As Ireland’s plutocratic old guard grinds its teeth in anxiety at the approaching 2016 centenary of the Easter Rising, the insurrection that heralded the Irish Revolution in 1916, some from the Neo-Ascendancy class have sought solace in rival historical commemorations where they can express their true ideological loyalties (and perhaps true political identity too). Dismissing the remembrance of a risen people they have plunged into the records of the industrial-scale butchery of World War I and found alternative role-models, those who went forth to defend Britain’s colonial hegemony over one-filth of the world’s population during the first two decades of the 20th century – including their own. While those men and women who fought British soldiers in the name of Irish freedom continue to be reviled by the demagogues of our contemporary press as murderers and terrorists those who fought German, Austrian, Hungarian, Turkish, Czech, Slovak, Russian, Bulgarian, Sudanese, Somalian and Kurdish soldiers in the name of British imperialism have been transformed into patriotic heroes. Such is the muddied post-colonial aphasia of those who regard themselves as the rightful leaders and shapers of our island nation.
However the revolutionary struggles of subjugated Ireland or the imperial struggles of avaricious European powers are not the only historic anniversaries that we now face. Robert Fisk in the Independent discuses events that impacted directly on our country at the time of its greatest travail:
“Every month, my London mail package thumps on to my Beirut doorstep with An Cosantóir inside. It’s the magazine of the Irish Defence Forces – surely the glossiest-paged journal of any army, let alone one of the smallest military forces in the world. But among its accounts of Ireland’s UN missions abroad – think Golan, for example, with Syria’s civil war crashing around Irish soldiers – almost inevitably each month, there’s a piece of history we’ve forgotten. For while the start of the Great War of 1914-18 has been commemorated to the point of spiritualism these past 12 months, who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War?
They reckon that 210,000 Irish soldiers fought in British uniform in the First World War, and that 49,300 were killed. Yet almost as many Irishmen fought in the American Civil War – 200,000 in all, 180,000 in the Union army, 20,000 for the Confederates. An estimated 20 per cent of the Union navy were Irish-born – 26,000 men – and the total Irish dead of the American conflict came to at least 30,000. Many of the Irish fatalities were from Famine families who had fled the desperate poverty of their homes in what was then the United Kingdom, only to die at Antietam and Gettysburg. My old alma mater, Trinity College Dublin, is collating the figures and they are likely to rise much higher as Irish academics mine into the American Compiled Military Service Records for the regiments of both sides.
The last known Irishman to have fought in the civil war was still alive in 1950. But memories were mixed. While 146 Irishmen were awarded the Medal of Honour in the war, the Irish Brigade lost heavily (although most Irishmen fought in non-ethnic units). If 25 per cent of the New York population were Irish – which accounts for the large numbers fighting for the Union – the rising casualty toll reduced the army’s recruitment. Two-thirds of the protesters in the New York Draft riots – following Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862 – were Irish. Which proves that romance has little place in history. And in Ireland, there is today not a single memorial to the Irishmen killed in that great conflict on the other side of the Atlantic – which preceded the other Great War, whose dead lie across the fields of the Somme and Ypres.”
Meanwhile Joan Walsh in Salon reflects on some more Irish and American links, via the 19th century visit to Ireland by the great anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass. The article as a whole can be seen as a commentary on the historic inability of many liberals in the United States or those on the American Left to move beyond their vapid anglophilia and view Ireland with anything other than British eyes. A politically myopic phenomenon that remains as virulent in US intellectual circles today as it was a century ago or more.