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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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The Battle of Antietam

irish-brigade-at-antietamThe Irish Brigade of the Union Army fights in the Battle of Antietam, one of the most famous battles of the American Civil War, on September 17, 1862. The battle has the sad distinction of being the bloodiest single day of fighting in America’s bloodiest war. Combined casualties at the Battle of Antietam are 26,134. Few regiments suffered more than the Irish Brigade.

The Irish Brigade is the brainchild of their commanding officer Thomas Francis Meagher. The former Young Ireland rebel, creator of the Irish Tricolor of green, white and orange, escaped political prisoner, lawyer, newspaper editor and politician forms the brigade with the twin objectives of gaining respect for the Irish by their patriotism for their adopted country and developing a nucleus for a future fight for Ireland’s freedom. The Brigade is formed of the almost exclusively Irish American 69th, 63rd and 88th New York and the “honorary Irish” of the 29th Massachusetts. The regiments of the Irish Brigade had already earned a formidable reputation as a crack unit, having distinguished themselves in every battle of the earlier Seven Days Battles. It is small wonder, many in the Brigade’s ranks had already distinguished themselves in the Mexican-American War or in fighting with the Papal forces in Italy against Giuseppe Garibaldi.

The Union Army is already heavily engaged, when the Irish Brigade is ordered to advance through an open field to take an area of high ground. Subjected to accurate Confederate rifle fire as they cross the field, the Brigade marches on in disciplined order, the National and the famed Green Regimental Colors (flags) fluttering overhead. When they encounter a fence across their line of march, eighty volunteers rush forward to knock it down, rather than see the whole Brigade slowed by the obstacle and exposed to fire. Over half of these volunteers are killed. Seeing the Irish continue to press forward, the Confederates fall back as the Irish advance up the hill.

What no one on the Union side knows is that on the other side of the hill is a farmer’s dirt road that years of rain has eroded into a ditch five feet below the surrounding ground level. The sunken road is a perfect rifle pit and is filled with Colonel John Brown Gordon’s Georgians. As the Irish crest the hill, they are met with a volley that decimates the Brigade, including killing or wounding every single standard-bearer. Seeing the flags fall from across the field, an aide to Union General George B. McClellan exclaims, “The battles lost, the Irish are fleeing!” only for McClellan to respond, “No, the flags are raised again, they are advancing.” Eight successive standard-bearers of the 69th New York alone fall that day as men pick up the flags from fallen comrades. Captain Patrick Clooney, though wounded himself, snatches up the colors from the 88th’s fallen standard-bearer only to be killed by multiple shots, the Green Flag wrapping around him like a shroud befitting a hero. Another standard-bearer, the staff of his Irish Brigade flag snapped in two by a rifle shot, drapes the flag over his shoulder like a sash and continues to move forward, personifying the Gaelic phrase on the flag he is carrying “Riamh Nar Dhruid O Spairn lann”, “Who never retreated from the clash of spears.”

The fire of the Confederates is so intense that the Irish Brigade cannot advance, but they do not flee either. Despite the failure of promised reinforcements that never materialize, the Brigade pours “Buck and Ball” (a 69 caliber ball and three 30 caliber buckshot) into the enemy at 300 paces, turning the “Sunken Road” into “Bloody Lane.” When their ammunition is depleted, the remnants of the Brigade, with drill ground precision, form and march back to the Union lines. The Irish Brigade never “ran” from the enemy. Another Union unit takes the “Bloody Lane,” but most credit the punishment that the Irish Brigade inflicted on the enemy, at a terrible cost to themselves, with making it possible. The New York Regiments take over 50% casualties. The Irish Brigade is now no bigger than a single regiment. As the depleted ranks of the 88th march passed, Union Major General Israel Bush Richardson salutes as it passes with the words “Bravo 88th, I shall never forget you!”

