Hidden Irish American history uncovered at Notre Dame


Notre Dame is a wonderful place to teach Irish-American history. The topic fascinates students, many of whom take great pride in their Irish heritage. The place also stands as a living monument to the rags-to-riches narrative that animates much of Irish-American identity. For many Irish Americans, the nickname “the Fighting Irish” epitomizes the mythic story that many believe defines the group. Once a term of derision, “fighting Irish” now resonates as a point of pride.

Notre Dame also holds surprises. When I was preparing a lecture on Eamon De Valera’s visit to the university during his 1919 American tour, I discovered that on the stop he viewed the Civil War sword of Thomas Francis Meagher.

Known as a leader of the failed Young Irelander rising of 1848, Meagher championed a republican movement that sought to free Ireland by any means necessary. For his efforts, “Meagher of the Sword,” as he is remembered in Ireland, escaped the hangman’s noose only to be exiled in Van Diemen’s Land. Eventually, he was smuggled on board a ship, reaching San Francisco to a tumultuous welcome, before making his way to New York. Here, in the wake of Bull Run, he would found the famous Irish Brigade.

Famine immigrants

Meagher saw no contradiction in fighting for the Stars and Stripes and fighting for Ireland. He believed, as did famine immigrants, that the cause of American freedom was Ireland’s as well.

Like the United Irish émigrés who flocked to American cities in the 1790s, Meagher believed that the true republican was at home in both nations. After the war, General Meagher became first territorial governor of Montana, a place awash in Irish immigrants. Senator Thomas Walsh of Montana presented the sword to the university in 1914.

So when De Valera laid eyes on that sword at Notre Dame a little more than 50 years after Meagher had brandished it in battle, he was gesturing toward what he regarded as a vital relationship between Irish and American freedom, one that the American-born De Valera epitomized. 

When he visited places like Notre Dame, he was traveling as President of the Irish Republic fighting for its freedom. But he was also journeying through his homeland – a different country, to be sure, but one that Irishmen and women had fought for.

Debt for freedom

In many ways, as he was touring the country to raise funds and the visibility of the Irish cause for independence, he came looking for America to repay a debt for freedom that the United States owed to Ireland. Americans were happy to pay, none more so than the jubilant students at Notre Dame.

So moved was he by his time at Notre Dame that De Valera considered it the high point of his American tour. Although no one knows the exact origins of the nickname “the Fighting Irish” – perhaps newspapermen coined the term, maybe anti-Catholic bigots, or students themselves in reference to Meagher’s men and the Fighting 69th of World War I – it is no mere coincidence that the term gained general currency in the 1919 football season in the wake of De Valera’s visit.

He was, after all, the most celebrated fighting Irishman in America at the time.

I was astonished to learn that Notre Dame owned the sword of “Meagher of the Sword.” But I could not find it. Eventually I did. It lay stored in a gray box on the sixth floor of the library’s archives. Archivists were not to be blamed; rather, it seemed the significance of the sword had somehow gone missing. Notre Dame, after all, was more Irish-American – with an emphasis on American – than Irish by the turn of the twenty-first century.

I found more. Notre Dame also owned a flag of the famed Irish Brigade. 

The New York 63rd

Like the sword, the flag was nowhere to be found. I later discovered that it had been exhibited from time to time but was held for the moment in an off-campus storage facility.

The flag, referred to as the Second Irish Colors, was made by Tiffany and Co. in 1862 and presented to Meagher by a group of merchants from New York. On it is emblazoned the name of one of the regiments of the Irish Brigade: the New York 63rd.

Along with the famed 69th, which would gain further renown in the First World War as “the Fighting Irish,” the brigade comprised New York’s 88th, as well as regiments from Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. By the time the Second Colors were commissioned, the first flag had been shredded but never surrendered in some of the bloodiest fighting of the Civil War.

The Irish Brigade had distinguished itself in the Peninsula Campaign, and the green flag came to be feared by rebels. In fact, after only a few months, Meagher’s men earned the reputation as the shock troops of the Army of the Potomac, leading Abraham Lincoln to visit Meagher’s camp and kiss the Second Colors.