A Sacred Priority

Ron Howko tromps across a rain-drenched cemetery beside a highway in County Mayo, Ireland. He stops at the headstone of Pvt. James Forkan and immediately notices a problem. The wooden pole of a small U.S. flag planted in front of the grave has snapped in half. “No problem,” Howko says. “I have more flags.”

The commander of American Legion Post IR-03 in Claremorris goes to his car, finds a fresh flag, replaces the broken one and looks thoughtfully at the burial plot of a young soldier whose wartime death was ignored for most of a century.

Forkan was one of 62 Irish-born soldiers and sailors who in 1922 were repatriated for burial in their home soil after losing their lives while fighting for the United States in World War I. They were initially buried in military cemeteries in other parts of Europe until their families, given the option, had them exhumed and brought back to Ireland. Once reburied, their associations with the U.S. military were disregarded, due mainly to Ireland’s conflict with Great Britain at the time, Howko says. The fallen troops received no U.S. military honors.

No flags. No headstones engraved with rank, unit or branch of service. No Taps. “Until The American Legion and the Mayo Peace Park got involved, these men laid for over 90 years in unmarked graves,” Howko says.

Post IR-03 in Claremorris – named for Commodore John Barry, Irish-born father of the modern U.S. Navy – has taken a lead role, with support from Ireland’s two other American Legion posts, to rededicate with full military honors the unmarked graves of the fallen World War I fighters. So far, Howko and his fellow Legionnaires have obtained official military headstones (choice of bronze or marble) and conducted services for 12 Irish men who died in World War I, plus one for another veteran, Michael Gibbons, who received the Medal of Honor while serving in the U.S. Navy during the Spanish-American War but, like the others, was laid to rest without military recognition.

The most recent rededication ceremony came last October, when U.S. Army Pvt. Michael K. Holmes – killed in a shellburst on Oct. 27, 1918 – finally received a service with full military honors. A bronze grave marker was unveiled, and his family was presented a U.S. burial flag and a presidential memorial certificate.

“The presentation of the flag is always an emotional event,” Howko says. “The flag is usually going to an elderly relative of the deceased service person. The occasion does provide a wonderful sense of recognition for the deceased, who they would have known only through hearsay and family lore. They have pictures of these young men in their military uniforms. The ceremony provides closure and an obligation fulfilled to family dead and gone.”

Remembrance of the fallen is a sacred priority for Irish Legionnaires. The Legion performs other roles in Ireland that closely resemble those of posts in the United States. There are post service officers who provide assistance with government benefits. Irish Legionnaires march in holiday parades across the country. They support shelters for homeless veterans, raise money to build war memorials, and maintain connections with the U.S. Embassy in Dublin and with active-duty American troops.

“Our main duty, as we see it, is looking after our members,” says Liam Kane, commander of John F. Kennedy Post IR-63 in Dublin and past National Executive Committeeman from the Department of France, which includes Ireland’s posts. “We also bury our members. We never fail to go get the flag and give them a decent funeral and play Taps, no matter what.”

One major event each year, not surprisingly, is St. Patrick’s Day. Legionnaires from across Ireland gather in Killarney and carry the colors through the city, typically winding their way to the Flesk Restaurant, home of Father Francis Duffy American Legion Post IR-02. “The reception we get in Killarney is unbelievable,” Kane says. “American visitors want to get out and walk with us.”

The Flesk is not an ordinary Irish eatery. Its walls are strikingly similar to many U.S.‑based American Legion posts: they are adorned with license plates bearing the names, towns and numbers of other Legion posts around the world. U.S. tourists who happen upon the Flesk are astonished to find The American Legion’s emblem hanging on the wall along with all the license plates.

“They can’t get over it,” says Flesk owner Dermot O’Leary, a Vietnam War veteran and Legionnaire who was drafted into the U.S. Army after he went to New York looking for work in  the early 1960s. “It happens all the time. They can’t get over the fact they have found an American Legion post in Ireland.”

World War II U.S. Army Air Corps veteran Glen Foy, adjutant of Post 02 in Killarney, says U.S. visitors “come over here and are surprised. American Legion? One of the women in the U.S. Embassy once called us The American Foreign Legion.”
The Flesk is a magnet for U.S. tourists, especially veterans with Legion connections. The Killarney post – named for the famous World War I chaplain of New York’s Fighting 69th Infantry Regiment, which drew heavily on the city’s Irish immigrant population of the early 20th century – once had nearly 300 members but now has about 100, O’Leary says. “Our members are scattered now.”

