The Irish General: Thomas Francis Meagher

The Irish General: Thomas Francis Meagher

by Paul R. Wylie
The Irish General: Thomas Francis Meagher

The Irish General: Thomas Francis Meagher

by Paul R. Wylie


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Irish patriot, Civil War general, frontier governor—Thomas Francis Meagher played key roles in three major historical arenas. Today he is hailed as a hero by some, condemned as a drunkard by others. Paul R. Wylie now offers a definitive biography of this nineteenth-century figure who has long remained an enigma.

The Irish General first recalls Meagher’s life from his boyhood and leadership of Young Ireland in the revolution of 1848, to his exile in Tasmania and escape to New York, where he found fame as an orator and as editor of the Irish News. He served in the Civil War—viewing the Union Army as training for a future Irish revolutionary force—and rose to the rank of brigadier general leading the famous Irish Brigade. Wylie traces Meagher’s military career in detail through the Seven Days battles, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville.

Wylie then recounts Meagher’s final years as acting governor of Montana Territory, sorting historical truth from false claims made against him regarding the militia he formed to combat attacking American Indians, and plumbing the mystery surrounding his death.

Even as Meagher is lauded in most Irish histories, his statue in front of Montana’s capitol is viewed by some with contempt. The Irish General brings this multi-talented but seriously flawed individual to life, offering a balanced picture of the man and a captivating reading experience.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806141855
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 02/15/2011
Pages: 418
Sales rank: 1,091,537
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Paul R. Wylie, a retired attorney and now an independent researcher and writer, is author of The Irish General: Thomas Francis Meagher. He lives in Bozeman, Montana.

Read an Excerpt

The Irish General

Thomas Francis Meagher

By Paul R. Wylie


Copyright © 2007 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8400-5


The Making of an Irish Revolutionary

As far as Ireland was concerned, they left us, like blind and crippled children, in the dark.

Thomas Francis Meagher

In Waterford, Ireland, on February 29, 1848, a fashionably attired young man stepped forward to address the assembled townspeople. Thomas Francis Meagher, twenty-four years old, announced: "Fellow Citizens:—I ask you to select me as the representative of your opinions, in the British Parliament." He stated his intent clearly: "I shall go to the English House of Commons, to insist upon the right of this country to be held, governed, and defended by its own citizens, and by them alone." These were brave words for Meagher, for many in the audience were satisfied to continue under British rule—including his own father, Thomas Meagher, Sr., who had been the first Catholic mayor of Waterford and was himself a member of the British Parliament. He was not a supporter of his fiery son's political philosophy.

The citizens of Waterford knew that Thomas Francis Meagher had an active, independent mind. They had watched him grow up and lead the other boys of his age on hikes up a barren hill across the River Suir, called locally "Mount Misery." Belying the dismal name, the heights were dear to Meagher as a place to climb and glory in the view of the city and its wharves below. There he could watch the merchant ships sailing off to the greater world beyond the distant horizon. As Meagher observed and listened to the patterns and sounds of Waterford, he became aware that many Irish were leaving Ireland. His life had started to take direction, and he dreamed of great things. Years later he recounted those sights from Mount Misery:

There was one scene I witnessed in the morning of my boyhood which left upon my memory an impression that can never be effaced. That scene was the departure of an emigrant-ship from the quay of my native city of Waterford. ... On the deck of the ship were huddled hundreds of men, women and children—the sons and daughters of Innisfail—sorrow-stricken, and yet hopeful and heroic fugitives from the island that gave them birth.... Young as I was ... I had heard enough of the cruelty that had, for years and years, been done to Ireland, to know that her people were leaving her, not from choice, but from compulsion; that it was not the sterility of the soil, or any other unfavorable dispensation of nature, but the malignant hostility of laws and practices, devised and enforced for the political subjugation of the country, which compelled them to leave.

