselves, ever showed the slightest willingness to grant them any excuses at all.
Compared to what faced immigrants of the past, the voyage today is short and easy, and the return home even easier; it seems reasonable to ask newcomers to simply follow the rules like everyone else. Despite what many privileged emotion-based American freeloaders think, America is not the world’s cash cow, full of goodies paid for and defended by “someone else”, full of rights with no responsibilities. If people are not satisfied with the share allocated to them by their arrogant ruling class despite the trappings of artificial “democracy”, there is always the supremely American option – revolution. Why should your self-serving rulers profit from your misery, even in America? Put a price on that misery. Don’t wait until it’s too late, until your options are gone. There is no “special” in equality, no “someone else” in equity, no role for “birthright entitlement” in democracy, no future for dependency in a meritocracy. Liberty always comes with a price, security always erodes freedom, and capitalism is inherently competitive. See through all the self-serving propaganda and blow it up. Tear the whole thing down and build something better, something equitable, something thriving. Re-attach responsibility to each of those rights. (See Footnote #5.) No one ever solved anything by merely enduring or by running away. If your cause is just and your objective noble, and you can get your act together, I, and Irish-American fighting men like me, will teach you how to win. It’s in our blood.
But, please, don’t whine. Fight!
But on St. Patrick’s Day it’s ok to have fun, drink, be merry, dance in the drizzle, and sing “Danny Boy” and old songs handed down verbally for generations back home on the Emerald Isle – even if you can’t hold back the tears. It’s just best if you understand why.
Just go easy on that beer: Most of that beer-drinking nonsense is fostered by breweries, especially the giant company Guinness, seeking profits – not by St. Patrick, or the Irish. (The company was founded in Dublin in 1759 by an “Irishman” born into a favored Protestant family of the small British-imported and imposed Church of Ireland while the oppressive Penal Laws still subjugated the huge majority of Catholic Irish. The company used cheap Irish crops to became one of the world’s largest breweries, and in 1932, during the Great Depression, packed up and moved its headquarters to London. Still, most people naively consider the beer “Irish”. It was originally just another product of the plantation, exploiting the fruits of cheap and controlled local labor.)
The story continues in “Irish-American”. Twentieth century Irish-Americans included guys named Kennedy and even a Michael Collins, who seized permanent positions in world history, plus a lot of guys like me.
P.S. The Brits count on Americans not knowing more than a tiny fraction of their own history in order to continually make fools of the ignorant suckers. The Brits are people who still celebrate every year the betrayal and ruthlessly brutal execution of the Catholic rebel Guy Fawkes in 1606 – over 400 years ago.
The story is not over. See Footnote #10. Bloody Sunday: It Was All One Big Lie to “Terrorist Or Freedom-fighter? Irish“.
(Some of the above was related to me by my own Irish-American grandfather, who ended his working years on the old coal-powered and very dangerous railroads running through western Pennsylvania, western Maryland and West Virginia of hardscrabble northern Appalachia, when probably the deadliest job in America was railroad brakeman. See also “Terrorist Or Freedom-fighter? Irish” and “Irish-American”, posted separately, for more about the Irish and their role in shaping America before and after their great 19th century migration. The latter post also contains a few of my own personal experiences as an Irish-American in the global arena over the past half century.)
Note: From time to time various voices advance the notion that all Americans should do away with hyphenated ethnic or national identities, such as Irish-American, Italian-American, etc., and just use the all-inclusive “American”. While there is perhaps some merit to this notion (to dissipate rivalries, assume only one ethnic identity, etc.), I suspect that it is being advanced mainly by members of groups who haven’t really contributed much at all to what America is and offers, who just came along and milked what others had put in place with their blood, sweat and tears, by starting from a position already well up the ladder. It’s a ploy similar to the despicable “uni-sex” game currently being played in our public schools. It’s designed to achieve extreme mediocrity by hiding practices that are advantages to one group (female) by being detrimental to another group (male), by eroding accomplished role models of the past, by setting standards that are so low that anyone can meet them with very little effort, by allowing everyone to hide in one big herd while doing nothing at all. Those seeking to dilute everyone into one homogeneous group of mush are almost always those losers unable or unwilling to compete, and excel, on their own merit. There is considerable value to competition in a vibrant society – when the rules are the same for everyone. “You learn the rules; you master the process; and then you beat the jerks at their own game” (if you can measure up). You do NOT constantly demand that the rules be changed to make the realities of life less challenging for pathetic “very special me”. So, in my mind, hyphenated identities are just fine. Have you exceeded the accomplishments of your own group, or have you fallen far short? Where does your group stand relative to similar others in American history? It’s a worthwhile exercise, especially if your group does not benefit every day from many powerful lobbies incessantly championing the interests of you and your group at the expense of others.
Footnote #1: Numbers In Context: The American Civil War was waged 1861-1865.
