Hidden Irish American history uncovered at Notre Dame


The brigade went on to win fame – and court death – at Antietam and Fredericks-burg. Here, on one afternoon it lost almost two-thirds of its men. By the time the brigade fought on the second day at Gettysburg in the Wheatfield, it was a shell of itself.

St Patrick's Day

The flag of the 63rd was to be used for ceremonial purposes, such as when the remnants of the brigade marched in the Grand Review in Washington following the North’s victory in the war and in New York during St. Patrick’s Day.

Father William Corby, Holy Cross priest, chaplain to the Irish Brigade, and eventually President of the University of Notre Dame, secured the flag for the university. He hoped all the flags of the brigade would find a home at Notre Dame because of its connection to the brigade, its central location, and its growing stature within Irish America. De Valera also viewed this flag as he toured Notre Dame.

Like the sword, the flag also speaks to the real and durable connections between Ireland and America. In June 1963, when John F. Kennedy made his triumphal tour of Ireland – where he was first welcomed by President De Valera – he formally addressed the Dail in Leinster House.

Here, he presented the Irish Parliament with the Second Irish (Tiffany) colors of the Fighting 69th. An exact replica of Notre Dame’s flag, the colors Kennedy presented adorn the walls of Leinster House to this day.

Ideal of 'freedom'

Kennedy gave the flag to the Irish in grateful recognition for all they had done for the cause of American freedom, a history that Kennedy was eager to recount. He knew that one third of the Continental Army under Washington was Irish, leading a British commander to lament “we have lost America through the Irish.” Kennedy also knew of the exploits of the Irish Brigade. 

In his address to the Dail, he regaled TDs with the role Meagher had played in American history. He also talked of an ideal of “freedom” that united Ireland, America, and the Western world. Visiting Ireland just after he made his trip to Berlin, where he famously announced “Ich bin ein Berliner,” Kennedy declared that the people behind the wall should remember the “Boys of Wexford,” who had fought for freedom in 1798.

The bonds that both the flag and sword represented were not lost on Kennedy. The great-grandson of eight famine immigrants, Kennedy joked that if Ireland had not had to fight for its freedom, he – if lucky – might be sitting with his audience in the Dail, and if De Valera had never left New York, he – not Kennedy – might be addressing the Dail as president of the United States.

Like De Valera had a generation earlier, Kennedy had traveled the ocean as a self-proclaimed apostle of liberty. The flag, then, suggested the continuing significance of the bonds between Ireland and America, nations that had helped each other become free and that now, according to Kennedy, faced a common Communist threat.

The story does not end here. Last year, as the outgoing Taoiseach Bertie Ahern made his farewell trip to Washington, he presented the Congressional “Friends of Ireland” cohort with one of Meagher’s Irish swords. This sword belonged to the city of Waterford, Meagher’s hometown. 

Closing a historical circle

Ahern handed the sword first to Senator Ted Kennedy. In doing so he was recognizing the role Kennedy had played in the peace process as well as Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish history. Without American support, Ahern argued, the Good Friday Agreement would have never come to be. Just as they had in the days of De Valera’s trip, Americans had once more come to the aid of the Irish. But Ahern also pointed to the past when Ted’s brother had presented the Irish with one of his nation’s treasures. 

Ahern saw the presentation as closing an historical circle. An American flag decorated with Irish symbols would hang in Ireland’s Leinster House. And an Irish sword with American echoes would grace the halls of the American capitol. Ahern’s gift restored balance to the past, ending a chapter. His gesture, of course, says a great deal more. It also speaks to the continuing and evolving significance of Ireland in the American story and of America in the Irish story, a transatlantic experience defined by the gift-giving of presidents and taoiseachs, the sacrifices of ordinary men and women, and the viability of Irish-American history at places like Notre Dame.