Thomas Francis Meagher’s life in 100 objects: 100. Two hundred years

This banner promoting Waterford business outside the Granville Hotel birth home of Thomas Francis Meagher features a portrait of Meagher. Photo: Author’s collection

In 1870, three years after the death of Thomas Francis Meagher, William Lyon began the first biography of his revered friend by saying the reason why Meagher’s life should be written “requires no explanation.” Perhaps aware that was a little too blithe even then, Lyons goes on to explain it anyway. “The history of a man who has made so interesting a part of the history of twenty remarkable years, who participated prominently in two revolutionary struggles – a bloodless one in the Old World, and a sanguinary one in the New – whose eloquence has thrilled two peoples,” Lyons said, “should not be left to the mere memory of his words and works.” Meagher’s history is “so interesting” as Lyons puts it, a man who roamed across Ireland, Tasmania and North America, in 20 tumultuous years, living enough adventures for four lifetimes. He was involved the Irish revolution of 1848 (far from bloodless as Lyons claimed once the Famine is taken into account) and the American civil war of 1861-65 and Lyons omits a third “revolutionary struggle,” the American frontier wars which Meagher was involved from 1865. Yet he could easily be dismissed as a Forrest Gump-like character colourfully bumbling his way through those revolutions, seemingly leaving little consequence to any of them, before dying mysteriously in undignified fashion. And while he thrilled with his eloquence, as Lyons said, and Arthur Griffith called him Young Ireland’s most picturesque and gallant figure, their “National Tribune”, the orator of the movement, his written speeches without the advantage of hearing his voice, seem ornate, flowery and irrelevant. So Lyons’s unwritten question remains valid over 140 years later. As we approach the 200th anniversary of Thomas Francis Meagher’s birth on August 3, 2023 why should we remember him?

At first glance it seems odd that Lyons did not mention the fact for which Meagher is now remembered in Ireland: the popularisation of the Irish flag. The year 2023 marks not only Meagher’s 200th birthday but also the 175th anniversary of the first raising of the tricolour in Waterford on March 7 and the event will be marked with “cultural, historic, military, social events and public lectures.” The Thomas F Meagher Foundation, an organisation founded in 2013 and dedicated to the promotion of the Irish flag, links to a school history resource page which Meagher’s story is “extremely important” in the origins of the tricolour because of “his central role in promoting it during 1848, and his role in the 1848 rebellion, establishing its relationship with the idea of an Irish Republic.” It is true Meagher was one of the first to display the flag after that year’s French revolution and he and John Mitchel conceptualised its meeting in April that year. But the idea seemed to die with the Irish revolution and Meagher himself made little mention of it in his remaining years, as the America stars and stripes assumed far more importance in his mind. In his eulogy O’Gorman said Meagher was faithful to the flag he followed, and that flag was that “of the republic which gave him a welcome and a home.” It was not until 50 years after his death that the Irish flag made a comeback as a nationalist symbol and when it did, Meagher’s ecumenical hopes of the flag’s orange component was forgotten.

Though Meagher was Catholic, his own church viewed his vision for a non-sectarian Ireland with suspicion. He bonded with other young, wealthy and well-educated men and women of similar ideas. Breaking from O’Connell, these Young Irelanders launched a revolution with little support, no weapons, no troops, and no military training, unsurprisingly which was little more than “a fiasco in a cabbage patch” as British papers gleefully called it. Those same papers were more reluctant to talk about the fiasco in potato patches across Ireland, the disaster that drove the rebels to their inevitable defeat. Nor could they stop the treasonous revolution from becoming a potent myth that would inspire an idea of an independent Ireland that would resonate into the 20th century. The history of Ireland, Meagher said in his famous speech from the dock, “explains my crime and justifies it.” But as the 21st century Irish president Michael D. Higgins reminded a Waterford audience Meagher belonged to a history that is not solely Irish. “He encapsulates that extraordinary generation of 1848, who, throughout Europe, from France to Poland, from Denmark to Italy, put their lives on the line to overthrow tyranny and despotism, and to vindicate the liberty and self-determination of oppressed peoples,” Higgins said in 2015.

Though the rebellion of the Young Irelanders was a miserable failure, they used their true skills as writers and publicists abroad. Sent to Van Diemen’s Land they resisted the government’s plan to exile them to “gentlemanly obscurity” and brought their plight as prisoners of war to a world audience. But while Meagher quietly gave aid to the local Anti Transportation League and got married, he chafed as a gentleman farmer. Unlike his fellow Young Ireland leaders Charles Gavan Duffy and Kevin O’Doherty, Meagher could see no future worth living in Australia. Meagher left little mark of his time as a convict other than the grave of his four-month son in Richmond, Tasmania, and a grand adventurous escape to America.

There he joined many Young Ireland leaders who had fled after the revolution along with a million Irish men and women who had fled the Famine. Meagher’s reputation as a leader of Irish Americans rested on the cultural capital that he had generated through his actions in Ireland in the 1840s and positioned him as the “Irish prince of New York” at a time when the Irish were a quarter of the population of the city. Meagher could be forgiven for dreaming big. “I foresee that America will be the visible providence of the world and that whilst she encourages the weak, the struggling and the oppressed, she will augment her own power of doing good by winning the confidence and love of every race,” Meagher told the press on his arrival in the city. “Thus will be accomplished the freedom of the world.” Meagher helped to create “a new geography of political ideas” and his attraction to Manifest Destiny would take him to Central America and later to Montana and also enabled him to move smoothly between support of the Democrats and the newly constituted Republicans, with his bewildered Irish-American supporters often struggling to keep up. He was as Maria Lydig Daly perceptively put it, “a man born to die as a rebel on the gallows with a resounding speech in his mouth.”

Meagher’s lasting reputation in America, as John F. Kennedy reminded Ireland in 1963, rests with his involvement in the civil war. The slow-burning fuse of that war dominated Meagher’s time in America in the 1850s and while he refused to speak out against slavery his commitment to the idea of the Republic was very public and deeply rooted. When war broke out, he signed up for the Union, annoyed at the disrespect the south had shown to the American flag. Meagher and his fellow recruits wanted to prove their loyalty as adopted citizens and to overcome the Know Nothing hatred of foreigners, especially Irish foreigners. Still recovering from the post-traumatic stress of two million dead in the Famine, another generation of Irish would suffer grievously in their attempts to be accepted as Americans, 150,000 fighting for the Union and another 25,000 for the Rebels. These soldiers could then serve as an army to liberate Ireland after the war. While the subsequent Fenian rebellion was every bit as underwhelming as the Young Ireland one, the British remained concerned. English Liberal politician Sir William Harcourt warned in 1885 that while in former rebellions the Irish were in Ireland, “now there is an Irish nation in the United States equally hostile, with plenty of money, absolutely beyond our reach and yet within ten days of our shores”. 

Meagher, however, always tried to steer a middle course between American and Irish ambitions. When he exhorted his Zouaves at the first battle of Bull Run, shouting, “Boys look at that flag,” he pointed at an emblem that was neither the stars and stripes nor the green, white and orange of 1848, but instead was the green flag and sunburst symbol of the 69th Regiment. “Remember Ireland and Fontenoy,” Meagher told them. The New York Irish could never forget Ireland and Meagher’s own Irish Brigade which would create a succession of American Fontenoys, each bloodier than the last. It was this flag that Kennedy gave to the Dáil in 1963, not Meagher’s tricolour.

A century earlier, Kennedy’s predecessor Lincoln had made Meagher a Brigadier General, impressed by his ability to recruit Irish Americans to the side of the Union. Meagher led his men into the terrible battles that followed, most notably Antietam, a disaster for the Brigade, but victory of sorts for the North which allowed Lincoln to issue his Emancipation Declaration, and then Fredericksburg three months later which was a disaster for the Union and the Brigade.

The Fredericksburg massacre was the last straw for Meagher who would resign his commission in protest at the horrific losses his Irish Brigade suffered. But the battle also drew Meagher closer to Lincoln’s overall goal of freeing the slaves. By the end of the war Meagher openly said the black population had deserved their freedom and their citizenship, a remarkable transformation from someone before the war whose sympathies mostly lay with the south. It earned him the wrath of many Irish-Americans worried black southerners would take their jobs.

In 1863 professional soldiers like Grant and Sherman took over the running of the war. They had no time for enthusiastic amateurs like Meagher and his departure from the Brigade marked “the end of the romantic era in the Civil War.” That year also marked the end of the fiction that the Irish were fighting to save the Union. While it might seem obvious that the Civil War was fought over slavery given the importance of the “peculiar institution” to the southern economy, the reasons states gave for secession, and slavery’s pride of place in the Confederate constitution, but that fact was barely acknowledged for the first two years of the war, certainly not by the Lincoln administration, much to the exasperation of America’s ambassador in London, who was forbidden from mentioning the one factor in the war that might have won British support for the north. Irish Americans rioted in New York, rather than accept it was a war for black emancipation. Meagher’s recruitment strategy was in ruins and the Irish-American press roundly condemned his brave Letters on Our National Struggle later that year where he admitted that “slavery of the black man” constituted the basis of southern wealth and power.

After the war ended, Meagher went west and argued that Montana was not just the perfect place for the Irish but also for the “the Black heroes of the Union Army”, the African-American veterans who, he believed, “have not only entitled themselves to liberty but to citizenship.” Meagher saw Montana as a place where all those who believed in America could exercise the rights for which they had fought, and while he still saw the native people as “savages” even they could find redemptive civilisation in the form of Christian conversion. Meagher’s own conversion on black rights was following in Lincoln’s footsteps. Lincoln who would admit by his second inaugural that slavery was the cause of the war. Black leader Frederick Douglass had prophesied in 1862 the task of protecting hard-won black freedoms had only begun with emancipation, and as emancipated slave Henry Adams said about the right to vote, “If I cannot do like a white man I am not free.” Such ambitions were destroyed after the war thanks firstly to Lincoln’s assassination then the failure of Reconstruction in the 1870s and the success of the “lost cause” hypothesis, the belief the war was fought for Southern state rights. The Supreme Court upheld the Jim Crow laws in 1896 in Plessy vs. Ferguson, handing down a “separate but equal” legal doctrine that was every bit as odious as the 1857 Dred Scott decision that defended slavery.

