Irish Lives Matter

Irish Lives Matter – the BLM of the 1920s!

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has grabbed headlines over the last year but many of its demands and tactics echo what Irish people were demanding back in the early 20th century.

This was brought home to me in recent research on my great-granduncle William McEnhill (1863-1943) who was Irish born but emigrated to the United States and lived most of his life in New Jersey. He was, to put it mildly, an ardent Irish Republican.

Irish people and the British Empire

Irish Americans were highly organised throughout the 20th century in support of what they viewed as a life and death struggle to remove the British Empire from Ireland. In 1922, the Irish Free State was declared. In effect, the first part of the British Empire since the American Revolution to get its freedom.

And what happened in Ireland was closely observed by those seeking to overthrow British rule in South Africa, Palestine and India. The interconnections are fascinating. For example, William went to fight in the Boer War in South Africa – on the side of the Boers against the British.

Although we now look at the Boers as responsible for the subsequent racist hell of apartheid South Africa, at the turn of the 20th century, many Irish people viewed them as plucky rebels taking on the Brits.

Irish Lives Matter in 1927 – issues that chime with BLM

By 1927, William had been elected as an officer of the American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic. On 3 October of that year, The Yonkers Herald reported that the association had adopted an America First resolution. That demanded the United States “should manage its own affairs without entangling alliances with other countries, specifically the British Empire”.

As with BLM today, this Irish Lives Matter movement objected to Hollywood’s depiction of Irish people. It successfully managed to remove a Metro Goldwyn Mayer movie called The Callahans and The Murphys from distribution. And that movie has now been totally lost. It seems to have been a screenplay that played to all the most hackneyed stereotypes of Catholic Irish families – ie, zillions of children.

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The association also supported the ousting of Chicago’s rather dictatorial schools superintendent William H. McAndrew who was described as “the stool pigeon of King George”. McAndrew had no time for the teaching trade unions and was accused of imposing a curriculum that denigrated the Founding Fathers.

His removal was engineered by Mayor William Hale Thompson who later staged a weird “trial” of McAndrew by the board of education alleging he was un-American (an unfortunate foreshadowing of anti-Communist witch hunts in the 1950s).

Given the public discourse now around statues, school curriculums, representation, enfranchisement and media attitudes – it seems that the Irish Lives Matter movement of the 1920s has found a strong echo today in the Black Lives Matter protests.

Discovering my US Cavalry ancestor on Ancestry.com

Ancestry.com allowed me to discover that an ancestor of mine – falsely identified as a police officer in the NYPD – was actually a US Cavalry lieutenant who fought in the Spanish American war.

In a pile of old photos from the Irish side of my family (Dad is from the Emerald Isle), there’s always been a couple of photos that confused us. A moustachioed gentleman in some kind of uniform in the early 20th century. Who was he? What was the uniform?

Ancestry.com identifies Lieutenant Francis McEnhill

Well, the mystery has been solved thanks to doing some work on Ancestry.com – which I’ve become horribly addicted to. It has given us a very full picture of an interesting guy.

Some of my relatives talked about an Uncle Francis who emigrated to the United States from County Tyrone, in what’s now Northern Ireland. They speculated that he might have become a police officer in the NYPD because of the uniform in the photo.

If he had been aware of their musings, Francis might have been deeply offended.

Because Uncle Francis, it transpires, was in the US Cavalry! An immigrant to the US, he married the daughter of a senior New York military officer James Joseph Butler (1832-1910) who had fought alongside a future US president, Chester Arthur, in the American civil war – with the Union, not the Confederacy. This familial connection seems to have smoothed the path for Irish-born Francis to join the US cavalry.

War record revealed on Ancestry.com

And what a time to have joined! Lt Francis McEnhill (born 1872) was very soon in Cuba and then the Philippines fighting with American forces against Spain – the colonial ruler of these two countries. From 1898, President William McKinley used various pretexts and a fevered press campaign to justify attacking what was then Spanish colonial territory.

This heralded America’s arrival on the world stage. Spain was a declining imperial power and these countries were sad remnants of a once huge empire that covered all of central and Latin America. The war, begun by McKinley and continued by Teddy Roosevelt, led to the US annexation of Cuba, the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico.

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Ancestry.com reveals the sad death of Francis McEnhill

Francis enjoyed the military life. But he seems to have picked up some bug in the Philippines that destroyed his health. Tropical disease was rife and did impact the cavalry. Whatever he contracted led to encephalitis. This was a death sentence back in those days.

Poor Francis ended up in a hospital in Philadelphia where he died in 1909. Thanks to Ancestry I’ve even found the bill sent to his widow for the coffin, transfer of the body back to New York state and things like the silk Stars and Stripes to be draped over his casket. Also through Ancestry, I now know that he’s buried at Sacket’s Harbour – which was once a major military base.

It’s a quirk of the digital age that I know more about Uncle Francis than my Irish granny, who was his niece, did in the 1970s. She only had sketchy details about him to share. But through the power of the internet and Ancestry.com, I have a surprisingly detailed picture of my dashing ancestor.

As a postscript, I discovered his military chest on Craigslist where a young man had bought it in a house sale. The name Francis McEnhill was on the side of the large wooden crate and documents relating to the widow’s pension were found inside with the gold cavalry insignia you can see on his uniform in the photo.

I offered this young man a very generous price but he chose to give it to a local military museum. I guess it’s gone to a good enough home!

Lieutenant Francis McEnhill – Born 10 June, 1872 in County Tyrone, Ireland. Died 3 June, 1909 in Philadelphia, buried in Sacket’s Harbor