During the course of the War, the Irish Brigade suffers over 4,000 casualties, more men than the Brigade ever had at any one time. The Fighting 69th loses more men than any other New York regiment. The Battle of Antietam is remembered as the Union victory that allows President Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which frees the slaves in the Confederate states. It is all too often forgotten that this emancipation was secured in no small part with the blood of Irish immigrants, immigrants who were denied civil rights in their own country and faced discrimination in their adopted county before and after the Civil War.

In thinking of the Civil War, all Americans should remember the words of a defeated Confederate Officer to his Union counterpart at Appomattox, “You only won as you had more Irish than we did.”

(Credit: “The Irish Brigade at Antietam” by Neil F. Cosgrove, October 17, 2009)

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Birth of Nell McCafferty, Journalist & Feminist

nell-mccaffertyNell McCafferty, Irish journalist, playwright, civil rights campaigner and feminist, is born in Derry, County Londonderry, Northern Ireland on March 28, 1944. In her journalistic work she has written for The Irish Press, The Irish Times, Sunday Tribune, Hot Press and The Village Voice.

McCafferty is born to Hugh and Lily McCafferty, and spends her early years in the Bogside area of Derry. She is admitted to Queen’s University Belfast, where she takes a degree in Arts. After a brief spell as a substitute English teacher in Northern Ireland and a stint on an Israeli kibbutz, she takes up a post with The Irish Times.

McCafferty is a founding member of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement. Her journalistic writing on women and women’s rights reflect her beliefs on the status of women in Irish society. In 1971, she travels to Belfast with other members of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement in order to protest the prohibition of the importation and sale of contraceptives in the Republic of Ireland.

After the disintegration of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement, McCafferty remains active in other women’s rights groups, as well as focusing her journalism on women’s rights. Her most notable work is her coverage of the Kerry Babies case, which is recorded in her book, A Woman to Blame. She contributes the piece “Coping with the womb and the border” to the 1984 anthology Sisterhood Is Global: The International Women’s Movement Anthology, edited by Robin Morgan.

In 1990, McCafferty wins a Jacob’s Award for her reports on the 1990 FIFA World Cup for RTÉ Radio 1‘s The Pat Kenny Show. She publishes her autobiography, Nell, in 2004. In it, she explores her upbringing in Derry, her relationship with her parents, her fears about being gay, the joy of finding a domestic haven with the love of her life, the Irish writer Nuala O’Faolain, and the pain of losing it.

In 2009, after the publication of the Murphy Report into the abuse of children in the Dublin archdiocese, McCafferty confronts Archbishop Diarmuid Martin asking him why the Catholic Church has not, as a “gesture of redemption,” relinquished titles such as “Your Eminence” and “Your Grace.”

McCafferty causes a controversy in 2010 with a declaration in a live Newstalk radio interview that the then Minister for Health, Mary Harney, is an alcoholic. This allegation leads to a court case in which Harney is awarded €450,000 the following year. McCafferty has very rarely been featured on live radio or television in Ireland as a commentator since the incident, despite being ever present in those media from 1990 forward. However, she has been featured on a number of recorded programs.

The Irish Times writes that “Nell’s distinctive voice, both written and spoken, has a powerful and provocative place in Irish society.”

McCafferty receives an honorary doctorate of literature from University College Cork on November 2, 2016 for “her unparalleled contribution to Irish public life over many decades and her powerful voice in movements that have had a transformative impact in Irish society, including the feminist movement, campaigns for civil rights and for the marginalised and victims of injustice.”

McCafferty lives in Ranelagh, an area of Dublin.


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Birth of Writer John Boyle O’Reilly

John Boyle O’Reilly, poet, journalist and fiction writer, is born in Dowth, County Meath on June 28, 1844.

O’Reilly is the third child of a headmaster and a schoolteacher. When he is fifteen he moves to Lancashire and lives with his aunt and uncle. There he becomes a reporter with a local newspaper and joins the 11th Lancashire Rifle Volunteers in 1861. He returns to Ireland in 1863 and enlists with the 10th Royal Hussars in Dublin. However, after realising the way the British are treating his fellow people he leaves the army and joins the Irish Republican Brotherhood around 1865.

