The Irish Brigade

Today is our last day in Irish History and we are actually looking at Irish-American History! Remember on Thursday our discussion about the Famine in the 1840’s and how it sparked a new wave of immigration to America? Sadly, many Americans weren’t welcoming to the Irish people, and some were downright hostile. The Irish-American community faced an uphill battle for recognition as responsible American citizens.

Wait? Did I say “uphill battle”? Yes. And I meant it. Literally.

"Raise the Colors and Follow Me" by Mort Kunstler (No Copyright Infringement Intended)

“Raise the Colors and Follow Me” by Mort Kunstler (No Copyright Infringement Intended)

This Divisive War

The American Civil War was fought between 1861 and 1865; the northern states (Union) wanted to preserve the unity of the country while the southern states (Confederacy) had seceded because they felt their state’s rights were being violated.

Irishmen fought on both sides during the war and sometimes ended up facing each other on battlefields. Again, this is another topic we could spend a month talking about, but for the sake of keeping this post under 1,000 words, we’re going to focus on THE Irish Brigade in the Union Army of the Potomac.

The Brigade

The war started and many people thought it would only last 90 days. One of the “90 day regiments” was the 69th New York. This regiment was made of Irish American volunteers. At the Battle of Bull Run (those of us who are Rebels usually call it First Manassas – ask why in a comment if you don’t know) the 69th was one of the few Union regiments to leave the battlefield in “good order” while everyone else was fleeing for their lives. That steadfast courage was the beginning of the legend.

The 90 days were up. But Colonel Meagher convinced many of the men to re-enlist and also began recruiting a brigade (approximately 2,500 men). And so the famed Irish Brigade was formed. Ladies of New York presented the regiment with beautiful green flags, decorated with gold Irish Harps. And they marched off to battle.

Some of the Irishmen had lived in the United States for awhile. Others had only recently arrived in America. What motivated them to fight? It varied. Some wanted training so they could go back and raise armies in Ireland (that didn’t go so well), others wanted to represent Ireland on foreign battlefields, and, I think, many of them wanted to prove to the rest of the nation that they were patriotic citizens. It was a battle for identity and respect.

Irishmen in the Fight

The Irish Brigade took part in the Peninsular Campaign, the Seven Days’ Battles, the Battles of Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Petersburg, and Appomattox Court House.

The brigade was known for unfailing courage and on several occasions were sent forward to make impossible charges against strong enemy positions. The unit suffered about 85% casualties during the war. (It is believed only two other Union brigades suffered higher casualty rates during the war.)

It was once said, “When anything absurd, forlorn, or desperate was to be attempted, the Irish Brigade was called upon.” This attitude likely began out of the prejudice feelings, but I think it soon morphed into respect and a knowledge that, if it was possible, the Irish Brigade would do it.

A Reputation Preceding Them

At the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg) in September 1862, the Irish Brigade was ordered to charge the position Sunken Road (now called Bloody Lane). Although their assault was unsuccessful, they got within 30 paces of the lane before retreating in formation. Both sides were impressed with the courage of the Irish Brigade and noted their distinctive green flags.

About 3 months later at the Battle of Fredericksburg, the brigade was forming to charge across open ground to attack Marye’s Heights. Looking through field glasses, a Confederate general spotted the green flags and supposedly said “There are those —- green flags again.” The Irish soldiers made the charge and again had the disastrous distinction of getting closest to the Confederate position.

28th Massachusett's Flag - the regiment was part of the Irish Brigade so this is one of those green flags.

28th Massachusett’s Flag – the regiment was part of the Irish Brigade so this is one of those green flags.

The green flags of the Irish Brigade were known in both armies. The unit was one of the most reliable and Union generals knew it. Confederates knew if they saw the flags to prepare for a tenacious assault.

“Spirit” of the Brigade

Throughout the Union Army of the Potomac, the fighting powers of the Irish Brigade were known and acknowledged. But in a more peaceful, camp setting, the brigade had another reputation. And on St. Paddy’s Day, the Irish Brigade camp was THE place to be.

