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Tuam's Confederate monument: 'Put this ugly part of history in a museum'

We should not honour those men who believed that they were better than others merely due to the colour of their skin, writes Katherine Brewer.

Katherine Brewer Colorado native and media professional

THE CONTROVERSIAL DEBATE surrounding Confederate monuments has spread in the wake of the deadly protest in Charlottesville earlier this month, prompting calls for a plaque memorialising Irish Confederate Major Dick Dowling to be removed from its place in Tuam Town Hall.

The backlash against requests that Confederate monuments be removed from public sites throughout the world has been fierce. Donald Trump tweeted about the controversy, writing: “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” and “the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!”

Local responses to the news

More locally, people responded to the news on Facebook with comments including: “Just leave it be – it’s a part of history not to be forgotten,” and “this is ridiculous.” One woman suggested it would be “pathetic” to allow this memorial to be removed.

Another person commented: “We need to acknowledge [this part of history]” and recognise “it’s a different world now.” Mostly, the comments consisted of people arguing what the Civil War fought for, and what these monuments represent. These issues can boil down to matters of opinion – history provides no clear-cut answer to either question – but there are some absolute facts to consider regarding this specific plaque standing in honor of Dick Dowling.

Dowling was born in Milltown, near Tuam, in January 1837. His family fled to New Orleans after being evicted from their home in 1845, and he later moved to Houston where he owned and operated saloons. He served the Confederacy throughout the entirety of the Civil War, his most notable accomplishment being thwarting the Union Navy’s attempted infiltration of Texas by releasing relentless and devastating fire upon the fleet, leading less than 50 Confederate soldiers in the destruction of more than 5,000 Union troops.

Dick Dowling

The plaque, erected in 1998, acclaims Dowling’s actions. It read: “Outstanding business and civic leader; Joined Irish Davis Guards in American Civil War; With 47 men foiled Invasion of Texas by 5000 federal troops at Sabine Pass, 8 Sept 1863, a feat of superb gunnery…”

This monument does not acknowledge that this “outstanding” businessman reaped the rewards of his slave’s work.

It calls the Union army “federal” troops, though the Confederacy was still legally recognised as part of the Union and never gained independent sovereignty. It does not mention that Dowling fought for the side supporting the right to maintain the cruel institution of slavery, nor that the Confederacy suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Union.

Consider your own country’s history

Many monuments celebrating oppressive British leaders were erected in the decades prior to the Rising of 1798, and after the attempt at a revolt failed even more statues popped up, as if to reinforce and remind Ireland of Britain’s influence over the small, defiant country.

It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century – in the lead-up to the 1916 Easter Rising – that the growing Irish nationalist movement began constructing their own monuments. These are the ones that endure, while many of those celebrating prominent British figures were removed, relocated, or destroyed during the twentieth century.

The American Civil War ended in 1865, but the majority of the statues memorialising Confederate heroes were constructed decades later. In 1896, the Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v Ferguson made “separate but equal” racial segregation the status quo.

Laws disproportionally targeting blacks, called “the Black Codes,” were passed in most of the Southern states, forcing them into contracted labor and making it more difficult to own property or to vote. A considerable number of monuments were erected in the 1920s and 1930s, as the second-wave of the Ku Klux Klan was gaining prominence.

Promoting the ideas dearest to the Confederacy

One must remember that those erecting these statues commemorating the losing side of the Civil War were likely not memorialising history for the sake of remembrance. They were certainly not erected as educational guides to help make sense of our disgraceful past and promote a more united future.

These statues were erected in the interest of continuing to promote the ideas dearest to the Confederacy, which, according to Vice President of the Confederate States Alexander Stephens are these: “That the negro is not equal to the white man” and “that slavery – subordination to the superior race – is his natural and normal condition.”

We should not honour those men who believed that they were better than others merely due to the colour of their skin. We cannot allow the discriminatory, divisive ideas promoted by the Confederacy to flourish again in this day and age, and yet – by allowing monuments memorialising these villains to remain standing – we authorise these behaviours and allow these thoughts to thrive.

No neutral solution

To allow a shiny celebration of Dick Dowley’s destruction of Union fleets to stand proudly in a place where freedom and tolerance is encouraged is contradictory in light of decades of action both the United States and Ireland have taken to fight violence and hostility and support liberty, equality, and peace.

There is no neutral solution to the question of what to do with the Confederate monuments that remain throughout the world.

But, in these times when terror and destruction appear more frequently in the daily headlines than we would like and we are becoming increasingly divided as a global society, we must consider whether it is time for this ugly part of history to be relegated to museums and educational institutions, where people can visit and learn about the atrocities of the American past, and use that knowledge of a darker past to help further a brighter future.

Katherine Brewer, a Colorado native, recently graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a BA in Media and Professional Communications and Humanities. She has since moved to Galway, Ireland where she is pursuing a career in the media.

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About the author:

Katherine Brewer  / Colorado native and media professional

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