That success permeates to the present day, with the bans imposed by many Republican states (now on a platform vastly different from Lincoln’s party) on Critical Race Theory (CRT), which recognizes that racism is not a bygone relic of the past. “Instead, it acknowledges that the legacy of slavery, segregation, and the imposition of second-class citizenship on Black Americans and other people of color continue to permeate the social fabric of this nation.” States banning it include Meagher’s own Montana whose Attorney-General declared in 2021 that “Montana law does not tolerate schools, other government entities, or employers implementing CRT and antiracist programming in a way that treats individuals differently on the basis of race or that creates a racially hostile environment.” The concern is as teacher Mike Stein says about anti CRT laws is that it will prevent adequate teaching about the Civil War, and the civil rights movement. “English teachers will have to avoid teaching almost any text by an African American author because many of them mention racism to various extents,” Stein said. If telling the civil war story of Thomas Francis Meagher helps this objective, however tangential, it is worth the investment.

For the people of Waterford, the answer as to why Meagher should be remembered is much simpler and it stared me in the face when I was last in the city in October 2022. Near the Granville Hotel where Meagher was born, street banners hung proudly along the Quay promoting local business. The main text on the banners read “Eat Shop Enjoy” and underneath was “Shop Waterford Support Local” and “Together Waterford is Stronger.” Above the text was a portrait of Meagher. The connection was not explained nor did it need to be. Here was a local still supporting Waterford long after his death. Meagher would certainly enjoy the irony of the connection given his father’s long association with the local chamber of commerce. But he would also have agreed with the sentiments of the banner. Meagher was proud of his city just as two hundred years later the city remains proud of its son. As one of the city’s social media group pages would say, Thomas Francis Meagher is Waterford.

Thomas Francis Meagher’s life in 100 objects 99. Poor Tom

Thomas Francis Meagher exudes the wealth of a young dandy in this portrait of him which hangs in the building where he was born, the Granville Hotel, Waterford. Photo: Author’s collection.

Who gives anything to Poor Tom? Whom the foul fiend hath led through fire and through flame, through ford and whirlpool, o’er bog and quagmire; hath laid knives under his pillow and halters in his pew; set ratsbane by his porridge, made him proud of heart, to ride on a bay trotting horse over four inched bridges, to course his own shadow for a traitor – Shakespeare, King Lear

Born in the lap of wealthy luxury in Ireland and dying deep in debts and far from friends in Montana, Thomas Francis Meagher’s life is a classic riches to rags story. As Lyons put it, Meagher had “flung behind him the pleasures and honors of a wealthy home” to be rewarded only by defeat, and a death sentence commuted to eternal exile.” His story is in many ways a mirror image of his paternal grandfather who left Ireland penniless and made his money in North America. The elder Meagher became a wealthy merchant in Newfoundland, thanks to his own ambition and an advantageous marriage, before moving the family and its business back to Waterford. There, his son Thomas Meagher junior married Alicia Quan, uniting two families of substantial wealth. While the elder Meagher retired to the grand estate at Ballycanvan, the younger Meagher and his wife occupied a mansion on the Quay where Thomas Francis was born in what Keneally called “a household of excellent Irish linen and furniture and draperies from England and France.”

Thomas Francis Meagher’s upbringing was in great contrast to the life of the majority of the people of Waterford who lived in poverty amid “much filth and human misery.” Despite his privileged life, he was not immune to the suffering around him and he would never forget a scene he saw as a boy when hundreds of poor emigrants boarded a ship to leave the city in search of a better life in America and he was also educated enough to understand the cause of the misery. “I deeply shared the prevailing mournfulness of the scene; for young as I was, I had heard enough of the cruelty that had for years and years been done to Ireland.” While a teenager his father was appointed to a board of guardians for the Waterford Poor Law Union after the Irish Poor Law Act became law in 1838. The guardians were responsible for the city’s workhouse which opened in 1841 accommodating 900 people. The disease-ridden workhouses were detested by the poor they were meant to serve, but they became overcrowded as the impact of the Famine hit. As Thomas Francis Meagher put it, they were “soon stocked with vermined rags, and broken hearts with orphaned childhood, fevered manhood, and desolate old age”.

Yet Meagher still enjoyed the good life, getting an expensive Catholic education, then having an overseas grand tour at his father’s expense. Meagher senior also footed the bills for his accommodation, legal training, dandied tailored suits and lavish lifestyle in Dublin. In his recollections of Waterford Meagher could have been describing himself when he said unironically, “no young fellow, sure of an income of £200 a year, or less, ever thought of going into business. They entered their names, perhaps, at the Queen’s Inns, and ate the prescribed number of dinners, to qualify them for admission to the bar.” Except Meagher did not qualify for the bar and instead went to work full-time as an unpaid lieutenant of the Repeal movement.

Meagher senior continued to bankroll his son even as they parted ways politically after Young Ireland split. With the wealth of his father behind him, Meagher could afford to speak out “placehunting” which was the O’Connellite practice of asking for, and accepting appointments from the government. “Sanction this system,” Meagher said in 1847, “and you entice men to the national lists, who, but for the golden apples scattered along the course, would never join you in the race to freedom.” Meagher would have a less pure view on placehunting for government patronage later in life when he was without the safety net of his father’s money.

Meagher and his friends did not rely on the potato for sustenance but they “could not close their eyes to the horror” of the famine as “the hearse-plumes darken the summer scenery” in 1847. While campaigning in the Galway by-election, Meagher memorably recalled a skeleton-like old man a “saddest poor scarecrow” who was yet only “one of thousands upon thousands in that horrible year, who crawled the highways, eat grass, and died in ditches, with foul froth upon their lips, their very heart eaten fairly out with famine.” Meagher’s experiences in Galway helped radicalise him against British policies in Ireland. “In the blasted field, beneath the putrid crop, the merchant has sunk a shaft and found a gold mine, for the English minister would not inconvenience the trade of Liverpool and London,” he told the Galway electors.

British intransigence in the face of the Irish horror and a legal crackdown on dissent gradually pushed Meagher and his Irish Confederation friends to the brink. As Hearne writes, Meagher as a middle-class Catholic was fully aware of the obligations of his status which reluctantly propelled him towards insurrection. The British quickly put down the unprepared revolution and charged him with treason. Meagher’s father was appalled but still footed the expensive legal bills of almost £500 and ensured his son’s prison conditions were as comfortable as possible. As Lyons observed when he visited Meagher in Clonmel, “it was impossible to imagine one’s self in a condemned cell.” Meagher’s father also purchased many items ahead of his son’s transportation to make his journey and new life more tolerable, including rugs, clothing, chests, notebooks and books.

The privileges continued for Meagher and his fellow state prisoners in exile but their Australian letters show they were often dogged with money problems. Meagher, though financed from Ireland, was not immune especially after the expensive failure of the Smith O’Brien escape bid. In June 1851 Meagher accepted an offer of £5 from O’Doherty. “I do not actually want it at present but might do so shortly – and as I have hardly any about me, would feel exceedingly obliged if you could enclose it to me.” Two weeks later he told O’Doherty he had received the money and he had also received a letter from his father over the £550 bill for the rescue attempt. While his father was greatly annoyed, “the damned bill has been paid” and the “horrid business, quietly and honorably settled.”

Determined to avoid such horrid business in America, Meagher embarked on the lucrative speaking circuit and he was comfortable enough to leave $100 in Salem to help two stranded French exiles stranded. But his need for money showed when he put the prospect of a free trip to California ahead of his staying with jis pregnant wife Bennie when she came to America with his father. Perhaps before they returned to Ireland, Meagher senior told his son he would no longer support his endeavors. Certainly by the time Meagher went to California, he found it necessary, the San Francisco Daily Herald reported, “to toil for his avocation”.

In 1855 he decided on a new “avocation” and was admitted to the New York bar. Though spurred on by his new relationship with Elizabeth Meagher, he found his popularity as a lecturer, brought in little money as an attorney. As he told Libby in a letter where he told her of his past, “adversity drives the greatest virtue out upon the world, like old King Lear, with folly to attend it.” Meagher was not quite Edgar as Poor Tom yet and spurred on by desire to impress old Townsend money, launched his Irish News newspaper in 1856. The paper brought him influence but not an adequate income and in 1857 he was petitioning incoming Democrat president James Buchanan for “a position, with some emolument attached.” Meagher told Buchanan that he worked hard but could not “realize a respectable competence” and requested a consulship. Meagher answered the charge of hypocrisy over “placehunting” in a letter to Smith O’Brien. “The same feelings which induced me to regard such gifts with contempt and enmity in Ireland, operate in the contrary direction here,” Meagher told his former comrade. “I would rejoice and feel proud in serving the American Republic.”

However no job was forthcoming and Meagher returned to the lecture circuit. In 1858 he turned his attention to Central America though his first visit to Costa Rica brought in no income other than a few articles for Harper’s New Monthly and new material for his lectures. But with a civil war looming, audiences were not interested in hearing about Central America. In 1859 he sold the Irish News and returned again to Costa Rica as an agent for Ambrose Thompson’s proposed Chiriqui road linking the Atlantic and Pacific. Like many of Meagher’s schemes that ended in disappointing failure and he seemed at his lowest ebb when he returned to America in early 1861.

Meagher’s monetary problems were put on hold by the civil war. “Life was simpler in the field” Meagher once tellingly told Libby, and not just because the army had to obey orders. Meagher enjoyed the regular salary and it was not just for prestige and rank that he wanted the brevet position of major-general at the end of the war. He failed in an attempt to get allowances from the army during the time he was on inactive duty. A return to speaking engagements was impossible so after a decade of living under his father-in-law’s roof he went “placehunting” for a role out west. This time it suited Washington to offer him the role of territorial secretary in Montana.

Refusing to take a salary, Meagher’s debts quickly mounted in Montana. His attempts to dabble in quartz mining failed for lack of capital and he was forced to borrow money from friends. In one letter to his creditor Baron O’Keefe, Meagher requested $1000 so he could “return to Virginia City a proud and independent Irish gentleman.” By late 1866 Meagher was unable to pay doctor or druggist bills and his will faced large invoices for powders and solutions, citrate of magnesium and “soothing” pills including opium tablets.

