In a recent post I looked at some views regarding the propriety of a memorial to the Irish who were affected by the American Civil War. A number of commentators on an interview I gave to the about the topic left interesting responses, which I outlined here. I noted in that post that I believe the majority of Irish people would support a memorial to the American Civil War in Ireland. Recent newsworthy events have caused me to think further about how Ireland views and treats its diaspora, and these were thoughts I wanted to share here.

In Ireland’s Forgotten Famine Generation I put forward my view that we in Ireland tend to leave interest in our emigrant population at the port, and historically we have shown relatively little interest in the culture and history of immigrant Irish communities in the countries where they eventually settled. I believe that the lack of interest in the experiences of the 1.2 million Irish who were living in the United States in 1861 and the dearth of acknowledgement from the Irish State of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War are examples of this mindset.

It would seem to me that given the scale of Irish involvement in the American Civil War, some form of national memorial would be an appropriate means to highlight this element of our shared history with the United States. Not everyone agrees with this, and a number of replies to the piece demonstrated that. To recap, these included the following points:

  • ‘Why do we need memorials to those who kill one another no matter which side they were on? It says much about human nature or at least how daft it is.’
  • ‘But should we make a memorial for them? Not in my opinion. They fought a war which didn’t involve Ireland when they decided to leave the country.’
  • ‘Still think any future recognition should be clear in honouring those Irish people who gave their lives to fight for the Union and the abolition of slavery in the American Civil War’
  • ‘There are countless wars that Irish have fought in and haven’t received recognition, from Rhodesia to the Arab israel wars and almost all modern conflicts’

In response to these points, I would put forward the following:

  • It is extremely important that any memorial to the Irish experience of the American Civil War is one not just to the soldiers, but the entire Irish population- men, women, children- that were affected by the events of 1861-65. The suffering the war caused stayed with many of these families well into the twentieth century.
  • The vast majority of those Irish who were in America in 1861 had fled an Ireland which had been struck by Famine and where poverty was rife, and so had little choice but to leave- to fail to remember them because they were not among those who managed to stay behind would seem harsh.
  • Referring back to the first issue, any memorial should seek to encompass the Irish community in America that was affected, not just the soldiers. There is no doubt that the prime cause of the war was slavery, and that the emancipation of the slaves was its great achievement. However, many Irish soldiers who died in Union blue gave their lives for the Union, and only the Union. The abolition of slavery was not seen as a desirable outcome for many in the Irish-American community, whether they fought for the North or South. It is also true that the vast majority of Irish supported the side where they lived, so Louisiana Irishmen tended to fight for the South, and New York Irishmen for the North. It is also important to understand the mid-nineteenth century Irish-American view of slavery, and seek to avoid viewing race relations purely through the spectrum of our modern sensibilities, which rightly finds the levels of racism that was an everyday part of life at this time abhorrent.
  • The Irish are indeed famed for having served in many wars around the globe. Remembrance of the American Civil War Irish has disappeared amidst the other foreign conflicts in which the Irish have fought. This has reduced the Irish experience of that conflict in the popular imagination to the equivalent of the Irish service in locations such as eighteenth century Continental Europe. It is not. The scale of Irish involvement in the American Civil War is only comparable to the Irish military experience of World War One, a historical event which is receiving more and more attention (and State expenditure) with each passing year.

As I alluded to above, two news items in recent weeks have led me to further consider the issue of our remembrance in Ireland of the American Civil War Irish. The Irish State has declared that 2013 will be the year of The Gathering, twelve months of community organised events which will seek to bring the diaspora back to Ireland. In principle I agree with this initiative, and there is no doubt that communities around Ireland are making superb efforts to arrange events for the occasion. However, the proposal has come in for criticism recently from Irish actor Gabriel Byrne, Ireland’s former Cultural Ambassador to the United States. He felt that the proposal amounted to little more than an attempt by the Irish Government to exploit the diaspora. Byrne commented: the bridge between the diaspora and the people is broken and I tried to fix that for two years and it’s still broken…. Most people don’t give a shit about the diaspora [in Ireland] except to shake them down for a few quid. In contrast, when The Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) Eamon Gilmore launched The Gathering in New York in September he had said that there was ‘probably nowhere more appropriate to launch this event’. Despite my hopes that The Gathering is a success, it is hard to see what has so far been done to show the diaspora in countries like the United States that they are important to Ireland and the Irish, beyond being a source of potential revenue.

This is in contrast to recent developments in Britain, where the superb organisation The American Civil War Round Table UK were recently featured on the BBC News website as they attempt to develop plans for a memorial plaque project to remember those from Britain and Ireland who fought in the American Civil War. The Round Table President, Greg Bayne, noted that these men ‘came from all parts of the United Kingdom and they included many Irish’. It is telling that despite the fact that Irish people were impacted by the war to a significantly greater degree than the English, Scottish or Welsh, Ireland has no equivalent organisation to the American Civil War Round Table UK, where interest in the conflict is clearly stronger. It is also noteworthy that we may well soon be looking to the UK for a memorial to the Irish involved in the conflict, as we await any such development in Ireland itself.

Perhaps it is time that in addition to enticing the diaspora to Ireland, we in Ireland also begin to meaningfully celebrate and commemorate the diaspora, be they from the United States, Australia, Canada or other countries. The obvious way to do this is to highlight the unique cultural identities, histories and experiences that these Irish communities have built up in their respective countries, and organise a series of events around them. Such an initiative would also present an opportunity for us to remember those Irish-born emigrants of the last 150 years- emigrants that have thus far largely been excluded from Irish memory.