The District and its environs are dotted with quiet monuments dedicated to Irish men and women for their contributions and sacrifices in the United States.
It’s possible to trace their footsteps across the Washington metro area. Here are a few of the statues and their stories.
In 1792, for example, Irish-born architect James Hoban won a contest to design the White House. He also helped oversee construction of the U.S. Capitol, work that included slave labor. Hoban’s grave is at the Catholic Mount Olivet Cemetery in Northeast Washington.
Also in the mix is the story of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and his Irish ties. In November, a bronze statue of Douglass was dedicated at the University of Maryland in College Park.
When he visited Ireland in 1845, he was still chattel, albeit chattel that had stolen his freedom and written about it, no less, in the “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave.”
“I love that the statue shows him” — cloak billowing, arm outstretched — “in his fiery abolitionist years,” says Kenneth B. Morris Jr., a great-great-great-grandson.
“The last thing you want when you are on the run from your master” is a best-selling book, Morris adds. The trip’s second purpose was to give Douglass’s supporters time to secure funds to buy his freedom.
At 27, he arrived in Ireland at the start of the potato famine, and “wrote to say that it was the first time in his life that he was not being treated differently because of the color of his skin,” says Morris, whose nonprofit, Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, fights human trafficking. “He saw others facing all kinds of injustice.”
Daniel O’Connell, who fought for Catholic emancipation in Ireland and for the enslaved everywhere, had invited Douglass to speak. Douglass toured Ireland, then England, for about two years.
When he returned home, he found the Irish, fleeing famine, were arriving, too.
By the time the Civil War erupted, Irish men and women, many poor and marginalized, were deep in the fray. Their stories range from the ugly New York draft riots of 1863, when innocent black people were scapegoated and slain, to other tragedies, to the many acts of wartime heroism and sacrifice.
In the District, a slender obelisk was resurrected to memorialize a tragedy on June 17, 1864. A munitions factory explosion at what is today Fort McNair killed about two dozen young female workers, mostly Irish immigrants. President Lincoln attended their mass funeral, and the entire city mourned.
Many were buried beneath that obelisk — on a plot bought by the U.S. government — in Congressional Cemeteryin Southeast Washington, says Dayle Dooley, the archivist there.
All the women’s names are known, Dooley says. But the elements have worn away the letters carved in the white marble since it was placed there in 1865. Volunteers have raised money for a new marker with the names. Heirloom rose varieties, including one called Mr. Lincoln, bloom annually around its base.
Another set of women is honored on the wedge of land where Rhode Island Avenue meets M Street, east of Connecticut Avenue NW. The bronze Civil War Nurses Memorial — “Nuns of the Battlefield” — was designed in 1924 by Jerome Connor, from County Kerry, Ireland. Congress authorized the work, but the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Irish Catholic fraternal group, raised $50,000 to pay for it.
District Deputy City Administrator Kevin Donahue, who is of Irish heritage and has visited distant cousins in Ireland, didn’t know about the local monuments.
“Now I want to see them all,” he says.