On St. Patrick’s Day 2019, Americans all over the country—and not only the 33 million of direct Irish descent—drank green beer and waved at marching bands, just as they do every year. ’Tis grand to be Irish for a day. Yet it is unlikely that many of them had any idea that the centennial of Ireland’s War of Independence had just occurred. Imagine if Americans abroad were to overlook July 4—let alone a landmark date such as the bicentennial of American independence in 1976 or the upcoming 250th anniversary in 2026. Inconceivable. But that is the scale of the oversight by Irish Americans and the American press, for January 21 and the War of Independence (otherwise known as the Anglo-Irish War) are equivalent in Irish history to July 4 and the American Revolution.
The date passed without a ripple of notice in the United States. No acknowledgment by the American media. No celebrations or commemorative events hosted by civic leaders. No statements from the president or any other prominent public figure, including Irish Americans who often parade their Irish connections (and not just on March 17 alongside St. Paddy’s Day marchers). Not from Irish-American political notables such as Joe Biden, Paul Ryan, John Kerry, or Susan Collins. Not from Cardinals Sean O’Malley of Boston or Timothy Dolan of New York. Not even from Bill Clinton, who helped broker the Good Friday Agreement of April 1998, which finally brought peace to the island after three-quarters of a century of bombings and gun smuggling at the northern border.
Unlike the Easter Rising—which was no more than a small, thwarted rebellion in the center of Dublin during the middle of World War I—the War of Independence has never resonated with the Irish-American community. The Rising’s centennial in 2016 (commemorated in Ireland in late March, rather than on the actual historical date of April 24) was publicized with a PBS special, numerous headlines in the American press, and widespread acknowledgment in Irish-American circles. Even more widely commemorated was the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising back in 1966, when prominent Irish-American politicians sent greetings to Irish President Éamon de Valera.
Why the discrepancy between the two events? Why does an ill-planned, disorganized, botched insurrection, which was crushed by British troops in a week and scarcely known about outside of Dublin, become a world event? Why has it become the single greatest historical landmark in the Irish political (and even literary) imagination? And why has a nationwide revolution against a tyrannical neighbor that victimized Ireland for eight centuries been forgotten? A year-long war that resulted in independence for 80 percent of the counties seems to have disappeared down the memory hole. One might think it would be the other way around. A wee putsch should be relegated to oblivion and Irish Independence Day should be proudly celebrated. Right?
Strange indeed, but not inexplicable. The twin causes of this paradox are subtle yet compelling. First, the power of emotions—ranging from romantic passion to shame and guilt. Second, the roles of historical contingency and context: events do not occur in isolation. What precedes or follows an event serves either to put it in the spotlight or let it fall into obscurity.