US: The US Census of 1860 determined the population at 31,400,000 — an increase of 35% over the 23,192,000 persons counted during the 1850 Census. The total 1860 population included 3,954,000 slaves. (England and Wales at that time had about 20,000,000 people.) Despite a very deadly civil war, the US population in 1870 was about 38,556,000, another 22.6% increase in just ten years. The great ethnic and cultural change, begun in the early-1840s, continued during the Civil War decade from 1860 to 1870. A very significant part of the population growth was due to immigrants moving in and a shuffling of residents across state borders; most of them over a forty year period between 1840 and 1880 were Famine-Irish (although smaller but significant numbers of them also came during the twenty year periods before and after this peak period).
Ireland: In 1831 Ireland had a population of about 7,767,000, but twenty years later (1851) that population was already down to about 6,552,000 – a decline of 16% (1,215,000). Between 1841 and 1851 Ireland lost another 1,623,000 people. Over just the five years from 1845 to 1850 about 1,000,000 people died and another 1,000,000 emigrated. By 1861 the population was down to 5,765,000 – 788,000 less than in 1851, or a decrease of another 12% in just ten years. During this ten years (1851-1861) as many as 1,164,000 persons (about 18%) emigrated from Ireland, most to America. Ireland’s population continued to decline with every census for 80 years, down to 4,228,000 by 1926 – only about half of what it was a century earlier – despite a constant very high birth rate throughout. Ireland was thus one of the very few places on Earth, and in history, where population growth, despite a high birth rate, actually ran in reverse – by British design. That awful century began 375 years after Henry VIII, 175 years after Cromwell, 130 years after the Penal Laws had already reduced the country to one huge “plantation” of impoverished, uneducated, landless serfs. This was not “ancient history”.
In 1860, there were less than 1,000,000 men in Ireland of military age. Even in a country
desperately struggling to survive, Great Britain had no qualms about rounding up and drafting over a tenth of Ireland’s able-bodied young men and shipping them off to the Americans for use as soldier conscripts in their civil war.
Scotland: Scotland’s population increased steadily throughout this century – from 2,365,000 in 1831 to 4,843,000 in 1931 – an increase of 105%. (over double)
England & Wales: The population of England and Wales also steadily increased – from 13,897,000 in 1831 to 39,952,000 in 1931 – an increase of 188% (almost triple).
How Was It Done? How many sailing ships were needed to transport 100,000 Irish conscripts? Almost all such mid-19th century ships were designed primarily for cargo, with crews of about 25 and only a few cabins for a small number of passengers paying full fare. Any other passengers were restricted to the cargo areas, and there capacities could vary. The best indicators of such capacities can be found in reports of sea disasters, but, since such reports were sketchy at best, extrapolation becomes necessary. For example:
Fires. Immigrants suffered many dangers when crossing the Atlantic, including frequent fires and shipwrecks, even piracy and kidnapping. Most ships and their cargo were insured, while their passengers were not, and passenger manifests of those below full fare were rarely kept. In 1848, the Ocean Monarch, carrying immigrants from Liverpool to Boston, caught fire and 176 lives were reported lost. As ships got larger so did the deaths from fires, but these larger ships were mostly steam ships carrying full fare passengers. In 1858, an estimated 500 immigrants died after a fire on the steamship Austria. Another 400 died on the William Nelson in 1865. Such disasters were routine; most ships, whether sail or steam, were still constructed mostly of wood.
Shipwrecks. In 1834 alone seventeen ships shipwrecked in the Gulf of St Lawrence, and a reported 731 immigrants lost their lives, which is an average of 43 per ship, a figure that is too low to be credible. In a five year period (1847-52) 43 immigrant ships out of 6,877 failed to reach their destination, resulting in the reported deaths of 1,043 passengers, but since this figure averages only 25 passengers per ship, it is obviously grossly under-stated, safe in the knowledge that no one on either end would question the figures provided since human cargo with no market value was not insured.
Piracy and Kidnapping. Ships and coastal towns from throughout the Mediterranean, the northern Atlantic, and all the way past France and England north to Scandinavia often fell prey to Barbary pirates of the slowly declining Ottoman Empire based along the northern African coast. Their fast Corsairs frequently overwhelmed merchant ships and coastal defenses to seize ships, people and treasures for transport back to the Barbary Coast where the people were sold into slavery. It is estimated that from the 16th to 19th century, Barbary corsairs captured an estimated 800,000 to 1,250,000 people as slaves, but reliable statistics on such crimes are difficult to determine due mainly to European monarchies viewing such losses as a simple cost of doing business. It was also frequently impossible to determine if the ships had been lost to the seas or to pirates. President Thomas Jefferson began to change that view in 1801-05, when he sent a small American fleet against pirate cities in what are today Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria. President James Madison sent a second fleet in 1815, but the gradually declining problem remained real until the end of that century.