In 1863 they hosted a big party, inviting officers and their ladies; even the commanding general of the army (General J. Hooker) came. Mass was celebrated under the guidance of Father Corby and then the entertainments and hospitality began. Horses races, a fancy lunch (by military standards), footraces, weight throwing, hurdle jumping, and other contests. In the evening there were theatrical presentations, recitations, and music. And, of course, being Irish, there was “spiced whiskey-punch.” Indeed, everybody wanted to be at the Irish Brigade camp on St. Patrick’s Day!

Legacy of the Brigade

The soldiers of the Irish Brigade won the respect of their non-Irish comrades. There was a new-found respect for these “foreigners” who were willing to die for a country that was not their native homeland. By sheer courage and patriotism, the men of the Irish Brigade wrote a new reputation for themselves and their fellow immigrants to America. They cared enough to die for a country they had just arrived in.

I believe that the actions of these Irish soldiers opened the hearts of Americans toward these new immigrants. Sure, prejudices continued (that’s human nature unfortunately), but most of the harsh political movements against the Irish faded. Many who had supported those movements must have changed their minds when they saw “those green flags.”

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. For sake of time, I could not mention many of the other Civil War Irish regiments or companies. Please leave a comment if you have a favorite unit or particularly noteworthy story!

Famine: A Turning Point in Irish History

We tend to shy away from harsh topics like famine, death, and the aftermath of war. It is human nature to look away in horror. As a historian, I used to look the other way too. I’d read about “great” battles and quickly close the books when graphic accounts of the casualties appeared. Is this right? No. If you’re going to study the events of the past, you must understand the harsh situations and outcomes.

Today, we have a solemn topic: The Great Famine in Ireland beginning in 1845. It is dark, but it paved the way for a brighter future. I am not going to share graphic accounts, but I believe it is important to have a basic understanding of this turning point in Irish History. Indeed, some historians consider the famine years to be the dividing line of this country’s past; they call the eras “pre-famine” and “post-famine” years.

This woodcut appeared in British newspapers in 1847, detailing the poverty and disaster caused by the Potato Blight (Public Domain)

This woodcut appeared in British newspapers in 1847, detailing the poverty and disaster caused by the Potato Blight (Public Domain)

The Setting

England conquered Ireland. (Sorry, that’s the blunt truth and we could spend a month unraveling all the details.) England was Protestant, Ireland was Catholic. English nobles were given large tracts of Irish land and the native Irish people were forced to become tenant farmers on very small portions of land. The years passed. The land owned by Irish families was divided and divided and divided, giving small inheritances to the sons. With small acreages, there wasn’t enough land to grow wheat crops to feed a family. The Irish discovered that potatoes grew well and they could grow enough to feed their family in their small fields.

Potatoes became the staple crop of the Irish. It was also a source of food for their livestock. By the early 1800’s, the Irish population was dependent on the potato for their food.

The Blight

Then disaster struck in the form of a nasty fungus. The Potato Blight came to Ireland. How? That’s still a matter of debate. It seems probable that it may have arrived via potatoes in the holds of ships coming from America. (It should be noted that Ireland had had ruined potato crops before, but the 1840’s the was the worst and produced The Famine.)

The agriculture disease turned healthy potatoes into mushy, yucky, rotting, stinking piles of disgusting food. Not even the animals wanted to eat it.

To make matters even worse, there weren’t many potatoes left to seed. (You can plant potatoes and they will grow into the next year’s crop.)

In 1845 when the Potato Blight struck officially beginning the famine years, 1/3 of the potato crops was destroyed. The following year 3/4 of the harvest of affected. In 1847, the seed potatoes were lacking and in 1848 the crop, although healthy, was only 2/3 of pre-blight harvest.

The Effects

Starvation. Mass starvation. With their main food source destroyed, the Irish people faced a serious disaster. Millions of poor became completely destitute. The first recorded deaths of starvation occurred in 1846 and the death toll rose as the years passed. Weakened people quickly succumbed to disease.

