In Philadelphia on 13th February 1868, Owen Curren and Mary Curren gave an affidvait relating to the case of Farrigle Gallagher. Gallagher, a member of the 13th Pennsylvania Cavalry, had died a Prisoner of War at Andersonville. His wife Anne survived him by less than 6 months, dying– likely of T.B.– in December 1864. The Currens were giving evidence in 1868 in an effort to secure a pension on behalf of the Gallagher’s three minor children. However, the Pensions Bureau were concerned that this “Farrigle” Gallagher was not the same man as the “Frederick” Gallagher of Philadelphia they had recorded. The Currens, who had been acquainted with Farrigle for 25 and 30 years respectively, explained the reason behind the confusion:
…Frederick and Farrigle are the one and the same person. That in Ireland, where the said soldier was born and raised, he was called Farrigle which is the same as Frederick. That deceased was born in the County Donegal Ireland and that deponents lived in the same neighborhood with him and that deceased was called by his parents Farrigle. That they were acquainted with the deceased soldier in this country and heard him called Frederick, which (in the language spoken by his parents and inhabitants of the part of Ireland in which he was born) is the same as Farrigle. (1)
Accepting this explanation, the Pension Bureau approved the claim, noting that “Testimony of witnesses show identity of “Frederick” + “Farrigle” names are same in Irish language.” Having spent a number of years looking through the Widow’s Pension Files of Irish-American soldiers, this is the only direct reference to the Irish language I have yet come across, despite the fact that many of them must have been native speakers. Hundreds of thousands of those Irish who emigrated following the Great Famine had Irish, not English, as their first language. Kerby Miller estimates that anything up to 27% of Irish emigrants to the United States between 1851 and 1855 spoke Gaelic– over 200,000 people. On the eve of the American Civil War, New York alone may have been home to anything up to 73,000 native Irish speakers. As the vast majority of these people were illiterate and among the poorest members of society, they left behind very little trace in the historical record. Despite this, there seems little doubt that some thousands of those Irish who donned uniform during the Civil War were Irish speakers, and among them were those for whom English was at best poorly understood. (2)
The strength of the Irish language in certain enclaves like New York is evidenced by stories like that of P.J. Kenedy, an American-born member of the Irish community. He was born in 1842 on Mott Street in the Five Points, but despite the fact that he had never been to Ireland, Irish was the language of his home, and he learned it by the fireside with his parents in the heart of Manhattan. In 1857 the literate Irish-speakers of New York received a major boon, when the New York Irish-American Weekly newspaper secured “Irish type” for the first time, specially made in a New York foundry:
Our Irish Type
We have just received, from the celebrated type foundry of Messrs. Conner & Sons, the font of IRISH TYPE which we ordered some time since to be cast specially for this paper…The face of the letter is the same as adopted by the Irish Archaeological Society for their publications; and it has been cast in a manner that reflects much credit on the eminent firm to whom the order was entrusted. (3)
This type allowed the Irish-American to produce articles in Irish script, and they also began a long-standing series aimed at teaching interested readers the language. Much of what was written came from well known figures such as Michael Doheny and John O’Mahony, and their promotion of the language was often closely tied to their wider political goals with respect to Irish independence. Though much of the Irish language content that appeared in the Irish-American during the war years may not have been aimed at the “ordinary” Irish speaker, there is evidence that such people did make use of it. An “Information Wanted” advertisement of 28th February 1863 seeking news of Eugene Connellan, from Skreen, Co. Sligo, was printed in both English and Irish, suggesting not only that the Connellans were native speakers, but also that there were those in the city who preferred (or found it easier?) to communicate through Irish. This strong Irish-speaking community was apparently still going strong in 1865 when the Irish-American advertised a “Lecture in the Irish Language” to take place in the Church of the Transfiguration in Five Points, on the topic of the “Infallibility of the Church.” They confidently asserted that “the Irish-speaking population of this city is large; and an opportunity like the present is seldom afforded of hearing a sermon in our native tongue…” (4)
Though there is evidence for Gaelic among the communities from which Irish soldiers were drawn, direct references to them speaking it during the conflict itself are comparatively rare. That at least some did so was attested by William O’Grady, a former British army officer and subsequently a member of the 88th New York Infantry, Irish Brigade. In describing the make up of the 88th, he remarked that:
It may be mentioned that the regiment was practically as alien as the old Irish Brigade in the French Service, comparatively few being citizens [of the United States] by birth. Fully a third were old British soldiers, many of whom had seen service in the Crimean War and the Indian mutiny. One private had been a British officer, and a few spoke nothing but Gaelic when they enlisted from the very gates of Castle Garden. (5)
The fact that at least some of the Irish officers who fought in the conflict could speak Irish was demonstrated by Kenneth E. Nilsen in his analysis of the Irish language in New York. He quotes from an 1878 letter written by David O’Keeffe, describing the demise of the New York branch of the Irish literary Ossianic Society, many of whom were Irish speakers:
