The Coming Of The Green


Since the Irish units on either side never fought as a division, but only as regiments making up a brigade, and the brigade forming part of a corps, it is impossible to point to any particular field won by the Irish—or lost by them, for that matter. Yet they played a critical part in critical battles and frequently supplied the punch and spirit needed to save a wavering line.

Toward the end of the war an Irish color-bearer, Mike Scannel of the 19th Massachusetts (not an Irish regiment), got ahead of his line and was captured on the Jerusalem Plank Road before Petersburg.

“Hand over those colors, Yankee,” a Confederate ordered, pointing a pistol at Mike and reaching for the flag.

“Yankee is it, now,” said Mike in slow wonder. “Faith I’ve been twenty years in this country and nobody ever paid me the compliment before.” And he handed over the flag.

That was it. The Irish had gone into the Civil War the helots of the nation—alien, Catholic, clannish, unlettered, and poor. And now they were Americans: Yankees. A hundred and forty thousand of them had picked up arms and fought for their new country and their country had now adopted them. They had fought to preserve the Union and they now had become part of that Union.

The “Coming of the Green” is over now. The Irish immigrant hordes no longer arrive in Boston and New York with a handful of earth wrapped in a cloth and nothing but hope to sustain them. The old ordeal is finished, and for Irish-Americans of this generation the long lonely road from the sod house to the sea is only a legend remembered from the tales of the old.

When the immigrant Irish swarmed in their hundreds of thousands into the slums and jungles of the coastal cities of America, utterly despised by immigrants of an older day, a writer in the Boston Pilot said, “Out of these narrow lanes, blind courts, dirty streets, damp cellars, and suffocating garrets, will come forth some of the noblest sons of our country, whom she will delight to own and honor.”

That prophecy has proven true. Few immigrant groups have left the mark upon America that the Irish made, and it is a mark in which Americans today take pride.

The great migration is over now, and the Irish-Americans are no longer a distinct class in the American population. They have become completely American and, with the freedom of Ireland finally achieved, the strong links that bound them to the mother country no longer exist. What remains are links of sentiment and nostalgia that bring about the great gatherings of the Irish on Saint Patrick’s Day.

But the significance of the Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations lies in the fact that the Wearing of the Green on the feast day of Ireland’s saint is no longer restricted to the Irish. Americans of every racial background will buy a bit of green ribbon, or a harp, or a shamrock in honor of Ireland’s great day. There is something profoundly touching in this. The big parade in New York with the traffic lines painted green for several miles on Fifth Avenue, the police wearing their green emblems, and the dignitaries of city, state, and nation reviewing the parade from the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral are in no small sense an acknowledgment of the gallant struggles of the Irish people for recognition and acceptance in America.

It was a grand battle indeed—the “Coming of the Green.”