A Story of My Grandfather

A photo of my grandfather Martin O'Hagan, my grandfather, in is World War 2 US Navy uniform, and also my Grandfather.

The recent events in Charlottesville have once again raised the specter of the racial and philosophical divide in our country. Sparked by the planned removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, the protests by white supremacists and neo-Nazis, countered by those opposed to their racist ideology (from the political left/right/center), were akin to a grim visit from the Ghost of Ignorance Past. Wrapped in the Confederate States and German Nazi flags that were on prominent display as events unfolded last week, it has returned to remind us that we have yet to digest some of the darkest parts of our national story, much less outrun them. As I cast a glance back over the shoulder of history, two memories, in particular, come to mind.

The first arises from something that unfolded on May 17, 1924, when the Catholic student body at the University of Notre Dame, in the literal sense, battled the KKK. The Klan had planned a rally in South Bend, Indiana to strike right at the heart of what they perceived as a dangerous rise in Catholic power in the United States. (You can read about the specifics of the encounters here.) The era is different. The location is different. The echoes of gut-level intolerance, however, are the same. What was witnessed in Charlottesville is not new. Today, as a Catholic of Irish descent, I feel the need to remain similarly vigilant. I stand against bigotry and hatred.

And in remembering this story, it reminded me of a more personal story – one involving my grandfather, Martin O’Hagan.

My grandfather, a devout Catholic and a staunch conservative, may paint an interesting picture to some when those terms are held up against today’s understanding of them. I assure you, though, that Martin O’Hagan was not the type to partake in the racism and bigotry recently witnessed. A liquor representative by trade in the South Bronx and Harlem New York City, his business was people. My grandfather made friends with everyone wherever he went. He did not just encounter people, he learned about them: their stories, their families, the aspects that wove the fabric of who they were and what mattered to them. It was amazing to see and something that has left a lasting positive impression on me.

When World War II broke out, my grandfather enlisted in the Navy. He wanted to be a pilot and ultimately flew coastal defense between Brazil all the way into Greenland. All the while, he carried with him the Bombing of Pearl Harbor- and he carried with him the friends he lost during the war.

According to my father, during the late 1960s the family was on vacation in Hawaii. While driving, my grandfather noticed a Rising Sun Flag of Japan flying in the front yard of a home. This flag is very different than the flag used by Japan today. And to my grandfather, that flag was something he fought so it would never fly over American soil. Friends of his died in a war to ensure that flag would never fly over American soil. And to say he was angry to see that flag flying over American soil was an understatement.

“So, do you feel his reaction would have been the same had there been a Nazi flag flying over a home?”

“Absolutely,” my father replied.

Years ago, I used to be indifferent to those who wanted to carry on “Southern tradition” flying the Flags of the Confederacy. I was indifferent to those wanting to maintain monuments to long-dead Confederate officers and soldiers because of “pride” and “tradition.” But today, when I think of the violent reaction of my grandfather to the Rising Sun and what would be a similar reaction to a Nazi flag, it is important to understand indifference is, in and of itself, a dangerous tradition. Right here, right now, when I think of those flags and what they represent- and the lives lost to keep the ideologies behind them from taking root in our soil- I will not be indifferent to the symbolism or the display of the Flags of the Confederacy.

The Flags of the Confederacy are not about Southern heritage or Southern pride (unless you truly want to be associated with the defense of slavery). They represents a government organized to treasonously destroy our union, founded to maintain a racist ideal that attempted to destroy the culture of African Americans, says that “We are not all created equally,” continues to negatively impact our entire society today, and disrespects the people who died defending our most sacred values of liberty and equality both during, and well after, the Civil War. The statues to the fallen Confederate soldiers and officers also represent something we should openly oppose and we should advocate loudly for their removal. Here is a comprehensive list of monuments we should work to remove (many of which built between 1900-1930), just like the Allied victors forced the Germans to do to the memory of Nazi Germany from their country.

The students at Notre Dame were not indifferent. Martin O’Hagan was not indifferent.

I am not indifferent.

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