By Will Falk
As St. Patrick’s Day nears, I often find myself revisiting scenes from Irish history.
I see Pádraig Pearse dressing himself in the early morning hours of Monday, April 24, 1916.
I see him struggling with the buttons on his shirt as his fingers shake with nerves. I hear him anxiously muttering the opening to the speech he would give on the grey steps of the General Post Office in Dublin just a few hours later, “Irishmen and Irishwomen! In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood…”
I assume he probably knew that in a few days a firing squad would add his body, his brother Willie’s body, and the bodies of his compatriots to the heaps of dead generations that formed Ireland’s centuries-old resistance to colonization. His eyes might have paused for a moment on his left breast pocket wondering if they’d even bother to pin a target there for the riflemen in Kilmainham Jail.
I see young Tommy Woods, a 17 year-old boy, who left Dublin to volunteer with a contingent of Irish fighters known as the Connolly Column resisting Franco with Spanish Republicans. I am with Woods as he presses his hands over his wounds trying to hold his pumping blood in. I listen as the last sound he hears are the engines of Franco’s bombers overhead and wonder if that’s what Guernica sounded like.
I feel the sun rise hot and sticky over Chapultepec in September, 1847. I watch as 29 Irishmen, members of the Mexican Army’s St. Patrick’s Brigade, stand on gallows with hands tied behind their backs waiting for the Mexican flag to be taken from the top of Chapultepec Castle, so they can be hanged as deserters at the precise moment the American flag is raised.
I grimace as an army surgeon informs Colonel William Harney that the 30th member of St. Patrick’s Brigade to be hanged, Francis O’Connor, had his legs amputated the day before. I hear Harney scream, “Bring the damned son of a bitch out! My orders were to hang 30 and by God I’ll do it!”
Some of the men roll their heads against the scratchy hemp of the nooses rubbing on their ruddy sunburnt necks. Some of the men hold rosary beads. Some of the men are telling jokes.
All of the men cheer when Mexican cadet Juan Escutia deprives the Yankees of capturing the Mexican flag for themselves when he rips the Mexican flag from it’s pole and leaps to his death on the battlements below.
Milan Kundera said, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
If we forgive the obvious sexism in his words, Kundera’s lesson is a good one for Americans preparing to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. On the day when people across the country dye their beer green, pinch each other, and listen to The Chieftains, we must remember how the dominant culture seduces us to forget.
I am Irish. I am white. I must be clear that the Irish have been successfully assimilated as equal participants in the dominant culture. I do not wish to suggest the Irish have not been part of genocidal processes in their own right, either. The Anti-Draft Riots in New York City in 1863 resulting in the killing of many Africans is a dreadful example. Catholics in Ulster should disagree with me, as they still deal with institutional bigotry, but by now most of the Irish have been given the same access to the table as other whites. And some Irish have used this privilege to horrific results. Look no farther than Ronald Reagan.
Though I am white, I work everyday to resist the domination in modern existence. As Kundera’s quote suggests, it is very important that people who would resist domination search for and then claim the unbroken chains stretching far into the past that bind us to resistance. White Americans, especially, need every story we can get to remind us that many of us are only late additions to privileged settler culture.
St. Patrick’s Day has turned into a feel-good celebration where “everyone is Irish for a day.” I do not mean to get between people and their enjoyment of this celebration. We need celebrations. I would remind people, though, that it wasn’t very long ago that to be Irish was to be a dominated people.
Recall, for example, Cambridge historian Charles Kingsley’s letter to his wife in 1860 when he wrote of the people he encountered in Ireland, “I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible country…to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black one would not see it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours.”
Or, the statement from Queen Victoria’s economist, Nassau Senior, when he stated in 1848 at the height of the Great Famine, that existing policies, “will not kill more than one million Irish in 1848 and that will scarcely be enough to do much good.”
One of the most shameful aspects of Irish history is that we have not joined as successfully as we could have in solidarity with currently dominated peoples. For my part, I call on the Irish to reverse this history and stand in solidarity with dominated peoples. In San Diego, we don’t have to look very far to find those we should offer alliance to.
Right now, the San Diego Maritime Museum is reconstructing a replica of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s flagship the San Salvador. Cabrillo was a celebrated member of Hernan Cortez’s holocaustic conquest of Mexico. It is a symbol of the genocide of dominated peoples in North America as others like the Shawnee and Lenape writer, Steven Newcomb, have pointed out. If denouncing the symbols of genocide of Native Americans doesn’t appeal to your humanity, then maybe knowing that the original forests of Ireland were cut down to build similar ships for the English navy will.
What do you feel when you see the lumber being used for the San Salvador and remember the destruction of old growth forests in Ireland?
Similarly, the so-called criminal justice system in San Diego County is seeking to build 792 new prison beds at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa. And we know that 2/3 of those beds will be filled by people of color in a process being called the New Jim Crow.
What would Father William Corby, the Irish Catholic chaplain to the Union’s Irish Brigade who on July 2, 1863 warned troops that the Catholic Church forbade burial to soldiers who turned in the face of enemy soldiers at Gettysburg, encourage Irish to do about the proposed prison beds?
Finally, the mostly Chican@ residents of Barrio Logan are struggling to breathe because of pollution from maritime industry. Irish have stood in solidarity with Chican@s before. They have stood and were hanged for it.
A few years ago on St. Patrick’s Day, Subcomandante Marcos wrote, “When Mexico was fighting, in the last century, against the empire of the bars and crooked stars, there was a group of soldiers who fought on the side of the Mexicans and this group was called ‘St. Patrick’s Battalion’. And so I am writing you in the name of all of my companeros and companeras, because just as with the ‘Saint Patrick’s Battalion’, we now see clearly that there are foreigners who love Mexico more than some natives who are now in the government.”
And so, on this St. Patrick’s Day, the Irish should remember the old alliances, and act on behalf of dominated peoples.