Mathew Brady’s Irish Mystery

Civil War Photographer Mathew Brady was probably born in Ireland. Mathew Brady circa 1875. Library of Congress.

By Matthew Skwiat, Contributing Editor
October / November 2015

In August, a sign in Johnsburg, New York that claimed to mark the birthplace of acclaimed Civil War photographer Mathew Brady went missing. But in addition to sparking a search for the sign itself, its absence sent historians into a quest to find the true birthplace of Brady, eventually discovering he was probably born in Ireland.

While there is no doubt that Brady, often cited as the “father of American modern photography,” spent his childhood in Johnsburg, speculation about his birthplace has been brewing for years. No birth certificate or any kind of documentation has been found to link his birth to New York State. In fact, an 1855 New York Census lists Brady’s place of birth as Ireland, as does an 1860 census and Brady’s own 1863 draft records.

Matthew Brady 1863 draft record. National Archives.

Mathew Brady 1863 draft record. National Archives.

“From the new documents, I have no doubt that Mathew Brady was born in Ireland to Andrew and Julia Brady,” said Mary Panzer, author of Mathew Brady and the Image of History. Brady himself maintained he was born in New York, which many biographers took as fact. But the truth is open to debate. Brady grew up in a 19th-century America that was hostile to immigrants, especially the Irish. And towards the end of his life he was plagued by poverty, and perhaps he felt that admitting his Irish origins would further damage his dwindling image.

Even though Brady’s birthplace may be unknown, the photos he is responsible for remain the greatest images we have of the Civil War. And any American with a five-dollar bill carries a Brady photograph, his image of Lincoln having been used on the bill since 1914.

“My greatest aim has been to advance the art of photography,” Brady once said. “And to make it a great and truthful medium of history.” Though Johnsburg may have lost its paternal claim on Brady this summer, his art remains for us all. ♦

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