An Irish-American History Lesson

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Mr. Fleming's new book, The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I , was published by Basic Books on June 1. He is a member of the corporate board of HNN.

One of the formative experiences of my life was an encounter with my Irish roots in 1946. I was hanging around my dormitory at Fordham University on a November Saturday afternoon when I saw a short burly man tacking up a poster. It advertised a meeting in a nearby parish hall to discuss the plight of Ireland. I decided to go.

The speaker was a big blackhaired Irishman with a brogue. He ranted about Oliver Cromwell's terrible crimes, the famine of the 1840s, rack rents, and the impact of Britain's continuing economic imperialism in Ireland, with the capitalist government of southern Ireland the craven collaborator. He added with withering condescension that he assumed we Irish-Americans knew nothing about this catalogue of shame. When it came to Ireland, the average Irish-American was"a political ignoramus."

Whereupon the speaker demanded money for the Irish Republican Army -- and made it very clear that anyone who failed to respond was a traitor to his Irish blood.

The IRA's terrorism was 20 years in the future. That was not an issue in 1946. Nevertheless, this attempt to appeal to my Irish blood did not go down with me, even though my four grandparents were born in Ireland. Most of the other Irish-Americans in the hall had a similar reaction. More than half of us walked out in disgust.

I realized that growing up, I never heard my grandfather or my father say more than a passing word about the Ould Sod. They had talked about the abuse, the prejudice, Irish-Americans faced from WASP supremacy groups here in America. The NO IRISH NEED APPLY signs. The sneering question at the factory gate:"Protestant or Catholic?"

Where did this arrogant mick get off calling us political ignoramuses? In America, Irish was synonymous with political savvy. We were proud of our power in cities such as Chicago, New York, Boston, Jersey City. We had used it to help ourselves and a lot of other people.

That encounter with the obnoxious IRA man drastically altered my attitude toward my Irish roots.  From that day I became conscious of my hyphen, of being an Irish-American.

I suspected in a certain sense the hyphen meant I was not Irish. At least, not in the way that IRA man said I was.  Did it also mean I was not American? I responded by vowing to learn a lot more about my American heritage.

I launched my career as a writer on that resolve. I wrote a book on the Pilgrims. I celebrated the heroism of the Americans at Bunker Hill and Yorktown. I wrote biographies of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin and George Washington.

In the course of exploring the American Revolution, I discovered the leading Irish-American of 1776, Charles Carroll of Maryland. I was amazed by what an extraordinary man he was -- so distinguished for the clarity of his thought and the forcefulness of his ideas that he was considered a possible successor to George Washington as president.

Carroll was one of the richest men in America. Yet he unhesitatingly risked his fortune -- and his life -- to support America's struggle for liberty. Why? As an Irishman he knew what could happen to a country if England got its aristocratic foot on its prostrate neck. In 1776 Ireland was the living, if barely breathing example of the English penchant for ruthless exploitation. The IRA man had that part of his spiel right.

But Carroll did not preach hatred of England, either during or after the American Revolution. He lived by a remarkable motto:"We must remember -- and forgive."

It was a philosophy of life that was admirably adapted to the new country that Carroll had just helped invent. He was telling Irish-Americans that it was important to remember their memories of British inhumanity. But forgiveness was vital because without it, they would be mired in miasmas of resentment and dreams of revenge, instead of turning their faces to the dynamic future that freedom was unfolding in America.

Remember and forgive. It might be a good formula for resolving a lot of the ethnic and racial tensions that are threatening America's national harmony today. It sounds simplistic, I know. But it worked for Charles Carroll -- and for the Irish-Americans of the generations that followed in his footsteps.

It allows us all to retain our roots -- without forgoing our American identities. It enables us to reject the dehumanizing hatred preached by so many people in the name of racial and ethnic grievances. It is the liberating opposite of the victimhood that pervades so much minority thinking in today's America.

For me there is no longer a conflict between Irish and American. I can write those words, even though I've explored in several novels the often heartbreaking Irish struggle to become American. Most of us have succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of the first comers. One explanation for that success is the philosophy Charles Carroll articulated in 1776.

At the same time we hope our children and grandchildren will experience the tremor of emotion many of us still feel when we read those lines by William Butler Yeats:

I am of Ireland...
The Holy Land of Ireland.

This article was first published by the New York Sun and is reprinted with permission.

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More Comments:

Daniel Joseph McDermott - 5/20/2004

The Irish have always been blessed with great writers and Tom Fleming is one of them. Our contribution to America is seen throughout her history. One fact that I love to repeat is that of all the Medal of Honor recipients born abroad (33 countries are listed) Ireland is the country with the largest number of medal winners — by far — with 258. Germany/Prussia is second with 128 recipients.

ken massey - 5/1/2004

Also, see:

ken massey - 5/1/2004

Here is something on this subject that you might find of interest:;sid=03/03/17/11454534

David M Fitzsimons - 4/12/2004

Fleming mentioned "Irish Need Not Apply" signs. Despite the large number of persons who have said that they saw such signs in the past, I read somewhere that there is no photographic evidence of the existence of such signs for white ethnics in the United States. Can anyone direct me to photographic evidence for such signs or otherwise illuminate this issue for me? Thanks.

Oscar Chamberlain - 3/17/2004

A wonderful post, and a moving introduction to Carroll, about whom I knew nothing.

"We must remember--and forgive."