The Irish Americans who built America

In Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day is a Catholic holy day of obligation.  Patrick, the boy slave who became a saint and bishop, wasn’t even Irish, yet St. Patrick’s Day is all about Ireland and its culture. Why is it so huge in the United States?

It’s true the Irish and also Irish Americans have made contributions to the United States almost since our country’s inception, but did you know when Christopher Columbus made his claim to the New World, the first one of his crew to step on North American soil was an Irishman by the name of Patrick Maguire?

Henry Ford was Irish American,  the son of an Irish emigrant father. Henry Ford’s father, William, immigrated to the United States in 1847, an era in history referred to as ‘the great famine years.’ One of Ford’s most successful cars, the Ford Fairlane, was named for his Irish heritage. On the last night in Ireland his then twenty one year old father and family spent the night in a cottage in Fair Lane, off Fair Hill in County Cork. William’s mother, Thomasina is listed as being born in one of those cottages.  Unfortunately like many of the Irish seeking a better life in America, she did not survive her journey and died in the crossing from Ireland to the United States.  Her grandson Henry is credited with revolutionizing industry by creating the first mass produced automobile.

As America grew, she needed strong men to build bridges, canals and railroads. Many Irishmen threw themselves into this back-breaking work. Some paid with their lives in one of the most dangerous of occupations of the time, railroad worker.  A common expression of the day was “an Irishman is buried under every tie.”

Irish soldiers fought alongside Americans in the Revolutionary War, both sides of the Civil War, and every war after that.

In 1780 George Washington commanded Irish soldiers in the War of Independence. In gratitude for their service he granted them a holiday on March 17th.  This became known as The St. Patrick’s Day Encampment of 1780.

When the Declaration of Independence was signed eight men were of Irish descent. Matthew Thornton, George Taylor and James Smith were born in Ireland and George Read, Thomas McKean, Thomas Lynch Jr. Edward Rutledge and Charles Carroll were sons or grandsons of Irish immigrants. The Irish American secretary Charles Thompson also signed.

Irish Americans also signed the Constitution of the United States.

The Irish Brigade, so called the “Fighting 69th” fought in the Civil War in some of the bloodiest battles ever fought. They never gave up their tattered flag, leading Abraham Lincoln to visit General Thomas Francis Meagher, known as “Meager of the Sword” and kiss the Second Colors in appreciation.

Both Meager and Patrick Kennedy, (great grandfather of United States President, John F. Kennedy) were from County Waterford, Ireland.  John F. Kennedy also served in the military before becoming president.

And speaking of presidents, ten of our U. S presidents had Irish roots. They are Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, James Buchanan, Ulysses S. Grant, William McKinley, Woodrow Wilson, John F Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton.

While it’s true St. Patrick’s Day may be a beer drinking, parade walking, shamrock float and balloon festival we cannot forget the Irish Americans who helped build America and in the Gaelic words of the Irish Fusiliers of 1798 and many Irish Brigades after them, “Faugh A Ballagh.” In English it means, “Clear the Way,” for that is what they did for all of us.

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