During the Civil War, the Irish Brigade was among the most celebrated units in Mr.Lincoln’s Army, and Irish Americans won more medals of honor than any other ancestral or ethnic group from the North. It is common to assert that the Irish-American contribution to the Union cause showed mainstream
that Irish Catholics were as American as any Anglo-Protestant. That’s true, to an extent. When the war was over and thousands of Irish Americans Fenians turned their attention to an invasion of British Canada, mainstream America looked the other way or openly encouraged them. The notion of hundreds of armed Irish-American militias drilling openly in the streets of America would have been unthinkable in the 1850’s. By 1866 however, New Yorkers did little to discourage the Fenian movement from operating in the city and moving ahead with its war plans. In that sense, Irish Americans did achieve a level of acceptance and even admiration. The 14th amendment’s guarantee of equal protection for naturalized citizens, passed after the war, was another sign that native born New York understood the debt it owed to immigrant soldiers, particularly the Irish. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that easy for the Irish in America . As memories of the war faded and the nation plunged into an economic depression after 1873, nativism returned to America and other northern cities. Civic elites in New York and Boston sought to do away with universal suffrage because they believed the immigrant poor-meaning, for the most part Irish Catholics, were incapable of making informed, educated choices in the ballot box. When the movement failed, reformers pursued another veiled anti-immigrant agenda, demanding civil service reform in order to deny immigrants access to public sector jobs. Both William R. Grace, the first Irish Catholic mayor of New York and Patrick Collins, the first Irish Catholic congressman from Massachusetts, faced substantial nativist opposition in their campaigns of 1880 and 1882, respectively. Elite newspapers portrayed Grace, an affluent Irish immigrant who built a shipping empire, as an agent of the pope who was intent on the destruction of public schools. There were whispers-if you can believe this- that he wasn’t really a citizen. The “birther” movement is not a new phenomenon. Seen from the perspective of the Gilded Age, and even into the 20th Century, it’s clear that while the Civil War did allow Irish Americans to win a measure of acceptance, it was spotty at best. The war did not kill off the Know Nothings, as so many people assume. The Know Nothing movement simply evolved to a more genteel form of prejudice. So for Irish America, the Civil War certainly is worth remembering. But it may not be a cause for celebration. New York
Your Corres Secretary & Parade Chairman, Frank Darcy
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Duit