On July 1, 1867 Meagher faced unemployment again as Governor Smith returned from the east and a new secretary was also on his way. He desperately needed money. He had written to his brother-in-law Barlow saying he had turned down the unpaid Democratic nomination for territorial senate delegate, “not being rich enough to accept the nomination”. He had brought a formal action in court for the back pay he was owed and the court had ruled in his favour. The sum of almost $4000 would go a long way to ease the fretting of creditors. But territorial auditor John Ming had yet to release the money. That last day Meagher wrote his final letter to Ming asking him to send the money in greenbacks if possible (and not the lesser value Montana territorial scrip) “as a personal favor which shall be most gratefully remembered” to Baker’s at Fort Benton. “I am utterly, utterly out of funds and it is absolutely necessary, I should have same.” Unknown to Meagher, Ming had agreed to release some of the money three days earlier. But now Poor Tom was dead and it was Ming’s sad job to forward the letter and the money to his widow instead.

Thomas Francis Meagher’s life in 100 objects 98. The Jesuit Catholic

The Thomas Francis Meagher family vault at the cemetery of Faithlegg Catholic church, Co Waterford. Photo: Author’s collection.

In the first edition of his Irish News in April 1856 Thomas Francis Meagher described the Jesuits who educated him for 10 years at Clongowes Wood and then Stonyhurst. Their “prevailing identity” he said, was suggestive of a grand belief. “The belief that there is. or can be with all the strifes, vagaries, incongruities, or enmities, a code of moral excellence, gentleness and beauty, which may reconcile and blend the diversities and antipathies which our common nature, diseased by the fatal Fall, has thrown out and multiplied.” Meagher did not say it, but the same belief informed his own Catholic worldview in the 44 years of his life.

While Meagher would have picked up some of that identity at school, it was already deeply instilled thanks to own family. The pre-eminent badge of identity of the Newfoundland Irish was their shared Catholicism. His grandfather’s strong Catholic faith inspired his attitudes and charitable actions to the poor in Newfoundland while the Catholic Church was also a defining force in Meagher’s father’s life. Meagher sent his son to Stonyhurst because he regarded Trinity College Dublin as a hotbed of Protestant “bigotry and intolerance.” Thomas Meagher also admired the zeal in which the Catholic clergy teach “an unconditional subordination to the law.”

His son would eventually come in conflict with that zeal though as a young man seemed to be following in his father’s footsteps. When he came back from England, Thomas Francis noted with satisfaction his father becoming the first Catholic mayor of Waterford in 150 years. “It was a glorious thing,” Meagher wrote, “to see the Mayor going to Mass.” In one of his earliest speeches in October 1843 after O’Connell’s Repeal meeting in Clontarf was cancelled Meagher cautioned the people of Waterford against a violent response and supported O’Connell (and his father’s) call for a “strict observance of the law.” In another speech Meagher also supported his father on the Charitable Bequests Act which was “passed into law in direct opposition to the earnest remonstrance of the clergy, the bishops and the people of Ireland.”

However the young man gradually drifted from his father’s positions as he fell under the more ecumenical philosophies of Young Ireland. Meagher was inspired in particular by the Protestant founder of the Nation Thomas Davis. In late 1845 Meagher wrote a letter to the Waterford Chronicle disassociating himself from his father’s position against the Queen’s Colleges and called himself “an ardent advocate of the principles of ‘mixed education’.” Companions of youth, he said, would be colleagues in manhood and this union would ensure that “sectarianism, the most serious obstacle to the progress of the nation, would be forever removed.” The letter was later used against Meagher during the bitter election campaign of 1848. He revealed a sign of the shift in his thinking in an 1847 speech in Belfast when he said Catholic priests dominated the Repeal movement “which the Protestant portion of the community could not recognise, and which, I maintain, it would be an abdication of their civil liberty for Protestants to tolerate.”

The 1848 election first brought Meagher up against the power of Catholic priests with Father Cuddihy leading the charges against him. When the candidates were nominated Cuddihy claimed Meagher sought to subject the religion of Catholic electors. “Tis no wonder he would pull down the altar, when he has already pulled down parental authority by going against the father.” The generation gap was a common theme in Cuddihy’s complaints. “Oh Mr Meagher,” exclaimed Cuddihy on another occasion, “a heavy responsibility will alight on you for making the children of Ireland disobedient to parents.”

Meagher ran into more clerical opposition as he attempted to gain support for the rising in the summer of 1848. Every time Meagher and his fellow rebels agitated for violence, the priests would come afterwards to dampen down enthusiasm. Had the Catholic priests supported the revolution like they did in Milan, Meagher wrote, “there would have been a young Nation, crowned with glory, standing proudly up by the side of England at this hour.” Yet Meagher refused to blame them for the rising’s failure. “The priests did not betray us,” he wrote, “as a body they were opposed to us.”

As an exile in Van Diemen’s Land’s small Catholic community, Meagher was more accommodating to the church, quickly making a friend of young Irish Richmond priest William Dunne while another priest named Bond was among the regular visitors to Lake Sorell. Bishop Willson conducted the marriage of Meagher and Catherine Bennett, and he accompanied her on her long voyage to Ireland.

By then Meagher was in New York and after an initial warm welcome his ecumenical and radical leanings attracted more trouble. After speaking favourably of European revolutionaries like Mazzini and Kossuth, Meagher complained he was denounced from the pulpits and “the bigoted Catholic press”. He also irritated the clergy by refusing to limit his lectures to Catholic charities. But Meagher wisely did not respond to the attacks and soon, he said, “the storm has blown over and peace reigns between the Young Rebel and the church.”

An important part of his accommodation with the church was his growing relationship with the all-powerful Catholic archbishop of New York John Hughes. Hughes was initially suspicious of Meagher’s “extreme Irishism” and the pair clashed after Meagher gave an address in New York which Hughes felt conveyed the notion Catholics were unqualified for republican freedom and civil liberty. Meagher denied ever having made such a statement but placated Hughes by admitting a sentence decrying religious intolerance on the part of Catholics, could have been misconstrued. But perhaps it was the obvious conservative Catholicism of Meagher’s father which did most to smooth the relationship when they met during his 1853 visit to America and Hughes’s biographer said the archbishop was willing to accept Meagher’s assurance he was as true and faithful to his church as much as his country. Hughes greatly helped Meagher in the delicate matter of marrying the Episcopalian Elizabeth Townsend by conducting the ceremony at his own private residence and in 1861 he acceded to Meagher’s request to conduct a Requiem Mass in his cathedral for MacManus, an honour for a revolutionary which Dublin archbishop Cullen later refused.

By then America was about to embark in bloody civil war where God, though invoked by both sides, took a back seat. To recruit men for his Irish Brigade, Meagher appealed to their nationality not their religion. But it was a mainly Catholic brigade, the three New York regiments almost exclusively so, and there were five Catholic chaplains serving six regiments. Chaplain Corby said that although not pious, Meagher was strong in his faith and proudly called himself Catholic and Irish. “He was well instructed in his religion and I should have pitied the one who had the temerity to speak disparagingly of it in his presence.” Corby was often close to Meagher’s side in battle and the general often conducted the music in Mass. Corby also admired Libby, who was by then “a devout Catholic convert,” no doubt partially thanks to the adroit coaching of Hughes.

When the war ended Meagher brought a missionary zeal to his newest project which was to populate the west with Irish Catholics. He quickly established a relationship with the Minnesota bishop Thomas Grace and the President of the Minnesota Irish Emigration Society, Father John Ireland. Ireland later wrote to a Jesuit priest, Father Lawrence Palladino about Meagher’s plans. “It was his wish, he repeatedly stated, to colonize Montana with Catholics, drawing settlers principally from Irishmen in Ireland and America,” Father Ireland wrote. He said Meagher would make efforts to secure priests from Dublin while Bishop Grace advised him to speak to the bishop of St. Louis about appointing a bishop in Montana. Meagher and Libby both wrote to the bishop of St. Louis and Meagher’s actions successfully convinced the council of bishops to make Montana a vicariate.

Meagher also made strong friendships with Jesuit priests in Montana including De Smets, Ravalli and Kuppens and he was instrumental in seeing Kuppens appointed as Helena’s first priest. The Jesuits reminded Meagher of the happiest days of his life. “In the sunny presence and cordial society of these dear, gentle, noble Fathers, many of the golden recollections of the cloudless and unembittered days of my boyhood and College life came crowding back to me, and thus, even in the midst of that storm, and after years of no very friendly experience of the world, was the spring-time of my life – with all its flowers and melodies, hopefulness and sprightliness – renewed.” Along with Libby, religion, or Meagher’s Jesuitical “prevailing identity” view of it, was the primary comfort of his final years. Palladino was deeply grateful for Meagher’s support of the church and he dismissed reports that Meagher’s death was suicide as inconceivable. “He was a man of deep faith, he had a firm belief in God and a hereafter, and such men do not commit suicide,” Palladino wrote. In death if not life, Meagher had finally come to resemble his own father.

Thomas Francis Meagher’s life in 100 objects 97. The demon drink

The statue of Father Theobald Mathew in Dublin, “the apostle of temperance”. Photo: author’s collection

When Waterford mayor Thomas Meagher held a dinner for Capuchin friar Father Theobald Mathew in 1843 he invited his son Thomas Francis to speak at the event. This was a high honour. Father Mathew, a Tipperary man like the Meagher forebears, was “the Apostle of Temperance” and had established a massive Irish temperance movement which O’Connell used as both the template and the membership base for his later Repeal organisation. The first Irish temperance movements had started in the 1820s, inspired by American models, but they encouraged moderation not abstention and was not popular among Catholics. A few lay Catholics in the movement approached Mathew to act as president of the Cork Total Abstinence Society.  His activity was deliberately non-political and he won considerable support among non-Catholics. Mathew administered a teetotal pledge to large crowds and the movement spread quickly from Cork to Limerick and Waterford, then across the country. At its peak the movement attracted three million members, almost half the Irish population, while Mathew was the second most popular figure in the country after O’Connell.