The misery that Meagher witnessed was rooted in centuries-long dominance of Ireland by England. It began in the twelfth century, when Pope Adrian IV granted the king of England the title and right to be lord of Ireland. From that time on, England considered Ireland its own. "On the morning of the 18th of October, in the year 1172, upon the broad waters of our native Suir, the spears and banners of a royal pirate were glittering in the sun," Meagher informed the audience before him. "[A]s the pageant moved up the stream ... the name of Strongbow was heard amid the storm of shouts that rocked the galleys to and fro. He was the first adventurer that set his heel on Irish soil in the name of England; and he—the sleek, the cautious, and the gallant Strongbow—was the type and herald of that plague with which this island has been cursed for seven desolating centuries." The invaders that Meagher spoke of were Anglo-Normans, and Strongbow was the name given to Richard fitz Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Pembroke. He had come across the Irish Sea with a small force to invade Ireland and take Waterford and Dublin. "By force or fraud —by steel or gold—by threat or smile— ... they have held this island ever since that morning in October, 1172—seducing those whom they could not terrify—slaying those whom they could neither allure nor intimidate," Meagher said.

The rest of the story is told in Irish history. Soon after Strongbow, King Henry II of England came to start the rule of Ireland by the English. But English power was far from total; and by the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries it was limited to only a small area around Dublin known as the "Pale." In Meagher's time, however, England was in total control, and the people of the Emerald Isle did not even have an Irish Parliament to pass their own laws. Instead they had been given a number of seats in the British Parliament, one of which Meagher was running for. But he left no doubt that he would not be content with the Parliament that he sought to enter making laws for his Ireland.

As early as 1297 England had given Ireland an ineffective legislative body of only Anglo-Norman members and had excluded the native Irish, and this is what rankled Meagher. At best that Parliament had from the start served only as a tool of the British to legitimize their control. When even the mock legislature came to threaten England, the English imposed Poynings Law of 1494, binding the Irish Parliament to legislate only if the Crown approved of its bills. The British Parliament applied more control in 1720, when it passed the "Declaratory Act" and for the first time ever took unto itself the right to pass laws for Ireland.

Thomas Francis Meagher and his ancestors were Catholics. Over the years the Meaghers had felt the sting of Anglican rule, which exacerbated the conflict with the English. The first attempt at suppression of Catholicism in Ireland came during the reign of Henry VIII, who had just founded the Church of England as an antipapist church with the king himself as its head. Thereafter, as the English tried to force Protestantism on all of Ireland, the Catholic "Old English"—those who had moved to Ireland before the founding of the Anglican Church—often joined with their Gaelic compatriots to resist.

During Queen Elizabeth's reign, English determination to convert Ireland intensified. England's narrow escape from the Spanish Armada in 1588 had convinced the queen that an independent Catholic Ireland could unite with Catholic Spain to spell doom for England. The Tudor monarchs then set out in earnest to subjugate Ireland and achieved almost total English control of the Emerald Isle for the first time.

English rule until the end of the sixteenth century was bad enough, but it became worse when a small number of landed Irish Catholics in the North took flight from the English. The English king, James I, seized the unclaimed land to start Ulster Plantation. Soon it was colonized with Presbyterians from Scotland, under English landowners. Relations between English Protestants and Irish Catholics worsened even further during the English Civil War, after the Catholic-hating Oliver Cromwell gained control of England. Cromwell's English army invaded Ireland in 1649. In the space of only nine months he succeeded in slaughtering thousands of Irish as he swept through Drogheda and Wexford, fixing in the minds of the Irish (and Meagher's ancestors among them) the deepest hatred for the English. Meagher could take small pride that Cromwell had failed to take his native Waterford.

The Restoration—after Cromwell's death in 1658—provided a brief era of religious tolerance, but anti-Catholicism was revived when the English-controlled Irish Parliament in Dublin commenced the passage of the "Penal Laws." Protestant political philosopher Edmund Burke described these laws in the eighteenth century as "a machine of wise and elaborate contrivance, as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man."

