Charleston’s Hibernian Hall

I recently visited Charleston, South Carolina, for the first time, and anyone with an interest in Irish history or architecture cannot help but be struck by the massive, Greek-columned Hibernian Hall on Meeting Street.


Hibernian Hall, Charleston – photo credit: L. Flewelling

Hibernian Hall, which is a National Historic Landmark, was built in 1840 for the Hibernian Society, an Irish benevolent association founded in 1801.  The Hibernian Society celebrates its non-sectarian identity, alternating between Catholic and Protestant presidents. Continue reading

The American Civil War in Irish Unionist Memory

The American Civil War was one of the key historical points of comparison for Irish unionists as they fought against Home Rule in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  The Civil War itself was easily within living memory during the Home Rule period, ending only twenty years before the first Home Rule crisis.  Joseph Hernon’s short article on the “Use of the American Civil War in the Debate over Irish Home Rule” shows how British politicians and intellectuals who had supported the Northern States later as Liberal Unionists used the Civil War example to oppose Irish Home Rule.  Hernon writes that the principles of states’ rights in the Civil War, which helped to validate the Confederate standpoint, were used as examples by the Liberal Unionists.  They feared that if Ireland was granted Home Rule the Irish nationalists would use states’ rights principles to demand complete separation.

Hernon rightly points out that there are limits to the logic of this parallel, because slavery as a moral issue played such a large role in the American situation.  However, fear of states’ rights leading to Irish separation was not the only way that the Civil War example was employed in unionist rhetoric.  The Civil War, considered the greatest war in living memory at the time, was frequently used to develop themes of legitimacy of the Ulster cause, the sense of betrayal by Britain because they would not fight to hold the Union together, and unity as part of the spirit of the age.

During the first Home Rule crisis, unionists used the Civil War to develop several themes in their rhetoric.  With Gladstone’s conversion to Home Rule, many Ulster Liberals turned to an alliance with the Conservatives.  As the Liberal Party was faced with schism during the first Home Rule Bill, T.W. Russell, MP for South Tyrone, defended the stance of Liberal Unionists.  He stated in an 1886 Stirlingshire speech:

My alternative is – ‘Maintain the Union, be scrupulous to redress every Irish wrong, be even generous in view of the past, but govern the Country.’  I am told that Democracy will not consent to do this.  Let us not be too sure of that…. The great Democracy of the United States answered to Abraham Lincoln, not to Jefferson Davis.  And to maintain the Union there the cannon thundered in the valley of the Shenandoah, the musketry rattled on the heights of Fredericksburg, and Grant fought and conquered at Richmond.  And the Union was maintained there, just as I firmly believe it will be maintained here.

Russell defended the Liberal Unionists’ choice to break from Gladstone, committing them to maintain Liberal social policies in Ireland while supporting the Union.  When faced with the question of whether Home Rule was inevitable, the Civil War provided an example of a people willing to commit everything to maintaining unity rather than separation.  Many Liberal Unionists maintained that they were willing to give every consideration to bettering the condition of Ireland other than destruction of the Union.

Ulster’s Liberal Unionists used the American Civil War example to condemn Gladstone’s Home Rule stance.  Belfast Reverend R.J. Lynd wrote,

Mr. Gladstone is not infallible.  Had he his will, the United States of America would now be cut into two kingdoms, and slavery would still retain its grim hold on the kingdom of the South without any control from the North.  To us Irish Liberals, who loved him and followed him with a devotion and personal veneration seldom equalled, but never surpassed, there could not be a more melancholy spectacle under the sun than Mr. Gladstone as a Liberal leader presents now.

The former supporters of Gladstone identified a pattern in his support of the Confederacy and his promotion of Irish Home Rule.  As implied by Lynd, an immoral cause would have a hold over a helpless minority in each case.

Ulster unionists used the American Civil War as an historical example in many other cases.  They cited the partition of West Virginia from Virginia as precedent for the protection of a significant loyal minority from a disloyal majority.  They used the Civil War to deny Irish nationalists the right to compel the Westminster Parliament to change the relationship between Ireland and Great Britain within the Union.  For example, they claimed that even if, like the South during the Civil War, Irish nationalists might technically be acting within constitutional bounds by demanding Home Rule, Parliament should not grant Home Rule if it would lead to greater dangers.  In the United States, Civil War was preferable to the North than allowing the South to legally secede from the Union.  The threat of an independent Confederacy to the North was similar to that of a Home Rule Ireland to Britain, because of the dangers of total separation.

Unionists used the Civil War example to show that attempting to use Home Rule to pacify Irish nationalists would be futile.  They claimed that the North had refused to pacify the South during the Civil War; therefore the British government should refuse to pacify Irish nationalists with Home Rule.  If Home Rule was granted to the disloyal Parnellites, total separation from the Union would be an even greater threat.  This threat was also used to justify Ulster unionist militancy against the British government in an attempt to prevent the implementation of Home Rule – even if this militancy led to the outbreak of Civil War in Ireland.

Like the United States, Ulster unionists were faced with demands for Home Rule.  They felt that the British government was not making any effort to combat these demands but simply accommodated them despite the threat of the destruction of the Union.  Ulster unionists observed the extreme measures taken by the Northern States to prevent the implementation of Home Rule.  They resented being painted as bigots and fools by British Liberals and Irish nationalists because they wanted to do the same thing in their country.  Unionists developed themes of legitimacy of the unionist cause because of the perceived similarities with the Northern states, and betrayal by the British who were unwilling to stand up to the nationalists’ Home Rule demands.  Moreover, the British government was going against the worldwide trend toward unity as exemplified by Italy, Germany, and the American Civil War.  The American Civil War symbolized the power of the Union to endure threats of separation and disconnection if only there were people willing to fight for it.