There was a need for Mathew’s crusade. Alcohol abuse was rampant in early 19th-century Ireland. A visitor to Waterford in the 1830s, Henry David Inglis, noted between “two and three hundred licensed houses” in a city of 30,000 people and said that “whisky drinking prevails to a dreadful extent.” In September 1838, were charged with drunkenness while the Chief Constable needed to recruit 15 extra policemen to enforce the act. The Waterford Chronicle asked if there was another town “where drunkenness has made such a havoc as Waterford?” Mathew’s visits to the city had at least a temporary effect with 100,000 taking the pledge. Meagher senior was a committed teetotaler who felt that a successful abstinence campaign would dramatically reduce crime in his city. Meagher aligned himself closely with Mathew and offered the mayor’s carriage in his visits in January and May 1843 and was present as Mathew administered the pledge. Mathew’s second visit that year to Waterford coincided with the return of Thomas Francis from school and the young man turned on the Stonyhurst charm at a dinner that evening as he hailed Mathew. “His eulogy on the great Apostle of Temperance was listened to in wonder and admiration, and enthusiastically applauded,” Cavanagh wrote.

While Meagher senior was most concerned about the effect of alcohol on the poor, one wonders as he listened to his son’s speech that night, whether he considered its impact on his own family. He would have been aware his son enjoyed the good life and was an imbiber as a young man. He was a regular member of the Waterford Club where “cordially they used to drink my health and cheer my stammering speeches at their dinners” while at the house of the parish priest of St Patrick’s he dined with Richard Sheil who shared jokes, anecdotes, quotations and epigrams over the best Blackwater salmon, and the choicest Epernay wine.

Meagher would also have enjoyed the conviviality of Irish Confederation and 82′ Club meetings in Dublin and even arrest and imprisonment in 1848 did not stop his ability to hold parties. At Richmond prison a Meagher invite to a friend read “We are having a little soiree here on Monday evening (with) something of a supper and a dance of course. The Governor has most kindly given us the use of his apartments, and desires me to intimate to all our friends his wish they should ask at the hatch for the Governor.”

Even in exile in Van Diemen’s Land, Meagher continued to organise parties for his friends where alcohol would have been flowing and his arrival in New York was a succession of banquets, grand balls and other boozy events. This was also a city where the saloon was the centre of political life. Meagher’s fondness for alcohol did little to dispel the American nativist myth of the “drunken Paddy” even though severe alcohol problems were less in Irish communities than English or Slavic populations. One of the first written references to Meagher’s drinking problem came from an Fenian leader James Stephens on his 1858 visit to New York. Stephens believed Meagher had a generous heart and could do great service for Ireland, “but for his proverbial weakness.” The comment was off-hand and unexplained but the fact that the weakness was in italics and “proverbial” suggests that it was well known to his contemporaries. One of the few prior American references to Meagher’s drinking in the public record is from a 1857 meeting with Nicaraguan filibuster Walker when “Mr. Thomas Francis Meagher, with others, received him in their arms, and the noble company drove across Broadway to the Saint Nicholas Hotel, where they got drunk.”

The civil war would accentuate Meagher’s reputation for drinking. The Irish Brigade was renowned for its party and copious measures of alcohol. The 69th New York’s “Regimental Cocktail” emerged when Meagher’s staff were unable to find Vichy water to mix with whiskey and instead found champagne which Meagher mixed “into a satisfying punch”.

While his friend and supporter Methodist minister George Pepper could praise Meagher as “a genial, instructive and delightful companion” he admitted that “his strongest weakness was a devoted love of the social pleasures.” Fellow man of the cloth and Meagher supporter William Corby said Meagher’s convivial spirit would sometimes lead him too far, but he was no drunkard. “It was not for the love of liquor, but for the love of sport and joviality that he thus gave way, and these occasions were few.” 

Others were less charitable. While immediately after the battle of Bull Run, Maria Lydig Daly praised Meagher’s courage by February 1862 she had changed her tune in her support of Corcoran to lead the Irish Brigade. “It would seem from all we can learn that Meagher was intoxicated and had just sense and elation enough to make one rush forward and afterwards fell from his horse drunk.” Rumours of drunkenness also dogged Meagher at Fair Oaks, Savages Station and Antietam while Private William McCarter was witness to a time Meagher almost fell into a fire after a boozy officer’s meeting before Fredericksburg.

Meagher drank often to excess and probably sampled from the bottle to summon courage prior to the action at Bull Run, Gaines Mill, and likely again at Antietam. But civil war historian Stephen Sears said reports of drunken officers were not uncommon. He quoted a Yankee soldier who said generals with whiskey courage were in every battle and “the officers who did not drink more or less were too scarce in the service.” Generals Ulysses Grant and Joe Hooker were also notoriously heavy drinkers but neither were Irish and therefore unlikely to be targets of residual Know Nothingism.

It is likely however, that Meagher’s problems with alcohol worsened in his final years. In August 1864 he was notoriously thrown out of General Gates’s quarters for continued drunkenness. Army provost marshal Marsena Patrick reported in his diary on August 18 that “Genl. Meagher is lying in the tent of the chaplain for the 20th as drunk as a beast, and has been so since Monday, sending out his servant for liquor and keeping his bed wet and filthy! I have directed Col. Gates to ship him tomorrow if he does not clear out.” And in February 1865 Major Scott reported finding Meagher drunk and unable to issue orders or follow directions. “I saw him on board the steamer Ariel (and) I became convinced from his appearance, manner and conversation that he was too much under the influence of liquor to attend to duty,” Scott said. This damning evidence was enough for Grant to sack him though historian David Work said Meagher’s alcoholism impaired his ability to command troops in combat and provided evidence he should have been relieved in his Irish Brigade days.

Alcohol problems followed Meagher to Montana. While William Chumasero’s comments in a letter that Meagher’s habits were “beastly and filthy in the extreme” can be dismissed as nonsense to impress his brother-in-law Sanders, sheriff Neil Howie was likely not exaggerating when observed in his diary that the governor was “very drunk” with a party in his office where the brandy and wine flew and “the boys (were) nearly all drunk” during the Second Montana Territorial Legislature on March 5, 1866. Yet Howie’s statement “the boys” were all in it together shows that alcohol was a deep part of Montana’s gold rush culture. Meagher famously ran up a $274 bar bill which included “seventy-four meals, nineteen bottles of wine, seven tumblers of cocktails, a dozen pitchers of beer, forty-four individual drinks, forty-three cigars, a bottle of whiskey, and a bowl of punch.” However, Elliott West argues Meagher used this liquor “to lubricate the machinery of government” in a territory where politicians gravitated to the bar-room and there was one saloon for every 80 people.

Libby likely helped in keeping her husband on the straight and narrow when she arrived in mid 1866 but she was not there for his final fateful journey. Storekeeper Baker had testified Meagher had “got on a bender” on the way to Fort Benton and there was much evidence that Meagher drank heavily on the day. When the news of Meagher’s death reached Helena two days later, James Fisk’s brother Andrew wrote in his diary about Meagher that he had been on a steamer to visit friends. “Got on a spree – went to bed – was heard to get up and go out – a splash was heard” and Meagher was seen no more. Fisk’s pithy conclusion was “Another victim of whiskey.”

Father Mathew and Meagher’s own father had seen enough Irish victims of whiskey in their time to be supporters of temperance. “I ask you,” Meagher senior said in 1847, “what greater crime can there be than drunkenness?” This was a rhetorical exaggeration. Meagher knew well there were greater crimes and his son narrowly avoided a death sentence for one barely a year later. But he also knew temperance was simply not in his son’s gregarious nature. Perhaps Thomas Meagher ruminated on that after he heard of his son’s death. There were no greater crimes for Thomas Francis than alcohol abuse, and ultimately the demon drink destroyed him in a way the British never could.

Thomas Francis Meagher’s life in 100 objects 96. The written word

This portrait of Meagher, taken after his arrival in America, appeared in Speeches on the Legislative Independence of Ireland (1853). Photo: public domain

Thomas Francis Meagher’s life is well documented in hundreds of speeches, pamphlets, letters and newspaper articles he wrote from the mid 1840s through to his death. His first publication was in 1847 when he edited Thomas Davis’s Letters of a Protestant on Repeal for the Irish Confederation. Meagher added little insight to the volume saying his objective was to “cherish the memory” of the Young Ireland founder. He did briefly, however, show the impact of his own privileged upbringing on political philosophy saying he wanted Ireland to achieve independence as a confederation of the aristocracy and democracy where “the social arrangement of the country would be less disturbed.” His first publication abroad Speeches on the Legislative Independence of Ireland (1853) was a collection of Meagher’s Irish speeches compiled for an American audience, “chiefly influenced by the desire of placing upon record, in a permanent form, the opinions that led me, through various changes of fortune and of climate, to this Republic.” From 1856 Meagher concentrated his writing at the Irish News before showing a talent for travel writing with his Costa Rican adventures (1859 and 1861) and his later Rides Through Montana (1875) published by Harper’s. His newspaper articles from the Bull Run campaign were published as Last Days of the 69th in Virginia (1861) and his civil war letters to Dublin were published as Letters on our national struggle (1863). Yet Meagher never wrote a memoir and the task of biography was left to his friends after his death.

Two books featuring Meagher emerged on either side of the Atlantic in the year of his death. In Ireland Meagher’s old school friend Patrick Smyth published The Life and Times of Thomas Francis Meagher. Despite the title, the book concentrated on Meagher’s time in Ireland as the book’s editor J.C. Waters acknowledged and mostly consists of long passages from Meagher’s speeches. His long years out of Ireland are dealt with summarily by the statement that Meagher was “no querulous craven” and he was a “poet rebel” who took his fate “with all the heroism of an Irish patriot.” Though very little of Meagher’s personality emerges, Smyth’s account is enlivened by one story which took place after the Young Irelanders broke away from Repeal in 1846. When a Repealer named Captain Broderick described Meagher in “offensive language” and then refused to meet Meagher or explain his behaviour, Smyth said he accompanied Meagher to Westmoreland St in Dublin where they came face to face with Broderick. “Meagher instantly lifted his cane and struck Broderick across the shoulder,” Smyth wrote. Broderick called for the police and the pair were bound over to keep the peace. The incident hints at Meagher’s temper and has parallels with a later Meagher attack on one of his New York critics, newspaper editor James McMaster.

Tipperary man David Power Conyngham was interested in a different sort of hagiography when he published The Irish Brigade and its Campaigns also in 1867. Conyngham was a former Young Irelander and journalist who Meagher appointed a captain in his Brigade after the battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862 when he arrived in America armed with introductions from Smyth and Smith O’Brien. Conyngham’s goal was to rehabilitate the reputation of the Irish Brigade after the disaster of Fredericksburg. Conyngham brings a journalist’s eye to his colourful accounts of the campaign and depicted Meagher as a war hero and “one of the old Irish princes of medieval times”. One modern historian said the way Conyngham and his later fellow Irish Brigade memoirists Father William Corby and the Pennsylvanian St Clair Mulholland emphasised the patriotism and courage of the Irish Brigade “created a body of literature important to any consideration of how Americans remember the civil war.”

