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.