Who “Owns” Historical Memory?

I recently wrote about W.F. Marshall, who was angered enough by Irish Republican use of history that he wrote Ulster Sails West in 1943, asserting what he saw as rightful ownership of Scotch-Irish accomplishments in American history.  Marshall, an Ulster unionist and Presbyterian minister, accused Irish Republicans of stealing Scotch-Irish historical achievements to appeal to Americans for aid in the fight against the partition of Ireland.

It was commonplace from the late 19th century onward for Ulster unionists to use the history of the Scotch-Irish in America to support the movement against Irish Home Rule.  They claimed ownership over the achievements of those whom they considered their ethnic brethren in the United States.

Going even further, though, they also used historical events that their ethnic group was not explicitly connected with – namely the events of the American Civil War – to support their political movement, and discredit the policies of the British government and Irish nationalists.

As I researched this further, I wondered if there were other examples of countries or groups using historical events that were not directly related to them as part of their own historical memory.  As with much of the field of memory studies, the answer to this question begins with the study of the Holocaust.

Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider have put forward the concept of “cosmopolitan memory” to describe collective memories that transcend national boundaries.  They assert that cosmopolitan memory is part of the process of globalization and changes in communications technology, making global issues part of everyday life experiences for the average person.  In the Ulster unionist case, global narratives have been utilized for the purposes of gaining political legitimacy and identity construction (and delegitimizing the positions of the Irish nationalists and the Gladstone government).  This proactive use of history in creating collective identity is part of what transforms it into historical memory.

In Levy and Sznaider’s article, they discuss the Holocaust as a global event that both symbolizes universal values and resonates on local levels.  They argue that the Holocaust became a moral touchstone in a globalized community, particularly after the 1960s.  This can be seen in the ways that the United States approaches the historical memory of the Holocaust.

Was the American Civil War similarly a moral touchstone in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries?

And in the bigger picture, who is entitled to use this history for the purposes of political legitimacy, and cultural and social unity?  Is it possible to “steal” history and what are the implications of doing so?

Suggested Reading:

Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider, “Memory Unbound: The Holocaust and the Formation of Cosmopolitan Memory,” European Journal of Social Theory 5, no. 87 (2002).

The Irish (and Irish Music) in the American Civil War

For the past two Sundays, the History Show on RTE Radio 1 has explored the Irish presence in the American Civil War, particularly looking at the role of Irish music.  I highly recommend listening to the episodes, especially the first one which covers a wide swathe of Irish music from both the Union and Confederacy.  The episodes highlight music as a primary source that can be used to uncover the mood of the country during war, the transmission of ideas, the connections made between people spread out over wide geographical areas, popular culture, and views of Irishness in the United States in this era.

While there had been a long history of Irish immigration to America, Catholics overtook Protestants in overall numbers of immigrants for the first time in the 1830s.  The new immigrants faced rampant anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiment in the urban areas in which they settled, particularly in the Know-Nothing, nativist era of the 1850s.  The immigrants often took refuge in the institutions of the Catholic Church and Democratic Party.

Because of their high population presence in northeastern cities, Irish immigrants made up a large part of the audience at vaudeville performances and had close ties to the popular music of the mid-nineteenth century.  I found the segment in the first show on Irish blackface minstrelsy particularly interesting.  Irish immigrants sought opportunities to establish their legitimacy as Americans and pursued blackface minstrelsy as a way to prove their equality to all other white members of United States society.  Blackface minstrelsy was a rationalization of slavery that portrayed slaves leading happy lives on the plantation.  The song “Dixie” came out of the minstrelsy tradition, written by Dan Emmett (an American of Irish ancestry).

It is estimated that about 100,000 Irish-born soldiers fought for the Union, and 20,000 for the Confederacy.  Both sides had Irish Brigades, a term which had roots in Irish history itself with the Wild Geese (Irish soldiers who fought for France and Spain in continental Europe).  Both sides had popular songs written by Irishmen or Irish-Americans, promoting their cause.

The second episode of the show highlights the ways in which songs about war change from early anthems which provide meaning and motivation for the conflict and romanticize the war, to later songs which long for the return home and mourn the pain of separation and loss.  The disillusionment of the Irish over the course of the war, exposed during the New York Draft Riots of July 1863, is also highlighted in song with “Paddy’s Lamentation.”

There are many other elements of Irish involvement in Civil War-era America covered in these two episodes, and it’s worth listening just to hear all of the songs.

An unrelated yet fascinating article from this past week is National Geographic’s portrait of the archaeology of London, a layman’s look at the history of archaeological exploration of the city.  It portrays the layers upon layers of history present in the city, and it goes without saying that many of those layers contain archaeological finds revealing London’s millennia-long connection with the wider world.  As the article notes, “The modern city sits atop a rich archaeological layer cake that’s as much as 30 feet high.”  The Museum of London, a personal favorite of mine, itself does a fine job of portraying those layers of prehistory and history from its perch alongside the Roman Wall.

The Thames is at the heart of archaeology in the city, and when the tide is out it’s particularly revealing.  The article’s author, Roff Smith, observes the river at early morning with a representative from the Museum of London Archaeology.

“Almost everything you see here is archaeology,” says Cohen, who points out a Roman-era roofing tile here, a piece of blue-patterned Victorian porcelain there, as we scramble over the uneven ground.  “With every tide this gets jumbled up again.  It’s never the same twice.  You never know what you’ll find.”

This reminded me of the “Tate Thames Dig” installation at the Tate Modern, a work of art filled with hundreds of random, repeating, and revealing artifacts unearthed from the Thames.

  • Smith, Roff. “London’s Big Dig Reveals Amazing Layers of History.”  National Geographic (February 2016).