Disease. But the major problem for immigrants on board ship in the 19th century was disease. There were serious outbreaks of cholera in 1832, 1848 and 1853 – years leading up to the great Irish diaspora. Of the 77 vessels which left Liverpool for New York during the three months of August through October 1853, 46 contained passengers who died of cholera on the journey. According to reports, the Washington suffered 100 cholera deaths and the Winchester 79. All told, 1,328 immigrants died on board these 46 ships on the way to America, according to reported figures – in just three months. The most common killer was typhus, which was particularly deadly for passengers already weakened by poor diet. Whenever disease death figures are available which specifically identify the Irish and the disease, the numbers are enormously higher, but still obviously under-reported. In 1847, 7,000 people, most of them from Ireland, reportedly died of typhus on the way to America. Another 10,000 died soon after arriving in quarantine areas in the United States. (It wasn’t until Ellis Island opened in 1892 that records of such matters became reliable.)
Based on such anecdotal evidence, the best estimates are that sailing ships transporting impoverished Irish immigrants carried from 200-400 passengers in cargo holds, and steam ships could carry from 400-500 cabin passengers each. Almost no Famine-Irish could afford steam ship cabin fare, so almost all traveled in sailing ship cargo holds.
So, assuming, in the best possible scenario for the Irish Civil War conscripts, that (1) only steam ships were used, (2) no ships were lost at sea and (3) no passengers died on the journey, it would take at least 225 steam ships to transport 100,000 Irish conscripts. More likely it would require well over 350 steam ships, each with crews of 25 or more. If sailing ships were used – the most probable means – their numbers would have approached 600 ships. Since such a huge flotilla represented a really great cost, someone somewhere was making a decent profit in this major enterprise in human Irish traffic. Those profiting were definitely not the Irish.
A half century later, in 1906, the British luxury liner Lusitania, at that time the largest man-made moving object in history, with its enormously powerful coal-fired steam engines, became the first ship to make the voyage from Liverpool to New York in just five days. (The Lusitania was sunk off the southern coast of Ireland by a German U-boat in 1915 during World War I because the Germans knew that the passenger liner was secretly carrying huge stores of war munitions (at least 4.2 million rifle bullets) from the US to Great Britain. The U-boat fired a single torpedo that struck below the water line, but it set off a massive second explosion which sent the ship to the bottom in 18 minutes, with the loss of life to 1,198 passengers, 128 of whom were American. The existence of the munitions (which made the sinking legal under the rules of war at the time) was kept from the pubic, but the sinking itself was used as a pretext for the US entering the war on the side of Great Britain in 1917.) (The mysterious sinking of the cruiser USS Maine in Havana harbor in 1898 had been used in a similar manner as a pretext for the US to go to war against Spain in the Spanish-American War. Does anyone remember Tonkin Gulf?)
Once the US entered WW I, the country faced a similar problem in transporting millions of American conscripts across the Atlantic in the opposite direction. Since American steel ship builders were then at full capacity meeting orders from European belligerents, the US government actually let contracts for the rapid and cheap construction of a huge wooden flotilla to transport the American soldiers. You never want war to interfere in making money.
Footnote #2: The Fighting 69th. Racial and ethnic segregation of regimental military units (i.e., Irish Royal Lancers) was long a practice of Great Britain that was handed down to her colonies and then adopted by the Americans. For the Brits such segregation often made it easier to decide which units to commit or sacrifice first, but for the units it also facilitated stronger esprit de corps, unit morale and combat effectiveness – IF those units had competent, unprejudiced and knowledgeable British officers who could also influence the British command structure.
The first recorded St Patrick’s Day parade, in fact, actually took place, not in Ireland, but in New York City, in 1762 – well before there was a “United States of America”. The parade consisted of Irish soldiers serving in Irish units of the British army – publicly celebrating their proud Irish identity with the full approval of their British senior officers.
One Irish-American military unit that achieved very considerable fame was the 69th Infantry Regiment, created in New York during the great Famine-Irish flood in 1850, and today part of the New York Army National Guard. It is still known as the Fighting Sixty-Ninth, a name said to have been given to it by no less than the military leader of the opposing forces during the Civil War, General Robert E. Lee, when the unit was comprised exclusively of Irish-Americans – mostly poor, recently arrived and segregated illiterate immigrants. There is definite pride in that this Northern unit was bestowed its famous name by the great leader of the South. (Between 1917 and 1992 it was also designated as the National Guard 165th Infantry Regiment by Army pencil-pushers who had little knowledge of history, a common problem with Army bureaucratic pencil-pushers throughout American history. I myself waged two battles with them in the second half of the 20th century to avoid famous units being ignorantly renumbered into oblivion just to meet some tidy scheme. Such schemes are never devised by soldiers who actually served valiantly in such famous units, or whose ancestors did.) The millions of 19th century Irish immigrants were illiterate, and penniless, by deliberate British design, by British law. But many of them were also damned good soldiers.
