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Sheridan from Cavan, an Essay by Maeve McCormack

‘That’s the house where General Philip Sheridan was born’ my mother would proclaim on the monthly Sunday trip to Killinkere. She was proud to share the parish with the Cavan man who was a career officer in the American Army, during the American Civil War. To me, he was an exotic hero that had come from a now ruined, roofless stone house. For the four children in the back of a 1969 Ford Cortina (blue, with white roof), it heralded the last outpost of the journey for Dublin that had started after early mass and ticked off each colonial landmark in order of appearance. The Royal Canal, the house of the President (built for the Viceroy), the spell it either way town of Navan (in Royal Meath), and Virginia, the planter town named after the Virgin Queen. Turn off here, pass Sheridan’s birthplace, then it was Killinkere, and Granny’s house. I wondered why you’d put a plaque on an empty house, and why his family did not live there anymore. Year by year, arguments began to come from the four children in the back seat. The house was an unoccupied stone cottage, with a plaque to himself on it. The road was narrow enough and the car slow enough to read the inscription clearly. ‘The birthplace of General Philip H Sheridan 1830 to 1888’. It says it was erected in 1969 by the ‘Department of Irish Veterans of WW1 of the USA. Inc.’

As the journeys clocked up, I began to make the connection with the American Army as I knew it. This army of dusty bugle bearing heroes, Matinee Cowboys and Indians, John Wayne movies, where the Indians were the baddies, and when called up or needed, the army would ride in to the aid lovely white cowboys and their pretty wives to save their farms. The same weekly story as we sat down to chew our way through a Sunday matinee, after the trip to the shop for sweets.

We humored our mother, but this humoring evaporated as we got older. The seventies progressed, and rumbling started in the back of the car. Older siblings grew into wise, judgmental teenagers. Muttering about do you know what he did? I was still wondering how such a famous man could ever live in such a small, old house, not yet old enough to make that connection, politics or history was over my head. It was just a landmark, with some vague connection to John Wayne. There would be guffaws from my brother as he scoffed at the house and scoffed at the General. How do you know he was even born there? Maybe he was born in Killinkere, maybe he was born on the boat on the way to America, maybe he was born in America. I argued for what I believed was the case of truth – if there was a plaque to confirm it, his parents must have put it up and of course it was true. I still had a bit of catching up to do on the concept of time and generations, and false news and revisionist history were yet to be recognised by any of us.

While he may have fought against the Confederate pro-slavery forces, Sheridan was far from a hero in today’s terms. Guilty of war crimes against civilians, leaving them homeless and starving, and, later, genocide against the Native American population. He supposedly said ‘The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.’ This was paraphrased into ‘The only good Indian is a dead Indian’.

Each day, whether I like it or not, I catch up a bit with the real world. At least I think I do. My opinion of Gen P Sheridan has changed completely. I see him as a career soldier, a New World Colonizer, committing war crimes in the name of freedom in the American Civil War, then afterwards carrying out acts of genocide while clearing the ‘wilderness’ now known as Yellowstone Park, of its native American hunter-gatherer population. To this day the visitors to Yellowstone National Park are not told of the original hunter-gathers that lived in this ‘wilderness’.

The last time I passed by the house it was derelict and overgrown, regressing to an Irish-style wilderness. Driving by with my partner and children I automatically registered the outpost. My husband nearly fell out of the car with speechlessness. Did I know who this man was? Did I know what he was responsible for? His knowledge of the man was from the extensive reading he had done around American Native Cultures and Sheridan’s role in their genocide. He was spelling it out for me. I listened and nodded.

My mother’s brother was called Philip, my nephew in Brazil is called Philip. I’m glad neither of them are Sheridan. But what if they were? We are not responsible for our ancestor’s sins. I look at my mother. She did not argue with us. What would she have achieved by facing off a gang of self-righteous teenagers who are out to make the world right for everyone. Sometimes it’s better just to listen. In later years, my mother used to recommend books to me about native Americans. I don’t recall her ever openly condemning General Philip Sheridan, but she knew her children’s and grandchildren’s opinions and did not challenge them. She re-educated herself privately and quietly, trusting us to find our own way of dealing with Irish histories. She taught me to listen.


Maeve McCormack was born in Dublin, Ireland and crossed the country in 1992 to settle in Sligo, beside the Atlantic Ocean. Her short stories, non-fiction and poetry have been published/commissioned across The Honest Ulsterman, Scrimshaw Journal (Issues 1 and 2), The Wexford Bohemian and the Sligo Brid Festival. She started writing in 2005 with a local writer’s group.  In 2020, she focused further on developing her writing by undertaking a fulltime Bachelor (Hons) in English Writing and Literature, at Atlantic Technological University. She writes in contemporary Irish settings, heavily influenced by place and past.


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