By Colm Power
Father Abram Joseph Ryan, whose parents came from Clogheen in Co. Tipperary, was an influential figure in the American Civil War. He became known as the ‘Poet of the Confederacy’ and the ‘Tom Moore of Dixie’.
One of the noted characteristics of the Confederate Army was their readiness to sing and it was said of them that if battles could be won by song, the Confederates would be invincible.
Father Ryan was born in Hagerstown, Maryland, on 5th February, 1838, the fourth child of Matthew Ryan and his wife, Mary Coughlin, and he was the first of the family to be born in the U.S..
He studied for the priesthood in New York and during the winter of 1860, when he was aged 22 years, he gave a series of lectures which marked him out as a speaker of great promise. Later, following a preaching tour of rural parishes, his abilities as a preacher received wide recognition, and his superiors decided to have him ordained a priest earlier than was the normal age. After permission was obtained from the Vatican, he was ordained on 12th September, 1860, in his then home parish of St. Louis. This was just before the beginning of the Civil War.
In spite of his Irish heritage and the fact he was brought up mainly in the north, he regarded himself as a Southerner to the core, and there was never any doubt as to where his sympathies would lie when the Civil War broke out. There is a question as to whether he formally enlisted in the Confederate Army, but he served as chaplain throughout the conflict, helping to carry the wounded to safety and performing the last rites on the battlefield. He became, without a shadow of doubt, the most famous chaplain of the C.S.A. (Confederate States of America).
His poem ‘The Conquered Banner’ was the most popular poem in the aftermath of the Civil War. With it, Father Ryan captured the heart of the entire South. It was first published on 24th June, 1865, in the ‘New York Freeman’, and it was memorised by generations of Southern schoolchildren. ‘The Conquered Banner’ was read or sung in almost every Southern home, and no poet was more popular at that time than Father Ryan.
The final verse of ‘The Conquered Banner’ reads:
Furl that banner, softly, slowly!
Treat it gently – it is holy –
For it droops above the dead.
Touch it not – unfold it never,
Let it droop there, furled forever,
For its people’s hopes are dead!