Category Archives: Irish America

Irishmen registered for U.S. draft 100 years ago

One hundred years ago, on 5 June 1917, the United States conducted its first military draft to support the war in Europe it entered two months earlier. Many Irish-born or Irish-American men lined up to sign up, including my grandfather, Willie Diggin, and his future brother-in-law, John Ware, both emigrants of Kerry. Below is an edited chapter of my book, “His Last Trip: An Irish-American Story,” about draft day in Pittsburgh. MH

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The United States tried to isolate itself from the war that erupted in August 1914, but American industry was closely tied to events in Europe. Pittsburgh steel mills operated around the clock to meet the demands of the unprecedented military buildup on the continent. Carnegie Steel alone hired 8,000 additional workers in 1915 as Willie began his career as a streetcar motorman, two years after his arrival from Ireland.

When America finally entered the war in April 1917, Congress quickly authorized a draft to build the military. The first round of registration set for June 5 required men ages 21 to 31 to sign up, including non-citizens. This presented a conflict for Irish immigrants with strong nationalist views who had openly supported Germany against England, Ireland’s historical oppressor. Such a position now became treasonous.

Only a few people openly opposed the war in Pittsburgh. In the final days before the draft four men ages 19 to 21 were arrested and charged with treason for distributing fliers opposing the conscription. Churches asked the mayor to close bars so that “young men under the exhilaration or depression of the day may have removed from them the temptation of drink.” The president of the liquor retailers association promised his members would voluntarily go dry for the day because “it was the least we could do and patriotism demanded it from us.”

Willie Diggin, undated.

Willie registered at the Hazelwood Police and Patrol Station at the corner of Hazelwood Avenue and Lytle Street. The two-story brick building was located a half mile west of the streetcar car barn where he worked. Uniformed police officers bustled about the station, enhancing the military atmosphere. American flags snapped in the breeze as showers and thunderstorms raked across the city. News accounts reported that most registration lines were “orderly and cheerful.”

Nearly 3,200 men registered in Hazelwood between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m., a pace of 228 per hour. Many of the men were workers from the nearby B & O Railroad switch yards and J&L steel mill. They shuffled through the lines with smudged faces, dirty hands and soiled clothing. Willie was joined in the line by other streetcar men in their Pittsburgh Railways uniforms.

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Celebrating the 100th anniversary of JFK’s birth

John Fitzgerald “Jack” Kennedy was born 29 May 1917 in Brookline, Massachusetts, near Boston, a year after the Easter Rising and a month after the U.S. entered World War I.

In 1960, Kennedy was elected president of the United States. He was not the first Irish American to win the nation’s highest office, but he was the first Catholic. Three years later, JFK made a triumphant return to Ireland, land of his ancestors. Five months after, he was assassinated in the U.S.

The end of May brings the official opening of numerous centennial celebrations marking the 100th anniversary of JFK’s birth.  The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, and the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C., have partnered for a series of events and initiatives, including the “JFK 100: Milestones & Mementos” exhibition.

Here are some other links to JFK-related content, starting with my own work on the blog:

Here are other external links of interest:

John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site, Boston (boyhood home)

The Kennedy Homestead,  Wexford, Ireland (ancestral home)

John F. Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C. (centennial celebration)

Official White House biography

University of Virginia Miller Center (essays, etc.)

RTÉ Archives and The Irish Times (coverage of the 1963 Ireland visit)

 

JFK’s triumphant return to County Wexford, Ireland, land of his ancestors.

In praise of the Irish diaspora

I’ve been reading “The Princeton History of Modern Ireland,” edited by Richard Bourke and Ian McBride. It was one of the Irish history books under the Christmas tree five months ago.

The book offers 21 chapters by different historians that range from broad essays about major developments of Irish society and politics to more focused looks at specific factors that played an important role in shaping that trajectory, as Bourke writes in the Introduction.

Among the “standout entries,” Tom Deignan wrote in his August 2016 Commonweal review, are “explorations of the Irish language as well as the diaspora, topics that are often shoved to the margins but provide key insights into Ireland and its history.”