In 1866 O’Reilly, along with many other members of the Brotherhood, are arrested and put on trial for treason. O’Reilly is found guilty and sentenced to death however, due to his young age, his sentence is reduced to 20 years penal servitude. He spends a year and a half in some English prisons before being transported to Western Australia in 1867, arriving in 1868.

A month after arriving O’Reilly is moved to the town of Bunbury where he starts receiving attention for protesting the chopping down of a tree. A year after arriving he decides to escape from the colony with the help of a local Catholic priest and some farmers from the nearby town of Dardanup. In February 1869 O’Reilly absconds from his convict camp and makes his way towards the Leschenault Peninsula where he waits for a ship to arrive. After approximately two weeks O’Reilly escapes on the Gazelle bound for the United States, arriving there in November 1869.

O’Reilly moves to Boston and becomes a well-known figure in the town where he becomes involved in civil rights, sports, and Irish American causes. He also becomes part owner of The Pilot newspaper. He publishes four books of poetry – Songs from the Southern Seas (1873), Songs, Legends and Ballads (1878), The Statues in the Block (1881) and In Bohemia (1886). He also publishes a novel Moondyne (1879) based on the convict of the same name and O’Reilly’s experiences in Western Australia. It becomes his most popular work. He also writes one last book of poems entitled Watchwords, which is released after his death.

John Boyle O’Reilly dies in Hull, Massachusetts on August 10, 1890 from heart failure after overdosing on his wife’s medication. His sudden death receives an outpouring of grief and tributes from the Boston community and also globally.

His funeral is held at St. Mary’s Church in Charlestown on August 13 and is attended by thousands. The streets near the church are lined with mourners. His wife does not attend the funeral due to grief and is unable to leave her bed. He is originally buried at Calvary Cemetery in Roxbury, but in November 1890 his remains are exhumed and moved to Holyhood Cemetery in Brookline.


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The Good Friday Agreement Comes Into Operation

good-friday-agreement-signingThe Good Friday Agreement, a major political development in the Northern Ireland peace process, comes into operation on December 2, 1999 as the British and Irish governments formally notify each other that all the necessary arrangements are in place.

The notification ceremony takes place at Iveagh House, St. Stephen’s Green, headquarters of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, at a joint signing by Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade David Andrews and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Peter Mandelson.

Northern Ireland‘s present devolved system of government is based on the agreement. The agreement also creates a number of institutions between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom.

The agreement is made up of two inter-related documents, both agreed upon in Belfast on Good Friday, April 10, 1998. The first is a multi-party agreement by most of Northern Ireland’s political parties. The second is an international agreement between the British and Irish governments, known as the British-Irish Agreement.

The agreement sets out a complex series of provisions, or strands, relating to a number of areas:

Strand 1 addresses the status and system of government of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom and establishes two major institutions – the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Northern Ireland Executive.

Strand 2 addresses the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and the institutions to be created between them – the North/South Ministerial Council, the North/South Inter-Parliamentary Association, and the North/South Consultative Forum.

Strand 3 addresses the relationship between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom and institutions to be created between Ireland and Great Britain – the British/Irish Intergovernmental Conference, the British-Irish Council, and an expanded British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly.

Issues relating to sovereignty, civil and cultural rights, decommissioning of weapons, justice, and policing are central to the agreement.

The agreement is approved by voters across the island of Ireland in two referendums held on May 22, 1998. In Northern Ireland, voters are asked whether they support the multi-party agreement. In the Republic of Ireland, voters are asked whether they will allow the state to sign the agreement and allow necessary constitutional changes to facilitate it. The people of both jurisdictions need to approve the agreement in order to give effect to it.

The Good Friday Agreement comes into force on December 2, 1999. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is the only major political group in Northern Ireland to oppose the Good Friday Agreement.

(Pictured: British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern sign the Good Friday Agreement)