Ireland's sons were outnumbered and outgunned in their native land by those who would impose the chains of bondage on them. Though Ireland meant much to them, freedom meant more and they fled their homeland for the far corners of the world bringing with them the traditions of a warrior race. Sadly, warfare has been part of Ireland's existence throughout history; and it shaped one side of the Irish character. It was a side from which many other lands would benefit – not the least of which is our own as these freedom-loving people found a theater for their military skills in America's armed forces.
From the very beginning of this great nation, they were there. When exploitation by the Crown drove colonists to protest, among the loudest were the Irish, who had no great love for the Crown to begin with. One of those killed in the Boston Massacre of 1770 was Irish-born Patrick Carr and some of the Indians who dumped tea in Boston harbor at Griffith’s Wharf in 1773 had a notably Irish accent. In 1775 when the British learned of arms stockpiled at Concord, they knew who to blame; General Pitcairn, who was sent to capture them, said, "We shall drive the Yankees and the Irish to cover". The events at Lexington and Concord that historic April 19 are well documented, and when the smoke cleared at Old North Bridge, among the patriot dead were 22 Irish who had given their lives in America's initial bid for freedom. When the Continental Congress called for 10 companies of volunteers, Washington was happy to learn that 6 of the 10 companies would be Thompson's Pennsylvania Rifle Battalion. Those 6 companies grew to 9, of which 7 were predominantly Irish led by Col William Thompson of Co Meath and Lt Col Edward Hand of Co Offaly. So heavily Irish were they that General Light Horse Harry Lee called them "The Line of Ireland."
The Irish made up a large part of Washington's army. Charles Beard, in THE RISE OF AMERICAN CIVILIZATION, wrote "Native Irish, who came by the thousands bearing the age-long scar of conflict with England, flocked to the American army when the standard of revolt was raised." They provided not only foot soldiers, but officers like Colonels Knox, Fitzgerald, and Glover; and Generals Wayne, Irving, Shee, Moylan, Sullivan, Lewis, Butler, and Montgomery. In all, almost 1500 of Washington's officers were of Irish descent, including 26 of his 73 recorded Generals. Capt John Barry of Wexford, who was the first to carry the American flag into battle, became the First Flag Officer of the U.S. Navy and Col Thompson of Co Meath, became the first commissioned officer in the new U.S. Army when he was made General and his battalion was designated the First Continental Regiment.
From the War of 1812 Battle of New Orleans under General Andrew Jackson, son of Co Antrim emigrants; to the American Civil War, America could always rely on her adopted Irish sons to protect the freedom they could not find in Ireland Ella Lonn, in her book FOREIGNERS IN THE UNION ARMY AND NAVY lists the Irish as the most numerous of the foreign-born volunteers in the American Civil War. Many thousands were in the Army of the Potomac, including famous commanders like Sheridan, McClellan, and Meade. Among exclusively Irish units were the famed Irish Brigade and the Corcoran Legion. There were also Irish Regiments, batteries, and companies that declared their identity with such names as the Emmet Guards, Sarsfield Guards, and the Irish Dragoons.
Whenever America was threatened, Irishmen were there. There’s no need to recall the courage of the Fighting 69th during WWI, nor the exploits of America's most decorated hero of WWII: Audie Murphy. They are part of American legend. No, the Irish did not do it alone. There were courageous men and women of every nationality in America's military. But from her earliest conflicts, the writings of the news media and contemporary authors show a disproportionately high number of Irish. Even in the annals of the Medal of Honor, our highest military decoration, it is noted that since first presented in 1863, more than 254 have been received by native-born Irishmen, more than twice that given to any other foreign-born group and the first one ever presented went to Irish-born Bernard Irwin!
At the Medal of Honor Park in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, each State maintains a grove encircling an obelisk engraved with the names of its residents who received America’s highest award. Back in the early 1980s, the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) learned that 66 Irish and 82 others were not listed by any state due to lost records or the fact that they were unclaimed immigrants who signed into the military ‘off the boat’. The AOH resolved that these heroes would not be forgotten and embarked on a nationwide fund-raiser. On August 25 1985, the AOH Tara Pipe Band led a parade of Hibernian and American dignitaries into a new grove built at the Park entrance. The U.S. Marine Color Guard posted the Irish and American colors and the U.S. Navy Band played the anthems of both nations as an obelisk of Wicklow Granite, engraved in Ireland with the names of 148 men from 14 nations, was unveiled before a tearfully proud assembly in what is still known as The Irish Grove. On Memorial Day, we salute all our Medal recipients and surviving military as we say a prayer for all who had fallen in America's defense. When you breathe that prayer, say a special one for those who were not born in this land, yet still fought to defend her.