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Father William Corby chaplain of the Irish Brigade pictured with Irish soldiers. Photo by: Wikimedia

Ireland forgets Irish emigrants who fought in US Civil War

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Father William Corby chaplain of the Irish Brigade pictured with Irish soldiers. Photo by: Wikimedia

We just celebrated the 4th of July, Independence Day in the United States, a freedom that many Irish emigrants fought for in the War of Independence as they did during the American Civil War.

From my own perspective, it is also a day to reflect on just how much Ireland as a nation chooses to neglect that reality with her diaspora in America. This neglect in memory is becoming starker and starker when remembrance of the American Civil War is measured against the efforts being poured into our only other comparable experience of conflict – World War One. A mere 49 years separate these two events, the only times in Irish history where 200,000+ Irishmen marched off to war.

With the 100th anniversary of the Great War on the horizon in August, many impressive new memorials have been erected around the country. Irish television and radio have adopted World War One as a major recurring theme, and Irish newspapers consistently return to the topic of personal experiences of the war.

Irish universities are running numerous conferences about the Irish experiences of the war (see examples at UCC, UCD, NUIG, TCD). As someone who is also involved in World War One research, I am delighted to see this program of events. However, the huge divergence in how both conflicts are remembered also tells us much about Ireland, and how we on the island view Irish history.

By and large the Irish Government, media and educational institutions are overwhelmingly insular when it comes to the history of Ireland and the Irish. The stories of those who emigrated come an extremely poor second to the stories of those who stayed behind.

As I have often highlighted, there is yet to be a single comparable commemorative event to those cited above for World War One which relates to the Irish experience of the American Civil War. This is despite the direct causal links that can be drawn between Ireland's 19th century calamity- The Great Famine- and many Irishmen's participation in the 1861-65 war.

As part of continuing efforts to see some recognition of the impact of the American Civil War on hundreds of thousands of Irish people, I wrote to the Irish Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Jimmy Deenihan TD last April. I did so in his capacity as Chair of the National Famine Commemoration Committee. Despite our annual commemoration of the Famine, we rarely tie this event with the deaths of thousands of Irishmen in the 1860s, many of whom were in the United States as a direct result of that Famine.

Having had a number of efforts to have the impact of the American Civil War on Irish people remembered and discussed fail over the course of the 150th anniversary, my purpose in writing to the Minister was to see if it would be possible for the State to formally acknowledge the scale of Irish involvement in the conflict as part of the upcoming International Famine Commemoration speech in New Orleans.

In early June I received a response from Minister Deenihan (also below). The Minister's reply was extremely gracious. In it he noted that he had consulted the Commemorations Unit of his Department on the topic of the Irish experience of the American Civil War, who advised him that any commemoration of Irish involvement should be primarily led by authorities in the United States.

Read more: Irishman's photographs of the Civil War

He also pointed out that due to the (very real) economic difficulties being experienced in Ireland at this time, there was no funding for anything such as a memorial to the Irish experience of the conflict.

I greatly appreciate that the Minister took the time to respond to my letter. I was interested to learn that the Irish Government's position is that any remembrance of the Irish involvement in the Civil War should be driven by the United States.

I admit to finding this position somewhat odd. By way of comparison, Ireland is not taking the view that remembrance of the Irish in World War One should be driven by the British Government.

Indeed. I imagine such a position would be met with outrage in many quarters. I strongly believe it is Ireland's responsibility to remember, acknowledge and explore the experiences of Irish people around the world; we should not be waiting for a call from other nations to engage with the history of our diaspora.

Neither is it clear what approaches the Irish Government has made to the United States Government with respect to becoming involved in U.S. commemoration of the American Civil War, although it may be that there have been efforts in this direction.

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