Cover image of "The Immortal Irishman," a book about the "Muslim immigrants" of the 19th century

In prose of unusual grace, Timothy Egan tells the tale of The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero. His subject is Thomas Francis Meagher (pronounced “Mar”). At the age of forty-three, he vanished mysteriously, a victim of drowning in the Missouri River in Montana (probably at the hands of a political rival). Meagher was the most prominent of the Irish who were the “Muslim immigrants” of the nineteenth century.

Somehow, before that tragic end, Meagher managed to distinguish himself as a leader of the revolutionary Young Irelanders in the rebellion of 1848, be convicted and sentenced to death by hanging, serve two years as a convict exiled to Tasmania before escaping, found and run a newspaper in New York City, travel the U.S. as a highly paid orator, marry the beautiful daughter of one of New York’s richest men, lead the heroic Irish Brigade in the Union Army in the Civil War, and serve as Governor of the Montana Territory.

The phrase “larger than life” could have been first written to describe Thomas Francis Meagher. Both as biography, and as a case study of Irish immigration in America, The Immortal Irishman is a saga no lover of history could possibly ignore. He was, as Egan describes him, “the greatest Irish American of his day.”

The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero by Timothy Egan (2016) 389 pages ★★★★★

How England turned Ireland into a nation of rebels

It’s impossible to understand the story of Thomas Francis Meagher without some knowledge of the almost unimaginably cruel treatment he and his countrymen had suffered at the hands of the English for 800 years. (No sooner had the Normans conquered England than William the Conqueror’s son, Henry, invaded Ireland.) From the start, the Irish resisted being colonized. For several centuries, large swaths of Irish land remained free of English domination. But as England rose to global prominence and became the sole global superpower of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, English armed forces made short shrift of Irish resistance.

The cruelty of English rule is difficult for us to fathom today, and it rose to a crescendo in the 1840s when the potato crop failed for several years in succession. The English Parliament, in thrall to the doctrine of laissez faire, steadfastly refused to send famine relief, year after year, as the bodies piled up. In fact, the Irish countryside was dominated by vast farms owned by absentee English landlords and produced voluminous crops of corn, wheat, and barley, all of it shipped to feed England or be sold at export as the Irish faded away from hunger.

Between deaths from famine and emigration, the Irish population shrank during the last years of the 1840s by approximately one-quarter, from eight million to six. There had been emigration from the island for many years, but the Great Famine accelerated a steady stream into a flood. This was the legacy of English rule that led Meager and hundreds of other courageous Irishmen to rise up in revolt so many times over the centuries.

The “Black Irish” were yesterday’s Muslim immigrants

Americans are notorious around the world for our ignorance of history. In today’s turbulent political context, it would be wise to look backwards to the immigrant experience in centuries past. It’s a cliche, of course, that we’re all immigrants — even the “Native” Americans who moved to the New World from Asia more than 12,000 years ago.

  • However, in modern history, the country’s population has grown markedly in four broad waves of immigration:
  • In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as the slave trade brought millions of Africans to suffer in servitude, principally in the South
  • In the mid-nineteenth century, with an influx of Irish fleeing the potato famine and German-speaking Central Europeans fleeing the revolutionary upheavals of 1848
  • In the closing years of the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth, notably with Jews escaping the pogroms of Eastern Europe and Italians fleeing poverty in Southern Italy
  • And, in recent decades, Mexicans, Central Americans, and both Eastern and Southern Asians.

The Muslims who figure so prominently in today’s political debates represent a mere trickle compared to all these other populations.

Racial conflict has been common throughout our history

Throughout these intense and overlapping waves of immigrants ethnic and racial conflict has been common — but, outside of slavery, none has ever been more intense than that surrounding the millions of Irish who emigrated to America in the final decades of the nineteenth century.

During most of that century, the Irish were viewed much as intolerant Americans view Muslim immigrants today, with contempt and abject fear. The “Black Irish,” as they were known, were regarded as the dregs of society, worthy only of the most menial labor. In the mid-nineteenth century, a virulently anti-Catholic and anti-Irish political movement named The Native American Party but styled as the “Know Nothings” gained millions of adherents. As Egan reports, “In 1854, the Know-Nothings took all eleven congressional seats in Massachusetts, swept the Bay State legislature, captured nearly half of New York’s delegation and won six governorships. . . By the end of 1855, the Know-Nothings were the second-largest political party in the nation . . .” Fortunately, the movement faded as Civil War, with its larger preoccupations, intruded.

Irish-Americans, treated as racially inferior, acted similarly toward African-Americans

Irish immigrants responded to the racism and discrimination with racist action of their own, treating African-Americans much as they themselves were being treated. On many occasions, race riots broke out, their ranks almost invariably swelled by poor Irishmen. Hundreds of Blacks died at their hands.

Thomas Francis Meagher escaped from the prison colony of Tasmania and made his way to the United States in 1852. His arrival was greeted with delirium by Irish communities across the country who revered him as a hero of the Revolt of 1848. Immigrant though he was, however, Meagher, though then poor, was no typical immigrant. He had been raised in luxury in the ancient town of Waterford by one of the richest men in Ireland and educated (against his will) in England. He was said to speak five languages and possess an unmatched memory for poetry, which he could quote on command in front of huge audiences. Though he regarded himself as an inept writer, Meagher was one of the most brilliant orators of his day, at a time when oratory was the highest form of entertainment. After a short time, he made a good living giving speeches.

Meager at war

Meager was agnostic on the question of slavery that roiled America during his first decade in the country. But when the Civil War broke out, he soon rallied to the Union. He gained fame as the brilliant recruiter who persuaded thousands of Irishmen to enlist. Not long afterward, Meagher, only second-in-command at first, gained a commission first as a captain and eventually as a brigadier general as he led his troops into the thick of some of the bloodiest battles in that bloodiest of wars.

The troops Meager commanded came to be known as the Irish Brigade. On several occasions, they saved the day when the Union’s defeat appeared imminent. Even Robert E. Lee spoke of their fighting spirit. The brigade became famous through newspaper reports of their courage. Sadly, the flip side of that courage was the casualty count, which was the second-highest of any unit in the Union Army. Meager had started with 3,000 men. He mustered out with 250.

Biographies are written about exceptional people. Thomas Francis Meager was an obvious choice — and Timothy Egan has done him justice in a book that is beautifully written and a compelling read.

About the author

Timothy Egan won the National Book Award for an earlier book, The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl. As a reporter for the New York Times, he also contributed to a series of articles on race in America that won a Pulitzer Prize. The Immortal Irishman is his eighth nonfiction book.

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