The infamous laws controlled every aspect of Catholic life: all priests had to register their names and parishes under penalty of being branded on the cheek with a hot iron, and all Catholic bishops were banned from Ireland. Being hanged, drawn, and quartered was the penalty for staying. The laws ordered crosses used on Catholic churches or in Catholic services destroyed, and no Catholic chapel could have a belfry, tower, or steeple. Catholics were barred from being members of the Irish Parliament or voting for members of Parliament, excluded from grand juries, and forbidden to send their children abroad for education or to have their own schools. Catholics were prohibited from marrying Protestants; a death penalty for priests who married Protestants to Catholics was enacted; and all marriages not performed by a minister of the Protestant Church of Ireland were invalidated. Catholics were barred from the practice of law or from sitting as magistrates or judges, denied membership in municipal corporations, and prevented from holding commissions in the army or navy. Owning or carrying arms was prohibited for Catholics—including the wearing of a sword, which was considered the mark of gentlemen in the seventeenth century. Catholics were forbidden to own a horse with a value over five pounds; this was enforced by granting a Protestant the right to buy any horse owned by a Catholic for that amount. No Catholic could buy, receive as a gift, or inherit land from a Protestant. A Catholic fortunate enough to have land could not will it as a whole but had to divide it among his male heirs, unless the eldest son would turn Protestant, in which case he could inherit the whole estate. No Catholic could hold a lease longer than thirty-one years.

As the insidious Penal Laws multiplied, their cruelty became so evident that even prominent Anglicans who were loyal to the Crown rose to question the British rule. These included Jonathan Swift, dean of St. Patrick's Church, who, although anti-Catholic himself, wrote anonymously in his Drapier's Letters in protest. Other well-known writers soon joined him, and the humanitarian movement against the British mistreatment of Ireland and its people began. While Swift's anti-British writings dealt with legislative independence, George Berkeley, the Episcopal bishop of Cloyne, writing in the mid-1730s, posed searching social questions about the living conditions of the Catholic peasants, asking "whether there be upon earth any Christian or civilized people as beggarly, wretched and destitute as the common Irish?"

By the time Meagher was born on August 3, 1823, many of the Penal Laws had already been revoked; but their presence during a large part of the eighteenth century had caused inestimable damage to the Irish Catholics. Traditional Catholic families were broken up as they lost their lands. Only the very few upper-class Catholics had the option to leave the country. The poor peasants had few choices. Their religion made them outlaws, with no redress of the wrongs against them available from their landlords, the courts, or their Parliament, which did not represent them. They became suspicious of everything, especially all things English. Secret societies emerged as the "Oak Boys," "White Boys," and "Ribbon Men," who dispensed their own form of justice against their fellow Catholics if they became informers or supplanters of evicted tenants or were found to be on the side of the landlords.

The Penal Laws also had a devastating effect on many Catholics of the landed or merchant class, who, unwilling to martyr themselves, converted to the Anglican Church of Ireland to avoid persecution and preserve their lands. Secrecy had become paramount in all phases of life, for the Catholic peasants had to protect their priests and their places of worship. During the period when the Penal Laws were in full force, education was conducted clandestinely. "Hedge schools"—so named because they were held outdoors, no buildings being considered safe—became prevalent and were supported by the peasants out of their meager earnings.

Thomas Francis Meagher's family had escaped the worst consequences of the Penal Laws. Born into a family of little means in County Tipperary in the 1760s, Meagher's grandfather, also named Thomas, avoided the oppressive English laws by emigrating to Newfoundland, where the great fisheries were being harvested. As a young man, he apprenticed to a tailor and clothier named Crotty, who soon died, leaving Mary Crotty as a widow. Thomas Meagher married her and took over Crotty's business, which he expanded in the following years to include commercial shipping between St. John's, Newfoundland, and Waterford.

Thomas Francis Meagher's father, Thomas Francis Meagher, Sr., was born in Newfoundland in 1789, and an uncle, Henry Meagher, was born there in 1792. In 1816 his grandfather Thomas Meagher brought his two sons into business with him and sent Thomas Francis Meagher, Sr., to Ireland as his agent in Waterford. There he married Alicia Quan, the daughter of Thomas Quan of the venerable Wyse, Cashen and Quan, one of the largest trading companies in Waterford. The newlyweds first resided at No. 51 King Street in a house large enough for Henry Meagher to live with them. Then they acquired an interest in an impressive property across from the quay, which had been owned by the Quans. This site was so large that it later became the Commins Hotel and served as the transportation terminal for Charles Bianconi's Coach Service. Still later it became the Granville Hotel.

