Learning about Independence Day during your first year in America and discovering what freedom means to Americans not just on July 4 but throughout the year.

It was July 4, 1976, my first ever summer in America. I had no idea, other than the usual fireworks notion, of what July 4th meant to Americans.

This was a special year, the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Republic.

I was living in Chicago then, my first summer away as a student, and very much wondered what the day itself would bring.

The closest equivalent back home was St. Patrick's Day, but that had a much more religious feel - at least it did back then. We'd all put on our green finery and march proudly through our little town center, but it was mostly about the mass and the hymns - "Hail Glorious St. Patrick Dear Saint of our Isle" always lead the choir.

July 4th was Patrick's Day on steroids. Late in the morning, we left for a barbecue where everyone promptly ate themselves silly, drank beer and some began to fall asleep. St. Pat's Day in Ireland this wasn't. We were in a big park somewhere in Chicago and all around us the sound of American family life resonated.

It was a happy scene. I tried a frisbee for the first time and managed to lose it in a tree. An attractive girl in short shorts winked at me (now what Irish girl had ever done that?)

A stranger offered me a beer and a hot dog.

The remorseless sun beat down on the Chicago earth and the summer wind licked its hot breath over us all.

What wasn't to love? Image: iStock.

What wasn't to love? Image: iStock.

Then overhead came an ear-splitting roar. The fighter jets were flying in perfect formation, en route to the downtown parade. It was a magnificent sight. The planes framed against the sun, barreling across the sky at a ferocious speed. It felt alien but thrilling to someone who had never before seen a military fly by or fly over.

There was a great and loud cheer that rolled across the park and redoubled itself for the Jets.

It was the first time I realized America's intense love affair with its soldiers and military. Back home, soldiers in uniform were considered no big deal. Here, in America, they were heroes in the main, men and women doing the ultimate, serving their country.

Slowly it dawned on me after that day that the history of America is first and foremost a tale of military might stretching from Washington's army defeating the British all the way to two World Wars, Iwo Jima and Vietnam which had just concluded. Not all the wars had been won, not all were popular, but they were as central to the American soul and psyche as the land is to the Irish.

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There are few successful Irish battles to commemorate, most, in the great scheme of things, were failed excursions of the minor kind, to battle the British Empire.

Not so with Americans. Military history is at the very center of the American Republic's founding narrative.

Later that night we joined the millions gathered on Lake Shore Drive to watch an incredible firework display. The crowds were bigger than anything I had ever seen in my life. Amidst the rocket’s red glare and the gentle wafting breeze carrying the wonderful patriotic music from the army band, I felt suddenly quite at home. It was like going back to a place I had always imagined I'd been.

Somehow I was there now. It was the first time I felt at home in America and it wouldn't be the last. It was Independence Day 1976 in Chicago, Illinois and for the first time, I knew I'd be back.

Happy July 4th.

* Originally published in 2011, updated in July 2023.