Similar heroic themes are found in Captain W.F. Lyons’s Brigadier Thomas Francis Meagher: His Political and Military Career (1870). Lyons was a lifelong friend who wanted to carry out Meagher’s own wish that his speeches be recorded in permanent form and is a valuable collection of Meagher’s views on Republican government and the American Union. The book also contained the first account of Meagher’s death. The book raised the ire of the Catholic World for publishing a Meagher speech where he stood “prepared to resist the temporal power of the pope” which the World said primly, “contains doctrines mostly clearly condemned by the Catholic church” and they could not “recommend this book to the Catholic public, or consider it a worthy monument of Thomas Francis Meagher.” American publisher and politician John Weiss Forney also included that speech in his 1881 collection Anecdotes of Public Men. Forney believed Meagher’s mind was mirrored in his “exquisite” speeches. “In these you see the man better than in a biography,” Forney wrote. “You read the story of his boyhood and his manhood; his patriotism, his religion, his politics, and his prejudices.”

The first publication resembling a biography came out in 1892. Meagher’s Fenian friend from Cappoquin Co Waterford, Michael Cavanagh published Memoirs of Gen. Thomas Francis Meagher, Comprising the Leading Events of his Career which had a strong focus on Meagher’s Irish life and unsurprisingly played up the Fenian affiliations, recasting Meagher as a fervent nationalist dedicated to “national liberty” and a “soldier orator (who) always prided in being thoroughly Irish.”

Yet there was little reflection on Meagher in his native Ireland until Sinn Fein leader Arthur Griffith saw resemblances between the Young Irelanders and his own revolutionary organisation in the lead-up to the Easter Rising. In 1913 Griffith published a preface to Mitchel’s Jail Journal where he wrote that “the haughty spirit of a great Irishman though baffled in its own generation may set the feet of our country in the way of triumph in the next.” Three years later he put Meagher to similar use in Meagher of the Sword Speeches of Thomas Francis Meagher in Ireland 1846-48. Like Smyth, Lyons and Cavanagh, Griffith presented Meagher in his own words, while praising Meagher as the national orator of the 19th century and his speeches were “the authentic eloquent voice” of Irish nationalism. “The Young Ireland movement had its philosophers, its poets, its statesmen, but without Meagher it would have been incomplete,” Griffith wrote. “In him it gave to Ireland the National Tribune.”

But Meagher’s own story remained incomplete. Not until a century after the Young Ireland revolution did Colorado academic Robert Athearn publish the first critical biography: Thomas Francis Meagher: An Irish Revolutionary in America (1949). Athearn meticulously used unpublished documents, official archives and American newspapers to paint a picture of Meagher as “mercurial, ambitious and self seeking” and whose career met disappointment at every turn. Athearn was unsympathetic but perceptively identified Meagher as like America itself, “young, enthusiastic, filled with optimism and willing to struggle for ends that seemed barely possible.”

Even Athearn had glossed over Meagher’s Irish past which he dismissed as a “youthful indiscretion” and his biography showed the difficulty of writing about someone who had lived in two radically different worlds – or four, if Tasmania and Montana are included. Irish Young Ireland academic and Smith O’Brien’s great grandson Denis Gwynn acknowledged the Irish part of the problem in his 1961 O’Donnell lecture on Meagher. Gwynn noted newer work on Young Ireland such as his own history and T.J. Kiernan’s The Irish Exiles in Australia based on the unpublished letters of Kevin and Eva O’Doherty. Gwynn said Meagher’s claim to immortality lay not in his achievements but in his Irish speeches and in the “intense personal affection and devotion which his gay courage inspired in his contemporaries.” Gwynn quoted from O’Gorman’s eulogy that Meagher had “gave all, lost all” for Ireland before doing the same in America as her “true and loyal soldier” who in the end, “died in her service.”

Then in 1998 Australian author Thomas Keneally brought Meagher to life in his The Great Shame and the Triumph of the Irish in the English Speaking World. Keneally’s nineteenth century scope was vast but Meagher emerges as one of the two heroes of the book along with Fenian John Boyle O’Reilly, who would laud Meagher in verse to anoint his own revolution. Keneally also throws knowledgeable light on Meagher’s brief Australian experience.

Interest in Meagher has blossomed in the 21st century. In 2003 Montana college administrator Gary Forney wrote Thomas Francis Meagher: Irish Rebel, American Yankee, Montana Pioneer which attempted to do justice to the main phases of Meagher’s life. A longtime student of the civil war Forney knew of Meagher’s involvement in the Irish Brigade but was not attracted to his story until Forney first saw his statue in Helena. Forney says Meagher was “not only a participant but also a significant personality upon the stage of world events.” Forney’s aim was to provide a more comprehensive view on Meagher’s Montana life and half the book is dedicated to those last two years of his life.

Two years later an Irish academic compilation appeared called Thomas Francis Meagher: The making of an Irish American. Edited by Waterford-born John M. Hearne and English-born American-based Rory Cornish, it was stimulated by Hearne’s visit to Montana to deliver a lecture on Meagher in 2003. The book has solid contributions on all aspects of Meagher’s life, family and times and contains a short tour de force foreword from another Waterford academic Roy Foster which painted Meagher as a hero of a Berlioz opera. whose “headlong life, combined the themes of youth, idealism, conflict with a powerful father, failed revolution, transportation to and escape from an exotic location, impulsive marriage, exile and war, and the climax comes with a sudden and mysterious death.” John Hearne understood Meagher as a “reluctant revolutionary” who was fully aware of the privileges of his status but was propelled forward by “the obligations of leadership and honour.”

In 2007 another biography emerged from Montana, Paul Wylie’s The Irish General: Thomas Francis Meagher. Wylie is a lawyer whose painstaking use of official documents, letters and telegrams sheds a great deal of light on Meagher’s American life, especially his time in Montana. Wylie’s account is sympathetic though it takes a hard look at Meagher’s problems with alcohol and his practiced legal eye throws much light on the events of Meagher’s death. Nevertheless Wylie said Meagher should not be remembered for his drinking or the manner of his death. “It is Meagher’s great courage, brilliant oratory, widespread influence and world renown that should dominate the memory of the man,” Wylie concluded.The dramatic aspects of Meagher’s story are excentuated in the most recent biography, The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero by New York Times columnist Timothy Egan. Egan adds little original research to the subject but he brings his Pulitzer Prize winning skills to bring the lively story of the “dashing young orator” to a wider audience, claiming “his life is the story of Ireland.” Egan’s claim is nonsense but following on from Foster, he realised that that Meagher’s story if not operatic, then at least was potentially cinematic and within a year Hollywood actor and producer John Cusack announced he was “shooting a major film on the life of Thomas Francis Meagher” based on Egan’s book. The project has yet to see the light of day. Perhaps in these post-COVID times, Meagher’s life is better served as a Netflix mini-series.

Thomas Francis Meagher’s life in 100 objects 95. Irish graves

The grave of Thomas Meagher at Glasnevin cemetery. Almost directly behind is O’Connell Tower which houses the body of Meagher senior’s hero Daniel O’Connell. Photo: Author’s collection

Unlike his old comrade Meagher, John Mitchel lived long enough to see his native Ireland again. After he was arrested in June 1865 Mitchel spent four months in jail at Fort Monroe with Jefferson Davis. His conditions were harsh and he aged noticeably, becoming stooped and looking haggard beyond his 50 years. After Irish-Americans including O’Gorman and O’Mahony complained to authorities he was released and moved to France where the Fenians appointed him financial agent. However he quarrelled with leader James Stephens who regarded Mitchel as a “disgruntled egoist and man of the past.” His final loss of faith in the Fenians came after their failed raid into Canada in 1866 and he resigned as financial officer of the Irish Republican Brotherhood on June 12 and returned to America. “One cannot live forever astride upon the Atlantic Ocean,” he said.

Back in Richmond Mitchel wrote his influential History of Ireland from the Treaty of Limerick. He then moved to New York in 1867 where he founded another newspaper the Irish Citizen which printed “Thomas Francis Meagher reminiscences” after his death that year. Mitchel continued to defend the South calling emancipation “a monstrous crime” and dismissing accounts of Ku Klux Klan violence as fabrications. On Irish matters, he wrote letters on Fenianism to Martin which said he had supported Fenian principles for 20 years, however the current organisation was “established upon a wrong and false basis by that wretched Stephens.” Mitchel was no happier with the new Home Rule movement established in 1870 calling its founder Isaac Butt a “humbug.” As Keneally wrote, Mitchel had not lost the old gift to offend both sides of the argument.

Mitchel’s health declined in 1873 and, unable to write, he fell into poverty. John and William Dillon, son of Nation founder John Blake Dillon who had died a year before Meagher, raised a testimonial in his honour and he drew closer to the young Dillons and to Irish politics. Under their influence he ran for the seat of Cork in 1874 but finished bottom of the poll. Undeterred he decided to return to Ireland, accompanied by daughter Isabel, to run again in person. Authorities decided against arresting the undischarged felon, but since his term had expired, and transportation was abolished, they settled for keeping a close watch on him. He continued to detest Home Rule, refusing even to stay with his old friend – and now brother-in-law John Martin, who had married Mitchel’s sister – though he accepted a dinner invite from Lady Wilde, the erstwhile Young Irelander “Speranza”. With his health worsening, he went back to America in October, but returned to Ireland three months later, this time with son James, when he heard a parliamentary vacancy had opened up in Tipperary.

Despite Mitchel’s opposition to Home Rule, Martin endorsed his candidacy saying “the national dignity” would not suffer if Mitchel got in. And when Mitchel arrived in Queenstown in February, he found he was already elected. Nominations had closed a day earlier and Mitchel was the only candidate. When parliament then declared him ineligible, Mitchel said he would run again. He spoke to great cheers in Clonmel, but by now was dying, with only his “indomitable will” keeping him going. On March 11, 1875, he was re-elected, defeating a Tory candidate. Mitchel put his victory down to the fact he “had made no peace with England.” But Mitchel seemed to have made peace with Ireland and he died nine days later at his childhood home at Newry. John Martin, also seriously ill, attended the funeral before following his great lifelong friend to the grave a week later.