The Fighting 69th, which traces its roots to the Irish Rebellion of 1848 (two years earlier), is the only US infantry unit authorized a green, rather than blue, background on its regimental crest. During the Civil War, this regiment saw action almost everywhere from Bull Run to Antietam, including Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Petersburg, Chancellorsville and Appomattox – and several times its strength was reduced to less than battalion size due to casualties, but was still able to present itself in person as a potent fighting unit for the surrender of General Lee at Appomattox. (A typical infantry regiment consists of from 2000-4000 soldiers organized into three or four battalions and commanded by a colonel or a brigadier general. Regiments can also include armor and artillery elements.) Over 2,000 regiments saw action with the Union Army, and only six lost more men than did the 69th. Most of the six were also heavily manned by illiterate Irish conscript or volunteer immigrants (none of whom left memoirs or letters).
Thomas Meagher, a man forever associated with the Fighting 69th, was born in Waterford Ireland in 1823. In 1848 at age 25 he was arrested, tried and convicted of sedition and, due to a quickly passed retroactive law applied to “sedition”, sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. (Men convicted of “high treason” and now “sedition” were fastened, usually naked, to a hurdle, or wooden panel, and drawn by horse along rough cobblestone streets through town to the place of execution, where they were hanged almost to the point of death, emasculated, disemboweled, beheaded and quartered (chopped into four pieces). Their remains were then often displayed in prominent dispersed places around the country, such as London Bridge. This fate befell many English Catholic priests executed during the Elizabethan era (1558-1603 after Henry VIII) and Catholic rebels like Guy Fawkes in 1606. The practice was finally abolished three centuries later in 1870 – when Famine-Irishmen were battling Orangemen bigots on the streets of New York.) However, due to public outcry, Meagher and his fellow Irish colleagues were instead sent to the penal colony in Tasmania Australia. In 1852 he escaped from Tasmania and made his way to New York City, where he became a citizen, founded a weekly newspaper (the Irish News), was commissioned as a captain in the New York State Militia (which soon became known as “The Fighting 69th”), and after Fort Sumter implored the Irish of the North to defend the Union. “It is not only our duty to America, but also to Ireland. We could not hope to succeed in our effort to make Ireland a Republic without the moral and material support of the liberty-loving citizens of these United States.” He led his unit to northern Virginia for the war’s first major battle at Bull Run in 1861. Following that battle, Meagher returned to New York to form the Irish Brigade and was commissioned as a brigadier general to lead the unit in the Peninsula Campaign of 1862. The Irish Brigade under his command went on to serve with valor, including at Antietam, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. He died shortly after the war at age 43 in 1867 while serving as Acting Governor of Montana.
During World War I, the 69th, with Chaplin Francis Duffy and its 95% Irish-American soldiers, saw action at Rouge Bouquet Chaussilles, Champagne and Chateau-Thierry (where in four days of fighting the 3,000-man unit lost over half its men, including 264 killed, one of whom was Sergeant Joyce Kilmer, the poet) – all before enough American units had been assembled for an autonomous American army under General Pershing.
The severely depleted unit then led the way for a brigade of the 42nd (“Rainbow”) Division under command of Colonel Douglas MacArthur and beside Colonel George Patton’s First Tank Brigade to St. Benoit and on to the Meuse River. With that, the war ended four days later. (The American 42nd, like the 69th, had been trained for offensive open-field combat rather than for defensive static trench “warfare”; fast, fluid, forward motion has always been characteristic of American ground combat units and American ground warfare thinking, which inherently pushes leadership initiative as far down officer ranks as practical.)
After occupation duty at Remagan, and with its Irish strength reduced by casualties to 50%, the 69th returned to New York under command of Medal Of Honor recipient Colonel “Wild Bill” Donovan – the Irish-American who would go on to form during World War II the Office Of Strategic Services (OSS), the unconventional warfare covert organization that became after that war the CIA , shaped for President Truman by he and Allan Dulles. An attorney, Donovan also served on the Nuernberg Trials in post-WW II Germany. Wounded in the leg by machinegun fire in 1918 France, William Donovan is the only person to have received all four of the United States’ highest awards: The Congressional Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal (3), and the National Security Medal, plus the Silver Star and Purple Heart (3). At his death at age 76, President Eisenhower referred to this great Irish-American Major General as “the last hero”.
During World War II the 69th fought in the Pacific at the Gilbert Islands, Saipan and Okinawa, but, like most National Guard units, was not called up for Korea. It did, however, serve in Iraq (2004-05) and Afghanistan (2008-09). In 2006 the unit was honored in Ireland by a national monument at Ballymote, County Sligo, birthplace of the unit’s Civil War commander, Colonel Michael Corcoran, a close confidant of President Lincoln. Other memorials to the unit can be found in France, Okinawa and at many US Civil War battlefields.
