Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Meagher of the Sword

He may have been the most famous Irishman of his generation, definitely the most controversial. Born in Waterford in 1823, he disappeared in Montana 43 years later.

Thomas Meagher was a lawyer, journalist, rebel, soldier, political prisoner, and his admirers would like to erect a memorial to him in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery.

It’s been a long time coming. His greatest achievement, perhaps, is that by example he persuaded many recently arrived Irish to enlist in the Union Army during the Civil War.

In truth, though, Meagher of the Sword, had lived an amazing life before he even set foot in the US. An unlikely revolutionary, his father was a wealthy merchant who sent him to the Jesuit Stoneyhurst College in Lancashire where he picked up an upper-class English accent that often grated on his nationalist admirers.

But could he talk! Throughout his life halls would pack at the mere suggestion of Meagher “speechifying.”

He made common cause with Thomas Davis, John Mitchel and other Young Irelanders who had grown tired of Daniel O’Connell and the system of patronage associated with his Repeal Association.

In their view O’Connell had grown too cozy with the British Whig establishment. During a fiery speech in the midst of the Potato Famine Meagher refused to repudiate the use of physical force to repeal the union between Great Britain and Ireland. Hence, Meagher of the Sword!

After the failed Young Ireland rebellion of 1848, Meagher and his comrades were sentenced to death but later transported to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania).

Always a man for the grand gesture, he promised the sentencing judge, “My Lord, this is our first offense, but not our last. If you will be easy with us this once, we promise on our word as gentleman to try better next time.”

Blessed with great charisma and romantic flair, he married Katherine Bennett, the daughter of a convicted highwayman soon after arrival “on the other side of the world.”

He eventually escaped to New York City where the Irish greeted him as a hero. He studied law and founded the weekly Irish News – a forerunner of the Echo – along with the radical Citizen with his fellow escapee, John Mitchel.

The comrades split at the outbreak of the Civil War. Mitchell supported the South while Meagher who abhorred slavery declared for the Union imploring his fellow Irishmen to join him in a company of the New York State Militia, later to be called the Fighting 69th.

After some early successes he was promoted to Brigadier General and commissioned to lead the Irish Regiment. At the bloody battle of Antietam things began to go wrong for Meagher. Much of his force was decimated and he was blown off his horse. He was accused of drunkenness, a charge he bitterly denied.

This accusation resurfaced throughout his career, it being noted that he “kept the best table in the Union army.” However, in his defense, he aroused much jealousy for he was a garrulous partisan man who made enemies easily.

After the war, Meagher was appointed Acting Governor of the new Territory of Montana. He campaigned to have Montana achieve statehood but became embroiled in local politics when he freed an Irishman who had been sentenced to death by a group of vigilantes.

On July 1st, 1867, he fell from a steamboat into the Missouri River. His body was never recovered. Controversial to the end it has been suggested that he was pushed by the aforementioned vigilantes, old Confederate foes or even English agents. Then again, perhaps he was just drinking too heavily.

Some feel that despite his brilliance he never achieved his potential. Others count him as one of the great leaders of the Irish Diaspora. Green-Wood Cemetery is commissioning a bronze portrait of him.

To make a donation go to www.green-wood.com/donate For more information, call Green-Wood Cemetery Historian, Jeff Richman, at 718-210-3017. Or just visit peaceful Green-Wood, one of the treasures of New York City, final resting place of so many well known Irish.

Meagher of the Sword stirred great passion in his lifetime. A lightning rod, had he lived he would have changed the course of Irish America.

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