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.