How `sectarian' is the Irish conflict? Lessons from a rifle battalion of the American Revolution

IF the conflict in the six British-ruled counties of Ireland is ``sectarian'' - Roman Catholic vs. Protestant - then why would Irish Protestants and Irish Catholics, many of them from the same six counties, respond in an instant to a call to arms against Britain? I first heard of Thompson's Pennsylvania Rifle Battalion, oddly enough, through a cartoon in Bill Mauldin's book ``Back Home.'' One of Mauldin's famous ``Willie and Joe'' World War II infantrymen in Colonial garb is standing amid a shocked group of matronly ladies, one of whom is fainting dead away at the prospect of being embraced by the bearded rifleman. The caption reads, ``The ghost of Pvt. Ezra Mulligan (Thompson's Pennsylvania Rifle Battalion) pays a visit to his great-great-granddaughter's DAR meeting.''

Mauldin was on the mark as concerns the predominant ethnic character of the battalion, but not as concerns the Daughters of the American Revolution. During the three years that I have been chairman of a group seeking to revive the memory of Thompson's Battalion and provide long-overdue memorials, we have come to believe that the local DAR chapters would be delighted to welcome Private Mulligan.

Thompson's Battalion was a product of the momentous decision by the Second Continental Congress, on June 14, 1775, to raise forces to go to the aid of the New England Militia army besieging the British in Boston.

Pennsylvania was to provide six companies of riflemen; Maryland and Virginia, two each.

So enthusiastic was the response from Pennsylvania that the colony was authorized two additional companies. In the end it furnished nine. Indeed, so fierce was the competition for spaces that marksmanship contests had to be held, with only the very top scorers accepted.

The organizer of this effort was Col. (later Brig. Gen.) William Thompson of Carlisle, a native of County Meath, Ireland. Second in command was Lt. Col. (later Maj. Gen.) Edward Hand of Lancaster, a native of what is now County Offaly.

There were men of English birth or descent throughout the battalion. In seven of the nine companies, however, Irish immigrants or their sons were predominant. The two other companies were predominantly Pennsylvania German (miscalled Pennsylvania ``Dutch'').

Why did they leap to arms with such alacrity?

An eyewitness, Capt. Alexander Graydon, provides this succinct answer: ``The great body of German farmers, extremely tenacious of property, were readily gained. ... As to the genuine sons of Hibernia it was enough for them to know that England was the antagonist.''

Note that Graydon does not differentiate between the Protestant ``sons of Hibernia'' and its Catholic sons, nor, although he himself was a Scot, did he identify the Irish of Scots descent as ``Scots-Irish,'' much less by the distinctly English term, ``Scotch-Irish.''

``Whether Protestant or Catholic,'' says Col. John B.B. Trussell, US Army (ret.), director of historical research at the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, ``they called themselves Irish and were known by everyone around them as Irish.''

We can gather also from Graydon's observation that someone, most probably Thompson, had given the ``German farmers'' a pretty vivid idea of what they could expect if the English aristocracy and its class system were to be firmly established in America.

Thompson was a Presbyterian, as were probably a majority of the Irish under his command. Hand was an Anglican. Catholics could not be identified as such in any public document under the English penal laws in effect in all of the colonies. At least one group of brothers, the Sweeneys, have been identified as Catholics by their descendants. That there were others is obvious from the Catholic missions and parishes extant in the areas of recruitment.

Under terms of the greater part of the reporting that has emanated from Ireland over the past 18 years, the Presbyterians should have been fierce British loyalists; and what to think of Hand, an Anglican, a doctor, and a member of the Anglo-Irish establishment?

The answer is not at all complex: Presbyterians, Anglicans, or Catholics, the native Irish were all victims of 18th-century British mercantilism, by which business and agriculture was being strangled to the benefit of the suzerain. Furthermore, the Presbyterians, as ``dissenters'' to the established Anglican Church, were being persecuted only slightly less fiercely than the Catholics.

I have only scratched the surface here of the fascinating interplay that took place on the Pennsylvania frontier in that summer of 1775 among Irish Catholics, Anglicans, and Presbyterians, German Lutherans and Calvinists, Mennonites and home-grown English Anglicans.

What occurred, simply put, was America in the terms we know it today. These men and their families of widely divergent background, all keenly aware of the religious wars of the preceding centuries, came together in the twinkling of an eye because they had found something - however hazily understood at that moment - that transcended the old differences and antagonisms.

Twenty-three years later in Ireland itself, urged on by none other than Gen. George Washington, Irish Protestants would lead the Rebellion of 1798 and perish on the scaffold, defeated by the same Lord Cornwallis their American cousins had humiliated at Yorktown.

``Cousins'' is by no means figurative. Our research to date shows that even at the time of the large-scale emigration to America in the 18th century, intermarriage among the native Irish and the English and Scots colonists ``planted'' in Ireland was so extensive that there was essentially no longer any ethnic distinction among them, whatever the cultural differences maintained.

If that was true in the 18th century, it is true in spades today in the disputed Irish counties. Indeed, a roster of Irish Republican Army men and women held in British jails is as replete with Robinsons, Campbells, Fergusons, and so on, as are the rolls of the opposing Ulster Defense Regiment with Gaelic Irish names.

This one people were set at each others' throats by calculated imperial policies of ``divide and conquer,'' which now have backfired on their instigator.

It is contrived economic and social distinctions, sacrilegiously done in the name of a shared Christianity, that keeps this war alive.

Without doubt, old religious prejudices revived when Thompson's men returned home. But they could not be sustained, because, unlike Ireland, there was no social and economic structure backed by government to give them substance. The American experience says, therefore, that peace will come to Ireland only when discrimination in any form is no longer backed by the batons and bayonets of the British government.

William V. Kennedy is a journalist specializing in military affairs, and a former strategic planner and analyst with the US Army War College, 1967-1984.

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