Washington’s Grand Stepson a Friend of Saint Patrick

Martha Dandridge was a widow when she married our first president in 1759.  Of her four children from her previous marriage to Daniel Parke Custis there were only two surviving when she remarried: John, age five, and Martha, age three.  The Washingtons had no children of their own. They were married at Martha’s estate, which was known as the “White House,” on the Pamunkey River northwest of Williamsburg.  Martha’s son John died during the siege of Yorktown in 1781.  His infant son, George Washington Parke Custis, and two year-old daughter, Eleanor Parke Custis, were raised by their grandparents Martha and George.

When Martha Washington died in 1802, three years after our first president, the Custis estate passed on to George Washington“Wash” Parke Custis.  A little known fact is that in 1831 George Washington’s grand stepson, in a gala affair with harps and violins playing in the background, gave his only child, Mary Ann Randolph Custis, to a young lieutenant in the United States Army.  His name was Robert E. Lee.  Although the lieutenant was often away on military duties, the Lees raised their seven children in Arlington House, which was built by his wife’s father, directly across the Potomac from Washington D.C. The Lee family was driven out of their home at the start of the War Between the States.

Arlington House, or the Robert E. Lee Memorial, is a popular tourist attraction today.  Once a year, however, the viewing routine is broken by the arrival of the George Washington Chapter of the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick.  These Irish-Americans come on the feast day of Erin’s patron saint to place shamrocks on the tomb of George Washington Parke Custis.

The grand stepson of our first president led the battle for our nation’s recognition of the plight of the Irish people who suffered under bitter British oppression in the early nineteenth century.  Thousands of Irish immigrants had come to America after Parliament passed a law that obliged Ireland to help pay England’s debt as a result of their war with the United States and France.  This burden exhausted Ireland’s treasury.

In 1828 economic conditions in Ireland caused a drop in the monetary value of basic crops.  The English, who had already seized 99% of Ireland’s land, now stole their grain, sheep, and swine.  The potato famine was another fifteen years ahead, but, at this time also, the crop suffered from a blight.  All these woes together meant impending starvation.  If that were not enough, the Brits prohibited the Irish of the right of assembly and evictions of tenant farmers multiplied.

“Wash” Custis became a voice for the Irish in America.  His undaunted publicizing of their plight evoked a cry of outrage from good American citizens who were unaware of the English injustices, or had previously thought little about their occupation of Ireland. Although little could be done to ameliorate the conditions across the ocean, Custis applied himself vigorously to help the Irish immigrants here.  He was a main sponsor to the Washington Benevolent Society and prompted the organization to give financial help and much needed colonization advice to the immigrants.  The purpose of the society, Custis said, “was to express sympathy for the people of Ireland and an earnest desire and hope for speedy amelioration of their condition.”

A grateful people made Custis an honorary member of the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick, an organization that was founded in Dublin in 1750, but which flourished among immigrant Irish in the eastern cities of the U.S. Honorary membership was not enough, however, for their tireless protagonist; his grand stepfather, George Washington, had been an honorary member.  G.W. Parke Custis wanted full membership.  Although he wasn’t Irish, he was enthusiastically accepted.  Come Saint Patrick’s Day no one could tell that Custis wasn’t from the ole sod.  He would come to Washington for the celebrations, sing Irish songs with his friends, and even compose lyrics as if he had the soul of Erin in him.  No doubt he put out a fine brogue too.

So fond had “Wash” Custis become of the Irish that before he died on October 10, 1857, he expressed a sentimental wish that “years after my mortal body shall have been laid in the bosom of our common mother, some honest Irish heart may come and, dropping a shamrock on my grave, cry, ‘God bless him!’”

There you have it.  That is why, every March 17, the grateful Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick make a trip to Arlington House, where lie the mortal remains of their benefactor.  And there amidst the budding magnolia trees they spread a green carpet of clover over the grave of the grand stepson of the Father of our Nation, while they repeat in unison, “God bless him!”

May we hope that, like his grand stepfather (see here), “Wash” Custis became a Catholic before he died.