Next month, the new TV show Copper will premiere on BBC America. The show will explore the lives of cops and criminals in Manhattan during the time of the U.S. Civil War, so you know there will be plenty of Irish saints and sinners written into the show.
Irish actor Kevin Ryan is among the stars of Copper, while the producers include Tom Fontana, whose groundbreaking prison show Oz included the memorable character Ryan O’Reilly.
The fact that the British are producing a show about Irish American life is, at the very least, ironic. But that’s a topic for another day.
Copper is set during a time of war and poverty, of tensions over immigration and patriotism. That sounds familiar, right?
This very much should remind us of our own day. Last week, in Brooklyn, however, there was another reminder of a similarly tense time that is not so well-remembered.
The setting was Green-Wood cemetery, an oasis of 19th century life (and death) in Brooklyn.
It was here that cemetery workers were joined by a military color guard for a ceremony honoring war veterans, among them numerous Irish Americans.
Men like James McCabe, Lieutenant Francis Boyle and Lieutenant Charles Gallagher had previously been interred under a marker simply stating “Mexico.” According to The New York Times, these veterans had been lavishly honored at the time of their burial. There were plans to erect an elaborate memorial to honor the veterans’ sacrifices.
“Sometime later, however, one of the people they city had charged with building an obelisk over the graves made off with the money for the monument,” the Times noted.
For years, little was known about Boyle, McCabe and Gallagher. Here’s one thing we do know. These Irish American veterans may very well have been fighting against Irish immigrant soldiers.
The Mexican American war broke out in 1846, 15 years before America would be plunged into civil war. At the time, America was a young nation anxious to expand.
Mexico was struggling to maintain the vast lands previously controlled by the Spanish. Tensions between the two nations grew into all out war.
When all was said and done, America had acquired vast new tracts of previously Mexican land, a fact that riles many people to this day.
There is another thing the Mexican American war is famous for, and that is the St. Patricio Brigade. The Chieftains recently made an album bearing that name, while Black ’47 and others have sung songs in their honor.
These were disenchanted, mostly Irish souls who sympathized with the fellow Catholic country of Mexico, and took up arms against the heavily Protestant, expansionist-minded United States. They were led by Galway native Jon Riley and to this day are honored in Mexico.
It didn’t hurt that the Mexican army often offered higher pay and land grants to soldiers.
In their day, you can imagine how most Americans (even Irish immigrants to America) felt about the St. Patricios. They were ungrateful traitors in the eyes of many and were treated as such when many of them were executed after the war.
Were the mythical St. Patricios honorably men of principle who understandably had no allegiance to an anti-Catholic nation which despised them?
Or were they mercenaries bent on killing the many Irish Americans – including lieutenants Boyle and Gallagher – who stuck with America and went on to make it a great nation?
That’s probably too big a question to answer right now. What is important for us to remember is that (to quote Billy Joel) the good old days weren’t always so good.
In particular, those Irish American super-patriots who run around today questioning peoples’ loyalty ought to ask themselves if they have set the bar for treason a bit too high.
After all, imagine the scuttlebutt on Fox News if a band of immigrants got together to fight for Al Qaeda in Iraq or the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Imagine if there names were Kelly or Ryan or O’Neill or Riley.
Of course, we should remember Jon Riley, love him or hate him. But Green-Wood Cemetery did the right thing last week so that we also remember the sacrifices of men like Francis Boyle and Charles Gallagher and James McCabe.