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'The Immortal Irishman' profiles an Irish rebel who took America by storm

Thomas Francis Meagher crammed a lifetime of adventure into a few very significant decades.

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    The Immortal Irishman:
    The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero
    By Timothy Egan
    Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
    384 pp.
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Thomas Francis Meagher (1823-67) deserves to be better known, if for no other reason than his life would make one heck of a movie. A leader of the doomed Young Ireland uprising of 1848 and exiled by the British government to Tasmania, he eventually escaped to the United States where he was rapturously welcomed as a champion of democracy.

Women adored him, and he married a daughter of one of New York’s most prominent families, much to her father’s dismay. During the Civil War he led an all-Irish regiment in some of the bloodiest fighting of the conflict. After the war he was appointed governor of the Montana Territory, where he literally disappeared. Most likely he was murdered by local vigilantes, who were enraged by his insistence on the rule of law.

Timothy Egan, New York Times contributor and National Book Award winner, has done the reading public a favor by bringing Meagher to their attention with his biography The Immortal Irishman. Egan does justice to the adventurous episodes of Meagher’s life with narrative flair, and his recounting of prejudice against immigrants of a seemingly alien religion could not be more timely. But Egan’s too close to his subjects: He’s been seduced by Meagher and the age-old story of Irish suffering, and that sometimes hurts his writing.

Recommended: St. Patrick's Day: 10 must-read books about Ireland

Meagher, the son of a wealthy Waterford merchant, was sent to England to study at Stonyhurst, a Jesuit boarding school. But any hope of making him an establishment figure was doomed from the start. Although a gifted student, he committed offenses ranging from exaggerating his Irish accent to refusing to play in a musical performance commemorating the English victory at Waterloo.

After a distinguished yet checkered career at school, he went to Dublin to study law at Trinity College but spent most of his time in politics. He won a popular following for his speeches in support of the repeal of the 1801 Act of Union between Britain and Ireland and was soon a leader of the political and cultural movement called Young Ireland. In light of later Irish history, the group’s political goal – an Irish parliament in Dublin responsible for domestic matters but still subordinate to the British government – seems astonishingly modest, but it was still enough to be considered seditious by authorities in London. The Young Irelanders became radicalized by London’s indifference to mass Irish starvation during the Potato Famine, and launched the ill-fated and ill-advised Young Ireland Rebellion of 1848.

Meagher’s sentence to exile for his part in the rebellion is where his life truly becomes the stuff of drama. Upon arrival in Tasmania Meagher gave his word as a gentleman that he would never try to escape. He built a cabin by an inland lake where he learned to sail and gave every appearance of being reconciled to life in Tasmania. All the while he was plotting his escape in correspondence with his father, who had the money and connections to divert a merchant ship from its route to a remote Tasmanian beach. The day of his departure, Meagher sent a messenger to the local magistrate with a note informing him their agreement was null and void.

There isn’t enough space to summarize even a tenth of Meagher’s story here. Everything about his life seems to have been on an extreme scale. Upon his arrival in America he was an instant celebrity. Meagher fan clubs formed across the country. During the Civil War he commanded the 69th Infantry of the New York militia (“The Irish Brigade”), a regiment so resolute in holding its ground even while the rest of the Union Army retreated that it literally did not survive the war. In 1866 Meagher became acting governor of the Montana Territory. A household name and friend of President Lincoln, he was now living in a log cabin in a remote region of the country. In retrospect, his disappearance and probable murder seem inevitable.

Egan’s hero worship of Meagher, as well as his romanticization of Irish history, results in some unfortunately florid prose. Egan fleshes out Meagher’s story with overly extensive forays into Irish history that are sometimes also misleading. One of Egan’s laments of the 1801 Act of Union between Britain and Ireland begins, “Property requirements mocked the pretense of democracy.” In 1801 there was no “pretense of democracy” in the British Isles (or all of Europe, for that matter). At that time, less than 3 percent of the population of England and Wales could vote, even fewer in Scotland: Restrictions on voting in Ireland weren’t simply a matter of British oppression.

But Egan more than compensates for these failings by bringing us this remarkable story and a vivid, intimate glimpse of life in 19th-century America. While I was reading this book I kept asking, How is it possible I’ve never heard of this man until now?

Kevin O’Kelly frequently reviews books for the Monitor.

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