In this post, an outgrowth of some musings meant originally for St. Patrick’s Day, I thought I would focus on a patch of green—a small portion of Brooklyn’s famous Green-Wood Cemetery, no less. The Irish Korean War Memorial is just one marker in one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the United States, populated by thousands of New Yorkers who happened to be among the most well-heeled that Gotham has ever known.
But, while the Irish-born servicemen who are remembered here might have been of modest means, their hope in their new land was enormous—exceeded only by the fearful price they would pay.
I came to Green-Wood Cemetery early last fall to see a breathtaking landscape that, at one time in the 19th century, was the biggest tourist attraction outside of Niagara Falls. I hoped to see the graves and mausoleums of many famous New Yorkers, including Leonard Bernstein, Cabaret lyricist Fred Ebb, newspaper editor Horace Greeley, and notorious machine politician “Boss” Tweed. (See, for instance, my prior post on Leonard Jerome, the American maternal grandfather of Sir Winston Churchill.)
I never expected to be so taken by a two-ton granite slab with Celtic cross, engraved with an epigraph and the names of 28 men from the Republic of Ireland who made the ultimate sacrifice for a different country that had not yet granted them citizenship.
The 27 G.I.s and one marine honored here were born in Counties Kerry, Mayo, Cork, Roscommon, Limerick, Leitrim, Antrim, Longford, Galway, Tipperary, and Louth. Their final remains are scattered: some in the U.S., some returned to Ireland, four never recovered. Hardly had they come to the U.S. than they ended up halfway across the world in a land they had never seen. According to the law operational till that point, they would still have to wait five years to become citizens upon returning to the U.S., just like everyone else.
The problem was that, though more than 50,000 American servicemen died in Korea from 1950 through 1953, no official declaration of war was ever made by Congress (a pattern that has held true for American military conflicts since then). The U.S. government called it a “police action.”
When Dwight Eisenhower became President in 1953, he altered policy so that any immigrant in the armed forces didn’t have to serve in a declared war nor wait the required five years, just 90 to 180 days. But the change applied only going forward, not retroactively, and didn’t account for reservists. Not only were the Irish-born casualties never able to take the oath of citizenship, but their wish would not be granted for another half-century after their deaths.
It wasn’t until 2003 and the efforts of then-New York Congressman Ben Gilman (himself a veteran), before U.S. citizenship was granted to the 28 Irish nationals, through a special Act of Congress. And it wasn’t for another three years after that, through the efforts of local Irish-American associations, that the current monument was erected in Green-Wood Cemetery—appropriately enough, close by the grave of Matilda Tone, widow of Theobald Wolfe Tone, leader of the ill-fated Irish rebellion against British rule.
Several years ago, my father was speaking of a young Irishman he had gotten to know in the early 1950s in East Durham, N.Y., a portion of the Catskills nicknamed “the Irish Alps.” Then his new friend told their group he would be off soon to fight in Korea. “The next thing we knew, we heard he’d been killed,” my father said. “We couldn’t believe it.” He shook his head, suddenly quiet and wistful.
Left unsaid were all the things he himself had gained within a few years—a job, family, the right to vote, and all the other advantages of U.S. citizenship—that his friend—and the Irish nationals now remembered in Green-Wood Cemetery—would never know.
(For more information on the Irish Korean War Memorial, please see this post from the blog "The Wild Geese.")