The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero, by Timothy Egan

As someone proud of my Irish links, a history buff, and with an avid interest in the Civil War I’m really embarrassed that this book was the first I’d heard about Thomas Francis Meagher. (Pronounced Mawr.) Especially since part of his story took place geographically so close to home.

Meagher was born in Ireland to a wealthy merchant turned politician. Meagher was educated in Jesuit institutions in Ireland and England and showed early skills at oratory. He loved poetry, spoke five languages,  After leaving university he traveled to Dublin to begin a law career but became involved with writers at The Nation *(including the woman who would become the mother of Oscar Wilde writing as Esperanza) who were involved in the Repeal Movement, which sought repeal of the Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland.

Meagher was eventually arrested for sedition and sentenced to be hanged, beheaded, and quartered but was later sentenced to exile in Tasmania. Meagher escaped from there and made his way to New York City in 1852. There he became a lecturer and journalist until the beginning of the Civil War. During the war he formed a brigade of Irish Immigrants called the Irish Brigade and became their brigadier general.  The brigade fought at the battles of Fair Oaks and Antietam.  After the war he was appointed governor of Montana where he died under mysterious circumstances.

Far beyond documenting a fascinating life, Egan goes into depth about the Irish experience in the middle of the 19th century in both Ireland and the United States. He documents the incredible abuse the Irish received at the hands of the British Empire, from pulling the nails of anyone caught playing the harp (which the Irish consider their national instrument) to diverting food during the Potato Famine for export profits rather than helping those starving in their midst. The island’s population decreased by as much as 30% in some counties during the Great Famine, either through death or emigration.

Those who came to the United States faced a growing nativist movement, reaching its peak in the Know Nothing Party, which was mostly anti-Catholic. The Irish were accused of stealing work, adhering to a foreign religion, and were generally considered racially inferior. (Any of this sound familiar?) The heroism of Meagher’s Irish Brigade helped reverse many of the stereotypes but the negative view of the Irish also increased during the New York draft riots.

After the war Meagher thought Montana might be a second home for Irish immigrants, but there he faced continued nativism supported by vigilantes and anti-Catholic Masons. Egan believes that Meagher was murdered by these forces.

Meagher stands out as a tremendous icon of courage, optimism, intelligence, and eloquence despite the many forces that seemed to conspire against him.

The book won the National Book Award and it really is one of the best history/biography books I’ve read in the past year.  The history ranges from the English invasion of Ireland to John F. Kennedy with intriguing characters throughout.