Wednesday, May 10, 2017

A Son of Erin

An Irish Immigrant Seeks New Life in Pennsylvania

As citizens grapple today with the complexities of immigration in America, one is compelled to look back upon the lives of Irishmen such as William Gray Murray. Born in Longford, Ireland in 1825, he and his parents immigrated to New York when he was but nine months old. The Murrays left their homeland amid an era of great transition and tumult. Because of the inflated price in the grain market to benefit aristocratic gentry, potatoes became the staple crop of Ireland’s impoverished rural society. When the potato crop failed amid the Great Famine two decades later, over one million perished while another million immigrated to America.

All the while, the Murrays overcame the xenophobia of their new neighbors as they established a mercantile in New York City and young William came of age. According to historian Jay P. Dolan, “To be Catholic in the United States in the 1840s and 50s was to be portrayed as a menace to national security. . . . This religious bias against the Irish reinforced the cultural prejudice that the heirs of British America carried with them well into the nineteenth century.” Americans abiding by anti-immigrant “Nativist” ideals even promoted legislation to curtail Irish naturalization and entry into America. To vindicate his citizenship, Murray enlisted in the U. S. Army at age nineteen. After serving in the Mexican War, he settled in Hollidaysburg and lived a quiet life as the town’s postmaster beginning in 1852.

At the outbreak of the American Civil War, he was offered a commission as a captain in the Pennsylvania volunteers. However, he initially declined the offer since his wife, Elizabeth, was suffering from the final stages of tuberculosis. She tragically passed away in August 1861.

Driven by a desire to further serve his adopted country, Murray left his sole surviving daughter, Mary, to be cared by family as he became colonel of the 84th Pennsylvania. The officer daringly faced off with the likes of “Stonewall” Jackson in January 1862 at Hancock, Maryland and he was involved in various maneuvers in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. During the Battle of Kernstown on March 23, 1862, Murray’s horse was shot from under him. (The horse skull is in the collections of Baker Mansion.) The colonel continued the charge on foot when his cap brim was shot from his head. Moments later, an enemy bullet crushed his skull—killing him instantly.

Murray became the first Pennsylvania colonel killed in the war. His remains were ceremoniously honored in Harrisburg before he was laid to rest in Hollidaysburg’s St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery—where “universal sorrow was manifested” during his burial. One writer remembered of him: “Col. Murray was a man of large, active benevolence, warm and ardent in his impulses, though singularly calm and equitable, and energetic and untiring in the path of duty.” As contemporary debates about immigration continue to swirl, Murray’s saga is worth contemplation in our own troubled times.

 Murray's price of citizenship.

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