The Irish Brigade Monument Unveiling
Soldiers of the Irish Brigade
|Come, let the solemn, soothing Mass be said,
For the soldier-souls of the patriot dead . . .
But if high the praise, be as deep the wail
Proud beats the heart, while it sorrowing melts
For the scattered graves, over which we pray
-- From John Savage's Requiem for the
|Sharpsburg, Md. -- Hard by the "Bloody Road" that drew 540 men of the Irish Brigade to their deaths or grievous wounds 135 years ago, a faint noise was suddenly heard in the distance.|
As it grew louder, people from among the nearly 1,000 gathered to unveil a monument to the Brigade turned and looked to the sky. As more eyes were drawn upward, a murmur went
|through the crowd, and some pointed up. "Geese," someone said softly, "wild geese." Like soldiers dressing their ranks before reaching a reviewing stand, their ragged ranks formed a V as they came closer; forty or more geese flew by, honking loudly.|
Above left, the monument's bas-relief depicting the 69th New York's color guard braving shot and shell. (Click for a more detailed view. 64.2KB.) Photo by Gary Brand
Was it just another flock of geese headed south on this Saturday? Or was it a sign from on high, from the men of the Brigade, who were finally being honored on October 25 with perhaps the last monument ever to be erected at Antietam National Battlefield, a place where more Americans became casualties in a single day than any time before or since.
One could almost hear in those low, moaning honks: Thank you, Jack O'Brien and Matthew Hannon, for conceiving and realizing this monument to our suffering and sacrifice. Thank you to the Irish Brigade Monument Committee, Irish Cultural Foundation, and the countless others who helped. Thank you, Ron Tunison, for using your artistry to create this tribute to us. And thank you to those who have taken the time from their busy lives to honor us.
Slowly the geese passed by and then off into the distance, continuing their journey -- to the outer banks of North Carolina or some other southern location, one might guess. But the sheer poetry of their presence invited speculation that perhaps they would be rising through the clouds to another home.
The luck of the Irish held forth for the weather as well, and a threat of rain never materialized. Though it was cloudy all day, with a few periods of mist, the rain ended early Saturday morning and the next rain storm held off until Sunday morning. It was a soft day, as the Irish would say, perfect for commemorating the somber events of the battle. The Wildcat Brass Band entertained the crowd before the start of the ceremony and added their excellent music at other points during the day.
Above right, a reproduction of the 69th New York's regimental flag stood in as a curtain for the monument's unveiling. Photo by Gary Brand
THE CEREMONY began with a Mass celebrated by Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien, who oversees the Roman Catholic chaplaincy to the U.S. military. The Archbishop began by reading a letter found only two days before by a priest doing doctoral history research at the National Archives. Seeing the letter, written home to the parents of Thomas Connors by Lt. Bernard S. O'Neill, of Co. D in 1862, the priest suddenly remembered that some sort of ceremony honoring the Irish at Antietam was about to occur. Much like the wild geese flyby that opened the ceremony, the event made one ponder the forces that may be at work below the surface of what seem to be coincidences.
After the Mass, Rear Admiral Gerard Flannery, USN (Ret.), the master of ceremonies, read a proclamation from the State of New York, honoring the men of the Irish Brigade. Matthew J. Hannon, chairman of the Irish Cultural Society Foundation spoke of the day eleven years earlier, when he and his friend Jack O'Brien stood in the "Bloody Lane," disappointed at the lack of recognition for the great sacrifice of the Irish Brigade there. They pledged that day to rectify that great wrong. Through the many problems, including the struggle to raise $150,000 for the monument and the National Park Service's resistance to a new monument on the field, Hannon said, "We persevered because we had too, we endured because we wanted to, and we persisted because it was the right thing to do, to honor those brave soldiers of the Irish Brigade." How proud he and O'Brien must have been, not only to see their dream finally a reality, but to see the large crowd and realize how many people cared, as they did.
Above left, Rear Admiral Gerard Flannery, USN (Ret.) addresses the 1,000 people who turned out for the unveiling alongside "Bloody Lane." Photo by Gary Brand
MANY OF THE later speakers mentioned the hardships faced by men of the Brigade, many of whom had probably come to America on "coffin ships" during the Great Hunger. And how their great sacrifices during the war had done so much to gain the Irish acceptance into the fabric of American society.
The Irish Ambassador to the United States, Sean O'Huiginn, noted that though many came to America with little or no money, "They showed by their record that they brought with them a true endowment of riches. They added a glorious new chapter to the history of the Irish soldier." Many in the crowd were impressed by the fact that the Ambassador's address was delivered without notes. He also paid tribute to those responsible for the creation of the monument, comparing their determination to that of the men they commemorated.
The Irish Brigade reportedly chanted "Fág an bealach" (clear the way) during their charge at Antietam. The keynote speaker, Maj. Gen. William Ward, USA (Ret), noted that "Today we clear the way in a long overdue expression of gratitude and admiration for the Irish Brigade."
Below, the monument's sculptor, Ron Tunison, left, celebrates with Jack O'Brien, who toiled for 11 years to finally achieve his dream, a monument to honor the Brigade's sacrifice on the Antietam battlefield.
In concluding the dedication, Admiral Flannery read the poem "In Ainm An Dia" (In the Name of God) by Kay Conley Johnson. He then called for the unveiling of the monument. As the crowd looked on, members of the Irish Cultural Society Foundation, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and the 69th Regiment Veterans Corps pulled the ropes holding the Irish Brigade flag that veiled the front of the monument. No one could fail to be impressed with the outstanding work done by Ron Tunison in his depiction of the 69th New York color guard under fire and his bas-relief of Brigade commander Thomas Francis Meagher on the reverse side.
As pipes wailed in the background, groups came forward to lay commemorative wreaths around the monument -- the Hibernians, the Veterans Corps, the Irish Brigade Association, and others laid wreaths, with the Irish Cultural Society having the honor of presenting the final wreath. The ceremonies came to an end as the plaintive notes of taps rolled across the same fields where the Irish and so many others had fallen 135 years ago.
Below, some of the re-enactors of Company A, 69th New York Volunteer Infantry at the new monument. Jack Conway is holding the national flag, while Bill Cunningham bears the regimental flag. Photo by Gary Brand
Perhaps, Lt. Col. (Ret.) Ken Powers, historian of the 69th Regiment Veterans Corps and member of the monument committee, had best summed up the day for those who had worked so hard to make the Irish Brigade Monument at "Bloody Lane" a reality. After relating the many roadblocks and hazards the group had overcome, he brought smiles and cheers from the crowd as he exclaimed, "Jack, Matt, in spite of the long fight, we did win after all . . . BY GOD!" Indeed they did, and so for all of Irish America, and for the men they honored so well, we say to Jack O'Brien, Matthew Hannon and the Irish Cultural Society Foundation and all the others who worked so hard to realize their dream, "Go riabh maith agat."
[After the crowd melted away, and the sun began to go down, I wondered, did those wild geese fly back for one last look? -- JEG]
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