Current Affairs History Military Politics

Celebrating The Irish Who Fought Against Slavery

The De Móinbhíol or Mansfield family of Skerries, Ireland, with a monument mentioning two former Confederate officers of the American Civil War
The De Móinbhíol or Mansfield family of Skerries, Ireland, with a monument mentioning two former Confederate officers of the American Civil War (Íomhá: ASF 2009)

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.

7 comments on “Celebrating The Irish Who Fought Against Slavery

  1. ar an sliabh

    It was just a mere few weeks ago an “Meirican” jorno was inquiring if Ireland was really going to “secede” from the United Kingdom. Education in the U.S. has never been great, but at this point it is at an all-time low. They seem to get all their information from over-hyped, skewed, over-emotional sources on the internet and their equally uneducated social media “friends” and construe “reality” between that, the telly (Kardashians and the like), and the movies. Speaking of movies, the movie “Idiocracy” is quickly becoming stern reality there. The “tin-foil hat brigade” has never had so many members. Most of what you read in their news, blogs, and commentary can be sorted and de-bunked in a few minutes by the average 5 year-old in the rest of the world. It would not seem so bad, if they would not also purposefully ignore simple facts, such as actual physical conditions, mathematics, the laws of physics, and so forth, never mind independently accrued statistics. They have gotten to the point they are passing laws contradicting reality when it is not “popular.” Yet our politicians thought it was a good idea to seek their assistance on Northern Ireland. They are not suffering from myopia, but almost total blindness, and are led by their noses into which ever direction the wind happens to blow (or the smell of money comes from). It is so sad to have witnessed their demise in the face of their opportunities.


    • There are plenty of idiots in other countries as well – you’re just not aware of them because you don’t understand their languages.


      • ar an sliabh

        Well, hate to return to your “open source” comparison regarding English, but virtually everybody communicates in it, and expresses their sentiments that way, so very clear comparison is at hand. Aside from that, I speak several languages fluently, and several more adequately to communicate, that, in my younger years was what earned me my keep. Furthermore, I do not believe U.S. Americans to be idiots, an ever-growing large number are just haplessly uneducated and easily exploited because of it. I still live there on and off (not quite retired yet) and am actually very U.S. friendly – just extremely disappointed with current developments. The point I was making with my comment was most of them are no source for any sort of comment about history, not even their own (some of the tidbits in ASF’s article above are not known to Americans, but to the most engaged civil war aficionados, despite being such a remarkable part of their history). Even less should they be consultants for something as delicate as the future of Northern Ireland. The majority of Irish descendants I ran into in California, for example, appear to think Guinness is served warm (but they will tell you all about their uncle in Ireland). On the East Coast, there are actually many of the original Irish enclaves left, where some folks still know what’s going on (there are also most of the newly arrived there), but even though they invest a lot of money in Ireland, they leave the “business” to their contacts here – and usually elaborately wine and dine them on their visits. For some reason, you virtually never find any of the old guard making any public statements about anything Irish. It is usually those a few generations down, already affected by the knowledge drain. Ms. Walsh is neither, she’s the typical American jorno of the extreme liberal persuasion (Salon is about extreme as you can get), that runs her mouth (and pen) on a lot of questionable information obtained from “mysterious sources” (perhaps mostly from the place Americans refer to as one’s a.s).


      • ar an sliabh

        ..and they tick me off when they pontificate about other people’s cultures and lives without any basic knowledge of either.


  2. Nice piece here. I particularly enjoy the notion that the US sympathizes, or sees the world through Anglo eyes. Most Americans disagree, especially Irish-Americans, but to me it’s obvious. We are an Anglo-philic country that likes the Irish stereotypes. Very frustrating for me. I’ll have to check out that Joan Walsh piece. I just read yesterday her article on the Long Island Irish conservatives Hannity & O’Reilly and Pat Lynch from the police union… Eamon


  3. Who are Irelands plutocratic old guard? I think you over estimate the teeth grinding … Haven’t mainstream political parties not spent the last 90-100 years trumpeting their revolutionary origins? Aren’t most gaa clubs named after revolutionaries? Weren’t there huge celebrations for the 50th anniversary celebrations of the rising? I must be missing something


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