A charismatic Irishman who ended up playing a key role in American history is the subject of a lively new book by National Book Award winner Timothy Egan.
In “The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero,” Egan tells the story of Thomas Francis Meagher and his unlikely journey from famine-plagued Ireland to a Tasmanian penal colony, then to America and a leadership role in the Civil War, and finally, to the governor’s office in the Territory of Montana.
In the 1840s, the “Great Hunger” descended on Ireland, and a million Irish residents died of starvation. Despite an abundant Irish harvest that filled ships headed for England, Irish families struggled to survive after a potato blight wiped out the crop they relied on for subsistence. Britain refused to offer aid, and the country witnessed a mass migration to America as families grasped a last-ditch effort to survive.
Taking up the desperate cause of his countrymen was Meagher (pronounced “Mar”), the son of a successful merchant and politician. Wielding the power of the pen and his great talent as an orator, Meagher and his like-minded compatriots sought independence from British rule and the right for self-governance.
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Meagher eventually was convicted of sedition and sentenced to die for plotting a failed uprising. But in response to public outcry and international pressure, the leader of the Young Ireland rebellion instead was banished for life to the penal colony of Tasmania. Following a daring escape, he arrived in New York City, where he was hailed as a hero by thousands of Irish immigrants.
As the Civil War tore at the fabric of his new nation, Meagher first backed the South along with others who feared that a rush of freed slaves would steal jobs from Irish laborers. He later threw his lot in with the North, not as an ardent abolitionist, but in hopes of saving the Union that had offered sanctuary to so many Irish immigrants.
Next, he raised an Irish regiment to help save the Union while also creating a fierce fighting force that he hoped would then return to Ireland and help him wrest control from the British. Rising to become general of the famed Irish Brigade, he led his men through some of the Civil War’s bloodiest battles, fighting courageously at Bull Run, Antietam and Fredricksburg.
His renown later was parlayed into a position as the acting governor of Montana Territory. And it was in that rugged frontier, thousands of miles from the rolling green hills of Ireland, where Meagher died, under mysterious circumstances still debated today.
Those with Irish roots — almost 40 million Americans at last count — will appreciate Egan’s attention to detail and historical detective work as he outlines the legacy of this larger-than-life Irishman who left an indelible mark on his adopted country. And we all can wonder at the courage of this man who risked everything and rose to become a powerful mover and shaker in American history.
Bob Kustra is president of Boise State University and host of Reader’s Corner, a weekly radio show on Boise State Public Radio. Boise State awarded Timothy Egan an honorary doctorate for his contribution to the humanities at the university’s 2016 Spring Commencement. Reader’s Corner airs Fridays at 6 p.m. and repeats Sundays at 11 a.m. on KBSX 91.5 FM. Previous shows, including an interview with Egan, are online and available for podcast at boisestatepublicradio.org/programs/readers-corner.
“The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero” by Timothy Egan; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ($28)