This history placed young Thomas Francis in a privileged position, but it did not inure him to the social problems that surrounded him. As he learned more about Ireland's tortured past, he placed the blame for them squarely on the English. He also became enamored with earlier advocates for Irish freedom. Meagher was particularly impressed with the vision and courage that Henry Grattan had displayed toward the end of the eighteenth century. In an age when it had been neither popular nor safe to speak out in favor of Irish separation from England, Grattan, a Protestant member of the Irish Parliament in the 1770s, spoke loudly and often in favor of Ireland's total legislative independence. When the American Revolution caused redeployment of British forces out of Ireland, Grattan seized upon the opportunity to raise a volunteer force under the guise of defending Ireland against an invasion by the French but in reality to apply pressure on Britain. He soon ran into a problem when Catholic priests prohibited their parishioners from participating in his efforts. Nonetheless, by 1782 Grattan's labors had yielded some results, and the British Parliament for a time gave up its right to make Ireland's laws. In his speech in Waterford in February 1848 Meagher had said that the day Grattan's Parliament convened was "the one 'great day'—the only one—which Ireland has had." In 1793 Grattan obtained a major victory when the Catholic Relief Act was passed, giving Catholics in Ireland the right to be admitted to the practice of law.

It was Grattan, the Protestant, who had started the first steps toward Catholic emancipation. It was Meagher, the Catholic, who stood before the group assembled in the Waterford on that day in 1848 and confronted the town's elders. "I tell you, Gentlemen—you, who are in that inconvenient corner there, and think you represent the city—I tell you this, that public men were more just and chivalrous in the days of Grattan than they are in yours; and if in the war of parties there might have been a keener enmity, there was assuredly less falsehood, and less cant."

Young Thomas Francis Meagher came to have the greatest respect for Grattan's legislative accomplishments. But perhaps what impressed him even more were Grattan's incorruptible principles. When the British had sought to silence Grattan by offering him a post at Dublin Castle, the seat of British government in Ireland, he declined rather than subject himself to the subtle bribery and charge that he served for profit under the viceroy. It was a point of honor that made a profound impression on Meagher, whose disdain for "place hunting" became a key part of his political philosophy and rhetoric. "Down with the place-beggar!" Meagher shouted at the crowd at the Waterford Court House in 1848. "He would traffic on a noble cause, and beg a bribe in the name of liberty. Down with the place-beggar!" Grattan died in 1820, but his political achievements and personal honor became legend. In the 1840s Meagher proudly became president of the Grattan Club in Dublin.

Grattan's legislative advances were followed in 1791 by Irish unrest; the Society of the United Irishmen was formed under Theobold Wolfe Tone and included both Protestants and Catholics as a militant anti-British group in Northern Ireland. Their goal was independence for Ireland, but they also sought Catholic emancipation. With the success of the American Revolution, the Presbyterians of the North became more enamored with republican forms of government. When the Bastille fell in France on July 14, 1789, the news was greeted in Belfast with a joy that prompted an annual celebration of the event there for years after. When the United Irishmen seemed too strong, the British prime minister ordered them suppressed. The organization went underground and ultimately formed an alliance with the French for the overthrow of the British in Ireland by force. But just as it seemed that the interest of the Irish of both denominations had been joined, traditional religious persecution of the Catholics again broke out. In 1795 the Grand Orange Lodge of Ulster, which popularly became known as the Orange Order, was formed to combat Catholic Irish incursions on land traditionally worked by Presbyterian tenant farmers. A brief battle between the poorer classes of both denominations was followed by more brutal persecutions of Catholics. Many of them were driven south beyond the Shannon River, destroying the goal of the United Irishmen to unify a resistance against the British.


Excerpted from The Irish General by Paul R. Wylie. Copyright © 2007 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
1. The Making of an Irish Revolutionary,
2. Meagher of the Sword,
3. Exile,
4. A New Life,
5. For the Union and for Ireland,
6. The Slaughter Pen,
7. A General without a Command,
8. The Way West,
9. An Irishman Again,
10. Stampede,
11. "Would That He Had Died on the Battlefield",

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