November 18, 2011

The Symmetry of History

By Deacon Patrick Moynihan *
I was very young when I first heard the story about how my great-great-grandfather, Colonel John Byrne, survived a gunshot to the head in the Civil War by packing his wound with bread. He was shot while fighting with the all-Irish 155th New York Volunteer Infantry. The makeshift bandage worked, but he lost an eye. Fascinated by the tale, I have asked my mom to retell me the story several times to make sure it was not a figment of my childhood imagination.

Colonel Byrne’s unique experiences did not end with his heroic self-treatment. After his honorable discharge, he returned to Buffalo and joined the police force. Just as he did in the Army, he rose quickly through the ranks of the Buffalo Police Department, ultimately serving seven years as Chief. His tenure ended when a change in the party make-up of the city Police Commission made it necessary for him to retire. Upon his departure, The New York Times warned, “…gambling shops will be opened…and security so long felt here will be a thing of the past.”

After his well-respected police career, Colonel Byrne opened a private detective agency. This, along with his prior experience, led to his appointment as head of security for the 1901 Pan-American Exposition held in Buffalo. Unfortunately, President McKinley was shot by an anarchist on September 6th at the Exposition and died 8 days later. There has never been another Pan-American Exposition.

Not long after this national tragedy, Colonel Byrne’s son, Eugene, died in a freak accident while playing football for West Point in a game against Harvard. Astonishingly, he was one of three football players who died in games around the country that weekend. The Navy quarterback was also paralyzed the week before in a match against Villanova.

The shock over the accidents put the nascent sport in question. It took a stirring eulogy and a strong defense of the sport’s ability to foster “manly virtues’ by West Point’s Superintendent to keep collegiate football from going the way of the Pan-American Exposition. West Point canceled the rest of the season and the rules changed, but the sport survived.   

Courageously, Louis, Eugene’s younger brother, entered West Point the next year. He graduated in 1914, served his commission and retired as a major. My mom remembers going along on a trip in 1949 with her great Uncle Louis to show prospective football players around West Point. In recognition of Colonel Byrne’s service in the Civil War and the family’s unique commitment to West Point, all three are buried together in the cemetery at West Point.

I contemplated taking a run at West Point myself, but ultimately chose not to seek a nomination to the Academy. I even broke my boyhood promise to my mom to pay for my college with ROTC. Nonetheless, this particular family story has stayed with me while others have faded with time.

I now realize that the story was not meant to inspire me to join the military, but to support my son in his decision to go to West Point. The story has new vitality now that my son Robert is at the Academy. It’s as if the story has finally found its end a century later. No doubt, Robert will make his own story, but it will be amalgamated into what preceded him as well. National history, family history and the Long Grey Line assures that.

It is also clear that West Point has gotten the better man by waiting one more generation.

However, I am not completely bereft of the Byrne legacy. There is a part of my great-great-grandfather’s place in history that does resonate with me, namely his connection to the Pan-American Exposition. My work in Haiti is driven in part by a strong belief in the natural unity of the Western Hemisphere—a unity I hope to make more of a reality as I contribute to my family story and our national history.
Deacon Patrick Moynihan graduated Culver Military Academy in 1983, from Brown University with BA in Sanskrit and Classics in 1987, and from Providence College with an MA in Religious Studies [Theology] in 1999.

He taught Latin and English in a Catholic High School from 1987 to 1990, traded commodities, futures and options for an international trading company from 1990 to 1995 and directed a free Catholic mission school in Haiti for academically gifted children from the poorest areas around Port au Prince from 1996 to 2006.

Deacon Moynihan was ordained in October of 2001 as a permanent deacon for the Diocese of Rockford [IL] where he was the director of formation and later the Office for the Permanent Diaconate from 2001 to 2006. He has since gone back to Haiti and is currently the president of The Haitian Project.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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