I especially liked Enda Delaney‘s “Diaspora” chapter, which concludes the book. These two passages caught my eye:

To write the Irish story without the diaspora is to render a partial account. It is worth remembering that in 1910 the Irish-born population of New York at 250,000 people was only exceeded by the populations of Dublin and Belfast. In other words, the third largest “Irish” city was across the Atlantic. (p. 493).

***

Irishness was never circumscribed by place of birth, as hundreds of studies of the diaspora clearly show, even if the venerable inhabitants of the “motherland” are sometimes less than keen to acknowledge this. (p. 502).

Immigrants at Ellis Island.

“Angela’s” Pulitzer: Catching up 20 years on

Margaret Cashill of Tampa, one of my former newsroom colleagues, suggested this blog post and sent along a few links. Thanks Margaret! MH

Columbia University President, George Rupp (left), presents Frank McCourt with the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Biography.

In April 1997, Frank McCourt’s memoir of his “miserable Irish upbringing” won the Pulitzer Prize for biography/autobiography. Angela’s Ashes had published a year earlier.

Twenty years on from the Pulitzer, there is a wave of developments associated with the book:

  • Angela’s Ashes: The Musical is preparing to open this summer, with performances in Limerick, site of the book, as well as Dublin and Belfast. “There’s a recognition of the brand across the world. … But this is a show I want to stand on its own two feet in Ireland,” producer Pat Moylan told The Irish Times.
  • Leamy House on Hartstonge Street in Limerick, the author’s old school, has been purchased by a Limerick businessman. The building hosts multiple tenants, including the Frank McCourt Museum, which the new owner plans to keep in place, according to the Limerick Leader.
  • The Leader also reported that hundreds of people have contributed to a large montage portrait of the famous Limerick writer.

McCourt was born in New York. His parents returned to their native Ireland during the Great Depression. He was 67 when Angela’s Ashes won the Pulitzer.

In a September 1996 book review under the headline “Generous Memories of a Poor, Painful Childhood,” The New York Times wrote:

“Writing in prose that’s pictorial and tactile, lyrical but streetwise, Mr. McCourt does for the town of Limerick what the young Joyce did for Dublin: he conjures the place for us with such intimacy that we feel we’ve walked its streets and crawled its pubs. He introduces us to the schoolmasters who terrorized (and occasionally inspired) their pupils, the shopkeepers who extended credit to the poor and the priests who listened to the confessions of young boys preoccupied with sex and sin and shame.”

McCourt later wrote ‘Tis (1999) and Teacher Man (2005). He died in 2009.

The troubled foundation of St. Patrick’s in Rome, 1888

ROME — The foundation stone of St. Patrick’s Church in the Eternal City was laid during a critical period of Irish history and the eve of a low-point in the country’s relationship with the Vatican.

I stopped by the church, plain by Roman standards, as part of my ongoing project of visiting as many St. Patricks as possible. As it turned out, the church’s foundation date of 1 February 1888 (St. Brigid’s Day) also dovetailed with my interest in Ireland’s late 19th century nationalist struggles and land war.

St. Patrick’s Church, Rome, April 2017. Mosaic of St. Patrick below Celtic cross.

The morning of the foundation ceremony, a delegation of three archbishops, 10 bishops and 300 other pilgrims from Ireland, America and other nations with significant Irish immigrant populations met with Pope Leo XIII. The visitors gave the pope “a magnificent chalice of Irish workmanship,” a photo album of “sights, churches and principal monuments” of Dublin and a nearly £16,000 donation to the Vatican exchequer. The pontiff blessed the trowel to be used in that afternoon’s building site ceremony and handed each of the guests a coin commemorating the 50th anniversary of his priestly ordination.

The pope addressed the group in Latin, according to The Nation, which reproduced his text with an English translation. He assured the visitors that he had viewed Ireland “with paternal care” since the start of his pontificate 10 years earlier.

“We were moved by her many claims upon us, but most of all by the integrity of that Catholic faith which, established by the labors and the zeal of St. Patrick, was preserved by the unconquerable fortitude of your ancestors, and transmitted to you to be guarded as a sacred inheritance,” he said.

