Review of “The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became An American Hero” by Timothy Egan

This excellent history of Thomas Francis Meagher (pronounced as Marr) is also a history of the Irish, particularly from the 1600’s onward. The story is quite sad, with the life of Meagher a microcosm in a way of the experience of the Irish nation as a whole. Both suffered repeated persecution, but did not give in to despair. Rather, they were persistent, passionate, and dedicated to justice, family, hearth, kin, and country.

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Egan begins by delineating elements of the Irish Penal Code, a series of acts passed by the English, characterized by the philosopher Edmund Burke as “a machine 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.” W.E.H. Lecky summarized these laws in his A History of Ireland in the Eighteenth Century:

The Roman Catholic was forbidden to receive education.

He was forbidden to enter a profession.
He was forbidden to hold public office.
He was forbidden to engage in trade or commerce.
He was forbidden to live in a corporate town or within five miles thereof.

He was forbidden to own a horse of greater value than five pounds.

He was forbidden to purchase land.

He was forbidden to lease land.

He was forbidden to accept a mortgage on land in security for a loan.
He was forbidden to vote.

He was forbidden to keep any arms for his protection.

He was forbidden to hold a life annuity.

He was forbidden to buy land from a Protestant.

He was forbidden to receive a gift of land from a Protestant.

He was forbidden to inherit land from a Protestant.
He was forbidden to inherit anything from a Protestant.
He was forbidden to rent any land that was worth more than thirty shillings a year.

He was forbidden to reap from his land any profit exceeding a third of the rent.

He could not be guardian to a child.

He could not, when dying, leave his infant children under Catholic guardianship.

He could not himself educate his child.
He could not send his child to a Catholic teacher.

He could not employ a Catholic teacher to come to his child.

He could not send his child abroad to receive education.

And yet the English never did succeed in snuffing out hope, or in quenching the Irish thirst for self-determination.

Thomas Meagher was born in 1823, and died shortly before his 44th birthday in 1867. In some ways though, he truly remained “immortal” – still remembered today, both in Ireland and in the U.S.

With the onset of The Great Famine (also known as the Irish Potato Famine) in 1845, Meagher was drawn into public life to protest the unwillingness of the London government to provide relief for the Irish, in spite of the great stores of food being produced in Ireland by Protestant landowners and designated for export only. (During the famine, approximately one million people died and a million more emigrated from Ireland, causing the island’s population to fall by between 20% and 25%.)

 1846 illustration showing a starving boy and girl raking the ground for potatoes during the Irish Potato Famine

1846 illustration showing a starving boy and girl raking the ground for potatoes during the Irish Potato Famine

Meagher became an Irish nationalist and a leader of the “Young Irelanders” in the Rebellion of 1848. He and others were convicted of sedition, and first sentenced to death. In response to popular outrage all over the world, the group instead were sentenced to exile for life in Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) in Australia, where Britain had established some notoriously bad penal colonies, sending some 162,000 convicts there between 1788 and 1868. Many convicts were transported for petty crimes while a significant number were political prisoners.

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In 1852 Meagher escaped and made his way to the United States, where he settled in New York City. His first wife, whom he met in Tasmania, went to Ireland to give birth, intending to meet up with him later in America, but she died in childbirth. In New York Meagher eventually married a second time, studied law, and lectured extensively on the Irish cause.

When the American Civil War began, Meagher joined the army, recruiting his fellow immigrants for the famous Irish Brigade, which he commanded. The bravery of the Irish Brigade won them respect even by the Confederates.

Thomas Francis Meagher, Brigadier General of the Irish Brigade

Thomas Francis Meagher, Brigadier General of the Irish Brigade

Following the Civil War, Meagher was appointed acting governor of the Montana Territory, a position for which he was never paid, and which undoubtedly led to his assassination by anti-Catholic, anti-Irish “Know Nothings” in 1867.

Egan tells the two stories – of Ireland and of Meagher – with a righteous indignation and passion that animates his prose.

It’s difficult to isolate the most powerful parts of the book, but the limning of the suffering in Ireland during the Irish Potato Famine, along with the shockingly cold-hearted English response, is surely one of them.

Other parts of the story seem like one thrilling action adventure after another, from Meagher’s hair’s breadth escape from Australia, to the sickening carnage of the Civil War that Meagher somehow survived, in spite of serving in some of the worst battles of that war.

Meagher’s fate in Montana seemed like the ultimate irony. After all he endured, through which he managed not only to live but to thrive – to get cut down by hateful nativists in an outlaw part of America was so unjust and outrageous. As we see nativists once again trying to gain ascendancy in the American polity, we can only hope that this time, reason will triumph over fear and prejudice, and that somehow our “better angels” will prevail.

Monument to Meagher in Helena, Montana, erected in 1905

Monument to Meagher in Helena, Montana, erected in 1905

Discussion: Much of American history is conveyed with a political agenda in the deep background. Britain is an important ally, and we don’t go out of our way to recount its crimes except in terms of the American Revolution, an almost acceptable conflict between brothers, and in which America looked pretty good in any event (at least according to our own histories). But Britain’s other, more egregious colonial misdeeds are not often taught, and it is an unfortunate oversight. The Irish who suffered and died deserve to have their plight known in the U.S. as well as in Ireland, and their heroes remembered for all they sacrificed. Egan takes an important step in remedying this omission.

Evaluation: My favorite kind of history is one that reads like an action/adventure novel, and this book certainly meets that criterion. The author, Timothy Egan, has won a number of awards for his nonfiction, including winning the National Book Award for Nonfiction for The Worst Hard Time. The story he tells in this book is one with which we should all be familiar, to help us understand much of the recent history of England and Ireland, not to mention the to get a better sense of the cruelty and injustice of prejudice against others.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published in hardcover by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

The narrator – Gerald Doyle – is terrific. Gerard Doyle is an actor and experienced narrator who has received over 25 Earphones awards. He has twice been recognized as an AudioFile magazine “Best Voice of the Year.” It adds immeasurably to the story to have it relayed in an Irish accent.

Published unabridged on 11 CDs (14 listening hours) by Brilliance Audio, 2016

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