There are so many aspects of Heritage to celebrate in Ireland during this Heritage Week August 17th to 25th. So, where to begin? We are surrounded by heritage in the form of ancient buildings, historic sites, splendid gardens, magnificent scenery, an extraordinary literary and musical tradition, fascinating museums and monuments that commemorate major events in our history. All of these can be experienced, commemorated, celebrated here in hundreds of locations throughout the country.
There is another part of our legacy, less obvious, less visible, and most certainly less well-known than it deserves to be, and which may well be overlooked during this week of celebration of the richness and diversity of our culture and inheritance. It is because the greatest memory and the main monuments are not in our country at all,but thousands of miles offshore, and far removed from our consciousness. Emigration has been a fact of Irish life in one form or another through the ages. Of the millions who have left these shores – many in tragic circumstances, many not – most have gone on to live relatively ordinary lives in their new countries. There is a substantial number however, who went on to lead extraordinary lives by being significant participants in both sides of the conflict that shaped the ‘greatest nation on earth’ – America. During the American Civil War 170,000 of our Irish-born emigrants played a major role in this conflict – they suffered and they died in their tens of thousands. Their sacrifice goes largely unrecognised in the country of their birth, and they certainly do not spring to mind in Heritage Week.
This week when thinking about Heritage Week and how to mark it, I read an amazing story of an ordinary young boy who left family and Ireland for America at 16 years of age. Ed O’Riordan, a Tipperary Historian and Damian Shiels, author of Irish in the American Civil War have collaborated to bring the story of a young emigrant William Hickey, to a wider audience, through a series of very moving letters that William wrote to his parents in Tipperary. Imagine the feelings of the parents on seeing an envelope from America! William Hickey’s short life in a foreign land is very much a part of our legacy and this is an appropriate week to acknowledge his life and the sacrifice of so many men, women and children who were born here and who changed the shape of the world often at a shocking cost to themselves and their families. They surely are our ‘hidden heritage’.
A number of enthusiasts have set up a group to further the cause of having a permanent memorial to these Irish emigrant. They hope too to develop a tourist trail in Ireland of interest especially to overseas visitors, most especially those from USA who know more about these Irishmen that we do at home. To quote from their site, as President John F Kennedy said ’A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces but also by the men it honours, the men it remembers’. In this Heritage Week, we remember them.
The full text of the very moving story of William Hickey, who at age 16 emigrated to America from his Tipperary home, can be seen here. The post includes a number of letters from William to his parents. A few short years after he emigrated he lay dead in a field at Shiloh in Tennessee.
More information on the Irish American Civil War Trail can be seen here.
With thanks to The Irish in the American Civil War blog which can be accessed here.