The mosaic above the sanctuary is by Rodolfo Villani and depicts St. Patrick converting the High King Laoghaire at Tara, using the shamrock to explain the Trinity. The banner UT CHRISTIANI ITA ET ROMANI SITIS (“Be ye Christians as those of the Roman Church”) — is from the writings of St. Patrick.

The pontiff also briefly discussed the “present state of affairs” in Ireland, noting that a year earlier he dispatched Archbishop Ignatius Persico to investigate the country’s troubles. At the time, tension between Irish tenant farmers and absentee landlords had been stoked by a protest strategy known as the Plan of Campaign, which sought to reduce rents by withholding payments. If tenants got evicted, the Plan called for peer-enforced social ostracism, or boycotting, to prevent others from leasing the land. Some Catholic clergy were tacitly supporting the movement by joining the simultaneous nationalist efforts to secure Irish political autonomy, called home rule.

Persico began his mission to Ireland in 1887 just as the Times of London published a sensational series of stories linking agrarian unrest to Irish leader Charles Steward Parnell. The prelate’s presence generated mixed reactions among the Irish hierarchy, according to their letters to Tobias Kirby, rector of the Pontifical Irish College, Rome, who acted as their representative to the Vatican. In July, Archbishop William Walsh of Dublin wrote that he was “very edified” by Persico’s mission. In September, Rev. J. Hassan of Londonderry said he was “ashamed of the cold reception” some gave the Vatican visitor. In October, Msgr. Bernard O’Reilly of Dublin worried that Persico’s report would be “unfavorable to Ireland” and complained he was “the wrong man to send.” The next day, Rev. M. Mooney of Cahir wrote he was delighted by the “genuine spark of Celtic spirit in his [Persico’s] very tone.”

As if to underscore the troubles in Ireland, boycotted Kerry farmer James Fitzmaurice was gunned down in a widely reported land-related murder a day before the February 1888 foundation ceremony. That may have been on the pope’s mind when he told the Irish delegation he ordered the Persico mission “that we may be aided by his report in ascertaining the actual condition of things, and the steps that in your interest it may be desirable to take.” The pontiff also suggested that he might help ease Ireland’s “difficulties” through his personal diplomacy, just as he diffused anti-Catholic tensions in Germany.

Back in Ireland, however, The Nation noted that there were “wide differences” between the situations in the two countries, and that a similar outcome was unlikely. “The German question was essentially a religious one; the Irish question is an essentially non-religious one. Nor is there in English politics any such commanding personage as Bismarck,” the paper wrote four days later.

Sanctuary statue of St. Patrick. The tabernacle is open because this photo was taken the morning of the Easter Vigil.

About 10 weeks after the St. Patrick’s foundation ceremony, Rome issued a Papal Rescript that condemned the Plan of Campaign and its associated violence and boycotting tactics. While Persico favored grassroots guidance by the Irish bishops, the decree reflected the top-down approach of the Vatican, which at least in part was trying to appease English Catholic elites and the conservative government in London, which soon opened a special commission on “Parnellism and Crime.”

The Irish bishops grumbled that the decree divided their loyalty to the pope with their ministry to the people. The directive also drew a harsh rebuke in the first issue of The Irish Catholic, the latest publishing endeavor of Timothy Daniel Sullivan, a Dublin-based MP who also owned The Nation. “We deplore that the Holy Office has been deceived into accepting as a description of the affairs of Ireland, one without any basis in fact,” the new weekly said in its 5 May editorial.

Two months later, Rome reinforced the rescript with a Papal Encyclical, Saepe Nos, which complained the original decree was “grievously perverted by means of forced interpretations.” The pontiff reminded his Irish readers that he had “carefully inquired” to “obtain full and reliable knowledge of the state of your affairs, and of the causes of popular discontent.” In other words, the Vatican was standing by its original orders against boycotting and the Plan.

The Irish hierarchy and populace only grew further enraged. By the end of 1888, 28 of 30 Irish bishops signed a letter to the pope stating that they could not enforce the decree without jeopardizing both his and their own authority in Ireland. The following year became “perhaps the worst period in the whole history of Irish relations with the Holy See.” The Irish bishops even balked at Vatican directives to hold special collections to help pay for building St. Patrick’s Church in Rome.

