On Wednesday, April 20, 2016, Gettysburg College students and faculty gathered in Penn Hall Lyceum to acknowledge the centennial of the Easter Rising. On April 24, 1916, the day after Easter Sunday, an armed rebellion led by Irish Republicans seized the General Post Office and other major buildings in the center of Dublin, and declared a “Republic of Ireland.” Approximately 1,600 members of the Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army participated in the six-day rebellion. The Rising was an act to overthrow the British government in Ireland and provoke a full-out revolution. After a week, however, British forces squashed the rebellion and arrested 3,000 people. The following month, fifteen leaders of the Rising were executed. While the Rising did not initially gain support from the Irish public, the ensuing brutality administered by the British in the aftermath of the rebellion spawned public dissent and fueled political unrest and further violence.
Three Gettysburg College faculty members, Benjamin Luley, Ian Isherwood, and Robert Bohrer, presented at the Wednesday night panel. Vice Provost Jack Ryan gave opening remarks and introduced the panel.
Two decades before the Irish Brigade covered itself with glory, an earlier unit of Irish immigrants had won renown for its service during the Mexican American War. Calling themselves the Saint Patrick’s Battalion, these men marched under a flag of brilliant emerald decorated with Irish motifs: a harp, a shamrock, and the image of Saint Patrick.
Unlike the Irish Brigade, however, the Saint Patrick’s Battalion fought against the U.S. Army. Led by the disgruntled Irish immigrant John Riley, this elite battalion was comprised of roughly two hundred Irish-American deserters who pledged their loyalty to General Santa Anna and the Mexican government. When Los San Patricios were defeated and captured by U.S. forces, fifty-seven deserters were sentenced to hang for their crime.
In American memory, Riley is a traitor, a deserter, and a mercenary. But this summer while exploring County Galway, Ireland, I stumbled upon a monument to his memory given to his hometown by Mexico in recognition of his service. The experience delivered to me some perspective. To pass judgment on Riley and his men, we must understand their times.
The Dropkick Murphys is a popular American Celtic Punk band known for their combinations of punk rock and bagpipes. Their songs are filled with Irish pride and often have something to do with hard partying and whiskey. However, in their 1999 album The Gang’s All Here, the Murphys took on the topic of Irish soldiers in the American Civil War. The song “The Fighting 69th” was first sung by the Irish band The Wolfe Tones on their 1993 album Across the Broad Atlantic. The album features several songs dedicated to Irish immigrants to America and holds a certain fascination for the Irish American. The Wolfe Tones version of the song is a more traditional-sounding Celtic song detailing the journey of Irish immigrants as “they sailed away/and they made a sight so glorious/as they marched along Broadway…and from there they went to Washington/and straight into the war.” When the Murphys released their version of the song in 1999, they added their signature punk anthem sound to make their version a hard rocking ballad dedicated to the men of the Irish Brigade.
BBC America’s programming covers a wide range of genres, presenting characters, and settings that appeal to viewers around the world. In 2012, BBC began airing Copper, a period drama set in the ethnically diverse, crime and disease-ridden Five Points neighborhood in New York City in the late-Civil War years. The title, taken from the slang term for a police officer, centers on police detective work in the rapidly growing urban center. The characterizations, as well as the situations presented are not far off from historical fact. For various reasons, many of the characters have returned to the Five Points, and their experiences in war have ended, though the war itself rages on. As a result, their attitudes take on an historical tone of post-Civil War society, though the show takes place in the late-war years of 1863 and 1864. This is not an anachronistic flaw in the show, but rather depicts the characters’ own struggles to carry on in American society through the late-war years now that they have returned from war, and that their combat experiences have come to an end. Therefore, the following questions arise: what post-Civil War themes does “Copper” depict for television audiences, and how does the show contribute to the surge of both print and mass media in relation to the American Civil War? In this segment, we will consider the themes found in the show in terms of the post-war sentiments expressed by characters.