Mitchel’s influence on Ireland was muted in life but his works took on new meaning in death. His contention that the Famine was deliberate genocide was a key factor in the revival of Irish military nationalism in the 20th century. Patrick Pearse hailed Mitchel as a nationalist hero with almost religious fervour, as someone who had delivered “God’s word to man.” Fellow revolutionary Arthur Griffith named his newspaper the United Irishman in Mitchel’s honour, saying he was a “proud, fiery-hearted, electric-brained, giant-souled Irishman” who stood up to the might of the British Empire. Griffith was particularly important in reassessing the reputations of Mitchel and Meagher, writing prefaces for both the Jail Journal and Meagher of the Sword.

But the reputation of both men suffered after the Irish war of independence that Griffith and Pearse did so much to bring about. It was the ideas of Meagher and his fellow young Irelanders which would influence Irish politics in the decades that followed, though they went out of fashion once Ireland had achieved independence. Writing in 1968, Young Ireland historian Richard Davis said the movement was little more than a link in the chain of nationalist ideology and its “legacy of chauvinist verse, bombastic rhetoric and intellectual soul-searching” held little appeal. As one modern scholar notes, Mitchel in particular, “with his overblown romantic nationalism, his bitter hatred of Britain, his support for the institution of slavery, his antisemitism and hostility to parliamentary democracy” is an embarrassment for modern Ireland. Mitchel’s 2008 biographer acknowledges there is much to deplore in Mitchel’s thinking but he is “one who cannot be ignored.”

Meagher’s ideas on slavery are less deplorable than his great friend Mitchel but still rooted in his 19th century mindset and perhaps that makes them easier to ignore. His reputation in Ireland remains based on his contribution to the Irish flag, an idea inspired perhaps by Mitchel. In his Sword preface, Griffith admitted Meagher was not on the same plane as Mitchel “in strength of intellect and character.” Meagher, however, “was the most picturesque and gallant figure of Young Ireland.”

In America his name was kept alive through his association with the Irish Brigade as Kennedy noted when he came to Ireland in 1963, but for many years there was a marked reluctance to celebrate Meagher’s legacy in his homeland .The Glasnevin grave of his father is neglected and overgrown but at least Thomas Meagher senior was buried within view of his beloved O’Connell. His son’s ghost had no such solace. There was talk of a Meagher monument in Waterford as early as 1868 but nothing came of it. Although he was honoured in Helena in 1905, it took almost a century for his home town to reciprocate. Funded by the Irish Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, an equestrian statue by sculptor Catherine Greene was placed next to Reginald’s Tower on May 12, 2004 to mark a meeting of European environment ministers in Waterford.

Making up for lost time, Waterford granted Meagher a second honour a few years later. A new cable-stayed bridge opened over the Suir in 2009, the largest in Ireland at the time. In 2015 Irish president Michael D. Higgins officially renamed the new bridge in Meagher’s honour, saying few Irish patriots have appealed so warmly to the popular imagination in their own time as has Thomas Francis Meagher in the mid-19th century. “Eloquent, generous, passionate, courageous and handsome; in turn orator, journalist, lawyer, revolutionary, convict, soldier in the American civil war and Acting Governor of Montana,” Higgins said. “There is a picturesque, almost literary, quality to Meagher’s personality and life, which continues to capture our imagination.” It still captures American imagination too. In 2017, the 150th anniversary of Meagher’s death, the Montana Order of Hibernians put up a plaque to him in front of Baker’s store at Fort Benton, Montana. “A few yards from here, Meagher met his mysterious Fate on July 1, 1867,” the plaque says. The curious spelling may be accidental but if ever a mysterious “Fate” deserved to be capitalized it was Meagher’s.

Thomas Francis Meagher’s life in 100 objects 94. Manifest Destiny

American flags flutter outside the Washington Memorial, Washington DC. Photo: Author’s collection

Sail On! Sail On! O Ship of State

Sail on O UNION strong and great

– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Building of the Ship 1849

In the 1830s French visitor Alexis de Tocqueville was struck by the restless energy of Americans and their apparent lack of attachment to place. “No sooner do you set foot on American soil than you find yourself in a sort of tumult,” de Tocqueville wrote. “All around you, everything is on the move.” For most of the 19th century, beginning with the Louisiana Purchase, much of that movement was westward and American freedom was linked with availability of land in the west. In 1843 Jacksonian politician and historian George Bancroft began his history of the United States not with the revolution of 1776 but with Columbus’s voyage of 1492, a longer timeframe with which he hoped “to make America’s founding appear inevitable and its growth inexorable.” The spread of evangelical Christianity, new technology and American-style democracy convinced Bancroft that the United States was bound by God to carry these improvements across the continent.

Irish New York journalist John L. O’Sullivan argued that democracy was “Christianity in its earthly aspect” and he first used the phrase manifest destiny to mean the United States had a divinely appointed mission to occupy all of North America. Americans, said O’Sullivan in 1845 had a far better title to western lands than any international treaty, right of discovery, or long-term settlement could provide and the people of the United States were fated to “possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given for the great experiment of liberty.”

In the two decades leading up to the civil war 300,000 people headed west to Oregon and California. Inspired by expansionist fever most Americans supported the war against Mexico in 1846 (Lincoln and Henry David Thoreau among the few voices of objection) after which one million square miles of California, New Mexico and Texas joined the Union, though the question was would these new territories be slave or free. The discovery of gold in California brought the clash of Free Soilers and Slavery to the Pacific Ocean and eventually laid the foundation for the civil war, which in turn laid the foundation for modern America, destroying slavery and shifting power to the north and the federal government.

As America came to grips with the sectional crisis caused by its vast new territories in the 1850s, expansionist fever began to wane. But Thomas Francis Meagher was a willing and eager recruit for the cause of manifest destiny from the time he was first invited to California in 1854. At the time there was no safe overland way across the continent and Meagher was forced to take a ship to Central America and cross the narrow isthmus before taking another ship up to California. Meagher went from New York to San Juan Del Norte, an important port on Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast which the British captured in 1841 and renamed Greytown. After the California Gold Rush in 1849 America secured a treaty with Nicaragua for a transit route. Cornelius Vanderbilt’s Accessory Transit Company promised to build a canal and in the meantime carried thousands each month from the Atlantic port to the Pacific side of Central America heading to San Francisco. In 1850 Britain and America signed the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty under which Britain maintained control of the port while the US owned the vessels, hotels and land transportation along the route. Meagher was convinced one or other of the two great powers would annex Central America to secure the route between the oceans. Meagher had no doubt that power should be America to secure it as the important link between the east and west coast states.

Still viewing the issue in an anti-English lens, Meagher’s Irish News quoted with approval an 1856 piece in the Irish Nation which described manifest destiny as “legitimate annexation” and meant “England must yield every inch of territory she has unjustly gained and every pretence of authority she has presumed to put forward in Central America.” Meagher supported the filibustering regime of Walker in Nicaragua, which reintroduced slavery in the country, and defended Walker and his lieutenant in American courts in 1857. Then in 1858 Meagher made his first trip to Costa Rica, ostensibly to promote Irish immigration to the region, while American papers speculated that he was there to “lend a hand in the new revolution in Venezuela, instead of the alleged purpose of writing a book.” Meagher promoted Costa Rica’s climate and landscape which potential immigrants would find comfortingly similar. “English wheat and clover, the Irish potato, the American pumpkin, peaches, apples, plums, quinces and strawberries” all found “the most encouraging nurture” in Costa Rica, he wrote. It amounted to little except for rowdy sessions in the mountains where they “ate, drank, talked preposterous politics, shouted the Marseillaise, spread ourselves on Manifest Destiny and ox hides, smoked, drank again, and finally fell off to sleep.” The two visits in 1860 were more openly political, first delivering state papers to the US minister in Costa Rica and then acting as an agent for Andrew Thompson’s planned railway through Chiraqui, which again was a failure.

After the civil war Meagher once again spread himself on Manifest Destiny, this time as part of a great westward rush. In 1862 Congress passed the Homestead Act which allowed citizens to acquire parcels of undeveloped land of up to 160 acres free of charge after improving and living on the land for five years, and in the decades that followed the war, millions of predominantly white homesteaders claimed land across western America. Arriving in St. Paul Meagher told locals he was there to “improve his condition” and set an example to returning soldiers for whom “the untapped resources across the Mississippi” would give them a more satisfactory life. But Meagher and the other settlers did not take into account those who had already tapped those resources except to view them as hostile forces. Steeped in notions of racial superiority and the John Locke philosophy that property in land derived from agricultural improvement, state authorities did little to prevent the ongoing displacement of Native peoples that followed.

In a speech to an Irish-American audience Meagher referred to America’s colonial history as a time “when it was a prey to the Indians.” Meagher wasn’t the only Irishman to fail to make the connection between the Irish and Indian land wars. The Boston Pilot saw the Indian wars as a “struggle betwixt civilization and barbarism, that has agitated the world forever.” Indian tribes had already been forcibly ejected from the eastern states and now the discovery of gold was making life difficult in the west. Nineteenth century American politicians, Lincoln included, had no plan but to continue their extermination. According to Dee Brown, Manifest Destiny was invented to justify breaches of the Indian frontier, “a term which lifted land hunger to a lofty plane.”

Though Meagher attended the Fort Benton Treaty talks in 1865 he believed it was the Indians who reneged on the treaty not the whites. In his message to the 1866 first legislature he referred to Indian “rascalities and crimes—the robberies and murders” which showed a “costly and wasteful policy with which it was believed in Washington the Indians could be tamed and subsidized,” while the whites at Fort Benton were “harassed and hemmed by these savages.” After the Fetterman Massacre later that year white paranoia of Indian “depredations” increased. Sherman could see the wrongs whites were committing in response but even he told Grant “both races cannot use this country in common and one or the other must withdraw.” While Sherman was annoyed by frontier whites outrunning his efforts to force Native peoples onto reservations, to him it only underlined that the process of dispossession needed to be hastened. Sherman was no fan of Meagher but he did agree to provide the rifles to him to help him force that withdrawal. The irony is that the proposed delivery of these guns led indirectly to Meagher’s own death, a victim of his own stampede.

