How the Irish Became American
This past Sunday was the annual Dick Dowling Statue Ceremony in Houston. It’s one of the central events for the Irish community in the area, and very well attended. The weather this year was just about perfect.
Sunday’s keynote speaker was Brady Lee Hutchison, a member of the History Department at San Jacinto College. Reproduced here with permission.
“How the Irish Became American”
by Brady Lee Hutchison
First of all, let me say that you for inviting me here to speak to you today. It is quite an honor for this Irish-American. It is fitting that we are gathered here, with Houston’s own Irish hero, to mark what promises to be a fun week for those of us who’s families hail from the Emerald Isle. Historical remembrance is important. If ever we stop passing that legacy down to the next generation, then the deeds of the brave men and women who have come before us will disappear from our collective conscious and that is something that we must strive to avoid.
Ireland and America have long shared a bond of friendship brought on by shared blood. Today, three times more people claim Irish ancestry than live in Ireland, so it is understandable that the two countries would have so much in common. On March 17th, the day set aside for our Patron Saint, Patrick, it is easy to get lost in the revelry and forget the difficult and dangerous road that our ancestors traveled down so that we could live in the kind of country that now celebrates the very heritage that it once scorned. But how did that happen? How did we get to where we are today? Like the poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty that says “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses”, Ireland did just that, helped along by the English. Indeed, the Irish would transition from huddled masses to heroes. For every Dick Dowling, who we honor here today, there were hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands more who also came over from the Old Country who fought and died for their adopted home, be it North or South. They shed their blood and often sacrificed their lives so that future generations of Americans of Irish descent could find the acceptance that their ancestors so desperately wanted. The Civil War, friends, was more than just a battle for the soul of a nation. For the Irish, it was a battle for acceptance. And that is what I will say a few brief remarks on today.
If you will permit me a brief interlude first, I would like to explain how I came to know Dick Dowling. I grew up in Port Arthur, Texas, just a few miles from Sabine Pass where Dowling and his intrepid band of Irishmen performed a feat, rarely paralleled in the annals of military history. We first learned about him in third grade when I was a young student at Robert E. Lee Elementary. We also had a Dick Dowling Elementary, but alas, I lived in Lee’s attendance zone. That same year my parents took me to the annual Dowling festival and reenactment at Sabine Pass. That gave me my first glimpse at Civil War reenacting. Eleven years later, as a 19 year old college student, I would participate in my first reenactment at that same spot. I have long been aware of my Irish heritage. With Fitzgerald blood in my veins, it is hard not to be. As a child, it gave me quite a thrill to know that merely a few miles and one hundred and twenty years (at that time) separated me from men with blood the same as mine who so bravely stood their ground and defended the very spot where I lived. From that moment on, I think that it was almost inescapable that I would gravitate towards the study of history and though I took a circuitous route, end up teaching it. So long as we are aware of where we came from, I think the bonds of time do not seem so significant. Which is why we should know not only the glorious triumphs, but also the toils and struggles that our ancestors faced.
The reasons why so many Irish men, women, and children immigrated to the United States in the 1840s and 50s is well known to all here. During the years of the Great Hunger, though specific numbers are hard to pin down, roughly a million people died and an equal number crossed the Atlantic on the coffin ships. In a ten year period, the overall population of Ireland dropped significantly. In Connaught, for example, the population loss from 1841-1851 was close to 30%. What I find interesting is that the destination of the ship leaving Ireland would later determine which side of the Civil War the men fought on. My ancestors boarded a vessel bound for New Orleans, as did Dowling’s family. Indeed, New Orleans received the third largest number of Irish immigrants during these years, trailing only New York and Boston. This transformed the Crescent City to one that in the late 19th Century would be identified as being thoroughly Irish. If Dowling’s family had boarded a different boat, he might very well have been commanding troops in the Northern Army during the War. Such is the fickle nature of history. However, when the Irish arrived in the United States, they found a nation that shared the same deeply rooted prejudices against Catholicism that also existed in England and thus rather than welcoming them with open arms, the Irish faced a struggle for survival which would also transform into a struggle for the soul of a nation. But I have yet to meet and Irishman yet who is not up for a challenged.
The Irish have been in the Americas for quite some time, but it wasn’t until large numbers of them arrived in a short time period that any problems really existed. In the 1850s, a new political party emerged which we today call the Know Nothing Party, though active for only a short time, the party reflected the views of many in American society who saw the poverty and Catholicism of the Irish immigrants as a threat to the establishment. A series of riots occurred across the country in the 1840s and1850s. 22 people were killed in a Know Nothing riot in Louisville, Kentucky in 1855 when Irish voters going to the polls to elect a mayor were attacked by Nativist mobs. In Maine, a Catholic priest was tarred and feathered. Mobs attacked Catholic Churches in places like Philadelphia and Baltimore in the mid 1840s. After learning of a church being burned in Philadelphia and the deaths of twelve people, the Bishop of New York, “Dagger” John Hughes placed armed guards around the Catholic Churches in the city and said “if a single Catholic Church is burned, this city will become a second Moscow” (in reference to the Russians burning Moscow in advance of Napoleon’s Army). A single church was not burned in that city, at least. I mention all this not to dredge up the past or to reopen old wounds, but it is important for those of us of Irish descent to understand that things were not always the way they are now. This is what makes that struggle for acceptance all the more important. Here in the States, the Irish were routinely portrayed as monkeys in newspaper cartoons, just as they were in England. Though some stereotypes still do persist in the media, by and large we don’t get compared to monkeys these days and so I think we have moved in the right direction. But how does the Civil War factor into this?
