Hanging in Leinster House, the building that hosts Ireland's parliament, is the battle flag of the Fighting 69th from the American Civil War. The flag has hung in the building ever since President John F Kennedy unveiled it as a gift from the American people back in June 1963.
It makes a great wall-hanging. It's very impressive. I saw it once years ago and, if I remember correctly, it hangs just at the bottom of a staircase. I'm not sure now because, well, I have only been able to see it once. And that's the problem.
President Kennedy did not offer the flag to Ireland's parliamentarians. He did not say:
“You elected officials are a cut above the common people of Ireland. So be sure to keep this flag where you can admire it regularly, but where few of the unwashed masses will ever feast their eyes upon it. After all, what is it to them that tens of thousands of their kin, their forefathers' and their forefathers' brothers fought, bled and died for the honor of that beautiful flag?”
No, this is what Kennedy said:
“Today, in recognition of what these gallant Irishmen and what millions of other Irish have done for my country, and through the generosity of the Fighting 69th, I would like to present one of these flags to the people of Ireland.”
Note that last phrase, “I would like to present one of these flags to the people of Ireland.” The people? Who could he possibly have meant by that?
Obviously he meant the people of Ireland. He did not mean Ireland's elected parliamentarians alone. They are but a small subsection of the “people of Ireland” to whom that flag was given.
I don't know who made the decision to hang the flag in the Leinster House. I don't know what the logic might have been. Maybe the old National Museum building didn't have the right space to display the flag. Maybe it was only supposed to remain temporarily in Leinster House while space was prepared at the National Museum (which was just next door to Leinster House).
Whatever the reason, it is well past time that the flag was moved from Leinster House. Only a few people can see the flag – you can't just wander in to view it. In fact, Ireland's parliament building is far less accessible than is Capitol Building in Washington. You need to be invited in by your local representative. So, the flag is really off limits to most people.
The flag is the outstanding artifact from the diaspora in Ireland. It was earned by the Famine Irish and presented to the people of Ireland by their descendants in America. The flag lists the names of battles the Fighting 69th took part in, but its real message is of a people risen off their knees after the Famine and the wider, longer lasting battle for respect.
That is what that flag means. It tells a key part of the story of the Irish in America, but also in Ireland, where parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, etc of those who were doing the fighting and dying fretted about those who were sacrificing so much for their new country.
The exploits of the Irishmen who fought in the American Civil War were far from unknown in 19th Century Ireland. Somehow that folk memory has been lost. It needs to be found and that process should start with putting the Fighting 69th's flag on display where the greatest number of people can see it and learn from it.
** For more on the Irish & the American Civil War be sure to read Damian Shiels' IrishAmericanCivilWar.com blog posts.