7th Cavalry Regiment, Garyowen and Little Big Man. There are several scenes in the US movie “Little Big Man” that also use the Garyowen as background music. The film was released in 1970 at the height of the anti-Draft fervor in the US, when the most hated people on planet Earth were members of the US military. The film shows brief “enactments” of two battles involving elements of the 7th Cav, both under command of Custer – one in Oklahoma (Washita River/Southern Cheyenne) in 1868, and the other 800 miles northwest in Montana (Little Bighorn River/Northern Cheyenne) eight years later in 1876. The first battle, used to justify the outcome of the second, was heavily in favor of the 500-man Army unit, while the second was heavily against the 650-man Army unit. The film is a good example of sloppy propaganda, so bad that you have difficulty separating satire from plausibility. Hollywood has a long and checkered history of manufacturing one-sided propaganda along with rather decent works – sort of like trash littering an otherwise attractive landscape. I won’t go into a detailed examination of the propaganda here except to note that a unit the size of which Lt Col (not general) Custer commanded would not have merited its own string band, much less taken one into battle; several boy burglars would have been about all there was, plus some of the men might have carried personal flutes or harmonicas in their saddle packs to play during down time. (See Films and Jokes at “Marketing And Propaganda – Techniques“, posted separately.)
The entire 7th Cav Regiment was always understrength and split up into several units for different missions throughout the American West. The number of 7th Cav men Custer had under his overall command in Montana was barely enough to organize into three quite small battalions each consisting of three companies. A normal infantry battalion consists of from 600 to 800 soldiers, and a company of from 100 to 140 soldiers. So three full-strength infantry battalions would normally number from 1800 to 2400 total soldiers, organized into 12-18 companies, depending on other manned equipment included in their formations. But such numbers were not available to Custer.
At Little Big Horn, assuming the 650 men were divided equally into 9 companies of 70 men each, and those companies organized into three battalions, each battalion would have numbered only about 220 men. But just one of those battalions (or detachments) was involved in the battle. Among several other mistakes, Custer had under-estimated the strength, weaponry and tactics of the well-organized armed enemy facing him and the soldiers under his leadership and responsibility. His gravest mistake, arising from a misplaced over-confidence, was discounting the critical need for accurate intelligence about both his enemy and the battlefield landscape. Not expecting appreciable resistance from people surprised by his sudden appearance, he was so over-confident that he attacked with only a third of his meager forces in play, his other two sparse battalions too far away to be a factor. All men under Custer’s immediate battle command were killed, and their number was placed at 268, which would have been about five severely under-strength companies.
Lieutenant Colonel Custer, by the way, was not some fanatical racist idiot who charged in without knowing what he was doing. Very many of his soldiers were seasoned and proven Irish veterans. Custer was a disciplined and proven US Army officer who was, as has almost always been the case, under orders, acting on the will of the US Congress, from US President Grant and passed down from the Secretary of War Belknap through generals Philip Sheridan and Alfred Terry, to move several Native American Plains tribes onto a reservation. (Testifying before Congress, Custer had just accused the President’s brother and Mr. Belknap of corruption with over-priced goods sold to soldiers through remote single-source traders and also publicly criticized the President’s policy toward the Native Americans.*) It was the US Government that had broken treaties and continually broken other agreements with the tribes in the push westward after gold had been discovered on their lands, and it fell to the 7th Cav to execute the will of the US President. The Grant Administration had declared that all Native Americans not on their reservations after 31 January 1876 were to be considered “hostile”. Six months later, Custer’s 7th Cav battalion-sized unit rode into a united encampment of Northern Cheyenne, Lakota and Arapaho Indian tribes, meeting off-reservation to decide their future course of action against the whites. Once confronted by a “hostile” force, if Custer had not attacked, he would have been subject to court martial. He and his men unexpectedly found themselves in an impossible situation, greatly out-numbered (est. 3 to 1) by a very capable force operating on its own turf with better arms. After his defeat, among Custer’s critics was, of course, President Grant, which helped solidify a range of myths about Custer, about both the man and his mission. Custer’s orders had been issued by Grant, but it didn’t come out the way Grant had envisioned. (Or maybe it did; the irritating Custer had been eliminated)
I personally would not have served willingly under this officer, but then I also would not have agreed with the politicians who were giving him his orders, either. In both cases there was simply too much self-serving ulterior motives and personal self-aggrandizement involved in the equation. But at least Custer was out there in front, vulnerable on the firing line, where perspectives often take on their own “morality”. Still, his brash tactical corner-cutting and faulty thinking and preparation was just too costly to both his men and his mission. His style of “leadership” was too sloppy, mainly because he was too dismissive of both his opposing forces and his own soldiers. In the end, it all evened out in its own “battlefield justice” – at the expense of his own men.
(* It was common belief among soldiers of the 7th Cav that, due to rampant corruption involving frontier supplies to both Indian reservations and military outposts, that politicians and bureaucrats in what became the Bureau of Indian Affairs were far more responsible for dead soldiers than were the Native Americans – and this remained the case throughout the second half of the 19th century and well into the 20th. Thanks to certain politicians, some in Army uniforms, the Bureau of Indian Affairs for over a century remained the most corrupt and incompetent US government agency in American history, and both Native American tribes and Irish-American soldiers paid the price.)
