While the American Civil War was raging, a small Catholic college in Indiana cheered on their team known as the Catholics. It was not until 1927 that the University of Notre Dame became the Fighting Irish, and it had a lot to do with the Irishmen (some of whom left Notre Dame to enlist) who participated in the Civil War.
The phrase itself comes from a reference to the all-Irish New York militia company formed at the beginning of the Civil War. A poem by famous Irish-American Joyce Kilmer entitled When the 69th Comes Back includes the first description of a military regiment, and a people, that embodied a particular notion of the Irish-Americans and their intent will to fight for justice. Ironically, Kilmer was killed years later in battle during World War I while serving with the Fighting 69th.
The Fighting 69th was celebrated in a 1940 movie starring James Cagney and still exists today as part of the New York Army National Guard.
Since the American Revolutionary War, scores of Irish-Americans have fought valiantly on behalf of the United States. In fact, the number of Irish-Americans on the list of Medal of Honor recipients is well over 200 – almost 8% of the total.
Many of these soldiers, airmen and Marines have enlisted over the years out of a desire to serve their adopted country. Others sought employment during times of intense anti-Irish sentiment when jobs were very difficult to obtain but the military offered open arms and a paycheck. Still others were spurred on by the notion that fighting on the side of justice is the best way to honor their heritage as Irishmen.
One of the most poignant examples of the interweaving of both Irish and American pride is the story told about Thomas Francis Meagher, the commander of the 69th’s Company K in the Civil War. During the Battle of Bull Run, the New York Militia’s battle flag had been captured by Confederate soldiers. The flag was recovered and entrusted to Company K. In order to inspire his soldiers in the face of a near-defeat, Major Meagher pointed his sword at the flag and cried out, “Boys, look at that flag – think of Ireland and Fontenoy.”
Memorial Day provides Irish-Americans the perfect opportunity to remember and honor their home country, the country of their heritage, and the brave military who have protected both.