Lack of funds and other delays slowed completion of the church for 23 years. It finally opened on St. Patrick’s Day 1911, “in weather that was raw, and chill, and rainy, much resembling that of spring days in Ireland,” the Freeman’s Journal reported. Eight years after the death of Leo XIII, the Kerry People suggested the late pontiff “encouraged and most generously contributed” to the Irish-connected church. (The Nation folded 11 years earlier, and The Irish Catholic’s archive was not immediately available.)

Most of Ireland’s tenant-landlord disputes had been resolved by 1911, but an even more difficult revolutionary period was just about to begin. With it, there would be a new round of trouble between Irish nationalists and the Holy See.

NOTES in addition to material linked above:

  • Freeman’s Journal, 28 March, 1911, page 5.
  • Kerry People, 8 April 1911, page 9.
  • Larkin, Emmet: The Roman Catholic Church in Ireland and the Fall of Parnell, 1888-1891 University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1979. “Worst period” quote on page 3, plus other background.
  • St. Patrick’s Church, Rome.
  • The Nation, 4 February 1888, page 11.
  • The Two Edged Sword.

Rooney & O’Reilly: Dead … and gone

I’ve been away from the blog for an Easter trip to Rome. During my absence, two Irish Americans made headlines for very different reasons:

Former U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Dan Rooney dies

In my native Pittsburgh and across most of America, Dan Rooney was best known as chairman of the NFL Steelers, the son of the team’s late and much beloved founder. But he also was U.S. Ambassador to Ireland from July 2008 to December 2012, a co-founder of The Ireland Funds, and principal benefactor of the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature at Trinity College Dublin.

He died April 13 at age 84. His grandfather emigrated from Newry, County Down to Montreal, Canada, then moved to Ohio and Pittsburgh, where the late ambassador was born.

“Deeply committed to Ireland and the Irish people, he was always conscious of his Irish roots,” Irish President Michael D. Higgins told The Irish Times.  Said former U.S. President Barack Obama:

Dan Rooney was a great friend of mine, but more importantly, he was a great friend to the people of Pittsburgh, a model citizen, and someone who represented the United States with dignity and grace on the world stage. I knew he’d do a wonderful job when I named him as our United States Ambassador to Ireland, but naturally, he surpassed my high expectations, and I know the people of Ireland thank fondly of him today.

Obama and Rooney, right, in 2014. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette image.

Bill O’Reilly ousted from Fox News

Conservative news anchor Bill O’Reilly and the Fox News Channel parted ways after 20 years in the wake of a New York Times exposé about the media company paying $13 million to settle sexual harassment allegations against the cable television ratings king.

O’Reilly describes the claims as “completely unfounded” and himself as the victim of “the unfortunate reality many of us in the public eye must live with today.”

His great-grandfather emigrated from Clonoose, County Cavan, according to a 2016 episode of the PBS series “Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.” O’Reilly also was a 2014 inductee in Irish America magazine’s Hall of Fame.

The honor recognizes “the extraordinary achievements of Irish-American leaders, from their significant accomplishments and contributions to American society to the personal commitment to safeguarding their Irish heritage and the betterment of Ireland.” Among 45 honorees since 2011: liberal cable television anchor Chris Matthews; former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; and President Donald Trump’s Ambassador to Ireland nominee Brian P. Burns.

But not Dan Rooney, though the magazine has written about him.

I’ve reached out to the New York-based publication by email and Twitter to ask if they plan to keep O’Reilly among their honorees. Maybe they could switch him with Rooney. If you agree, contact the magazine at: @irishamerica, or submit@irishamerica.com.

Irish reaction as America entered World War I

One hundred years ago, during the first week of April 1917, the United States entered World War I. President Woodrow Wilson could no long maintain his pledge of neutrality since the war began in 1914, and Congress supported his decision. The American draft began in June 1917.