When war came to the United States, the Irish eagerly volunteered to fight. An estimated 150,000 Irishmen served in the Union armies, including seven who reached the rank of general. Who can forget the heroic charge of the Irish Brigade up Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg where they suffered 40 percent casualties in the space of a few minutes. Their gallantry was cheered by their Confederate foes, who included a number of Irish among them as well. Consider the words of General Pickett “Your soldiers heart almost stood still as we watched those sons of Erin fearlessly rush to their death. The brilliant assault on Marye’s Heights of the Irish Brigade was beyond description. Why, we forgot they were fighting us and cheer after cheer went up along our lines.” The states which would make up the Confederacy, with the exception of Louisiana, did not receive near the same number of Irish immigrants, but that did not stop those who did live in the South from embracing the war just as their northern countrymen did. New Orleans sent several regiments to the Confederate cause which were made up of large numbers of Irish Immigrants. Groups like the Louisiana Tigers, who would later give their name to LSU as a mascot, and the 6th Louisiana Infantry. Had our friend Dowling not made his way to Houston, he no doubt would have been serving in one of those regiments. Historians like to look back in time and ascribe grand motives to the reasons why people did the things they did. I am not one of those historians. Each Irishman who enlisted in either army did so for his own reasons that, absent written evidence to the contrary, we will never know. North and South, Irish troops were well known for the gallantry. General Lee’s Chief of Artillery, Edward Porter Alexander said “They problem with the Yankees is that their cavalry can’t ride and their infantry, except the Irish, can’t fight.” And when we discuss the brave Confederate Irish who stood against overwhelming odds at Sabine Pass, so too should we mention that there were Irishmen in those Union vessels as well. How tragic it is that men who fled oppression in their own country ended up shooting at each other in this country, but history is full of such tales.
Though Irish support for the war in the North waned as it dragged on, the men who followed the green flags into battle did not waver from the course. After the war, they returned home, some broken in body, others in mind, but all changed by the experience that they had lived through. Did all anti-Irish feeling disappear as soon as the war was over? Certainly not. You can still see anti-Irish cartoons well into the 1880s, but public perception had softened somewhat, particularly in the North where the once scorned immigrant group had proven themselves every bit as American as the next by their courage under fire. In the post war United States, Irishmen built the Transcontinental Railroad headed west as Chinese immigrant labor built it headed east. Irishmen policed the streets of New York, Boston, Chicago, and New Orleans. They fought the fires. They and their descendants continued to fight for the country that took them in and still do to this day. Though as years passed, they may have dropped the “O” or the “Mc” prefix from their last name, they remained Irish. Perhaps it is because of the forced separation from their home which led Irish Americans to hold so strongly onto those connections. But over time, Irish immigrants came to find something in America that they so desperately wanted back home. Liberty. Freedom. The right to be judged based on your character rather than your ethnicity or your religion. All of these things were, and perhaps are still, dear to the Irish people whether here or in Ireland. The Civil War provided the perfect avenue for them to strive to achieve it. Over time, the rest of American came to understand this as well. Those sacrifices on oft forgotten fields one hundred and fifty years ago still resonate with Irish-Americans today as that is the reason why we are able to gather and celebrate our heritage as we are doing now. Our ancestors paid for that right of acceptance with their blood. Though St. Patrick’s Day is, and should be, a cause for celebration, we must also remember that we are but a few generations removed from a time in which to be Irish was to be scorned. So if you are hoisting a pint on Tuesday, please drink a toast to the spirits of those who came before us. If Guinness is scarce in heaven, which I don’t think it is, I’m sure they’ll appreciate it.
I’ve never met an Irishman, myself included, who did not have the gift of gab, so I will now bring this to a close. The moral of my story today, dear friends, is that the history of the Irish in America is a triumphant one because we had to overcome great hardships to be where we are today, not in spite of it. The United States did not simply decide on a whim that Irishness was something to be celebrated. The Irish had to fight for it and they paid a very high price. To be frank, this is the same struggle that immigrant groups have faced ever since the Irish arrived be they Italian, Russian, Vietnamese, or Mexican. Though many of our families have been in this country for a long, long time, we must always remember that they too came here seeking a better life. Each successive wave of immigrants has had to fight its own battle for acceptance and its own battle to become American. Today you’d be hard pressed to find a group more proud of their heritage than the Irish-Americans but you’d also be hard pressed to find one more patriotic as well. A scan of the list of fallen soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines over the past ten years yields quite a few Irish surnames, proof that the spirit of Dowling, Meagher, and Cleburne lives on today. Thank you for having me speak to you today. May God Bless America and May God Save Ireland.