In the Fall of 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected, the South seceded; Mr. O’Mahony [John O’Mahony] went to Ireland…Nearly all our members went to the war, and many never came back. As a matter of course, our society got broken up… (6)
Whereas the ordinary native-Irish speaking soldier of the American Civil War remains elusive, that is not the case with perhaps the most notable Irish-speaker to serve during the conflict. Thomas D. Norris was born near Killarney, Co. Kerry in 1827, and reportedly emigrated to the United States around 1851. A member of the 69th New York State Militia, he fought with them at First Bull Run (see his letter on that engagement at Bull Runnings here), and like may others of that regiment he elected to wait until Michael Corcoran’s release from Confederate prison before re-enlisting for service in Corcoran’s Irish Legion. He enrolled in the 170th New York Infantry on 28th January 1862, becoming a Lieutenant in Company H, a formation which he had helped to raise. He became Captain of that company on 1st February 1863, was wounded at Petersburg on 16th June 1864, and was discharged from the service on 22nd May 1865. After the war he stayed active in veteran’s affairs, being a member of the Mansfield Post of the Grand Army of the Republic. Immediately after the conflict he opened a Saloon at 362 Cherry Street in New York, but afterwards went to work with the Bonded Warehouse in the city. Of all his accomplishments, Norris was best known for his skills with the Irish language; the Irish-American described how he was:
…one of the most enthusiastic advocates of the Irish language renaisance, and was prominent in the starting of the Bowery Irish Language School of New York. His contributions in the old language, have been, for many years, familiar to our readers, since the starting of the “Gaelic Department,” in the IRISH-AMERICAN, in 1857. The action of our people, here, in this direction, compelled the Irish scholars, at home, to take the steps that led to the establishment of the “Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language;” and in the attainment of that result Captain Norris,– by his writings and his generous personal contributions, financially and otherwise, – was one of the leading efficients. (7)
Cherry Street, Manhattan, as it appears today. In 1865 Thomas Norris opened a Saloon here, presumably a location where hearing the Irish language spoken was commonplace.
Norris, who “taught the Irish language whenever he could,” was a prominent voice in many Irish publications in the latter part of the 19th century, particularly with respect to the promotion of his native tongue. Many of his writings addressed issues such as the appropriate grammar to be utilised when speaking or writing as-Gaeilge. Perhaps the most remarkable is the address that Norris wrote for Democratic President Grover Cleveland. Norris presented it to the President in person at The White House on 6th March 1885, the day following his inauguration. It demonstrated, according to the Irish-American, how “the Old Tongue of the Gael” was being kept “in the front of the march of nations.” When President Cleveland was married in 1886, Norris again took up his pen to write a congratulatory address in Irish, which survives as a broadside. (8)
Thomas D. Norris passed away in Brooklyn in January 1900, and was buried in Calvary Cemetery. The extent to which he used his language skills during the course of the American Civil War is a matter of conjecture, but he surely commanded a number of men who were native speakers, and with whom it would have been natural for him to converse with in Irish. Despite the paucity of evidence, the sheer number of native speakers present in the United States in 1861 means there can be little doubt that Irish was heard on many of the battlefields of the war, from Gettysburg to Chickamauga. Indeed it was perhaps in the red-hot heat of battle that one was most likely to hear Irish, as native speakers fell back on their native tongue during times of great stress. For some it may have been the last language to emanate from their lips. I am interested to hear from readers who may have come across other references to the use of Irish during the Civil War, if you have, please feel free to share them with us in the comments section. (9)
(1) Gallagher Pension File; (2) Miller 1985, 580; Nilsen 1996, 254; (3) Nilsen 1996, 258; New York Irish-American 18th July 1857; (4) Nilsen 1996, 263; New York Irish-American 28th February 1863; New York Irish-American 22nd April 1865; (5) O’Grady 1902, 511; (6) Nilsen 1996, 265; (7) New York Irish-American 20th January 1900; New York Irish World 27th January 1900; New York Irish American 19th August 1865; 170th New York Roster; (8) New York Irish World 27th January 1900, New York Irish-American 4th February 1888; New York Irish-American 21st March 1885; Library of Congress American Memory: Congratulatory Address to Grover Cleveland; (9) New York Irish-American 20th January 1900; New York Irish World 27th January 1900.
Dependent Children’s Pension File of Farrigle Gallagher, 13th Pennsylvania Cavalry, Company B, WC109448.
New York Irish American Weekly.
New York Irish World.
Roster of the 170th New York Infantry.
A Congratulatory Address to Grover Cleveland President of the United States. On the occasion of his marriage, in June, 1886, By Thomas D. Norris, late Capt. 170th Regt. New York Volunteers. Library of Congress Printed Ephemera Collection, Portfolio 129, Folder 31.
Miller, Kerby A. 1985. Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America.
Nilsen, Kenneth E. 1996. “The Irish Language in New York, 1850-1900” in Ronald H. Bayor & Timothy J. Meagher (eds.) The New York Irish, 252-274.
O’Grady, W.L.D. 1902. “88th Regiment Infantry” in New York Monuments Commission for the Battlefields of Gettysburg and Chattanooga, Final Report on the Battlefield of Gettysburg, Volume 2, 510-516.
New York State Military Museum Carte de Visite for Captain Thomas Norris.