If you were to enter into Ballybricken old church, through the passageway between the newsagents and the fishmongers, on your right at the graveyard you would find an obelisk, a tall narrow four-sided tapering monument like a thin pyramid, in memory of Patrick Clooney who died fighting with the Irish Brigade – the Fighting 69th – in the American Civil War. Thousands of Irishmen lost their lives in that war.
When the late President JF Kennedy came to Ireland in 1963, he presented a flag of the same Fighting 69th to the Irish nation. The flag had been flown in the Battle Of Fredericksburg in 1862 where nearly a thousand Irish, Union soldiers, lost their lives fighting with General Thomas Francis Meagher, the famous Waterford son.
These facts would whet your appetite for a new book on that war; Green, Blue And Grey (The Irish In The American Civil War) by Cal McCarthy, just published by The Collins Press.
In fine readable prose, it outlines the causes of the American Civil War and with good illustrations, makes readable sense of the many battles that shaped American history. As a result of Irish involvement, the groundwork was laid for the future role of Irish in America.
Why did the Irish fight in that war? Many did it for adventure, others, it is said, chose the Union army because the pay and food was better and many were just conscripted by an Act Of Congress.
McCarthy has gathered a lot of material in his research and he puts forward a few controversial points in relation to Meagher. Meagher’s father was the first Catholic mayor in over 200 years in Waterford in the early 1800s. Thomas Francis was a Young Irelander and his fiery anti-British speeches earned him the name Meagher of the Sword. After the failed 1848 Rebellion, he was sentenced to death but later transported to Van Dieman’s Land. By 1852 he had escaped and joined John Mitchel in New York, to work on radical anti-British newspaper The Citizen. Mitchel went on to support the confederacy and Meagher went on to become Brigadier General of the Union and went on to be acting Governor of the Montana Territory.
Mitchel’s seventeen year old son, Willie, was killed at Gettysburg.
McCarthy suggests that Meagher plied his troops with looted whiskey at Friedericksburg and that he later retreated from the fray due to a painful ulcer on his knee and he could not ride a horse. It is said that the Union defeat caused Meagher to take to drink and by Gettysburg the Irish Brigade was a sorry sight. Rumours of drunkenness and cowardice continued to plague Meagher and he resigned and turned up with the illegal Fenian Brotherhood.
In the blood of Gettysburg the Catholic priest and brigade chaplain Rev. William Corby prayed for the Irish dead on both sides. During that battle Corby gave a general extreme unction and men of many faiths knelt in prayer.
Today a small statue to Fr Corby stands in Gettysburg with his right hand raised in blessing and in memory of the many Irish dead. We here in Waterford have memories of Meagher at Waterford Treasures, Granville Hotel and the rider on horseback at Reginald’s Tower.
McCarthy’s book recreates this slice of Irish history with detail and style.