(Most of the horses used by the 7th Cavalry Regiment were hardy mixed-breed wild stock taken from the American West and trained as disciplined cavalry mounts of remarkable stamina and endurance in return for excellent care required by military regulations. One, a gelding with the ironic name of Comanche that had been with the 7th Cav since its inception, was wounded many times in battle before managing, after ten years of service, to also become the lone survivor of the Little Big Horn Battle in 1876. The horse was found severely wounded two days later, nursed back to health, and officially retired by military order with full special benefits, first at Ft. Meade, Maryland, and then at Ft. Riley, Kansas, until he died in 1891 at around age 29. Comanche was one of only two horses in US history to be given a military funeral with full military honors, the other being the famous riderless ceremonial quarter horse, Black Jack, who usually paraded in mid-20th century at Arlington National Cemetery with cavalry boots reversed in stirrups. Majestic Black Jack became world famous during the funeral procession of President John F. Kennedy.)
Footnote #3. Syracuse Orange. Throughout the 19th century, the Famine-Irish in America were subjected to intense bigotry, including throughout construction work on the Erie Canal in and around Syracuse New York. Syracuse University was established in 1870, during the Irish vs Orangemen New York conflict, by the Methodist State Convention and the city of Syracuse New York. But the university’s “Orange” color was not adopted until twenty years later in 1890. A report* in “The Syracusan” that year (1890) said the “Orange” decision was “predicated upon the historical affinity that once existed between the Colony of New York and the House of Orange” (Holland),” but that account soon faded as other rationales were put forth, for good reason. Today it’s almost as if “The Syracuse Orange” is a society whose secrets are known only to an initiated few.
The House of Orange was a princely dynasty dating from 14th century Europe that derived its name from the medieval principality of Orange in old Provence in southern France. That dynasty was indeed important in the history of the Netherlands, and also, of course, of Britain. But it is British, not Dutch, affinity with the House of Orange that is so very important to both New York and America, and university officials would be very well aware of that fact. (Uneducated Black slaves and Famine-Irish serfs probably would not.)
Two centuries earlier, in 1677, the House of Orange’s Dutch prince William III married his British cousin Mary II (Stuart), the daughter of the future King James II of England. In 1688, William embarked on a mission to depose his Catholic father-in-law from the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland. When James fled, William and his wife were crowned the King and Queen of England in 1689. With the accession to the thrones of the three kingdoms, William III became one of the most powerful sovereigns in Europe, and the very next year, in 1690, led his forces against the Irish under James II at Boyne to finish off his Catholic claim to the crown for good. But there is more here than just the Irish under the wrath of the anti-Catholic House of Orange.
The Dutch West India Company had created in 1617 a settlement up the Hudson River at present-day Albany protected by the nearby aptly-named Fort Orange and also a settlement in 1624 at New Amsterdam on Manhattan Island. As a normal aspect of its global slave trade, the huge and powerful company imported its first black slaves (11) in 1626 and held its first slave auction at New Amsterdam in 1655. In 1664 Britain under the religiously tolerant Charles II captured both settlements and gave them their current names, but also granted the Dutch certain continued rights, including religious, cultural and legal rights. The business of slavery was left in place. Various shifts in territorial ownership took place in the region for the next twenty years until things were finally settled in 1684 when the British Duke of York established a non-denominational state church in his New York colony.
The very next year the Duke of York was crowned King James II, and his personally owned colony became a “Royal” province. For the next 4 years – until in 1689 when the House of Orange (William III) seized the throne in London – James II was the last Roman Catholic monarch to reign over the Kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland – which included the colonies in America. After 1690, the New York colony was an integral part of the British Empire, which tolerated only its own church-state religion. Soon after the House of Orange’s victory at the Battle of Boyne, New York City in the 1690s was the largest importer of slaves in the colonies. Blacks quickly became a major population element in New York City and on large upstate farms. By 1703, similar to the conditions existing in Britain’s’ church-state colonies in the American South, more than 42% of New York City households held slaves, usually as domestic servants and laborers. At the end of the subsequent century, a decade after the US Constitution was ratified, in 1799 the New York state assembly passed a law calling for gradual abolition. Almost 40 years after the American Revolution, after two full centuries of New York slavery status quo, the last slaves in New York were finally freed in 1827 – at the beginning of the great Famine-Irish flood. The American Civil War still lay ahead, but in New York, where the Black slaves left off, the Famine–Irish serfs picked up. The first “Orange riot” on record in the US was just three years earlier in 1824, in Abingdon (now in Greenwich Village Manhattan) New York; several Orangemen were arrested and found guilty of inciting the anti-Catholic-Irish riot.
