On March 17, 1780, at a critical point in the American Revolutionary War, Washington ordered the entire Continental Army to celebrate St. Patrick's Day. He did so in grateful recognition of Irish petitions to the English Parliament calculated ''to restore a brave and generous people to their ancient rights and freedom, and by their operation to promote the cause of America.''
Such sentiments will no doubt be echoed at many a St. Patrick's Day dinner this year. They may even seem very topical and relevant to the situation in Ireland today. Was not Washington a ''freedom fighter,'' and are not the liberties of the United States founded upon armed struggle against the British? Is not the cause of Ireland in 1983 that of America two centuries earlier?
Nothing could be further from the truth. Clio, that fickle muse, is here practicing one of her most notorious deceits, for the Irish whom Washington had in mind were not the Irish who will be marching in New York's St. Patrick's Day parade: They were different in religion, in culture, and in politics.
The petitions admired by Washington were drawn up by the Volunteers of Ireland. When Spain and France entered the war on the American side in 1778, these volunteers were raised to defend the coasts of Ireland in much the same way as the patriot levies in America. They were then entirely Protestant, and though they sprang up in every part of Ireland, the dynamic of the movement was provided by the Presbyterians of the North.
With a speed which astonished contemporaries, they became political and began to demand free trade with the colonies, legislative independence for the Irish Parliament, and the restoration of full civil rights to their Catholic fellow-countrymen. Their enthusiasm for the cause of the American colonists was unbounded, and deeply embarrassing to the government. They drank endless toasts to Franklin and Washington and cheered John Paul Jones when he sailed into Belfast Lough and captured a British warship.
Strange as it may seem, the Catholics of Ireland, who made up five-sixths of the population, were disposed to take the Loyalist side. They had little empathy with Washington and the Protestant ethics of his revolution. Their priests denounced the impious theories of the infidel Tom Paine. For nearly a century they had shown neither discontent nor disaffection, refusing to take part in the Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745.
The English government was not ungrateful and soon began to dismantle some of the more odious of the penal laws against them, over the heads of the Protestant ascendancy.
The disloyal Presbyterians of Ulster were a different matter - independent, radical, and pro-American, they were a thorn for George III and his ministers. They had their own grievances, and, like the Catholics, were under legal disabilities. But the chief reason for their American sympathies was that almost every family had kin on the other side of the Atlantic.
Irish-Americans in the US today are largely descended from Catholic immigrants who left the south and west of Ireland in huge numbers in the post-famine years. To read some American historians one would imagine that this was the only diaspora of the Irish people. There was an earlier one which had an enormous influence in shaping modern America, that of the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians. ''Emigration from Ulster,'' writes Professor Hansen, ''was as much a feature of American history in the eighteenth century as Irish-Catholic emigration in the next, and had a much greater effect on the development of the country.''
In a massive exodus between 1718 and 1775 some 250,000 people (at the lowest estimate) left Ulster for America. Whole congregations emigrated with their ministers. Finding themselves not altogether welcome in New England, they settled densely in Pennsylvania, in the great valley of Virginia, and in the backlands of the Carolinas. They also moved westward over the Appalachians and through the Cumberland Gap to the Mississippi. More than any other group they created the first frontier.
When the war came, they ardently took the patriot side, forming the backbone of Washington's army. ''If defeated everywhere,'' he said, ''I shall make my last stand among the Scotch-Irish of my native Virginia.'' They played a large role in bringing the revolution about. Lord Mountjoy told the House of Commons: ''We have lost America through the Irish,'' while Horace Walpole jibed: ''I hear that our American cousin has run away with a Scotch-Irish parson.''
Protestants, who make up the majority in Northern Ireland and one-quarter of the total Irish population, are aware of this history. They are of the same stock which gave America Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson, Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, Ulysses Grant and Stonewall Jackson, Horace Greeley and Edgar Allan Poe. They have always had a friendly regard for the US. Are there any US veterans who remember the warmth of their wartime reception in Ulster?
Irishmen everywhere like to see St. Patrick's Day celebrated with exuberance. But the use of such celebrations to countenance and support terrorism in Ireland , from which Catholic and Protestant suffer alike, can only deepen divisions in the North of Ireland and embitter Protestant feelings against the US.