“Ireland’s interest in the great decision is obvious,” the Freeman’s Journal editorialized. The moderate nationalist newspaper viewed America’s entry in the war as “vindication” for John Redmond, who in 1914 urged Irish soldiers to go “wherever the fighting line extends” in support of Britain. His call shifted Irish American support from home rule toward more militant Irish nationalism and Germany.

“America today is Ireland’s ally, as desired by Sinn Féiners, but she is Ireland’s ally because the Irish leader from the beginning set Ireland’s feet on the one path that every friend of freedom was bound to tread,” the Freeman’s Journal concluded in April 1917.

Redmond and others in the Irish Parliamentary Party believed that America’s presence not only ensured victory on the battlefield, but also guaranteed the implementation of home rule, the limited domestic autonomy for Ireland approved just before the war, but put on hold because of the outbreak. The IPP’s view was mistaken. Militant Irish nationalism, fueled by the 1916 Easter Rising and Britain’s execution of the rebel leaders, continued to manifest with Sinn Féin‘s 1918 electoral victories and the Irish War of Independence. The time for home rule had passed.

Across the Atlantic, Irish America rallied behind Wilson, putting aside criticism that he hadn’t done enough on behalf of the cause of Irish independence after the Rising and the executions of the leaders, historian Robert Schmuhl writes at RTE‘s Century Ireland. He continues:

The president understood that Irish Americans were a loyal constituency of his Democratic Party; however, he viewed the situation in Ireland as an internal matter to be resolved by the government of the United Kingdom. Bobbing and weaving like a prizefighter, Wilson hoped he wouldn’t alienate any segment of Irish America. His political ducking and dodging worked to his advantage for just so long.

Following the Armistice, Wilson once again faced the appeals of Irish-Americans to recognize Ireland as one of what he had called the ‘small states’ that deserved ‘self-determination’. … At the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, which ultimately produced the Treaty of Versailles and created the League of Nations, Wilson refused to allow the subject of an Ireland divorced from the United Kingdom to enter the formal post-war deliberations and discussions. Despite persistent efforts by the American Commission on Irish Independence to get the president to realize how his numerous calls for ‘self-determination’ had rallied the Irish and Irish-Americans throughout the Great War, the obstinate Wilson remained steadfast in his opposition to raising the fate of Ireland.

Adding to my list of St. Patrick’s churches

I visited two St. Patrick’s churches during an a recent research trip; one in Maryland for the first time, the other my longtime favorite back home in Pittsburgh. See my list of 18 St. Patrick’s churches.

In Cumberland, Maryland, the late 18th century St. Mary’s was rededicated as St. Patrick’s in 1851 due to the town’s growing Irish population. The church was closed when I passed through late in the evening, but Catholic Sanctuaries has more than 50 images posted on Flickr.

Architect John Tehan lived from 1796 to 1868. It appears he may have been an Irish American from nearby Frederick, Maryland, where he is buried, rather than an Irish native. Tehan is not in the Dictionary of Irish Architects, 1720-1940.

The sanctuary of Old St. Patrick’s Church in Pittsburgh. A woven crown of thorns on a purple cushion is at left side of the tabernacle in this image during Lent 2017.

How an 1879 prisoner report won good press for the Irish

(This piece continues my exploration of Irish immigrants incarcerated in Pennsylvania prisons and workhouses in the 19th and early 20th century. Here’s the original post. MH)

Irish immigrants in 19th century America were often characterized in the press as shiftless and criminal. In states with heavy concentration of Irish, such as Pennsylvania, there was some basis for the perception, as noted in this later historical account:

Since colonial times they had been heavily over-represented in the prisons and alms-houses. Widow, orphans and dependent people abounded among them. Their distress spurred their achievement.

As the Irish made the long climb to respectability in the late 19th century, detailed prison records helped erode some of the negative stereotypes. An example can be found in the August 1880 issue of The Penn Monthly, a Philadelphia-based journal “Devoted to Literature, Art, Science and Politics.” There, an article focused on a landmark report of the Board of Commissioners of Public Charities, the agency created in 1869 to oversee Pennsylvania’s vast network of charitable and correctional institutions.

