The Forgotten Irish by Damian Shiels
The Forgotten Irish by Damian Sheils is a must read for anyone interested in nineteenth century Irish history. The book tells the story of 35 Irish families of men who fought and lost their lives in the American Civil (1861-1865). Many of the families were recent emigrants to America while others were resident in Ireland. All of the families claimed a pension from the American government on account of the service of their deceased loved one.
Mr Shiels uses the letters and supporting documents submitted by the dependants as part of the pension applications process to shows the strong links that existed between recent emigrants to America and their families still resident in Ireland. The author’s impeccable research highlights the previously neglected pension files (which are all online), as a rich resource for the Irish genealogist and social historians. These records contain personal correspondence, baptismal certificates and in one case a very rare eviction notice from Lord Leitrim’s estate in Donegal.
The book is divided into four sections. The first two sections, ‘Wives and Parents’, and ‘Community and Society’, emphasises the lives and daily struggles of the soldiers’ families in America and Ireland and the importance of the pension payment to the financial survival of the family unit. During this period ‘elderly’ was deemed as being late 50s or 60s and many people of this age had been injured or suffered poverty-induced illnesses which made it difficult for them to work. The pressure to provide economic support to the family was a key reason for the enlistment of many of these Irish-American soldiers and the subsequent receipt of a civil war pension could make the difference in avoiding destitution and keeping out of the dreaded workhouse.
The final two sections, ‘A Life in Letters’ and ‘A Death in Letters’, provide insight into the lives and emotions of some of the emigrant soldiers, using their own correspondence to detail the suffering and hardships of war, and the subsequent impact of their deaths on the family unit. One of the stories told in the book details the plight of Timothy Durrick from Lackanmore, Castletownarra, and County Tipperary, who depended greatly on his son’s pension, which he picked up in the post office in Nenagh. Such was the importance of the pension to Timothy that he undertook a journey to the United States where he could be assessed entitlement and to prove he was no longer fit for work. Statements from friends in the files recalled that he was very poor and owned no property other than some clothes and had no means of support but for manual labour, which he could no longer undertake due to age and ill health. They also tell the examiners he was for some years now totaly dependant on money sent by his son from America.
These often harrowing stories illustrate the difficulties faced by many Irish emigrants and their families during the period following the famine and the close links and interdependence between family member in America and Ireland. This book is well researched and despite its heavy content written in a very readable manner. Perhaps the most important thing about his book is that it provides a voice for lower classes of society who are normally written out of history.