Irish Americans in World War I

American neutrality prior to the United States entering World War I had a great deal of support. Irish Catholics who now lived in the United States did not have a particular fondness for the United States aligning itself with Great Britain. Irish Americans strongly supported neutrality in the war. Many of the Irish Catholics who had emigrated to the United States did so to escape what they saw as the oppressive British rule in Ireland. The Irish had fought for decades to force the British out of Ireland because of the British Anti-Catholic and anti-Irish policies. The Irish who now lived in the United States now faced backlash in the United States for being unpatriotic in their pro-neutrality beliefs. Despite the resistance to the war and the backlash against Irish Americans; Irish American men joined the United States military and fought with valor.

            Irish immigrants had a troubled history in the United States. In the 1840’s the Irish emigrated en masse to the United States to escape the Irish Potato Famine and continuous oppression of British colonization. “The Famine Irish were branded as un-American and disloyal from their arrival in America. In the late 1840s, the “Famine Irish” quickly found themselves the victims of a brutal nativist campaign, which culminated with the Know-Nothing Party’s substantial gains in the mid-1850s.”[1] The portrayal of the Irish as Anti-American continued until the beginning of the American Civil War when Irish Americans overwhelmingly served in the Union Army and served with distinction throughout the war. “While they lobbied for an easy path to citizenship and equality for all, the Irish also claimed that Irish Catholics were inherently more American than anyone else by virtue of their special affinity with Jeffersonian politics and their contributions to the founding of the country itself.”[2]

            In the period between the American Civil War and World War I, the gains that the Irish Catholics had made as heroes in the war had faded. The Irish were strong supporters of the Democratic Party, in 1916, Woodrow Wilson was the democrat running for re-election, Wilson’s main platform was that he had kept the United States out of the war in Europe. Many Irish had concerns with Wilson’s friendliness towards Britain and felt that Wilson was not showing true neutrality. They protested Wilson’s “isolationism” vehemently, easily recognizing that Wilson’s isolationism was really a calculated war policy inching the country progressively closer to a full-fledged alliance with England, the great Irish nemesis.:[3] The Irish Catholics felt that if the United States was to remain neutral, they should not show favoritism to Britain and continue to supply Britain with war materials.

The Anti-British stance that most Irish Catholics had was not popular with many Protestant Americans. “The movement for an Ireland free from English rule was intensifying overseas, and many prominent members of Irish America opposed England in the war, to varying degrees. Irish nationalists now had organizations supporting Sinn Fein (an Irish political faction devoted to total Irish independence from Britain), and many of these radicals hoped to incite an Irish rebellion during the First World War while England was distracted by fighting on the European mainland.”[4] The Catholic press in the United States was also showing a pro-neutrality stance. Catholic newspapers were telling their readers to avoid taking sides in the war. “In August of 1914, when other publications were speculating on who should be blamed for the war, the Sacred Heart Review warned its readers that all of the facts were not known and that undoubtedly both sides shared in the guilt.”[5] The Sacred Heart Review and other Catholic press publications in the United States held strong to a neutral stance on the war.  Another editorial in the Sacred Heart Review stated, “How this nation to become engulfed in the European cataclysm would be a stupendous political blunder, if not a political crime, which the patriotic President and Secretary of State will not commit.”[6] The Catholic Press had taken an anti-war stance and also strongly supported the Irish Catholic cause.

Once the United States had declared war on Germany and had entered the war, there was a change in the Irish attitude towards the war. As they had done in the American Civil War, Irish Americans supported their new country and many Irish enlisted in the military. “Once war was declared, Irish America rallied behind Wilson, burying for the time being some serious criticism that he hadn’t done enough on behalf of the cause of independence for Ireland after the 1916 Easter Rising…”[7] Irish American men would support the United States, but not necessarily Great Britain.

As part of the Irish support for the war, the return and support for the New York 69th Infantry, which became famous as the Irish Brigade in the American Civil War joined the front lines in France. “For World War I, the 69th landed in France in late autumn of 1917, engaging in its first combat mission a few months later. A succession of bloody engagements followed in the fields and forests north of Paris until the Armistice on 11 November 1918.”[8] The unit was again largely made up of Irish Catholics, and the chaplain for the unit, Father Francis Patrick Duffy became a decorated hero of the war and wrote a popular memoir of the war. “The highly decorated priest realised that some soldiers in his unit came from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds, but those circumstances didn’t bother him. According to Father Duffy, the non-Irish in his ranks were ‘Irish by adoption, Irish by association, or Irish by conviction’.”[9]

Though the Irish Catholics in the United States supported neutrality and protested United States support of Great Britain in World War I, their attitude changed once the United States had entered the war. The Irish showed their patriotic spirit for the United States through the war and many Irish American soldiers fought valiantly in the war. Once the war had ended, the Irish renewed their calls for independence for the Republic of Ireland during the peace talks in Versailles where despite earlier calls for Irish “self-determination” by President Wilson, the struggle of the Irish nation was ignored by the United States government.

[1] French, John. 2009. “Irish-American Identity, Memory, and Americanism During the Eras of the Civil War and First World War.” Dissertation, Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press. Marquette University. Page 4.

[2] French. Page 4-5.

[3] French. Page 5.

[4] French. Page 5.

[5] Esslinger, Dean R. “American German and Irish Attitudes toward Neutrality, 1914-1917: A Study of Catholic Minorities.” The Catholic Historical Review 53, no. 2 (1967): 194-216.

[6] Esslinger. Page 197.

[7] Schmuhl 2016, Robert. 2016. “FEATURE: America & the Irish Independence Question.” FEATURE: America the Irish Independence Question | Century Ireland..

[8] Schmuhl. 2016.

[9] Schmuhl. 2016.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: