Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Irish-Americans and War (Part 1)

by Jack Gilroy

Anti-Catholic cartoon by Thomas Nast, 1867.
Many years ago, my wife and I backpacked across Ireland. As international travelers, we found the Irish the warmest people we had ever encountered. As Irish-Americans, this was comforting. Personal contact with so many loving people was in stark contrast to what we had learned in history studies about truculent Irishmen. We knew well that Irish immigrants in America were often depicted as angry, fighting Irish. Even Notre Dame University picked up on the late 19th century American cartoon bigot, Thomas Nast. Nast drew hundreds of caricatures of ugly shillelagh carrying Irishmen ready to smash skulls. Today, the Notre Dame mascot symbol is a leprechaun with green hat and fists turned up to take on any enemy.

Historians give many reasons why immigrant Irish in America developed the stereotype of fighters. Religious discrimination seems to rank above all other reasons including fear of job losses taken by Irish willing to work for low wages. Yet, there’s a long Irish history of war dating before the Christian period. In fact, many Celtic centuries of violence. Later, from the 16th century and into the 19th century, Ireland became a reservoir of mercenaries drawn to fight various wars on the European continent. Known as the Flight of the Wild Geese, thousands of Irishmen left their families and homeland to fight in France, Spain and wherever there was a cause that attracted them.

But the flight of Irish to America was supposed to offer good jobs, not jobs to kill, as soldiers do. Yet, soon after arrival in the land of promise, the American government lured the Irish to fight for pay.

San Patricio (Saint Patrick's) Battalion
Famine Irish came to America for a better life but found themselves pushed into the American Army warring against Mexico in 1847. Some Irishmen defected to the Mexican Army to be with their Catholic Mexican brothers. Just sixteen years later, the Civil War riots (1863) of New York City occurred. Irish immigrants fighting conscription into the Union Army led to the “largest civil insurrection in American history” notes Eric Fonet in Reconstruction – America’s Unfinished Revolution (1863-1877).

Irish-American opposition to war in the 20th century was not as open fisted as the Mexican and Civil wars.

There is really only one outstanding Irish-American character who stood in opposition to the call of his country and his church to fight and kill in 1917. The American author, Torin Finney, focused his book, Untold Hero of the Great War on the Denver, Colorado Irish Catholic, Benjamin Salmon. Salmon, in 1917, refused to follow not just his President (Wilson) but Cardinal Gibbons, the leading American Catholic religious leader who urged all good Catholic men to train for war. Finney describes in detail the humiliation and torture of Ben Salmon. Salmon, who said there was no such thing as a ‘Just War’ was detained in federal prison for years, he was the last conscientious objector released in World War I.

There was little Irish American opposition to World War II. In fact, Irish Catholics played a major fighting role in the war. But the carry over of war hawkishness into Vietnam had major Irish Catholic stumble blocks.

The Berrigans
The Vietnam War had many conscientious objectors and for the first time, a large number of Catholic objectors. Leading the movement of Catholic objectors were the Irish-American brothers, Fr. Phil Berrigan and Fr. Dan Berrigan. Dan Berrigan was called by Time Magazine and the FBI as Public Enemy #1 for his opposition to war. Both Phil and Dan carried draft cards from a Selective Service office and burned them with home made napalm. They were arrested, tried and sentenced to federal prison.

But the Berrigans were simply the forefront of Catholic activists who would grow the movement far beyond the size of Army divisions before the war was ended in 1975. Irish Americans Catholic objectors found leadership in Senator Robert Kennedy and Senator Eugene McCarthy. And then, the leader of the House of Representatives, Thomas Tip O’Neill, became a partner to the nonviolent movement. All came to the conclusion that war was not the answer.

And some of the best voices of Irish American human rights activism have been women. Kathy Kelly of Chicago has been nominated three times for a Noble Peace Prize for her work with the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. Kathy braved the misery of the sanctions, the shock and awe of the American attack on Baghdad and now is deeply involved with Afghan children trying to recover from emotional and physical trauma directly the result of America’s longest war.

Kathy Kelly
Megan Rice
Brian Terrell
Just this past summer of 2012, Irish American peace activist Megan Rice, a Catholic Sister, was arrested for what the US Government calls the “biggest security breach in the history of the nation’s nuclear complex.” 82 year old Sister Megan was moved by her religious and moral belief that nuclear weapons put the planet closer to total destruction.

In October of 2012, Irish American peace activist Brian Terrell of the Iowa Catholic Worker was sentenced to six months in prison for attempting to deliver a war crimes indictment to Whiteman Air Force base, a drone firing base in Missouri.

When ten people shut down the entrance way to another drone base (Hancock Air National Guard, Syracuse, NY) on October 5th, 2012, six of the ten were Irish Catholics.

(To be continued in Part 2: "But these Irish-American activists of today find little company in the United States Federal Government. Few Catholics, Irish or otherwise are ready to strongly oppose war and the preparation for war. In fact, Irish-American leadership in militarism is the norm . . . . ")

1 comment:

  1. Jack, as we celebrate being part of a Communion of Saints, a cloud of witnesses this All Souls weekend, I will be celebrating belonging to these Irish Catholic saints too. My father's family was Irish Catholic and many who share this Scotch- Irish name seem to have forgotten our own embittered history as the brick layers of Boston to become the new White oppressors. Your bringing forward these contemporary Irish-Catholic peace patriots helps me to reconnect and affirm my roots and add my own small witness as a Protest Irish female faith leader. The fighting Irish spirit must be in the DNA. Let us harness it for justice and peace as these brave sisters and brothers are doing now. Thanks.