Hand up if you know all about Thomas Francis Meagher?
If you do you're one of a too-select few. He was one of the most accomplished Irishmen of the 19th century, but much of his legacy has been lost to time now and there's a good reason for that. Throughout his life his many enemies did their level best to ensure it.
It would take a book to list all of Meagher's accomplishments, and now there is an excellent one, finally. In "The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero" (Houghton, $28) writer and New York Times op-ed columnist Timothy Egan has written it, reintroducing us to one of the most complex and compelling personalities in the long struggle for Irish independence.
Born into one of the few remaining Irish Catholic families of wealth and social standing in the 19th century, in his all too brief 43 years Meagher became that rare thing: an impassioned agitator for social justice.
Although his father was a member of the British Parliament, Thomas grew increasingly repulsed by England's ruthless oppression of his native land, and in particular its unforgivably cruel indifference to the Great Hunger, a defining event in Irish history in which one million people perished and another million emigrated.
Meagher became the leader of the Young Ireland movement, and he plotted a rebellion against the British in 1848. But he was betrayed, apprehended and quickly sentenced to death.
Instead of execution, however, he was shipped off to Van Diemen's Land (now called Tasmania) at a time when being sent to Australia was considered the equivalent of being sent to Mars.
“In Australia the Brits tried to make a penitentiary out of a continent,” Egan tells the Irish Voice.
“Tasmania was the special place in hell reserved for their political prisoners. The brightest, most ambitious generation of twenty-something Irish were all banished to this Mars, but they actually went on to greatness. By locking them away together they actually inspired them to live extraordinary lives.”
Meagher successfully plotted his escape to New York City where, by the time he arrived, he was already a celebrated rebel among the 160,000 Irish who had made their new home there.
There are so many elements of the Irish struggle for freedom that are contained within this one man. He was a rebel, a statesman, a military leader in the Civil War, and, for thousands, a romantic figure too.
“Originally I was going to write about the Irish Famine but then along the way I found this one remarkable man and I discovered that in his short 43 years, you can tell the story of five arcs of Irish history. That's the kind of person you dream of as a writer,” says Egan, who is just concluding a 14 day, three-events-a-day book tour in support of the book.
He says it's been “pretty damn stirring” to hear so many Irish Americans coming out to hear a nearly long lost story.
“I think the lessons of Meagher's life really apply to the current political situation too. If you look at what happened to the first wave of Irish immigrants in the 19th century, how they were treated, it echoes how immigrants are being treated now by one member of a certain political party,” Egan said.
Egan realized early on that he could have written a book about each episode of Meagher's life, but he wanted to remind the world just how varied and accomplished it had actually been.
First the rebel, then the political prisoner, then the escapee, then the founder at the beginning of the American Civil War of the Irish Brigade, or the Fighting 69th as it would later be known. Each year that regiment leads the New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade.
Throughout his life Meagher's commitment to fight oppression and stand up for social justice sometimes saw him take tough positions, when for example, he encouraged support among Irish immigrants for the Union (the fear of job losses had led many of them to drag their heels).
But General Robert Lee was quicker to understand the strength and sheer commitment of Meagher's Irish Brigade, because they participated in every major battle of the Civil War, leading him to derisively comment: “Here come those damn green flags again.”
For Meagher, the brigade, which would become one of the most storied in American history, was always in training for his most idealistic dream: returning to Ireland with his fully trained troops to fight for its freedom with something more than pitchforks and stones. He was one of the many in a long line of Irish freedom fighters, and as Egan's book makes clear, he was one of the greatest too.