The only town in Ireland to have a plaque commemorating a Confederate Army war hero on a public building is set to keep the memorial in place despite intensive lobbying from the United States.
Councillors in Tuam, Co Galway, have been accused of caring more about the image of the town than the search for truth or justice after deciding to keep the plaque in memory of Major Richard ‘Dick’ Dowling at the Town Hall. Dowling rented slaves, including a 12-year-old boy, for his restaurant and hotel business in Houston, Texas.
The matter was raised at a meeting of the Municipal District Council on Monday afternoon, but never went to a vote following objections to its removal.
“The mood in the town is that people don’t give a damn about it,” Cllr Donagh Killilea (Fianna Fail) told IrishCentral on Tuesday evening. “When this plaque was erected the people of the town only wanted to commemorate a man who made a success of himself in America.
“It’s honoring a guy who left extreme poverty on the outskirts of Tuam and managed to survive 180 years ago by joining an army. My understanding is that he was only in the Confederate Army for a couple of years and that he became a very successful businessman in Houston.”
Cllr Killilea said the issue of Dowling’s Confederate Army past, or the fact that he fought on the side of slavery, was “not an issue” with the ordinary people when he walked around the North Galway town.
He said the town’s representatives should have for more important issues to deal with than the removal of a plaque which was erected in the 1990s.
The matter was raised on Monday night by Cllr Shaun Cunniffe (Independent), who said he was contacted by 16 people from across the US who had concerns that the plaque should be removed from the center of the town.
“These people had genuine concerns about Dowling’s links to the slave trade and some of them asked me how a black tourist from America would feel if he or she saw this plaque on the Town Hall,” Cunniffe told IrishCentral.
“I told these people that I respected their concerns and I would seek to have the plaque moved to a more appropriate setting. A memorial at a Town Hall should only honor somebody a town is proud of. People have no problem with the plaque, but they are really surprised we have it at the Town Hall.”
Dowling, who was born a few miles north of Tuam, immigrated to the US at the age of nine after his parents were evicted from their home during the Great Famine.
The plaque, which was erected in November 1996, praises Dowling as a “business and civic leader” and the man who formed the first oil company in Texas.
It also mentions that he helped to foil an invasion of Texas by 5,000 Union troops at Sabine Pass on September 8, 1863, although it does not mention that he was on the Confederate Army side.
The proposal did not go to a vote among the eight members present at the Tuam Municipal District Council on Monday afternoon.
“Of the nine councillors who were at last night’s meeting, only four spoke about the matter,” said Cllr Cunniffe. “The consensus seems to be that a new museum will be a more appropriate location when it opens in the coming years.”
Catherine Corless, the brave historian whose research uncovered the ‘Tuam Babies’ scandal, said she was annoyed that some local representatives were more worried about the image of the town than discovering the truth about the past.
“I was amazed and annoyed to hear a councillor say the town was still coming to terms with the ‘Tuam Babies’ scandal after he had given me no support in my search for justice,” she said.
“I found it ironic that people who gave me no help at all in my quest for justice were saying that this had become some sort of kite-flying exercise by Councillor Cunniffe or that it was somehow deflecting attention from the Mother and Baby Home scandal.
“People seem to be more concerned about protecting the town’s image than finding out about slavery, be it in 19th century Houston or the 20th century Mother and Baby Home. They certainly didn’t help me in my search for justice.”
But Cllr Killilea said it was a ‘non-issue’ in the town.
“Cllr Cunniffe said he got 16 calls from 363 million people in America and none at all from the 4.7 million in Ireland,” he said. “I think that tells you all you need to know about the feeling here on the ground.
“It was agreed at the meeting that we would look into moving the plaque to a museum if one opens in the future. This plaque wasn’t put up to offend anyone and this controversy doesn’t mean anything to the people of the town.”
Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland. You can find his Facebook page here