The post was formed in 1951 when, O’Leary says, “there were tens of thousands of Irishmen in the Korean War ... if veterans had problems, got sick or something, the Legion would look after them.”

It is not a long way from there to Tipperary, which has no American Legion post. But it does have Corny’s Pub, established in 1742 and now owned by U.S. Marine Corps veteran and Legionnaire Mark Cooney. Corny’s is where U.S. veterans like to hang out during special events, like annual late-September ceremonies and a parade through town that ends at the Remembrance Arch, a monument “to known Irish-born who died for the cause of peace and freedom since World War II,” explains Mick Haslam, a veteran of the Irish Defence Forces and chairman of the monument restoration project.

One reason service in the U.S. military has appealed to the Irish through the years is that the Irish Defence Forces – an army, air corps and naval service often deployed in support of U.N. operations – is restricted in size and can be difficult to join. That’s what drove Cooney across the ocean. “I always had a fascination with the military,” says Cooney, a U.S. Marine from 1994 to 1998. “In Ireland, you can’t just enlist in the army. You have to apply.”
Cooney instead applied for a visa and waited a year for approval before he joined the U.S. Marine Corps. “Join the best, that was my theory – do it right,” he says from behind the bar at Corny’s, where USMC flags that were flown both in Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom are proudly displayed. A U.S. flag flaps in the breeze above the entrance of the pub.

The Remembrance Arch down the hill from Corny’s, meanwhile, “is a piece of history,” Haslam says. “Three different groups were involved, including The American Legion – people interested in remembrance, peace and reconciliation.” The memorial arch was officially unveiled by former Irish President Mary McAleese in 2005.

Engraved are the names of Ireland’s war dead since World War II, including a panel dedicated purely to those from Ireland who fell while serving the United States. The arch is restored from the original portico of the officers’ mess hall at Tipperary Barracks, a British garrison and military hospital from 1874 to 1922. Now a nursing home and care center, the property remains encircled by its original stone walls.

Tipperary became known to millions through the popular British anthem “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” written in 1912. Irish troops who trained or passed through the garrison before going to battle in France and Belgium during World War I were heard singing the song as they marched. In Ireland’s battle for independence from Great Britain shortly after World War I, Tipperary Barracks was the scene of deadly conflicts between the Irish and the British. A website dedicated to the memorial describes Tipperary’s meaning to veterans:

“Throughout the centuries and even today, Irishmen and Irishwomen have served and continue to serve with honor in foreign uniform, and on foreign soil, for noble and worthwhile causes, for which many had made the ultimate sacrifice ... Tipperary Remembrance Arch now serves as a focal point of remembrance, a place where all can gather, to remember with honor the memories of Ireland’s fallen, and the enormous sacrifices that they made.”

The need to better document Irish sacrifices in service to the United States and other nations is illustrated by the recent identification of 22 Irish names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. Previously, only one name on the Wall had been documented as Irish. Likewise, the number of Irish known to have died fighting with U.S. forces in the Korean War has grown from six to 29, according to the Irish Veterans Historical Research Centre.

“As part of the thread of the emigrant country we still are, it is important to understand how and why these people adopted the flags of other nations,” the centre’s website explains. “From the grinding poverty and hardship that was life in Ireland for so many, to the idealism and belief in fighting for freedom or helping to overthrow tyranny, they were our brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, grandparents and other relatives. Irish through birth or heritage, they served – and often died – invisible but to their families and comrades-in-arms.”

Michael Coyne might have been one of the names on the Wall. He remembers in vivid detail the moment in Vietnam when a fellow tanker in the U.S. Army’s 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment stepped in front of him to test the ground and was blown to pieces by a land mine. “His rib,” Coyne remembers, “stuck in my arm. All that was left were his legs and his hips.”

Coyne had gone to Chicago as a teenager after the death of his mother, and joined the Army at 21. He was trained as a projectionist, deployed as an officer’s driver and wound up in a tank. He was shot once in the arm, received numerous shrapnel wounds and was awarded a Bronze Star. After his discharge, he worked for a brief time in the United States before returning to Ireland in 1970, where he has had a long career as an electrician and has become a voice for Irish-born Vietnam War veterans. A member of Dublin Post IR-63, he is featured in “The Green Fields of Vietnam,” a popular documentary about Ireland’s involvement in the war.

“I am proud that I was in Vietnam,” Coyne says. “I am proud that I was in the American army. I can trace relatives who have fought in every war America ever fought. America freed the world. And The American Legion is truly an international organization.”

Jeff Stoffer is editor of The American Legion Magazine.