March 17, 2001
volume 12, no. 76
The Irish Brigade

They cleared the way for generations to come by living their faith and giving their lives in the true Irish spirit

    This St. Patrick's Day, I'm struck by how much things have changed. Not in the world as a whole, but how we relate to it. There was a group of Irishmen in history with the same determination of the current IRA, but with a truly noble purpose and an adherence to obedience that is sorely missing in the Irish Republican Army, in the Irish Catholic Church today and in the carrying out of these ideals by Irish Catholics today in America. It's one thing to be "Irish" on St. Paddy's Day; it's quite another to live the creed of the Irish which once was God, family and country and a strict adherence to the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church brought to the emerald isle by a Brit - the Bishop: Saint Patrick.

    St. Patrick, as you may know, was not the first Catholic bishop to be sent to Eire (Ireland) by the Church, but he was the most successful. The others were either martyred, or ran back to wherever they came from. Nor did St. Patrick bring Christianity to Eire. Through trade, slaves, etc, there were Irish Catholics already in Ireland, though they were in a minority and greatly persecuted. Though despised by the pagan Celts and the Druids, they stood firm, loving the people of Ireland while despising their religion. It can be said that this loving persistence is what finally brought all of Ireland to the cross and away from the bloody, frightful religion of the Druids and Celtic pagans.

    This attribute seems to have been a hallmark of Irish Catholics. Though Irish, for example, had been in America for years, it was the Irish Catholic who was seen as being on the lowest rung of the social ladder, the Irish Protestant being more accepted. Some even considering them lower than the black slave. They were 'clannish', 'ignorant', 'Popish'. In fact, when they could get a job, they were generally the most dangerous. The Erie Canal is lined with the graves of the Irish, yet when the Civil War began, these men signed up in droves. Not because of their great, or even fair treatment, but because of the ideal that America represented.

    The Irish could be found in many Union units, but the most famous, and least known, was the Irish Brigade of New York State. From the beginning of the war until the end, they were often the vanguard of attack or the screen in retreat. Many Union generals were heard to ask, "Where are my green flags?" (The Irish Regimental flags wee green as opposed to the blue of regular infantry units.)

    At the battle of Antietam (17 September, 1862), the Irish Brigade was used in an frontal advance against the Sunken Road, held by an elite Confederate unit, Kershaw's Confederates. The volume of fire was so heavy, that one observer reported that the Irish Brigade appeared to be leaning into a heavy rain rather than a rain of lead.

    The Brigade also figured prominently in Burnside's disastrous attacks at Fredericksburg (13 December, 1862), where they lost some 75% of their numbers. With a sprig of boxwood in the caps to represent the shamrock, they again advanced toward the stone wall, and a deadly Southern fire. Confederate General George Pickett remarked that their bravery was such that they forgot that the Irish Brigade was fighting them and he and his troops actually cheered them on.

    But the most poignant part of the Brigade's history occurred at the Battle of Gettysburg (1-3 July, 1863). As the Union Army woke on the second day, and General Lee prepared to attack toward Little Round Top, the Irish Brigade woke to a ritual they practiced diligently. The event was such that General Hancock remarked on it in his official report and a Lutheran minister was awed by the act.

    Following with the Brigade was one Fr. William Corby. He offered the Mass and gave them the Sacraments wherever they went. Though Army chaplains were not an official part of the Army, he was there because they needed him. They had received their orders, which was why Hancock was there, to move in support of a unit in trouble. The Brigade formed, and before moving out, Fr. Corby gave them absolution. Within minutes, the Brigade was fighting in one of the bloodiest fights of Gettysburg, the Wheatfield.

    The unit which once had over a thousand men, was reduced in size; so much so that when they got to Gettysburg, there were only about 200 left. The Wheatfield thinned their ranks even more. The next day, they held what's called the Angle during Pickett's charge. (If you've sent the movie Gettysburg, it's the Irish Brigade they show rising from behind the stone wall)

    Fr. Corby is the only civilian to be honored with a statue memorializing the 'Absoultion', and not far off, in trees just off the Wheatfield, is the memorial to the men of the Irish Brigade, 'Gentle when stroked, fierce when provoked.'

    At the end of the war, at Appomattox, one Confederate soldier told a Union soldier that the only reason the North won was "because you had more Irish than us."

    Yes, I'm proud to be Irish. Not because I've done anything to earn it, but because the Irish, as others, were willing to put their lives on the line for what they believed in. From St. Patrick to the Irish Brigade, from Fr. Corby to Bishop Sheen. Maybe we need that spirit again today!

    To those who would make truth relative, to those who would try to remake Christ and His Church in their image, I have only one thing to say:

"Faughaballaugh" (Clear the Way)

Pax Christi and Happy Saint Patrick's Day!

Pat Ludwa

For past columns by Pat Ludwa, see VIEW FROM THE PEW Archives

March 17, 2001
volume 12, no. 76
Pat Ludwa's VIEW FROM THE PEW column
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