Thomas Francis Meager

On August 3, 1823, a boy was born who became a hero to three lands: Ireland, Australia, and the United States. His grandfather’s successful trading business made it easy for his father to own a small hotel and pub in County Waterford, where, Thomas Francis Meagher was born. Young Tom was educated at a Jesuit boarding school, and later at a Jesuit college in England where he earned a reputation as an effective orator.

He returned to Ireland in 1843, just two years before the Great Hunger, and saw his countrymen starve while the landlord’s crops grew in abundance for export.  Infuriated, he became a vocal opponent of the Crown’s policy of Laissez Faire, joined the Young Ireland movement, and began to preach insurrection. He wrote for The Nation newspaper, and earned respect as a spokesman for the nationalist cause. Upon his return from a visit to post-revolutionary France, he introduced a tricolor which Ireland eventually adopted as her national flag.

After an aborted rising in 1848, Meagher was arrested, and sentenced to life  at the penal colony in Australia.  After three years, he escaped to New York, where he received a hero’s welcome from the New York Irish for his part in the rising of 1848.  Meagher married in 1855, became an American citizen in 1857, and commanded a company in New York’s 69th Militia, locally known as Corcoran’s Irish Legion.  At the outbreak of the American Civil War, New York’s 69th was the first to volunteer.  Battered at the first Battle of Bull Run where Colonel Corcoran was captured, Meagher was asked to reorganize the regiment, but he did better than that; he organized a Brigade.  The Irish Brigade under the command of the newly-appointed General Thomas Francis Meagher, fought heroically at the bloodiest battles of the war; at almost every major engagement fought by the Army of the Potomac, the figure of General Meagher was seen leading his men into battle.  By war’s end Meagher had earned a reputation as one of the nation’s most effective leaders.

After the war, President Johnson appointed him Secretary of the new Montana Territory.  In August 1865, the young Irishman and his wife, Elizabeth, left for Montana.  Upon arrival, the Territorial Governor handed him the  papers of office, saying he was unable to stand the rigors of the frontier and headed back to Ohio.  Meagher thus became the acting Governor of the Territory.  Having seen so much danger in his young life, one could hardly have blamed Meagher if he had turned his back on the responsibility just thrust upon him, but he was no quitter; President Johnson had asked him to bring Montana into the Union as a state, and he was determined to do it.

He was immediately opposed by powerful men who had carved a profitable empire out of the Montana wilderness, for statehood would threaten their private domains.  Vigilante groups threatened Meagher’s life and slanderous rumors were spread in an attempt to reverse his popularity. Yet he became popular with the people of Montana, especially the Irish who had migrated west after the Civil War, but when he called for a territorial legislature, he angered the profiteers.  With danger on all sides from vigilantes and local Indians, he convinced his old friend General Sherman, to send a shipment of rifles up the Missouri to Fort Benton.  Meagher and a few of his officers rode overland for six days in the heat of a Montana July to meet the shipment.  Dehydrated and  ill on arrival, Meagher retired to a stateroom aboard the G.A.Thompson, a boat piloted by an old friend, Johnny Doran.

As he lay his fevered head on the shipboard berth, he may have reminisced on the words spoken at a Virginia City rally six months earlier, Beware young Chief; you have done too much to bring the traffickers in the political market into disrepute and bankruptcy, not to have provoked their vengeance.  That night July 1, 1867, Thomas Francis Meagher disappeared.  His body was never found, and rumor mongers spread the story that he had fallen overboard in a drunken stupor and drowned.  There was no one to dispute the claim, but few who knew the man ever believed it.  His loving wife walked the banks of the Missouri for two months seeking his body in vain.

Then, in May of 1913, a dying man in Missoula, Montana, called for the local newspaper to witness his deathbed confession.  He was a local ne’er-do-well named Frank Diamond, and he swore that he would not go to judgement without clearing his conscience of an awful deed that he had been paid to do many years before.  Then he told the startled press that he had murdered Thomas Francis Meagher, under orders from the local vigilantes, and thrown his body overboard on that hot July night, 46 years earlier.  Members of old and prominent Montana families, who had descended from the early Vigilantes and profited from Meagher’s demise, swore that Diamond was an irresponsible liar, but men don’t lie on their deathbed.  Those who knew the character of Thomas Francis Meagher were relieved that the truth had finally been revealed, yet Frank Diamond, was never prosecuted for the crime.  He unexpectedly recovered from his malady, immediately recanted his confession and said no more about the incident.

Thus, the exact details of Meagher’s demise remain clouded by time and temperament, yet one positive consequence evolved from the controversy surrounding the confession.  In the eyes of many, the character of Thomas Frances Meagher had been exonerated.  He had not fallen overboard in a drunken stupor, but fallen in service to others: as he had served all his life – a life that began as an Irish patriot, continued as he broke his chains of bondage in Australia, and ended as an American legislator.  He was truly a hero in three lands.