By adopting the “Orange” color in 1890, twenty years after the last riot and exactly 200 years after the Battle of Boyne, the new university was very clearly signaling its affinity with the then nearly defunct Orange Order’s Protestant supremacist dogma – which is inherently anti-Catholic and anti-native Irish in the extreme – on the 200th anniversary of Boyne. Syracuse “Orange” is probably the last vestige of officially-sanctioned Orangemen (and aristocratic) bigotry against both black slaves and Irish serfs in America – all originating in “superior” Britain. After two cataclysmic world wars and a huge wave of new immigration, by 1960, when the Irishman Kennedy became President, almost all of this stuff, and much more, had been erased from American popular memory.
(The Orangemen were far more prevalent in Canada than in the US.)
(*The Syracuse Herald was the first newspaper published by Syracuse University students, with its first issue published in 1872. Several weekly and biweekly publications followed in the first twenty years after the founding of the University, including The Syracusan, The University News, The University Forum, and Syracuse University Weekly. The longest-running student publication on campus is The Daily Orange, founded in 1903 and still published four times per week. The Syracuse University Student Publications Reference Collection contains publications from 1874 to the present; Box 76 contains The Syracusan, 1884-1919.)
Footnote #4: How long is “history”?
The Kennedy clan’s distant ancestors were originally Scots “planted” by the Brits in the nine-county Ulster province of northern Ireland, probably in the late 16th century (late-1500s, after the reign of Henry VIII). (A servant named Jane Kennedy was present when Catholic Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded by Elizabeth I in 1587.) Some Kennedy clan members later moved south into Catholic Ireland and soon got caught up in the truly draconian 17th century British Penal Laws and eventually the 19th century famines. The first Catholic Kennedy who immigrated to America in 1849 went to the awful disease-ridden Boston slums, which became the family’s American base. Successive generations became involved there with local precinct politics and relied heavily on liquor to move up the American socioeconomic ladder. One of the impoverished Irish’s most natural predilections, of course, had been moonshine* – which, of course, also had the endorsement of America’s First President (Washington) after he left the White House and returned to Mount Vernon, without a pension.
1. “Famine-Irish” Trail-blazer. Patrick Kennedy (1823-1858), a penniless cooper (laborer who makes wooden staved beer barrels), whose parents had already died, immigrated from County Wexford in southern Ireland to Boston at the age of 26 during the Great Famine in 1849. His fiancée Bridget soon followed. They had five children, the first son of whom died in infancy of cholera in the Boston slums. Patrick Kennedy himself also died of cholera at age 35 in East Boston in 1858, just nine years after he immigrated to America. In the year of her husband’s death, wife Bridget also gave birth to their second son, Patrick Joseph. While providing for her family, she went on to buy a stationery and notions store in East Boston where she had worked. The business took off and expanded into a grocery and liquor store during the Civil War, which helped pave the way for the success of her one surviving son.
2. Youngest Son: Patrick Joseph Kennedy (1858-1929) After his father died, he was cared for by his three older sisters while his widowed mother struggled to keep her business going. Far too young for the Civil War draft, a year after the second Orangemen riot in New York, at the age of fourteen he left Catholic school to work on the Boston docks as a stevedore to help support his mother and sisters. In the 1880s, with money he had saved from his modest earnings and with major additional help from his mother, he launched a business career by buying a saloon. Before he was thirty he owned three bars, and his growing prosperity allowed him to buy a whiskey-importing business that made him a leading figure in Boston’s liquor trade also involved in local politics. He and his wife had two daughters and one son. Starting from less than nothing, overcoming pervasive adversity and bigotry, and with no help, already by the second generation this matriarchal family was moving up.
3. Grand-son: Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. (1888-1969) Born in the year of his strong grandmother Bridget’s death into what was now a well known political family in Boston, he was educated at Harvard and embarked in 1912 on a career in finance, making a large fortune as a stock market and commodity investor and by investing in real estate and a wide range of industries. It’s assumed that he was also involved in bootlegging during Prohibition (1919-1933). At the end of Prohibition (1933), he traveled to Scotland to buy distribution rights for Scotch whisky. Thereafter he continued to amass a fortune in a wide variety of endeavors and even served as US Ambassador to England under President Roosevelt (and famously misjudged Hitler’s Nazism). He owned the largest office building in the country at the time, Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, giving his family an important base also in that city and an alliance with the Irish-American political leadership there. (Even today Irish-Americans are strongly represented in the politics of Chicago, Boston and New York.) He and his wife Rose had nine children. His first-born and presumptive successor Joseph, a US Navy bomber pilot during World War II, was killed in action in 1944 over the English Channel.
(Joe’s death was actually a consequence of a failure of US intelligence. The young man was a member of a bomber crew flying across the English Channel with a plane full of high explosives. The secret plan (part of Operations Aphrodite and Anvil) was for the crew to fly the plane to an altitude of 2,000, arm the payload, and then parachute to safety while the unmanned aircraft flew a radio-controlled course to its target, operated by a crew in another plane flying at 20,000 feet. The drone bomber was intended to then crash into a massive gun installation (Fortress of Mimoyecques) full of huge guns hidden in massive bunkers and firing barrages of V-3 rockets to London. Unfortunately, apparently due to an electrical short-circuit, the bomber exploded in mid-air shortly after its payload was armed, completely destroying the plane and killing its two crew members instantly over England. It later developed that the mission was unnecessary, that a manned British night bombing raid a few weeks earlier had scored a direct bunker-busting hit which rendered the enemy installation inoperable. Of 14 Aphrodite missions flown, none resulted in the successful destruction of a target.)
