Memorial Day presents an ideal opportunity to look back on perhaps Ireland’s greatest achievement in America. That is the extraordinary number of Medals of Honor won by Irish natives in the toughest arena of all – fighting for their adopted country in the Civil War.

The correct title for the military award often called the “Congressional Medal of Honor” is simply “Medal of Honor,” and those who receive it prefer to be called “recipients” rather than “winners.”

It is the only US Military Award that is worn from a ribbon hung around the neck, and the only award presented by the President in the name of Congress. It is the greatest award given to American fighting heroes. The Irish own far more than any other foreign country.

As John Concannon, who contributed to the research for the book Medal of Honor Recipients 1863-1994, noted in an article for "Perhaps the most  remarkable was 'super survivor' Michael Dougherty, from Falcarragh, County Donegal, a private in the 13th Pennsylvania Cavalry."
He received it for routing a Confederate detachment at Jefferson, Virginia, which saved 2,500 lives by prohibiting the Confederates from flanking the Union forces.

Dougherty and 126 members of the 13th Pennsylvania Calvary were later captured and spent 23 months in different Southern prisons, including the Andersonville death-camp in Georgia. He was the only survivor from his regiment.

His trials did not end there. As Concannon elaborates, Dougherty was heading for home on the steamship “Sultana” on the Mississippi River when the boilers exploded. Of the 2000 passengers, only 900 survived, Dougherty was one of them. Finally, after 4 years, the 21-year-old Union Veteran reached his hometown of Bristol, Pa. That is why AOH Division #1 of Bristol is called the Michael Dougherty Division.

Further Ancient Order of the Hibernians divisions are also named after Medal of Honor recipients. The Col. James Quinlan Division #3 of Warwick, in Orange County, NY, for example, is named for Col. James Quinlan, who, also during The Civil War, led the Irish Brigade’s 88th New York in the battle of Savage Station, Virginia.

During the Civil War, 1523 Medals of Honor were issued. A large number to Irish troops from the Irish Brigade, which fought at Fredricksburg and Antietam.

To date, 3,459 Medals of Honor have been awarded, and 19 individuals have received it twice.

Thirty-three countries are listed as the birthplace of the recipients, and Ireland, with 258, has the most by far.

Some of those 258 listed Ireland as their place of birth and even included their county of origin: Cork has 19 Medal of Honor recipients, Tipperary and Dublin each have 11, Limerick has 10, Kerry 8, Galway 7, Antrim and Tyrone 6 each, while Sligo and Kilkenny each have 5.

Out of the 19 men to receive a second Medal of Honor, 5 were born in Ireland. They are, according to Concannon, "Henry Hogan from Clare, John Laverty from Tyrone, Dublin’s John Cooper, whose name at birth was John Laver Mather, John King, and Patrick Mullen. Three double recipients were Irish-Americans: U.S. Marines Daniel Daly and John Joseph Kelly, and the U.S. Navy’s John McCloy."
Some modern-day recipients are:

  • John King, U.S. Navy, from Ballinrobe, County Mayo, double recipient in 1901 & 1909
  • Pvt. John Joseph Kelly, Chicago, Ill., received both the Army & Navy Medal of Honor in WWI
  • Col. William J.(Wild Bill) Donovan, member of New York’s Fighting 69th in WWI
  • Audie Murphy, who was turned down by the Marines and the Navy as he was only 5’5 and weighed 112 lbs. The Army accepted him in June,1942, and he became WW II”s most decorated hero
  • Fr. Timothy O’Callahan, who was not only the first Catholic Chaplain to receive the Medal of Honor, but the first of any faith to be so recognized.

For his gallant leadership and fighting spirit, O’Hare Airport in Chicago was named for Lt. Commander Edward H. “Butch” O’Hare, U.S. Navy fighter pilot. Another well-known facility, McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey is named after Medal of Honor recipient, Thomas B. McGuire, a WWII ace pilot who shot down 38 enemy planes. One of Vietnam’s first recipients was Captain Roger Hugh Donlon, U.S. Special Forces, from Saugerties, N.Y. Another Vietnam recipient was New York Irish-American Robert Emmet O’Malley.

In all, 245 men were awarded the Medal of Honor in the Vietnam War. Among them were: Major Patrick Brady, Major Kern Dunagan, Captain Robert F. Foley, Lt. Cmdr. Thomas G. Kelley, Spc. Thomas McMahon, Lance Corp. Thomas Noonan, Pvt. Daniel Shea and Petty  Officer Michael Thornton.

There have been millions of Irish and Irish-Americans who have served in our military with distinction. The latest being Col. James Hickey, son of Irish immigrants, a native of Chicago, Ill., who commanded the 1st Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division, which captured Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

It would be impossible to calculate an exact number of Irish-Americans on the Medal of Honor list. However, Irish surnames are plentiful. There are 21 Murphys, 20 Kellys(or Kelley), and 8 Sullivans. Names beginning with the Irish prefix “Mc” spill onto multiple pages.

* Originally published in 2013. Updated in May 2024. 

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