Ireland and America: the contrasts
Ireland in 1750, as now, was a land of lush grass and many cows. But then, the wealth of it was in the hands of a sophisticated elite who wanted to live and dress as London did, whatever the cost: an elite of Protestant landlords, officials, and lawyers, with some rising Catholic merchants pushing to join the party. The mass of the people were very poor, living upon potatoes and whiskey in mud cabins (tea and beer had yet to come as cheap drinks). Catholic and Irish-speaking, they expected little from their masters: “Twenty poor families, who never taste fresh meat, might be comfortably supplied with as much Beef and Butter as has been exported to purchase a Headdress for a Lady” commented an angry Dublin journalist in 1737. A demoralised and defeated people, who hung their heads, said another.
The portrait of George Washington and thirteen of his senior officers or signers (by Laurence O'Toole, Md.) was commisioned by Robert D Stewart of New York. It was reproduced in "Ireland of the Welcomes" by kind permission of Mr. Stewart, a great-great-great grandson of Brigadier General William Thompson. Edward Hand and Charles Carrol are of particular to us in Offaly.
America’s colonies were another world. Much ruder and simpler than today, of course: with independent small farmers living largely on salt pork, corn mash breads and porridges, and also whiskey; but the needs of these men could be met by fresh exertion and new land:
The prospects were almost breath-taking, once things were organised. America, too, had its wealthy: planters and merchants, who also aimed at London style; but their wealth was not based upon privilege and exploitation, but rather upon constructive business. . .if one excepts those relying upon slavery. In Ireland, the rich eventually took it for granted that the debased character of the people was their own fault, rather than the result of poverty and oppression. One Lord Roden hoped for the extermination of a million or two of the native poor, “disgraces to humanity”. In America, on the other hand, the prejudices of the privileged gave way before the evidence of their own eyes, as simple men transformed a continent, so that it could become “self-evident” that all men were equal. “Americans were a mass of husbandmen, merchants, mechanics and fishermen; but the necessities of the country gave a spring to the active powers of the inhabitants, and set them on thinking, speaking and acting, in a line far beyond that to which they had been accustomed”, admitted David Ramsay, a South Carolina physician. He concluded: “The difference between nations is not so much owing to nature as to education and circumstances.”
A common base — the British Empire
Yet, so different seem Ireland and America in 1750, where can we begin to connect them? In the beginning, of course, we were both of us — Irishmen and Americans — part of the same political empire, that of the Englishman. For over 200 years, the American adopted and suited to himself the Englishman’s political habits, his language, his common and commercial law, his business practices, his industrial technology; even his fashions in poetry and the arts, in sermons (with some acknowledgment to the Scots) and in journalism. Americans were largely too busy, argues Daniel Boorstin, to waste the energies needed to build a continent in throwing away basic lessons the English had already mastered for them: so, only when their industrial civilisation surpassed England’s in scale (after the 1860’s), did the Americans begin the systematic innovation which, by 1944, would completely reverse the situation, with the English learning in all these fields from America.
Some of the IRISH with WASHINGTON
- General George Washington.
- Richard Irvine was born in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh. A surgeon by profession, after a period in the British Navy he set up practice in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He was assigned command of the Pennsylvania regiment at Monmouth, NJ, and was later in command of Fort Pitt.
- Charles Thomson was Secretary of the Continental Congress during the Revolution, and was the author of the original draft of the Declaration of Independence. Born in Co Derry.
- Richard Butler came from Dublin and set up as an Indian agent. He rose to the rank of Brigadier General in the Continental Army. After the war he returned to his Indian activities where he met his death.
- Matthew Thornton from Limerick, practised medicine in Londonderry N.H., before taking several important State posts. He sat in the Continental Congress and was the signatory for Pennsylvania of the Declaration of Independence.
- Edward Hand, another medical man, practiced in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Born in Co Offaly, he rose to brevet Major General in the American Army and also sat in Congress.
- John Barry, 'father of the American Navy', is probably the most celebrated figure of all. He was born in Tacumshane, Co Wexford. He it was who captured the tender “Edward” — the first seizure of a British warship by a regularly commissioned American cruiser. As a commodore he became renowned as a trainer of naval officers.
- John Shee from Co Meath commanded the Pennsylvania Line, one of the most effective combat outfits of the Revolutionary war. These troops came largely from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware, and included a large number of Irish volunteers.
- Stephen Moylan from Cork was Washington’s secretary and aide-de-camp, and later Quartermaster General of the Continental Army. With his red waistcoat, buckskin breeches and bright green coat he brought a touch of colour to the cavalry.
- James McHenry from Ballymena, Co Antrim, left his mark as surgeon, military man and political figure, and is commemorated by name in Fort McHenry at Baltimore. He served as secretary of war under both George Washington and John Adams.
- Thomas Lynch (of Galway stock) was an Attorney and planter in South Carolina. He was a member of the Second Continental Congress and was the youngest signatory to the Declaration.
- John Sullivan who countersigned the Washington order was the son of a Corkman. The first President once wrote of him that he had “a little tincture of vanity but along with it military genius.”
- Charles Carroll of Carrollton signed for Maryland. Grandson of a Co. Offaly O’Carroll, he acquired huge land holdings and was active in canal and road construction. He died in 1842, the last surviving signatory of the Declaration of Independence.
- Richard Montgomery was slain
in the assault on Quebec in December 1775. Initially fighting with the
British against the French, he was converted to the American cause and
led the forces which captured Montreal. Montgomery County is named in
Reproduced courtesy of Ireland of the Welcomes
Vol. 25 no.1, January – February 1976