seamus dubhghaill

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


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The Londonderry Tragedy

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne of the most tragic events of the Great Famine occurs on December 1, 1848 when 72 people suffocate in the small aft cabin of the paddle steamer Londonderry, which often sails between Sligo and Liverpool.

One hundred seventy-two men, women, and children, mostly impoverished farmers from County Mayo and County Sligo, and their families, fleeing the ravages of the Great Famine, board the Londonderry in Sligo in late November. As the steamer is approaching Derry on the first leg of its journey to England, a sudden storm prompts Captain Alexander Johnstone to order his crew to force all the passengers into a small aft cabin, measuring about eighteen feet in length and, at most, twelve feet wide. The situation is exacerbated when the only ventilation available is covered with a tarpaulin to ensure that water does not get into the cabin. As a result, many of the passengers begin to suffocate.

The captain seeks refuge from the storm in the harbour at Derry on December 1. When the hatches of the Londonderry are opened it reveals a horrific scene. The corpses of 31 women, 23 men and 18 children are found in the grossly overcrowded hold. Soldiers are called to the docks as public rage intensifies. The public outcry that follows belatedly forces the British government to publish guidelines for the safe transport of Irish Immigrants, too late unfortunately for the victims of the coffin ship Londonderry.

After the tragic voyage, the master and two mates are arrested. During an inquest, survivors accuse the Scottish crew of being cruel and savage. The captain says that he had given orders for the decks to be cleared for the passengers’ safety while the storm raged.

The coroner’s jury returns a verdict of manslaughter, commenting that more consideration was shown to the cattle than the passengers entrusted to their care.

In 1996 six coffins are found by workmen on a building site in the Waterside area of Derry, in grounds close to the former workhouse. They are believed to be the remains of some of the poverty-stricken travelers from the ill-fated paddle steamer.

(Pictured: The Great Hunger Plaque, Derry, near Derry County Borough, Derry, Clooney Park, Creggan and Boom Hall)

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William J. Brennan Appointed to U.S. Supreme Court

william-brennanWilliam Joseph Brennan, Jr., American judge, is named an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States through a recess appointment by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on October 15, 1956, shortly before the 1956 presidential election. He serves from 1956 until July 20, 1990. As the seventh longest-serving justice in Supreme Court history, he is known for being a leader of the Court’s liberal wing.

Brennan is born in Newark, New Jersey to Irish immigrants, originally from County Roscommon, on April 25, 1906. He attends public schools in Newark, graduating from Barringer High School in 1924. He then attends the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where he graduates cum laude with a degree in economics in 1928. He graduates from Harvard Law School near the top of his class in 1931 and is a member of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau.

Brennan enters private practice in New Jersey and serves in the United States Army during World War II. He is appointed to the Supreme Court of New Jersey in 1951. After his appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court by Eisenhower in 1956, he wins Senate confirmation the following year.

On the Supreme Court, Brennan is known for his outspoken progressive views, including opposition to the death penalty and support for abortion rights. He authors several landmark case opinions, including Baker v. Carr, establishing the “one person, one vote” principle, and New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, which requires “actual malice” in libel suits brought by public officials. Due to his ability to shape a wide variety of opinions and “bargain” for votes in many cases, he is considered to be among the Court’s most influential members. Justice Antonin Scalia calls Brennan “probably the most influential Justice of the [20th] century.”

Brennan holds the post on the Court until his retirement on July 20, 1990 after suffering a stroke. He is succeeded by Justice David Souter. Brennan then teaches at Georgetown University Law Center until 1994. He dies in Arlington County, Virginia on July 24, 1997 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

With 1,360 opinions, he is second only to William O. Douglas in number of opinions written while a Supreme Court justice. On November 30, 1993, President Bill Clinton presents Brennan with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


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The American Civil War Begins

The American Civil War begins on April 12, 1861. There is perhaps no other ethnic group so closely identified with the Civil War years and the immediate aftermath of the war as Irish Americans.

Of those Irish who come over much later than the founding generations, fully 150,000 of them join the Union army. Unfortunately, statistics for the Confederacy are sketchy at best. Still, one has but to listen to the Southern accent and listen to the sorts of tunes Southern soldiers love to sing to realize that a great deal of the South is settled by Irish immigrants. But because the white population of the Confederate states is more native-born than immigrant during the Civil War years, there does not seem as much of a drive in the Southern army to recognize heritage in the names and uniforms of regiments as there is in the Union forces.

In the Union army there is the fabled Irish Brigade, likely the best known of any brigade organization, organized in 1861 and led by the flamboyant General Thomas Francis Meagher. They go into battle with an emerald green flag with a large golden harp in its center, celebrating their heritage even in the midst of death. The Irish Brigade makes an unusual reputation for dash and gallantry. It belongs to the First Division of the Second Corps, and is numbered as the Second Brigade. The Irish Brigade loses over 4,000 men in killed and wounded during the war, more men than ever belong to the brigade at any given time. The Irish Brigade is commanded, in turn, by General Thomas Francis Meagher, Colonel Patrick Kelly (killed), General Thomas A. Smyth (killed), Colonel Richard Byrnes (killed), and General Robert Nugent.

In the North, centers of Irish settlement are Boston and New York, both of which have sizeable Irish neighborhoods. There are major immigration periods in the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s. The numbers steadily increase until, according to the 1860 census, well over one and a half million Americans claimed to have been born in Ireland. The majority of these live in the North. There are periods of severe economic difficulties both before and after the war when the immigrant Irish are singled out for the distrust and hatred of their fellow Americans. “No Irish Need Apply” is a frequently seen placard sign above the doors of factories, shops, warehouses, and farms.

The Irish are chiefly distrusted because they are Catholic, and there is much opposition in the United States to the Church of Rome. The frustration this prejudice causes leads indirectly to the boil-over of tempers in July 1863, when the first official draft is held. A mob of mostly immigrant laborers gather at the site of the draft lottery, and as names are called and those not wealthy enough to purchase a substitute are required to join up, the mob’s temper flares.

The situation escalates into full-scale rioting. For three days, cities like New York and Boston are caught up in a rampage of looting, burning, and destruction. Many of the rioters are frustrated Irish laborers who cannot get jobs, and their targets are draft officials, as well as free blacks living in the North, who seem able to get jobs that the Irish are denied. It takes the return of armed troops from the fighting at the Battle of Gettysburg to bring the cities back to peace and quiet.

Such events do little to help the image of the Irish in America, until many years after the war. Despite their wartime heroics, many Irish veterans come home to find the same ugly bias they faced before going off to fight for the Union. Many of them choose to go into the post war army.

Still others follow Thomas Meagher into Canada, where they join up in an attempt to free Canada from British domination. Many simply choose to remain in the Eastern cities, hoping matters will improve as time goes by. Eventually things do get better for the Irish, but it is many long years before ugly anti-Irish prejudice fades.