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Irish American actor Martin Sheen commented in an interview published in Irish America that he loves his Irish heritage in part because the Irish have never planted their flag on the soil of another nation. He loves the Irish because Ireland has always exported poets and artists and clergy, but not armies. He is proud that Ireland has never invaded anyone.
Yes….well. Though his beliefs may be correct in a technical sense, just about nothing could be further from the historical reality. While it may be true that in the past 1,000 years the various political entities that made up Ireland never invaded another nation, during that same period Ireland’s number one export has been soldiers. So many soldiers, in fact, that not one but several nations can reckon in their own military heritage entire units made up exclusively of Irishmen. The students at the University of Notre Dame are not known as the “Fighting Irish” due to a well-known Irish predilection for passivity. It should come as no surprise then to learn that one of the most celebrated, decorated, and famous units in all of American military history was a brigade known during the American Civil War as simply “The Irish Brigade.”
The Civil War was a uniquely American tragedy. It is not just hyperbole when historians and pundits alike make reference to the war that pitted “brother against brother.” America tore herself apart and was only stitched back together again with a heavy thread soaked in the blood of an entire generation. It is no wonder then that the war continues to fascinate Americans even to this day. It was, and for some still is, a war of great passions. Regardless of one’s sentiments about the causes and conduct of the war, certain names still ring down through the halls of time, carrying with them the echoes of heroism almost beyond comprehension. Names like Lee and Grant are instantly familiar to Americans, and for those with even a passing knowledge of history, units such as the famous “Iron Brigade” of the Union Army and the “Stonewall Brigade” of the Confederate still strike a chord. Yet even among this pantheon of heroes and heroic units. the name, legend and history of one group of men stands out: the “Irish Brigade” of the Union Army.
To understand the Irish Brigade one must look back before the war. As most people know, Irish immigration to the United States took off in the 1840’s, in response to the potato blight and famine in Ireland. Between 1846 and 1854, more than one million Irish emigrated to the United States. Most Irish Americans are also aware that upon arrival here the majority of Irish immigrants met with something considerably less than an enthusiastic welcoming committee. Anti-immigrant and specifically anti-Irish sentiment ran high in some areas of the United States, particularly among a splinter political group called the “Know-Nothings.” (The name came from their standard response when questioned about the membership or activities of their secretive political party.) One by-product of this blatant hostility was, ironically, the solidification of the unique identity of the Irish-American community. Pushed together in the slums of mid-19th century cities like New York and Boston, the Irish responded by welding together a new political identity and working towards acceptance through the development of political power. At the same time, the majority of the “average” Irish-Americans stuck in the cities tried to blend in with American society in other ways.
One obvious route to cultural assimilation is imitation. In the mid-1850s, one of the most curious trends to sweep America was the “Rage Militaire.” This was a civilian fascination with all things military. The Rage manifested itself in ladies’ fashions and social titles, but most especially in the veritable horde of social-club-turned-militia-unit organizations that sprang up across the country. In New York and Philadelphia, from Cleveland to Boston, men joined these “militia” units not with the expectation of true military service, but for the camaraderie and pageantry. They equipped themselves in the finest uniforms (of their own design) with the best rifles, muskets and bayonets, and practiced week in and week out on the fancy “evolutions” (formations and movements) of the tactics of that day.
The best of these units, some having as many as a thousand men, actually went on multi-city tours displaying their ability to march and parade in intricate formations. Drill and ceremony competitions between these units took place in giant jamborees that brought together thousands of men to march and compete for bragging rights. When visiting dignitaries arrived on American soil and a parade was required, the various state militias stepped up to fill the gap left by the fact that there really wasn’t much of a “regular” army in the nation.