Thomas Francis Meagher’s life in 100 objects 93. Seven Generals

This civil war era portrait of Meagher accompanied his Rides Through Montana article in Harper’s Monthly published after his death in 1867.

Starting around the middle of 1863 a small column started appearing in one of America’s leading Irish newspapers, the Boston Pilot, which nowadays would be called “in-house advertising” In each column, editor Patrick Donahoe offered the paper’s 100,000 subscribers the chance to buy card photographs, sold at 15c each at the Pilot bookshop or mailed out for 20c each. The cards would have been placed on walls or mantlepieces and featured mostly Catholic iconography such as the crucifixion, the Mater Dolorosa, Madonna Guido and St Cecilia. and religious figures of the day such as Pope Pius IX, Bordeaux’s Cardinal Cheverus, New York’s Archbishop Hughes, and Boston’s Bishop Fitzpatrick. Those who wanted “any number of religious subjects” could, the ad stated, address the editor who would then “make a judicious selection for them”.

Also available to buy on a card was Daniel O’Connell, and though hardly a “religious subject” his was a name no one would object to as the holiest of Irish Catholic heroes. However, there were a few other more incongruous names on the list such as Thomas Francis Meagher, or Gen. Meagher as the ad called him, sandwiched between a Rev. Fr. Wiget and the Infant Redeemer. Readers could also buy card photographs for fellow Catholic generals Rosecrans, Shields and Corcoran and two Irish-American colonels Illinois’ James Mulligan and Massachusetts’ Thomas Cass. No one seemed to bat an eyelid at the appearance of the man of the sword and the other martial figures on the list of religious subjects and the list says much about how they were revered in Irish America, despite the first list appearing barely a month after the New York draft riots.

The ads were a money spinner for the Pilot and continued regularly until after the end of the war, the final ads appearing November 17, 1866. By then the cost of each card had gone up to 25c though Donahoe was still offering to make a “judicious selection” on behalf of his readers. The selection was now broken up into categories and religion was well represented with the pope, cardinals, bishops, priests, saints and religious iconography and churches in Boston. Daniel O’Connell was still there, alongside Napoleon III as “prominent men” while a military contingent also survived, in a list now whittled down to seven generals: McClellan, Meade, Rosecrans, Corcoran, Lee, Shields and Thomas Francis Meagher.

The list is illuminating as much as for whom it excludes as includes. None of the three northern heroes of the war feature in it: Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant and William Sherman. The three men were among the few who best understood the south could only be defeated by total war and their cold-hearted and competent commitment to it would pave the way for even bloodier 20th century war. As Whigs and then Republicans, none had any political sympathies towards the Irish, as seen in their attitudes to Meagher. Lincoln treated Meagher with importance and respect as a leading Irishman but failed to action his requests to get his beloved Brigade back to New York. Sherman’s antipathy to Meagher dates back to Bull Run and continued in Tennessee and Montana. Grant, meanwhile, sacked Meagher from the army and along with Sherman refused calls for help in Montana. All three men, Lincoln, Grant and Sherman were icily cold blooded in pursuit of their goals and none of them, not even the assassinated president, would be likely to end up as heroic card photographs in Irish American homes.

In contrast George B. McClellan continued to be a drawcard, though a military and political failure and a Calvinist in religion. Appointed as chief of the Army of the Potomac after the disaster of First Bull Run in 1861, McClellan created an army “out of a mass of disorganised elements” for which his men, the Irish Brigade included, gave him undying affection. After his first sacking at the end of the Seven Days his men believed he was “sacrificed at the shrine of politics” and after Lincoln sacked him again after Antietam Meagher called it a “notorious and criminal” action “which the army of the Union will never forgive.” Yet Meagher did not support his old Democrat friend in the 1864 presidential election, despite his brother-in-law Barlow acting as McClellan’s campaign manager. And neither did the army, which voted three to one in favour of Lincoln. Yet McClellan continued to inspire reverence in the Irish community and in late 1864 Meagher got great cheers as he described McClellan as “highly cultivated, refined in manner as in mind, deeply imbued with a reverence for all that is virtuous, wise and heroic in the history of the republic, proud of his nationality and sensitively jealous of the honor of his country.”

The second man in the list, George Meade, was a figure in more traditional Irish-American Catholic mould and a man who suffered discrimination at the hands of Know Nothings. Old Snapping Turtle had fought with Meagher at Antietam and other battles but more importantly he was the hero of Gettysburg, the battle that turned the tide of the war in the north’s favour. After that battle the Pilot hailed the “superb generalship” of “the grandson of a naturalized Catholic emigrant from Ireland.” The next man on the list, William Rosecrans, had won battles in the west before a disastrous defeat at Chickamauga, which had the second worst Civil War casualty list behind Gettysburg. Rosecrans was born a Dutch Protestant, but earned his undying place in the Pilot’s affection by converting to the Catholic religion in 1847 in his days at the engineer corps at West Point.

Michael Corcoran was a personal friend and rival to Meagher having led the New York 69th Regiment which led to the Irish Brigade and then led his own Corcoran Legion until his death in 1863, unwittingly caused by Meagher’s horse. General James Shields was another Irish-born Catholic general and American politician who provided the template for Meagher’s career and was in many ways his American mentor. Finally there was Robert E. Lee, neither Catholic, Irish, nor Union nor was he known personally by Meagher. However his heroic war exploits were admired by both sides and as he revealed to George Pepper after the war, he admired the fighting spirit of the Irish Brigade.

What of the “gallant Meagher” himself and his own chequered war record? The pro-southern Kelly O’Grady is damning in his assessment calling Meagher’s war record undistinguished. Acknowledging that Meagher was charismatic O’Grady says his army career was as tragic as his brigade’s destruction at Fredericksburg and his conduct was whitewashed by contemporaries. “Meagher was allowed to avoid the hottest fire of battle,” he wrote. “Meagher’s continuance as senior field commander, however, unnecessarily endangered the lives of his men.” Meagher lacked military training and his impetuous decision-making was occasionally suspect, however his mistakes were nothing compared to the monumental blunders of his West Point superiors McClellan, Burnside and Hooker. And his immediate superiors such as Sumner, Hancock and Steedman all respected Meagher. His men certainly respected him and as the founder of the Brigade, he inspired great loyalty in its members. He led by example, “sharing with the humblest soldier freely and heartily all the hardships and dangers of the battle-field (and) never having ordered an advance that I did not take the lead myself.” Brigade Captain David Power Conyngham found him caustic and cutting against enemies but genial and flowing to friends, “full of buoyant vivacity, wit, humour and historical lore.” These were Irish qualities guaranteed to appeal to Donahoe and his Irish American subscribers who reverentially placed his card photograph next to O’Connell and the pope.

Thomas Francis Meagher’s life in 100 objects 92. The Helena monument

The statue of Thomas Francis Meagher outside the Helena capitol building. Photo: Author’s collection

After the excitement of the Meagher era, Green Clay Smith tried to ease a path between Montana’s feuding Republicans and Democrats. On July 14 he issued an order which disbanded most of the militia raised to fight the Indians. In November he called the fourth legislature which promptly restored all the laws disbanded after Congress voided the second and third legislatures. That Democrat-dominated legislature also passed motions declaring judges Munson and Hosmer incompetent and demanded their resignations. Smith also went back east in 1869 and ran for president in 1876 as a candidate for the Prohibition party. The party’s time had not yet come and Smith attracted just 6,945 votes – 0.08 per cent of the electorate.

Meagher’s old enemy Wilbur Fisk Sanders stayed on to wave the Republican flag in Montana. He was consistently defeated in elections for territorial delegate. Then after Montana had finally been admitted as the 41st state of the union in 1889, Sanders was elected one of the new state’s first two senators and served three years.

Thomas Francis Meagher did not live to see the long-promised Irish influx to Montana. The town of Butte began in the late 1800s as a gold and silver mining camp. At the turn of the century, the development of electricity and the industrialization of America resulted in a massive copper boom, and Butte flourished. As copper mining ramped up and the city grew, it attracted workers from all over the globe and by 1900 a quarter of its population was Irish. One of Butte’s “three copper kings” was the Irishman Marcus Daly who worked his way up from the mines of Virginia City to establish the Anaconda copper mine in Butte. Thousands of Irish flocked to the city to work for him and took Daly’s side in a two year “wild capital fight” as he fought unsuccessfully to site the new state capital at Anaconda against Protestant Mason fellow copper king William Clark’s choice of Helena. Though Clark won that battle for Helena after a vote in 1894, the Irish got their revenge a decade later.

The miners founded a Meagher Monument Committee in 1898 with Daly serving as honorary chair. They accepted donations from everyone except Wilbur Fisk Sanders. O’Connell donated $25 for which he received a certificate of membership to the “Thomas Francis Meagher Memorial Association”. After seven years the committee had raised $20,000, enough to put up a monument outside the state capitol.

On July 4, 1905 Elizabeth Meagher was invited to the opening but she was too frail to travel. There an equestrian statue of her husband, with sword raised, was unveiled outside the state house. The monument by Irish-born Chicago sculptor Charles J. Mulligan is as much a tribute to the Irish who made Montana their home as it is to Meagher. Around the base are plaques with details about Meagher’s life erected in his memory “by his friends and admirers in America.”

The mounted Meagher of the Sword was perfect for the monument, an Irish rebel, a civil war hero, a governor, a Catholic and Democrat, and all these aspects are covered in plaques surrounding the plinth. One plaque tells the outline of his early years as an “Irish patriot and orator” who was born in Waterford in 1823; sent to Paris in 1848 by the Irish Confederation to congratulate the French on their revolution, indicted and tried at Clonmel for his “participation in the Irish insurrectionary movement, sentenced to death and commuted to life in Van Diemen’s Land.

A second reads “American soldier and statesman; Brigadier General United States Army; raised and organized the Irish Brigade in the Battles of Fair Oak, Mechanicsville, Gaines Mill, White Oak Swamp, Malvern Hill, Fredericksburg, Antietam and Chancellorsville; appointed to the command of the Etowah district as acting major general in November 1864; Acting governor of Montana from September 1865 to July 1, 1867 when he was drowned in the Missouri River at Fort Benton, Montana.”