4. Great Grand-son: John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917-1963) Second-born, Harvard educated, he was rejected by the US Army due to degenerative back problems. In 1941 after Pearl Harbor he used family influence to get into the Navy and ended up as a torpedo patrol boat commander in the Pacific. For his service under extraordinary combat circumstances at sea, he was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal and the Purple Heart. Following the war this solid member of America’s Greatest Generation became heir-apparent to the family dynasty and won Massachusetts elections in 1947, ’49, and ’51 to the US House of Representative and in 1953 and ’59 to the US Senate – 100 years after his illiterate great-grandfather had come to America without a shilling to his name. John had proven himself repeatedly as an effective leader in war and in elected national politics for 18 straight years. His father was determined that his eldest surviving son overcome his own past involvement with liquor, war munitions and Irish-Catholic precinct politics, not to mention all the old Catholic Famine-Irish prejudices, suspicions, stereotypes, hatreds and slurs, and become President of the United States of America in 1960. He did. This is, after all, America.
Feminist Bridget Kennedy, too, can be very proud of what she accomplished … in America.
(* See Robert Mitchum’s 1958 cult classic “Thunder Road” for the fictional but quite realistic story of Lucas Doolin, an Irish-American Korean War veteran and Tennessee “hillbilly” moonshine runner who still has his Irish family crest on his home’s wall. Doolin feels a very strong emotional pull to many generations of his family’s involvement in the moonshine business, and can even trace that direct linage, but he is determined that his younger brother will break that connection and seek a different path. The film is about the dangerous business of illegal alcohol, but it also shows the true humble origins of American “muscle cars”, stock car racing and the eventual American mega-sport that became known as NASCAR. These very poor but fiercely independent rural Appalachian mountain people were “white niggers”, famous not only for their high-octane moonshine, but also for their fiddle music, square-dancing and “country” songs – all of which, even as late as the 1960s, they still traced straight back to the Ireland they left centuries earlier.)
Footnote #5. Theater Drama On Live Television. When I was an early teenager I could watch such fascinating plays as “The Master Builder”, “The Cherry Orchard”, “The Iceman Cometh”, “Our Town”, “Macbeth”, “12 Angry Men”, “Man And Superman”, “Requiem For A Heavyweight” and “Death Of A Salesman” that challenged not only my interest but my intellect – on live evening broadcast television. It was even better than the theater because you could see the characters’ faces much closer, even if they were only in black and white. Everything was presented just as it would be on a theater stage (which it was). Sadly, at the time such live performances, like those presented by Playhouse 90 and Philco (or Goodyear) Television Playhouse, with really great directors and actors, were not recorded, so once the broadcast play was over it was lost forever. In the early days of national television, say from about 1946 to 1960, there were only three channels (ABC, NBC and CBS) and the idea was to raise the cultural level of the audience; by the late-1960s the idea was to provide content that met the lowest common denominator of the audience – so as to sell more products through advertising to the greatest number of morons. Those plays after WW II left a lasting impression on me, even if I didn’t fully understand some of the weightier issues at that age. I think it was Chekov who eventually led me into Russian classic literature – from Dostoyevsky to Pushkin, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Gogol, Pasternak – as a side interest in high school. Great drama seems to concentrate the mind, and the static stage reduced distractions. Everything is dialogue, and if it’s intelligent enough, it can be transfixing.
(Some of those great live broadcast plays were original works. For example, Reginald Rose’s “12 Angry Men“, about a jury deliberating the fate of a man charged with murder, was a play written for television, but its single broadcast on Studio One so impressed Henry Fonda that he produced it as a feature film with an all-star cast that remains one of those great American classics. Not only is the play a truly absorbing story, it is probably the best explanation possible of “reasonable doubt” in the American justice system.)
Footnote #6. “It is their duty.”
We Americans seem to do a lot of promoting revolution in countries we don’t like (usually with no idea at all about what will result from the revolution), but the same definitely applies to us.
Excerpt from the American Declaration Of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. –That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, —That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. …. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
Since their fundamental rights (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness) originate, not from men, but from a power higher than men, and therefore cannot be withdrawn by men, it is the duty of Americans to maintain the principles of a democracy free of despotic rule – even if treason and revolution are the means necessary to achieve that end. This is why the Second Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees the right of Americans to own firearms. There will be no unarmed Ireland oppressed by powerful despots in America.
(My own first target for revolution would be that vast self-serving women-dominated K-12 public “education” industry, and my chief weapon would be US civil rights law, in court. And I wouldn’t stop until it is gone. This is a revolution that has been begging for over thirty years.)