“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
– William Faulkner, from Requiem for a Nun (1950)
Irish America’s impact on the history of America is well established, as the articles in this issue will attest. From titans of industry such as the silver king John Mackay, to the boxer John Morrissey, who was behind the fabled racecourse at Saratoga Springs, and on to today’s “Wall Street 50” honorees, who are at the top of their game in the financial industry.
Suffice to say, America wouldn’t be America without the Irish. From Notre Dame football to the White House; from Hollywood to Wall Street, the Irish American experience is all-encompassing. But there are stories that still need to be told of ordinary men and women on whose brave shoulders we stand. And often times serendipity plays a part in bringing these stories to light.
As the anniversary of the American Civil War is upon us, we turn our attention once more to the feats of young men, brave in battle, who carved out a place for the Irish in America.
While the broader story of the Irish Brigade, and the Fighting 69th, is well-known, many of the individual stories have gotten lost in time.
And so it was that this particular period in American history was on my mind when I stopped into Paddy Reilly’s bar to catch a session on a recent Thursday evening. There I had an encounter that convinced me that the stories of our ancestors reveal themselves at just the right moment.
Though the musicians were first-class, my mind kept wandering back to a piece I was editing on the Fighting 69th, whose famous battle cry was “Faugh a Ballagh” (Clear the Way). A Google search had turned up 55 Irish-born Civil War soldiers who were recipients of the Medal of Honor, but there was scant information, just name and rank, and no mention of their birthplace in Ireland.
Had Col. James Tierney introduced himself on any other evening at Paddy Reilly’s, I might not have been paying attention. But the colonel, as it turned out, was a member of the 69th and had for many years been the regiment’s historian. The fact that his father was from Nenagh, Co. Tipperary, my home town, seemed an uncanny coincidence, but when he went on to tell me that Private Timothy Donoghue, 69th Infantry, the first Irish-born Civil War soldier to receive the Medal of Honor, was also from Nenagh, I was speechless.
I was still processing this serendipitous encounter, when the colonel introduced his son Dennis, also with the 69th, who was just back from Afghanistan.
Meeting Dennis and his father, brought the story of the 69th regiment full circle – past to present – and served as a reminder that our place in this nation’s history was hard won, and is still being earned.
It is through stories that we come to know the ingredients that make us who we are. It’s important too, that these stories get passed down to the children, so that they know they have in their DNA the ability to be brave should troubles come their way.
Those Civil War soldiers “cleared the way” not just on the battlefield; they laid foundations on which later generations would build. Yet, they could not have imagined the heights to which our Wall Street 50 honorees would scale. These men and women, who we honor as much for their community activism as for their financial acumen, are an inspiration. None more so than Sheila Langan’s cover story subject Citi bank’s Jim O’Donnell.
When it comes to Wall Street, Jim says: “The world needs people to write checks and make donations, people to get involved, and that’s part of why I respect my colleagues on Wall Street so much – for all the good work that they do.”
We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.
And so the story of the Irish in America continues with a new generation picking up the banner and “clearing the way” as they shape the culture, history and destinies of the two countries that share our allegiance.
I salute you all.