A third plaque has two unrelated quotes. The first is from his 1861 Jones Wood recruitment speech in New York. “My heart, my arm, my life are pledged to the national cause and to the last it shall be my highest pride as I conceive it to be my holiest duty and obligation to share its fortunes.” The second is from his St Patrick’s Day 1866 address in Virginia City: “The true American knows, feels and with enthusiasm declares that of all the human emotions, of all the human passions, there is not one more pure, more noble, more conducive to good and great and glorious deeds than that which bears us back to the spot that was the cradle of our childhood, the playground of our boyhood, the theatre of our manhood.”

The fourth has a quote from his speech after Mitchel’s transportation in 1848: “To the end I see the path I have been ordained to walk, and upon the grave which closes in that path, I can read no coward’s epitaph.” There is also a second quote about Meagher: “In Ireland, In America, he invited no man to danger he was not ready to share. Never forget this: He gave all, he lost all for the land of his birth. He risked all for the land of his adoption, was her true and loyal soldier and in the end died in her service.” The quote is not attributed but comes from O’Gorman’s eulogy.

Wilbur Sanders was also too ill to attend the Meagher statue unveiling and he died three days later. Though he was never elected again after his brief Senate stint he remained an active force in Republican politics and the legal profession to the end. Sanders left an important legacy as founder of the Montana Historical Society and one of the most important early histories of Montana was the 1913 three volume A History of Montana, was written by Helen Fitzgerald Sanders, Wilbur’s daughter-in-law. Sanders supported the efforts of her father-in-law to overturn Meagher’s second and third legislatures and uncritically repeated his account of the day of Meagher’s death while dismissing rumours of foul play as “purely hearsay.” She also quotes the elder Sanders who said there was no ill-feeling among the Vigilantes after Meagher’s “so-called” pardon of Daniels. “I would naturally have heard of it had there been (a quarrel), for I was close to those men at that time, although not a member of the organization.”

Those judging Meagher’s legacy in Montana negatively point out his impetuous decision-making and his tendency to “stampede” to deal with the Native American threat, though he was far from alone in thinking they got in the way of the march of white civilisation. Twentieth century Montana historians Malone, Roeder and Lang say Meagher’s role in Montana’s history was “less than constructive”, his Indian campaign was “bogus” and he was “overwhelmed and destroyed by Montana territorial politics”. Hamilton calls him “the most remarkable character connected with the territorial history of Montana” while Burlingame said Meagher “reaped the whirlwind.” He oversaw one of Montana’s most chaotic periods but his predecessor Edgerton left an unholy mess in his hands that would have been impossible for almost anyone to resolve. Early Montana historian Michael Leeson acknowledges that Meagher was “in reality” Montana’s first governor. He had, as his mourners said in 1867, tried to make the territory a better place to live. The Irishman had earned his statue in Helena and not just for his work elsewhere.

Thomas Francis Meagher’s life in 100 objects 91. The Meaghers of America

A 21st century bust of Thomas Francis Meagher now lies next to the grave of his second wife Elizabeth Meagher in the Townsend family plot at Green-Wood cemetery, Brooklyn. Photo: Author’s collection

According to Meagher’s 20th century biographer Robert Athearn, Elizabeth Meagher spent most of the late summer of 1867 at Fort Benton in a haunting search along the river for her husband’s missing body. “For nearly two months after the death of her husband,” Athearn wrote, Meagher’s grief-stricken wife “pathetically patrolled the tawny banks of the Missouri” before reluctantly abandoning the search.

Sadly the romantic image bears little resemblance to the reality. After finding out the news of Meagher’s death around July 5, Libby was forced to remain in Virginia City for several weeks to sort out her husband’s troubled estate. Having initially declined a territorial salary, Meagher changed his mind after he went broke and had requested the Montana court to forward him his salary. His final letter to auditor Ming on July 1 requested him to urgently send the money to Baker’s. Meagher had around $1200 in assets including their partially paid off house, and back pay, but he also had over $3000 in debts to most of the traders in Virginia City. An administrator was appointed in August and the will was not finalised until February 1868 when the house was sold. The administrator announced the estate was largely in debt and “but a small Dividend can be expected of the creditors”.

By that time Libby was back in New York. She signed her last paper on August 10 and two days later boarded a coach for Helena, where she stayed for two weeks before she put her remaining possessions on a wagon and travelled to Fort Benton. No doubt Libby would have inspected the scene of her husband’s death and spoken to Baker and others about what they saw and did on the day. But with no body to account for, there was little to do and within four days she was heading downriver. The Montana Post of August 31 announced she was “homeward bound” on the steamer Gallatin bound for St. Louis and quoted a tribute from Charles Graham Halpine, a former private in Meagher’s 69th, who wrote under the pseudonym of Miles O’ Reilly. “How noble a wife she has been – with what fidelity she has clung to the varying fortune of her brilliant but erratic lord,” O’Reilly wrote. “Whither he went, she followed him; his people became her people, and his God she made her God.”

Libby returned to New York to live in her father’s house. She later moved to East 23rd Street to live in a house belonging to her wealthy brother-in-law Samuel Barlow. She kept in touch with Fenian Andrew O’Connell in Montana and he helped with advice and paid taxes on local mining leases which they had jointly acquired during Meagher’s time in the territory. Many years later she told O’Connell she’d bought shares in a gold mine. “It is so like gambling,” Libby told the old Fenian miner.

Libby also kept in touch with the Irish Meaghers. After Meagher’s death, the Waterford News offered condolences to “his respected father who has lived to have his declining years shadowed by the remembrance of such mournful tidings.” There is no record of Thomas Meagher’s response though his biographer believes “his grief was certainly intense” and would have had no closure as his son did not have a burial.

Nor is there any known public reaction from Meagher’s orphaned 13-year-old son Thomas Bennett Meagher who never saw his father. However when he turned 18 in 1872 he followed in his father’s footsteps and emigrated to America. No longer needing to act as a guardian, his grandfather Thomas Meagher retired to Bray, where he moved into a house with his younger son Henry and his wife. He never saw his grandson again. When he died two two years later, Thomas Meagher was buried in Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin, not the family plot in Faithlegg.

In America Thomas Bennett lived with Libby who listed herself as his stepmother on his application to join the US military academy at West Point. Former Fenian and now Congressman William Randall Roberts supported the application of “the only son of a general, who rendered such distinguished service to the Union.” However Thomas Bennett’s hopes of gaining the military training his father lacked were dashed within four months and he was dismissed for academic failure in early 1873. He sought help from Barlow for a New York state government job at the water purveyor’s office and eventually fell out with his stepmother. Thomas Bennett was a familiar figure at Irish nationalist gatherings, inheriting his father’s political opinions and becoming a member of the Napper Tandy Club of Clan-na-Gael. His physical resemblance to his father was so striking that many veterans of 1848 and the Civil War recognised him on sight as Meagher’s son.

He married Mary Lavinia Carpenter of Sacramento in New York City on February 6, 1884. and their first son Thomas Francis Meagher III (as Thomas Bennett also known as Thomas Francis Meagher II) was born later that year. That same year the family moved to San Francisco where Thomas Bennett worked at the Mint. Their second son Gerard Clarence Meagher was born in 1885 but died a year later. Mary died in 1893. Thomas Bennett was involved with the Fraternal Order of Eagles, a friendly society founded in 1898, and at some stage he moved to the Philippines to work for the organisation in Manila. He died in 1909, aged 55, from pneumonia after an apparent attempted suicide. He was buried at Cemetario del Norte, Manila, mourned by the Irish American community. Among the wreaths on his coffin was one depicting an Irish harp with flowers worked with the figures “48” and a card from the Clan-na-Gael. After the Catholic Archbishop of Manila unveiled a monument in his memory at the cemetery a year later, monument committeeman Dominic Twomey wrote a letter to the mayor of Waterford saying the beautiful Celtic Cross was a fitting mark of respect to “a good Irishman (and) a good American.” Twomey concluded that his letter to say that while the children of the great very often bask in the sunshine reflected from their parents, that was not the case with Thomas Francis Meagher II. “It was a long time before (we) were aware he was the only son of one of the great Irish heroes of history,” he wrote.

Libby’s father never saw Meagher as a hero and when Peter Townsend died in 1885 he took belated revenge on his daughter’s decision to marry the Irish rebel. In his will, he gave his house to one of her sisters and Libby inherited only five thirty-seconds of the remaining estate. She was awarded a civil war pension two years later. In New York in 1886 Libby made a presentation of Meagher artifacts to the city of Waterford including a life-sized portrait of Meagher in uniform painted by New York artist T.F. Gallagher. A year later she presented a copy of the painting to the Montana Pioneers. She also donated one of her husband’s swords to O’Connell and when he died his niece donated the sword to Notre Dame University, where Meagher’s Irish Brigade chaplain Corby served as president. In 1914 Montana senator Thomas Walsh presented the sword to Notre Dame, noting that parts of Meagher’s sword speech were chiselled onto the Helena statue. Walsh admitted he tried to get O’Connell’s niece to donate the sword to a Montana university but given that Notre Dame was founded on the same Jesuit principles that made Meagher an accomplished orator, “and for which he ever retained the highest degree of affection, love and respect, I am forced to believe that he would have approved the choice.” Libby had also donated artefacts including a painting, a sword, and Meagher’s school clarinet to the city of Waterford.

After Thomas Bennett’s wife died in 1893, Elizabeth offered to adopt Thomas Francis Meagher III, then eight years old, however his father refused. In 1902 Elizabeth adopted a young man named Thomas Durkin who changed his name to Thomas Meagher Durkin. By 1902 she told O’Connell she had moved to “a small place in Rye” which she named Ikerrin after the O’Meagher Tipperary homeland. Libby died on July 5 1906, aged 75. After a service at St Francis Xavier church, where her husband was also farewelled, she was buried in the Townsend family plot at Green-Wood cemetery, Brooklyn. Durkin inherited all her estate except a sword, a civil war-era bloodstained sash, and Meagher’s papers which went to Thomas Francis Meagher III. After Thomas Francis Meagher III died in California in 1943 aged 58, Meagher biographer Athearn wrote to his wife Edna. Edna told Athearn that Durkin had “railroaded” his way into the will. She said she kept Meagher’s sword but she burned “all such letters that belonged to (her husband) or his father or his grandfather as I believed that was there (sic) family affairs & not mine.” Thomas and Edna had two children who both lived long lives, James who died aged 92 in 2008 and Helen who died aged 89 in 2006. The fate of the bloodstained sash is unknown.