The Great Famine is an event seared into Irish national memory. Although the victims of the Great Hunger are rightfully remembered and commemorated, as is the physical fact that vast numbers of people were forced to leave, Ireland today largely leaves the memory of these emigrants at the dock, as they boarded ships to a new life far from home. Preserving the memory and experiences of emigrants once they arrived in their new countries has for the most part been left to their own descendants, despite the broader pride that Ireland takes in her global diaspora.
Perhaps the most stark example of this is the way Ireland views the American Civil War. At the commencement of that conflict 1.6 million Irish-born people lived in the United States, the vast majority having arrived as a direct consequence of the Famine. In New York City, which in 1860 had a population of 793,186, a little over one in four people were born in Ireland. In the region of 170,000 Irish-born men fought during the conflict, and tens of thousands most certainly died. Irish communities in cities such as New Orleans and Memphis experienced the war up close, as did those who bore witness to the New York Draft Riots in 1863. The effects of the conflict on the families of those lost or severely injured often lasted well into the twentieth century. The Irish experience of the American Civil War is a popular theme in the United States, where a large number of historians and enthusiasts study, commemorate and remember the huge influence the war had on the Irish community. (1)
This is in stark contrast to the way the conflict is viewed in Ireland. Despite the sheer scale of Irish involvement, the American Civil War is largely viewed as just another foreign war in which the Irish fought, often regarded alongside Irish soldiers who fought in the service of France and Spain. There is little idea of the sheer scale of that involvement, or of what it meant to the hundreds of thousands of Irish people, survivors of the Great Famine, who with the Civil War had to endure the second great trauma of their lives. Many had survived the failure of the potato and the coffin ships only to fall on battlefields in Virginia or Tennessee. Few publications appear in Ireland on the Irish experience of the Civil War, there are few memorials, and its impact is little discussed. Although some of the more famous Irishmen involved do receive a level of recognition (a particularly impressive example being Thomas Francis Meagher in Waterford), those who had a connection with Fenianism or Irish nationalism are far more likely to be remembered than those who did not (for instance Patrick Cleburne remains virtually unknown in the land of his birth). This is particularly noticeable in the extremely low-level of interest generated thus far within the country on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the conflict.
An interesting comparison can be seen in relation to those Irish who fought in World War One. For decades the memory of these men was disgracefully set aside as a result of later political developments. However, in the last fifteen years a welcome rehabilitation has occurred and the Irish experience of World War One is once more discussed and debated. Indeed it has now become a dominant theme, with a proliferation of books on the Irish in the conflict, a renewal of interest in regimental associations and increasing focus on the war in the regional and national media. It seems certain that between 2014 and 2018 a major series of events will occur in Ireland around the centennial of that war. In the region of 200,000 Irishmen fought in that war, and somewhere in the vicinity of 30,000 lost their lives. As David Fitzpatrick has stated, it represented ‘proportionately the greatest deployment of armed manpower in the history of Irish militarism.’ There is only one conflict that comes close to this in the Irish military experience- the American Civil War- where Irish involvement almost mirrors the figures seen in the Great War. Yet the respective attention and neglect could not be more stark. (2)
What is the reason for the difference in attention these two conflicts receive? Firstly, World War One is more recent, and has become a major focus of commemoration across Europe, as the last veterans have recently passed away and the centennial quickly approaches. Irish veterans of that war left from Ireland and came back to Ireland, where as Irish veterans of the American Civil War did not. But perhaps the main reason is that families in Ireland today can directly associate with World War One, as many of their antecedents fought in it. Interest in an event such as the Great War naturally grows when one can view the conflict through the prism of a direct ancestor. The Irish who were caught up in the American Civil War do not have this advantage, because they do not have any direct descendants here. The finality of their departure from Ireland in the 19th century is thus accentuated; the 1.6 million Irish in the United States in 1860 became divorced from their homeland, and ultimately interest in their experiences faded in the land of their birth. It was for their Irish-American descendants to remember them, a role which they continue to do admirably.
It is saddening that what these emigrants endured after they left Ireland is not of more relevance for Irish people and the Irish State today. Our failure to appropriately recognise their continued Irishness after their emigration perpetuates the tragedy caused by events such as the Famine. Although Ireland is and always will be proud of her global diaspora, surely the time has now come for us to reclaim an interest in the experiences of those first Irish emigrants who created it.
(1) Ural Bruce 2006:13; (2) Fitzpatrick 1997: 388;
Bruce, Susannah Ural 2006. The Harp and the Eagle: Irish-American Volunteers and the Union Army, 1861- 1865
Fitzpatrick, David 1997. ‘Militarism in Ireland 1900-1922′ in Bartlett Thomas and Jeffery Keith (eds.) A Military History of Ireland