In honor of St. Patrick's Day I decided to tackle the latest history book by Timothy Egan, The Immortal Irishman. The book tells the life story of Thomas Francis Meagher (pronounced ma-r). One could say that Meagher lived three lives. The life of young Irish radical during the Great Hunger, the life of a prisoner in the penal colony of Australia, and that of the leader of the Irish Brigade during the Civil War. Egan takes us deep into each of Meagher's identities providing detailed background knowledge on the people, the places, and the experiences that Meagher was part of through out his life.
I have always had an affinity for all things Irish due to my own family's heritage, but even I was shocked by how little I knew about the Great Hunger and the misery caused because the Irish would not succumb to the English's rule and most importantly their religion. The monarchy treated the Irish as if they were the devil. The Irish were forbidden to marry across religions, they were forbidden to play their music, speak in their language, marry across religions, or even speak of their folklore. Musicians - specifically harpists - had bounties on their heads. The Irish were either dying from famine or fleeing to the new world, America. Meagher was part of those leading the rebellion and it got him sentenced to Austrailia, but not before he helped to create the Irish flag we know today.
I did not find his time in Australia as interesting as the history I learned about Ireland, but it was integral to his story. What I did find interesting is that the number of actual dangerous criminals sent to Australia was much lower than I had ever thought. Most of the 40,000 Irish sent to the penal colony were sent for minor crimes like stealing food for their starving families.
He was only in the colony for two years of his life sentence before finding his way to America. Meagher was practically a celebrity in America. It wasn't long before he rallied his fellow Irishman and joined the Union forces as the Irish Brigade. Under Meagher's leadership, they fought in some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. After losing thousands of men to war Meagher eventually resigned his position and headed west, where he was appointed the acting governor of Montana. He was only forty-three years old when he fell overboard and drowned in the Missouri river. It is assumed that he was murdered.
Bottom line - reading a history book such as The Immortal Irishman can be a bit daunting. I had to take a break in the middle and that is why it took me until nearly April to finish reading it. I am glad that I stuck it out, though. I feel so much more educated about what my ancestors went through before making it to America. And it makes me all that more proud to call myself an Irishman.
- The Immortal Irishman by Timothy Egan
- Publication Date: 3/1/2016
- Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
- Buy it Here!