In the past, I have been highly critical on this site of the Irish Government’s failure to recognise the huge number of Irish who participated in the American Civil War, and the impact the conflict had on Irish-America. Along with various others I have spent recent years trying to raise awareness at home of the scale of Irish involvement, with the most recent manifestation being the #ForgottenIrish series on Twitter and Storify. In July I published a letter I sent to then Minister for Arts, Heritage & The Gaeltacht, Jimmy Deenihan T.D., requesting that the Irish Government consider using the opportunity of the International Irish Famine Commemoration in New Orleans to mention these people. Having been critical, it is now appropriate that I congratulate Mr. Deenihan’s successor as Minister for Arts, Heritage & The Gaeltacht, Heather Humphreys T.D., who in her New Orleans Address delivered at Tulane University, New Orleans, on Friday 7th November last made the following remarks:
American Civil War
I want to take the time as well this weekend to acknowledge, on behalf of the Irish Government, the enormous numbers of Irish emigrants who lost their lives in the American Civil War. It is estimated that between 170,000 and 200,000 Irish fought in that defining conflict of these independent United States. The vast majority of Irish combatants- probably more than 150,000- fought with the Union troops, with the Irish in the Confederate ranks possibly numbering 20,000. Many thousands of Irish lost their lives on both sides- in fact, the very first person to lose his life in the war was a Tipperary man, Daniel Hough. He was just 36 years old. Many other Irishmen would rise to the very highest ranks- individuals like Thomas Francis Meagher and Patrick Cleburne, whose reputations and legacies have echoed through the ages. But my thoughts this weekend are more with the tens of thousands of what have been termed the “forgotten Irish”, who lost their lives or loved ones on the battle fields of this great country and whose sacrifice history has too often overlooked. Men- and women too- who in many instances fled the Famine which tore Irish society apart, only to arrive into a war which was, incredibly, of comparable suffering and heartbreak.
Irish historians like Damien Shiels and David Gleeson deserve great credit for bringing these stories to Irish and American audiences. And often, it is only with the generosity of time lapsed- and so much water and bloodshed under the bridge- that a sacrifice of this scale can be properly appreciated and acknowledged. So it has proved with World War 1 in Ireland, which we are only now- in 2014, 100 years afterwards- coming to recognise fully the service of perhaps as many as 350,000 brave Irishmen. This year is also, of course, the 150th anniversary of 1864, the penultimate year of the American Civil War. I could not let the occasion pass this weekend without acknowledging the sacrifices and bravery of so many Irish who fought- and too many who lost their lives- in that great conflict.
The Minister has done these Irish emigrants a great service in remembering them in such a fashion, and I would like to thank her for it. Her full speech (which touches on a range of topics) can be read here. It was also gratifying to see that the Famine Symposium at Tulane included a lecture delivered by Dr. Terrence Fitzmorris on Irish involvement in the Civil War. The Minister’s speech is hopefully a first step in a process that will see the Irish Government acknowledge these men and women at home, just as they have sought to do with the Irish of World War One. Perhaps Ireland may yet see moves towards an appropriate remembrance of Irish involvement in the American Civil War prior to the end of the Sesquicentennial in 2015. As I head across the Atlantic to discuss Patrick Cleburne in Franklin, Tennessee, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of his death, it is heartening to think that we may have turned a corner in remembering these Forgotten Irish. Time will tell.