Hero soldier was one of many Ulster folk who made it in US

News Letter editorial
News Letter editorial
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A blue plaque has been unveiled to Joseph Henry Thompson, the only Ulster-born soldier to have won the top US gallantry honour in World War I.

Thompson got the Medal of Honor for his “extraordinary heroism” in France in late 1918.

Thompson was the son of a Co Down farmer, and emigrated from Kilkeel to Pennsylvania in 1889, when he was still aged in his teens, getting citizenship a few years later.

His journey westwards was part of a long tradition of emigration from the north of Ireland to in his case, the United States, or, earlier, to the American colony.

Our current serialisation of 1739 News Letters has given a fascinating glimpse into that westward movement of people, including two newspaper ads that year for boats from Belfast and Londonderry to Pennsylvania. Later, in 1765, a boat carrying the parents of Andrew Jackson would take them from Carrickfergus to the new world, where he would be born shortly after, later rising to the presidency of the fledgling US. He is one of a dozen or so US presidents with Ulster links.

The historian Gordon Lucy has written on these pages about other key Scots Irish figures who made their name in north America, including John Dill, the representative of the British chiefs of staff in Washington during the latter years of World War Two. Sir John was a hugely respected figure in the US capital and was awarded the rare distinction for a foreigner of being buried at Arlington National Cemetery. He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.

There are deep historic bonds between Northern Ireland and the contemporary United States, but this is not as well known as it might be, in part because the Scots Irish, like the English and German settlers in North America, often lost their past identity, and just became Americans.

But it is important that in NI we work hard to keep alive these links. Dublin, rightly, does just that with its powerful links in Irish America. There is much American goodwill for us too, if only we would tap it.