There is debate on the actually death toll of the Famine Years. The census writers in 1851 recorded 21,770 deaths from starvation in the previous decade (1841-1851) and an additional 400,720 deaths from disease. Historians have debated these numbers, but the harsh fact remains: people died of starvation.

Many Irish families found themselves evicted from their land. Some wandered the countryside and city streets begging and looking for work. Others simply made the heartbreaking decision to leave.

The Relief

While there are “conspiracy theories” regarding the English government’s response to the Irish Famine, I do not accept these ideas. Victorian England was caught up in a whirl of industry and fashion – certainly the reports from Ireland were shocking, but it was remote and, sadly, un-concerning to many people.

It should be acknowledged that from all parts of the British Empire donations were sent and even Queen Victoria gave a personal donation for famine relief. Other nations also reached out. America sent food and thousands of dollars.

Efforts were made, but they were not as concerted as they might have been and the extent of the famine was almost beyond the comprehension of those who had not seen it.

One great fault is that food exportation from Ireland was not halted. Even during the worst famine years, the country continued to export grain which should have been used to feed the starving population.

The Turning Point

The famine roused the anger of the Irish people. Right, wrong, or indifferent, they blamed the English government. This dissent slowly grew in the following decades and eventually led to the fight for Irish independence in the following century.

The population growth of Ireland was stunted. Some counties saw an almost 30% decline in population numbers. This changed the social structure of the country.

Immigration from the country…read the next section –

To America

Irish Immigrants

The famine and eviction from their land forced many Irish families to travel across the sea to America. Irish immigration did not begin with the famine, but the numbers of immigrants significantly increased during the hard years. While America was a growing land of opportunity, Americans were not always open to the Irish immigrants.

With a different religion, accent, and traditions, Irish immigrants sometimes faced discrimination. However, they banded together into Irish American communities and slowly, steadily won the respect of their American neighbors.

Irish Americans fought in the American Civil War (more about that on Saturday), helped build the transcontinental railroad, worked in American industry, and filled many, many other important roles in the growing country.


The Great Famine produced extreme hardship and suffering in Ireland. It was a disastrous turning point, but it paved the way toward a new nation. For some families, a new future was the sad decision to leave the Emerald Isle and journey forth to a new land, bring their strong work ethics and traditions to the American society.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. The Irish were dependent on the potato for a food source. Is there anything in modern society that we are far too dependent on and could produce a serious disaster if it was taken away? Share your thoughts.

A Writer and His Cat…In Ireland

Confession…I don’t really like cats. I know, I know – how can I be a writer and not like cats? (It might have something to do with the fact that I’m allergic to them…) But I didn’t start writing this blog post to tell you about my favorite pets or my allergies – sorry, that’s just TMI from this author.

I’m writing to tell you about one of the oldest written poems in Ireland. Guess what? It’s about a cat! (And even though they’re not my favorite animals, I thought the poem was fun.)

Okay, we’ve covered a little history of St. Patrick and learned about the colors Orange and Green, so I think we’re all aware that Catholicism has played a major role in Ireland’s history. Well, around the 9th Century A.D. (that’s the 800’s) a monk in an Irish monastery  wrote this poem about his cat. The cat’s name was Pangur Bán, which means “white Pangur.”

Original Manuscript containing "Pangur Ban"

Original manuscript containing “Pangur Ban” – Public Domain

What I liked about this poem (other than it’s historical value) is how the writer compares himself and his cat as they work at their respective tasks: catching mice and writing.

The poetry was originally written in Gaelic, and this translation is by Robin Flower. (You can find the original Gaelic words here, but if you don’t know the language, good luck reading it!)

Pangur Bán

I and Pangur Bán, my cat

‘Tis a like task we are at;

Hunting mice is his delight

Hunting words I sit all night.

Better far than praise of men

‘Tis to sit with book and pen;

Pangur bears me no ill will,

He too plies his simple skill.

‘Tis a merry thing to see

At our tasks how glad are we,

When at home we sit and find

Entertainment to our mind.

Oftentimes a mouse will stray

In the hero Pangur’s way;

Oftentimes my keen thought set

Takes a meaning in its net.

