‘I am here to regret nothing I have already done, to retract nothing I have already said. The history of Ireland explains this crime, and justifies it.’ –Thomas Francis Meager
Born the son of Waterford’s mayor, one of the few wealthy Catholic businessmen in town in 1823; Meagher benefited from a quality education (partly in England) during which he won awards for poetry and debating. His passion for Irish nationalism and his temperamental nature led him to join the radical Young Ireland movement. These hot-blooded young revolutionaries had lost patience with elder statesman Daniel O’Connell’s non-violent approach to gaining independence from Britain, and now advocated armed insurrection. Meagher’s fiery speeches earned him the nickname “Meagher of the Sword.”
In 1845, The Great Hunger crippled Ireland, and nationalists like Meagher blamed the tragedy on continued food exports to Britain, then the richest nation on earth. He traveled to France in 1848 as a delegate for the Young Irelanders and returned with a gift from the sympathetic French: the first Irish tricolor flag — green (to represent the Gaelic/Catholic natives), orange (for the Protestants), and a white stripe in the middle to signify the “lasting truce and heroic brotherhood between the two communities.” (It became the official national flag upon Irish independence in 1921.)
When the Young Ireland rebels finally mounted an uprising in 1848, the country was too weak from starvation to care. The only pathetic skirmish that took place was a gun fight with local police in Co Tipperary that became knows as the “Battle for Widow McCormack’s cabbage patch.” Meagher and a handful of other rebel leaders were sentenced to hang, then to be drawn and quartered. But Queen Victoria commuted these sentences to life in the penal colony of “Van Dieman’s Land” (Tasmania).
After three years of penal servitude, Meagher escaped in an open rowboat and spent four days at sea. He was eventually picked up by an American whaling ship and taken to San Francisco. A few months later, he had made his way to New York, where he reveled in the opportunities that independence from Britain had given the Americans. He became a lawyer, popular speaker, and founder of newspapers for the growing Irish immigrant population.
The Civil War began in 1861 and Thomas Francis Meager joined the Union army, Meagher recruited Irish immigrants into the New York militia and rose to the rank of general in command of the “Fighting 69th” Irish Brigade. His soldiers wore sprigs of clover in their hats while marching under a green flag embroidered with an Irish harp and the words “Erin go Bragh”. In the fall of 1862 on the bloodiest day of the war, Meagher had his horse shot out from underneath him as he led his soldiers on an almost suicidal charge against Confederate forces at the Battle of Antietam. Three months later he was wounded during the carnage of repeated charges on Marye’s Heights in the Battle of Fredricksburg. The Irish Brigade was decimated, but Meagher survived the war.
A few months after war’s end, he became the first governor of the Montana territory, and was soon raising forces to combat hostile Indians (a decade before Custer’s demise at Little Bighorn). But it wasn’t long after, one night in the summer of 1867 and at age 44 — after beating the odds time and again on three different continents — Thomas Francis Meagher fell off a riverboat and drowned in the Missouri River. Sheer accident, foul play, or careless drunkenness? Nobody knows — but his body was never found.
A statue of Meagher gallantly charging on horseback, sword in hand, stands today in front of the Montana state capitol building in Helena. His brief life as a revolutionary, orator, patriot, convict, journalist, explorer, soldier, and politician can only be summed up as Irish pride…personified.
Image Source: Stories from 1916
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