The Easter Rising

The Easter Rising took place on Easter Monday, April 24, 1916. It was yet the latest in more than a dozen attempts by the Irish to break the chains of bondage imposed on them by the Crown since the Normans first invaded in 1171. At least a dozen times in the previous seven centuries the Irish had organized military opposition and several times they had even tried parliamentary reform – all to no avail. With the dawn of the twentieth century, a new generation inherited the nationalist tradition of the past and was determined to keep faith with that tradition and try again.

To understand the significance of the Rising, one must start with the Gaelic revival early in the century. A literary movement, it sparked a renaissance in Ireland’s cultural heritage – language, history and arts. It planted the seeds of nationalism which led to a demand for Home Rule – a separate parliament for Ireland to govern herself. The government in Westminster depended on the Irish members of Parliament to ensure their power, so they acquiesced and promised Home Rule. However, loyalists in northern Ireland, who felt they would be a minority in an all-Irish Parliament, vowed to fight Home Rule if it were imposed. They formed a loyalist paramilitary militia called the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) in 1912 and became the first to import arms on a large scale as a force of 100,000 were armed and trained. In 1913, the Irish Volunteers were formed by members of the Gaelic League, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Brotherhood to counter UVF opposition to Home Rule. However, they were only a poorly armed force of about 10,000.

The key to what happened next was an American citizen from Long Island, New York. His name was Thomas J. Clarke. An unrepentant veteran of the Fenian Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret revolutionary society in Ireland, he was imprisoned for anti-Crown activities. Released after charges of torture were upheld he was exiled from Ireland. He fled to America in 1898. He settled in New York and became active in Clann na Gael, the American branch of the Fenian movement. He was employed by an Irish-American newspaper edited by John Devoy – the most powerful figure in the Clann at the time. Highly respected for the suffering he endured for Irish freedom, Clarke became one of the Clan’s most trusted members. He became an American citizen and in Sept, 1906, retired to Manorville, Long Island. Though prematurely aged at 48, Clarke was not put out to pasture.

In December, 1907, he was sent to Ireland to rejuvenate the Irish Republican Brotherhood which had become inactive due to age and apathy. As the trusted link between the Irish exiles of Clann na Gael and the IRB in Ireland, he was appointed to the Supreme Council of the IRB and was one of its most powerful advocates of revolutionary action. He infiltrated the Volunteers, brought a young schoolteacher named Padraic Pearse into the brotherhood and recruited a young cadre to become a military council to further the goal of Irish freedom.

Home Rule was passed by Parliament, but with the outbreak of WWI, implementation was postponed; then, Northern politicians moved an amendment to exclude six counties of Ulster from the provisions of Home Rule and establish a separate state. John Redmond, head of the Irish Parliamentary Party believed that loyalty shown to the Crown at this crucial hour would result in the Crown acting favorably on behalf of Home Rule at the wars end, so he committed the Volunteers to serve in the British Army. This split the Volunteers and those who opposed service in the British Army reorganized under Eoin MacNeill.

IRB members within the Volunteer movement felt betrayed, and began to plot a rising. They were Padraig Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh, Joseph Plunkett, Eamon Kent, Sean MacDermott, led by the old Fenian, Tom Clarke. James Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army, a force organized to protect workers from police during labor disputes, was brought in on the plans. They set a date for a rising on Easter Sunday because of the symbolism of Christ’s rising from the dead and because all the military would be off on holiday. Orders were issued for training maneuvers throughout the country. When Volunteer Roger Casement was captured trying to land arms in Kerry on Good Friday, MacNeill learned that the maneuvers were to be an actual rising and countermanded the orders in the public press, determined to keep the Volunteers as only a balancing force to the UVF. Clarke rescheduled the rising for Monday, but was unable to get the word to the Volunteers outside Dublin. The military council decided to rise anyway, believing that the rest of the country would rally when they heard of the fighting in Dublin.

The patriots marched into Dublin on Monday and the British immediately cut all communication lines out of the city. The word never got out. The rising was confined to Dublin, and for five heroic days, the insurgents held out against the might of the British Empire. In the end, battered by shot and shell, they surrendered. By the time the rest of the country found out what had happened, it was over. Then the British did a very stupid thing.

They separated the leaders from the mass of prisoners who had surrendered, lined them up against a wall, and murdered the noblest leaders Ireland had produced in that generation. Connolly, who had been wounded in the fray, was taken out on a stretcher, and propped up against a wall to receive the bullets. That foolish act of revenge brought the Irish nation to their feet as one angry mass against the Crown. The seeds planted by the Gaelic Revival burst forth in a nationalist fury that led to the War of Independence, and the ultimate treaty with the British that led to the modern Republic of Ireland. Although six counties in the north were left to the Crown, most of Ireland was free. As we know the struggle for the Erin’s remaining green field continues yet, but whether or not the current peace leads to the promised unification of Ireland, the men of Easter Week who gave their lives that Irishmen might control their own destiny must never be forgotten. Remember them in your prayers on April 24.

Throughout the hardship of seven centuries
brave Irishmen struggled and fought
remember the price already paid
and don’t let it be for naught!