The Board’s tenth annual report to the state legislature in Harrisburg noted that of the 3,417 people convicted of crimes in 1879, just 4.53 percent were Irish immigrants, fewer than the 5.09 percent of German-born lawbreakers, and only slightly more than the 3.40 percent native English prisoners. This prompted Penn Monthly to observe:

There is a very common notion that the Irish in America contribute more than their share to our criminal class. But this expectation is contradicted by all the statistics of crime in their own country–which is more free from offences against person, property and chastity than any other country in the world–and also by these Pennsylvania tables. On the other hand the English, who form but a small percentage of our population, furnish nearly as many criminals as the Irish.

Of the nearly 10.2 million people who immigrated to America between 1820 and 1880, almost 28 percent were from Ireland. Irish immigrants were 15 percent of the populations of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, totaling more than 100,000 people. They gathered in northeastern Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region, and railroad hubs such as Altoona.

That the percentage of Irish behind bars was less than their countrymen outside the walls had “an importance far beyond any honor it may do to the Irish portion of our population,” Penn Monthly suggested. This fact also refuted “specious objections” to the “Irish system” penal reforms as Pennsylvania officials reconsidered their own correctional operations.

Sir Walter Crofton, the mid-19th century chairman of the Board of Directors of Convict Prisons for Ireland, devised a three-stage system of prisoner confinement. Convicts moved from solitary cells to communal work camps and finally, supervised, intermediate release into the community, a forerunner of parole.

Penn Monthly alleged that Pennsylvania prison officials:

… shake their heads and hint that our prisons are full of Irish convicts, who have escaped from such lax custody, to renew their depredations in a new world. The statistics of such escapes are easily accessible, being reported periodically to Parliament. But they are never alleged by the opponents of the Irish system. Neither do they tell us that the Irish convicts in Pennsylvania prisons form less than 5 percent of the whole number.

Image of Western Penitentiary in Pittsburgh, set to close in June 2017, by Mugatu.

Popular perceptions of the Irish contributing more than their share of criminal behavior persisted for several reasons. Among the 83.24 percent of native-born convicts incarcerated in Pennsylvania in 1879, an unknown portion were first generation Irish Americans. Their Irish surnames would have stood out in police and court records, and in news accounts of notorious crimes, typically without any distinction of their place of birth.

It is also worth remembering that the Penn Monthly article appeared after seven years of headlines about murders, arson and other crimes alleged to have been committed by the Molly Maguires, a pro-worker, Irish secret society concentrated in the state’s coal region. Twenty Mollies were convicted of crimes and executed by 1878.

Back in Ireland, the Land War was well underway by 1880. The often violent struggle between Irish tenant farmers and absentee English landlords made frequent headlines in American newspapers. For example, a January 1879 story in the Pittsburgh Daily Post detailed Irish “agrarian crime,” including murder and intimidation.  A November 1879 report in the Post reported that “Irish-American Fenians are at the bottom of the trouble now prevailing in Ireland.” Irish leader Charles Stewart Parnell toured America in early 1880, including stops in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, to raise attention and money for the cause.

So regardless of the prison statistics, it must have seemed to many Pennsylvanians and other Americans that the Irish were creating unrest on both sides of the Atlantic.

But the Catholic-focused Donahoe’s Magazine sought to amplify the Penn Monthly story, quoting the same passages as above in its December 1880 issue. Donahoe’s suggested that the 4.53 percent figure of Irish convicts in 1879 was probably unusually high, “inasmuch as the unfavorable circumstances and evil influences under which Irishmen were placed … during the past few years in the state of Pennsylvania.” It did not mention the Molly Maguires or any specifics.

The Boston-based magazine also referenced how a June 1880 Milwaukee newspaper column quoted a Wisconsin politician as saying the majority of criminals in the local House of Corrections were Irish.

“And it ended there, without giving facts to substantiate its insults to the most law-abiding citizens of that city,” Donahoe’s huffed. “…[We are] hoping that in the future, when local reporters of secular papers are desirous of placing upon the Irish of this country the false imputation that they ‘build and fill the jails,’ they will substantiate their assertions by statistics from official reports.”