‘Gainst the wall he set his eye

Full and fierce and sharp and sly;

‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I

All my little wisdom try.

When a mouse darts from its den,

O how glad is Pangur then!

O what gladness do I prove

When I solve the doubts I love!

So in peace our tasks we ply,

Pangur Bán, my cat, and I:

In our arts we find our bliss,

I have mind and he has his.

Practice every day has made

Pangur perfect in his trade;

I get wisdom day and night

Turning darkness into light.

So there you have it…one of the oldest written poems in Ireland is about a writer and his cat! If you’re a writer, can you relate to the author’s thoughts?

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. This post is part of our “Week in Ireland on Gazette665” and it’s also the start of something new. Every Wednesday on my Facebook Page will be “Writer’s Wednesday” and I’ll share a quote, a thought, a fact about another author, or something encouraging to all of us writers out there. Come like the Facebook Page!

“Remember, We Were Orange…”

Stephanie Kae HuffmanWelcome, Stephanie Huffman, our guest blogger! Today, Miss Stephanie is sharing her thoughts about the colors on Ireland’s flag: Orange & Green.

Miss Stephanie blogs at Stephanie’s Blog where she shares her thoughts about happenings in life, insightful musings, and interesting facts about holidays. She’s written a book for single girls and is the CEO of Epiphany Creative Services, specializing in platform building in the world of social media.

I will never forget the first time he told me. We had gone into the Irish Pub that was in the hotel where we staying. As we had Irish heritage, we thought it might be fun to try out some food on the menu that we’d not yet experienced. I don’t recall even one item we ate that day, but I do remember looking out over the balcony at all the Irish flags beautifully mounted on the walls. That’s when he told me.

“We were orange, you know…and we came from County Cork.”

I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. Here we were, with true Irish roots, in an Irish place, eating Irish food, and he was talking about a color that definitely didn’t fit the mood or the environment. However, he would soon divulge the meaning behind the statement.

It’s not uncommon to see people hold dear to the colors of their favorite sports team or school or to proudly wear the colors in their country’s flag. Oddly, my grandfather never had a “color” or a team that he touted, so this intrigued me all the more. It was then that he pointed to the Irish standard nearest us. I’d never even noticed it before. There it was in all it’s glory – the large orange stripe in the Irish flag. But, what was the significance?


When we think of St. Patrick’s Day, we think green. We wear green. We eat green things, we decorate everything with green. Also, at some point in time, we will hear the familiar reference “Irish Catholics.” But have you ever heard someone mention “Irish Protestants”? I know I hadn’t.

That was when Gramps (as I called him) explained that green was the color used by the Irish Catholics and that Orange was the color held by the Protestants. I’d never heard him tell that story in my life. And he was 94 at the time.

One of my dearest friends is Catholic. She loves to tease me that she’ll be in green from head to toe this week. She reminds me that I’d better not flash any orange her way. We both get a nice chuckle, but, deep down, I am so pleased to see how far we’ve come. It amazes me, that had we grown up in a different land and in a different time, our banter would not be so light or enjoyable.

As we sat at the Irish Pub in my neighborhood this evening, celebrating the holiday a bit early, my friend out-of-the-blue said, “I have to find something Orange this week.” I laughed. I’d forgotten that I’d shared the story with her. (And I probably do each March!) She doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, she seems to be re-inventing St. Patrick’s Day in her corner of the world.

So, just as my grandfather used to remind me about that bit of history, without fail, each and every St. Patrick’s Day, I will most likely continue carrying on that same tradition. In his honor, of course. It’s a sweet memory. Interestingly, I always knew he wasn’t trying to make a point or impress me. He was simply proud that he knew something about our heritage and he was pleased to pass that knowledge along to me.

Wishing you and yours a jolly St. Patrick’s Day!



If you enjoyed this article, please also visit Miss Stephanie’s blog and follow her on Twitter @StephanieKH.

Thanks again, Miss Stephanie, for the lovely blog post! ~Miss Sarah

P.S. Miss Stephanie and I would love to hear your comments on her story. And, just for fun, let us know: are you wearing Orange or Green for St. Patrick’s Day?

