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.

Ireland’s Joan of Arc

Maud Gonne

One of the least known today, yet the most influential Irish Revolutionaries of her time, was a lady named Maud Gonne. She was born on Dec. 20, 1865, in Aldershot, England, to a British army colonel of Irish descent and a partly Irish mother. Her mother died when Maud was only six and she and her sister were sent to France to be educated. In 1882, her father was posted to Dublin Castle and he brought his two daughters with him and Maud assumed the role of hostess of the household. She grew into a stunningly beautiful woman – six feet tall, pretty face, hour-glass figure and long, wavy, red hair; she was widely praised as one of the beauties of the age.

Maud’s father died in 1886 leaving her financially independent. She moved back to France for health reasons after a tubercular hemorrhage, and she met and fell in love with French journalist Lucien Millevoye, editor of a radical newspaper, ‘La Patrie.’ The pair worked together for both Irish and French nationalist causes. Maud ended her relationship with Millevoye in the late 1890s, but not before she had two children by him: a daughter, Iseult and one that died in infancy.

Maud had been introduced to Fenianism by John O’Leary, a veteran of the 1848 Young Irelander uprising and, in a short time, nationalist leader Tim Harrington recognized that this beautiful, intelligent young woman could be an asset to the nationalist cause. He sent her to Donegal, where mass evictions were taking place. A local newspaper documented her coming as “a Celtic Goddess arriving on a white charger to free the oppressed people of Donegal.” A powerful and emotional speaker, She was successful in organizing the locals in protest against the evictions. The fact that she fled to France to avoid arrest is a good measure her success there.

In 1889, John O’Leary introduced Maud to a man whose infatuation with her would last most of his life: poet William Butler Yeats. Yeats proposed to Maud in 1891, and was refused, but largely through her influence, he became involved with Irish nationalism, later joining the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). At that time, the IRB was a secret organization but Maud brought it into public prominence with her many protests against slum landlords and the cruel eviction laws of her day. She also managed to attract police and political attention when she vehemently protested the celebration of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee.

Maud helped Yeats found the National Literary Society of London in 1891, the same year she refused his first marriage proposal; undaunted, Yeats proposed again and even proposed to Maud’s daughter by Millevoye – also unsuccessfully. Returning to Paris, and to Millevoye, Maud published a nationalist newsletter called ‘L’Irelande Libre (Free Ireland).’ She worked tirelessly raising funds for the movement, traveling to the US, Scotland, and England. By now the name of Maud Gonne was well known among Irish nationalists and she was called Ireland’s Joan of Arc.

Returning to Ireland, she co-founded the Transvaal Committee, which supported the Afrikaners in the Boer War, and on Easter Sunday 1900 she co-founded Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Erin), a revolutionary women’s society for whose monthly journal she wrote many political and feminist articles. Somehow, while doing all this, she found time to star on stage in Yeats play, ‘Cathleen ní Houlihan,’ which Yeats had written specifically for her.

In 1900, in Paris, Irish politician Arthur Griffith introduced Maud to Major John MacBride, who had been second in command of the Irish Brigade that fought on the Afrikaner side in the Boer War. In 1903 Maud married MacBride. Although the marriage produced a son, Seán, it was short-lived and the couple separated. Maud continued to write political articles and in 1910 she joined Constance Markievicz, James Connolly and Jim Larkin in a campaign to feed the poor children of Dublin. When it was arranged that King Edward visit Dublin, Maude helped form a Citizen’s Watch Committee and spoke before a rally of the Irish Parliamentary Party damning their support of the visit. After her speech, an hour-long fight broke out which led to the ruin of the Irish Parliamentary Party. Sinn Fein rose from its ashes.

During World War One, she worked with the Red Cross in France and returned to Ireland in 1917. She found Ireland in turmoil after the Easter Rising of 1916 and the execution of the rising leaders, including her estranged husband, John MacBride. Within a year she was jailed by the British for her part in the anti-conscription movement. This was part of the trumped up “German Plot” that the British used to discredit anti-conscription activity. Maud was interned at Holloway Jail for six months along with Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, Kathleen Clarke, Countess Markievicz and others. After she was released, she worked for the White Cross for relief of Irish victims during the War of Independence.

When Ireland’s Civil War came, Maud supported the anti-treaty side. She helped to found the Women’s Prisoners Defense League to help Republican prisoners and their families. In 1923, she once again found herself imprisoned, this time by the Irish Free State government, without charge. Along with 91 other women, Maud went on hunger strike. The Free State government released her after 20 days. In 1927, after government leader Kevin O’Higgins was assassinated and several IRA men were indiscriminately arrested, she organized a public demonstration which filled Dublin’s streets and the men were later released. For the rest of her life Maud would continue to support the Republican cause and work for the Women’s Prisoners Defense League, which mobilized again in defense of Republican prisoners in 1935.

Maud Gonne MacBride died on April 27, 1953, but her influence on Ireland and the world continued after her death through her son, Seán MacBride. As a young man, Seán fought on the Republican side in the Civil War and later carried on his mother’s crusade for the fair treatment of political prisoners, not just in Ireland, but all over the world. Seán was one of the founders of Amnesty International and, in 1974, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Maud Gonne MacBride is buried in the Republican plot in Glasnevin Cemetery, a fitting final tribute to the woman who was referred to as Ireland’s Joan of Arc.