For the past 25 years, the month of March has been, by Presidential Proclamation, designated as Irish American Heritage Month. The full text of this year’s proclamation can be found here:
The month was created like similar others, such as African American History Month (February) and National Hispanic-Latino Heritage Month (September), to recognize and honor specific ethnic groups that make this great American melting pot what it is today.
March 17th is St. Patrick’s Day (as everyone knows), which celebrates the Patron Saint of Ireland, and is what most people associate with the celebration of being of Irish descent, including the stereotypical view of celebrants swilling green beer and devouring corned beef and cabbage. Well, this first-generation Irish American author, who had never eaten corned beef other than the tinned variety before arriving in America (I am led to believe that it originated in New York Jewish delicatessens and not in Ireland), would like to look at the more positive side and expound upon some facts about Irish Americans and their significant contributions. This is in the form of an accompaniment to the regular “Did You Know?” column and hopefully contains some facts that you did not know!
Did you know that approximately 10% of the population of the Unites States identified as being of Irish heritage in the 2019 American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau? Many of these are what we call Scotch-Irish, but did you know that the term Scotch-Irish had nothing really to do with Scotland, other than they were immigrants from the Northeast of Ireland, who centuries before had settled in that part of Ireland?
Did you know that those with Irish ancestry are the second-largest ethnic group in America, those with German ancestry being the largest?
Also, did you know that there are about seven times the number of Irish Americans than the entire population of Ireland, which is only about 4.6 million?
And did you know that Irish American households have higher than average education levels, household incomes, and percentages holding management and professional positions? They are also the highest percentage of homeowners.
Now, let’s look at some history of the Irish on the land, in the sea, and in the air.
On the land, among the first members of the fraternal organization, the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, was our first president, George Washington. I guess old George liked the Irish. After all, it is reliably reported that over fifty percent of his General Staff during the Revolutionary War was Irish. There is also evidence that between 40 and 50 percent of the Continental Army soldiers were of Irish descent. I guess the Irish just loved fighting the Brits? Moving on to the Civil War, one of the most famous regiments was the Irish Brigade, the Fighting 69th, commanded by Irish born General Thomas Francis Meagher. They were to go on and earn the nickname, “the Heroes of Antietam” for their heroic actions and having suffered a 60% casualty rate. Did you know that the White House, the one at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., was designed by James Hoban, an Irish born architect?
Since 1863, when it was first awarded, there have been a total of approximately 3,525 recipients of the Medal of Honor (MOH), America’s highest military decoration and the only one worn on a ribbon around the neck. But did you know that an estimated 60% have been awarded to Irish-born and Irish American recipients? Irish-born recipients account for more than twice that of all other foreign-born recipients combined. These recipients range from Audie Murphy, who was the most decorated soldier in U.S history, Chaplain Fr. Timothy O’Callahan, who was the first chaplain of any faith to be so recognized, and Major General William (Wild Bill) Donovan, the only American to have received our nation’s four highest awards: the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal and the National Security Medal. Amazingly, five Irish-born recipients have been the recipients of two Medals of Honor and three other double recipients were Irish Americans. It is no wonder that the term “The Fighting Irish” has crept into modern parlance.
Remember the Alamo? Well, did you know that there is a strong Irish link with the Alamo? As you enter the main doorway, you will see the flags of every country and state that was represented among the defenders. The first, on your left, is the Irish flag. The Green, White and Orange is on display because thirteen persons born in Ireland are known to have fought and died at the Alamo. Other Irish Americans who perished include Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and William Travis.
On the sea. Did you know it is claimed that one of Columbus’s crew, Irish-born Patrick Maguire, beat Christopher himself as being the first to step ashore in the New World after sailing the ocean blue? Fittingly, did you know that the son of a poor Irish farmer, John Barry, rose to become the “Father of the American Navy” and he is commemorated by a plaque and statue stating that fact near the Commodore Barry Gate in the US Naval Academy? Did you know an Irishman invented the first modern submarine? John Philip Holland, born in Ireland, developed the first submarine to be formally commissioned by the US Navy in 1900. Holland held more than 22 patents with respect to submarine design. Did you know that there is a U.S. Navy destroyer called the USS The Sullivans? This guided missile destroyer was named in commemoration of the five Irish American Sullivan brothers who lost their lives when their ship was sunk during World War II, the greatest loss of any one family during that conflict. Also, did you know that the only U.S. Navy ship ever to be named after a plant was the USS Shamrock?
In the air. Did you know that the first American in space was Col. John Glenn, who was of Irish and Scottish heritage? The first man on the moon was Irish American Neil Armstrong, who had family roots in Co. Fermanagh, Ireland. The pilot who kept the command module in orbit while Armstrong and Aldrin made that famous moon walk was Michael Collins, whose grandfather emigrated from Ireland in the 1860’s. His namesake, Eileen Collins, who was the daughter of two Irish immigrants from County Cork, made history in 1995 as the first female NASA pilot and commander of a space shuttle. Irish American Kathryn Dwyer Sullivan was the first American woman to walk in space. She flew three shuttle missions logging 532 hours. She has had a very accomplished career since retiring from NASA in 1993, serving as chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In 2004, she was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame.
It’s not only in the US Armed forces that the Irish made an impact. Irish Americans contributed greatly to the founding and staffing of the police, firefighters, educators and health care workers. Father Edward Flanagan was an Irish born priest who founded the Boys Town orphanage, which now also serves as a center for troubled youth. There is no shortage of entrepreneurs and entertainers that make the list, too. Did you know that Walt Disney, Henry Ford, Bruce Springsteen, Bill Gates, Alfred Hitchcock, Elvis Presley, Tom Brady and Bing Crosby all have claimed Irish ancestry? Indeed, 23 American Presidents had Irish ancestry.
Did you know that March is also Women’s History Month? Not to be outdone, many Irish American women also contributed greatly to their new country. Mary G. Harris Jones (Mother Jones) was an Irish-born schoolteacher and union organizer who advocated for the young children working for low pay, and Mother Mary Francis Clarke, the Irish born founder of the Sisters of Charity, was instrumental in the establishment of girls’ schools. My own personal favorite is Kathleen McNulty. This Irish-born and Gaelic-speaking brilliant mathematician and daughter of an Irish political prisoner was instrumental in the development of the programs that ran the first digital computer, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, better known as ENIAC. She created a subroutine that enabled ENIAC to work past some of the limitations of the early logic circuits. It is said of Kathleen that in making ENIAC a success, she made herself, “the human computer”, obsolete.
And so, during the month of March, and especially on the 17th, St. Patrick’s Day, please remember that it is not just all about “Kiss me, I’m Irish” T-shirts and pub crawls, but it is more of a celebration of a proud Irish heritage. To quote an ancient Irish Blessing:
May the road rise to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again
May God hold you in the palm of his hand.
Or, to quote my favorite blessing:
May the wind at your back always be your own!
Further Reading, all of which are readily available on Amazon:
Joseph G. Gilby. The Irish Brigade in the Civil War.
Timothy Eagan. The Immortal Irishman.
Philip Thomas Tucker, PhD. How the Irish Won the American Revolution.
Philip Thomas Tucker PhD. God Help the Irish.
Jay P. Dolan. The Irish Americans.
J. J Lee and Marion R. Casey. Making the Irish American.