Ireland’s Harps

Name the musical instrument associated with Ireland. 

I know, I already told you by the title. The instrument of kings has a special place in Ireland and its history.

It’s March 15th and the day Gazette665 goes green for a week-long trip to Ireland. We’ll start the week with some history of Ireland and then come back to the United States and discuss immigration and Irish/American citizens. So…without further ado, grab your passport and let’s start exploring! (Note: I’m not actually in Ireland this week…like you, I’m exploring and writing from the comfort of my home and dreaming about the Emerald Isle.)

Your Historian Plays The Harp

Yes. I’m a harpist. I’ve played a 36 string Celtic harp for almost 9 years. I love it! I’ve had the pleasure of sharing traditional and contemporary music for harp with many people through the years. I don’t particularly “specialize” in lots of traditional Irish music, but I do play a little of it and there are many fun tunes.

Sarah Kay Bierle 36 Strings of Joy

Celtic Harp

Okay, so just what is a Celtic or Irish Harp? Well, let’s make it easy. If the harp you’ve seen in a movie or on TV is over 4-5 feet tall, it’s probably not a Celtic Harp. Celtic Harps are known for their smaller size – some are held on the lap, others (like mine) rest on the floor, but are smaller than the large orchestral instrument. These little harps are known for their warm musical tones, easy (or semi-easy) transportation, and historical background. Sure, because they have fewer strings, these harps don’t always have a huge range of notes and musical keys, but there’s tons and tons of music available.

The Irish King Who Played The Harp

A legendary Irish king, Brian Boru, supposedly played the harp very well. Brian Boru was the first High King of Ireland, which means he ruled the country (kind-of). You see, back at the turn of century (we’re talking 1000ish A.D.) Ireland had lots of little kingdoms and kings and they didn’t all want to be part of King Brian’s nation. So there were wars and the poor king was eventually slain in battle.


According to legend, the Trinity College Harp (named for its current storage location) was originally Brian Boru’s harp. The now-fragile instrument originally had 29 strings. It’s been used as the model for the harp on Ireland’s coat of arms.

Telling Stories With Music

Traditional and modern Celtic music usually tells a story. Way back when…people didn’t have TVs or even books for entertainment. So what did they do on those long, rainy nights? Listen to music and the legends of the past.

Throughout the Dark Ages and Medieval/Renaissance Eras, musicians were the entertainment. In Celtic cultures, the bards (musician story-tellers) were held in great respect. They recounted the history of the country, the deeds of brave warriors, and maybe a love story or two.

The songs of harps and bards helped to preserve the history of this time.

The Blind Harper

Ever heard of O’Carolan? If you like Celtic music or play the harp, I’ll bet you have! Turlough O’Carolan lived from about 1670 to 1783 (A.D. of course) and is often called Ireland’s National Composer. But…he was blind. Poor O’Carolan had the dreaded disease smallpox when he was about 18, and he was blind for the rest of his life.

However, he loved music and eventually traveled the countryside, composing and performing music for wealthy patrons. O’Carolon’s music is very beautiful – sometimes, lively, other times, haunting.

Symbol of Ireland


The Celtic Harp is the national symbol of Ireland and is featured on their coat of arms. The harp symbolizes a unique and rich cultural heritage and history. And, best of all, the harp is still played today – in Ireland…and around the globe.

Your Historian (and musician),

Miss Sarah

P.S. Do you like harp music? If so, do you have a favorite song on harp? Share your thoughts in a comment!



10 Books About Ireland

10 Books About Ireland Booklist

Here it is: the booklist to get ready for “A Week in Ireland on Gazette665.”

I’ve raided our bookshelves and borrowed a few other books from the local library and now present you with “10 Books About Ireland” Booklist.

10 Books About Ireland

It’s a compilation of children/family friendly books including picture books, books about the country of Ireland, Irish history, and historical fiction.

Happy Reading!

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. You can find your St. Patrick’s Day history and craft HERE. And, of course, lots of Irish history on the blog next week.