NOTES:

Clark, Dennis, “The Irish in Pennsylvania: A People Share a Commonwealth“, Pennsylvania History Studies No. 22, The Pennsylvania Historical Association, University Park, Pa., 1991. “Over-represented” quote, page 16. Immigrant population tables, page 32. From Griffin, William D., “The Book of Irish Americans” Times Books, 1990.

Erie, Stephen, “Rainbow’s End: Irish-Americans and the Dilemmas of Urban Machine Politics, 1840-1995”, University of California Press, 1988. 1870 city percentages, page 18.

“Ireland’s Woes”, Pittsburgh Daily Post, Nov. 22, 1879, page 1.

“Irish Agrarianism”, Pittsburgh Daily Post, Jan. 17, 1879, page 3.

Irish Criminals in America: How They Compare in Number With Those of Other Nationalities“, Donahoe’s Magazine, Vol. IV, No. 6, December 1880, pages 492-493.

Tenth Annual Report of the Board of Commissioners of the Public Charities of the State of Pennsylvania“, Lane S. Hart, State Printer, Harrisburg, 1880.

The Watch Over Our Charities“, The Penn Monthly, August 1880, pages 649-658.

Remembering “The Forgotten Irish”

I’ve been reading “The Forgotten Irish: Irish Emigrant Experiences in America,” by Damian Shiels. I strongly recommend this book.

“Forgotten Irish” is a collection of 35 stories about Irish families during the American Civil War and the following decades. It is based largely on U.S. government widow and dependent pension records: personal letters and other documentation related to the survivors of men killed in America’s bloodiest conflict. As such, there is an ample whiff of desperation and heartbreak in these stories, like opening a heavily perfumed letter or standing downwind from a volley of cannon blasts.

Shiels’ new book follows his 2014 title, “The Irish in the American Civil War,” about the “gallantry, sacrifice, and bravery” of the Irish men on the American battle field.  Both books build on the excellent work of his similarly named website.

There, Shiels writes:

In 1860 there were 1.6 million Irish-born people living in the United States, with many hundreds of thousands more first generation Irish-Americans. In New York, one in four of the population were Irish-born. During the war, c. 180,000 Irish-born fought for the Union, 20,000 for the Confederacy. The majority of Irish who fought and suffered through the conflict had endured the Great Famine– the American Civil War represented the second great trauma of their lives. Although the Irish experience of the conflict receives significant attention in the United States, in Ireland it receives little. There are few books published on the topic in Ireland, and the 150th anniversary passed with relatively little recognition. This is symptomatic of a wider issue regarding how the history of the Irish diaspora is dealt with– little time is devoted to the story of Irish people once they leave these shores. Though we frequently discuss the Famine, we rarely follow its emigrant victims beyond the port to examine what further horrors lay in store for many.

The emphasis above is mine own, but it is a point that Shiels repeated in a 16 March presentation at the U.S. National Archives, where it was amplified by David T. Gleeson, professor of American History at Northumbria University and author of “The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America.”

With 200,000 Irish-born soldiers participating in the war, it’s easy to extrapolate the large number of Irish lives touched by the conflict: wives, children, parents, siblings, relations, friends, employers and business associates, both in the U.S. and back in Ireland. These stories are the focus of “Forgotten Irish,” not the famous military and political leaders.

The pension files and other records Shiels has mined provide many vivid details, but the stories are more sketches than full portraits. Savvy readers will bring other historical knowledge and a little imagination to each turn of the page. All but one of the 35 stories is less than 10 pages, and the use of an italic script for extended passages of the letters is a nice touch.

As I quoted “Historical Research” author Bill McDowell in an earlier post about my own work, such stories “humanize and enrich history by reminding us that the study of the past should include the study of the lives of ordinary people, their attitudes, beliefs, motives, experiences and actions.”  The National Archive’s Jackie Budell made a similar point in her introduction to the evening with Shiels and Gleeson (full video below). Every box of the 15 million records held by the Archives (plus similar institutions in the U.S. and Ireland) is filled with forgotten stories, she said. “We just need a few more story tellers.”

Watch the video. Read the book. Remember the forgotten.