Timothy Egan's The Immortal Irishman
Reviewed by R. Bryan Willits
The story of Thomas Francis Meagher – Irish revolutionary, exile, American Civil War general, and eventual governor of the Montana Territory – has long deserved to be told. In his 44 years on earth, Meagher careened his way over several continents, transgressed national and epochal boundaries, and became well acquainted with many of the influential individuals of his time, in effect becoming one himself. Telling the complex story of this man, and the pivotal moments in which he was involved, is what Timothy Egan set out to do in this biography, The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero. There is no doubt that researching and incorporating such a vast breadth of material into this story was a major challenge. Egan nevertheless produced a highly readable volume accessible to a general audience. While this book has already earned significant acclaim, it is not without flaws.
Egan begins telling Meagher’s tale with a sweeping account of roughly 700 years of Irish history, moving from one tragic event to the next, depicting a long suffering Irish nation that was for the better part of a millennia, as the first chapter’s title suggests, “under the bootheel” of their English invaders. According to Egan, Ireland’s punishments were meted out time and again because the Irish “refused to become English.” This interpretation resonates with the account of Irish history put forth by Irish nationalists that is also prevalent among the Irish-American diaspora, a group that counts Egan among its numbers. Egan refers to himself as a “lapsed Irish-American,” in his acknowledgments, but apparently researching this book reawakened a sense of Irish identity within him. Perhaps it was the hope of instilling the same awakening in his readers that inspired him to start his tale with the condensation and simplification of 700 years of history into a ten page rehashing of historical tropes repeated by Irish nationalists for generations.
This stage-setting is particularly informative, however, for it provides the weltanschauung of Irish nationalists like Meagher who are the primary focus of Egan’s examination. They justified their actions through contemporary experience but also through a particular understanding of the Irish past. The difficulty with Egan’s account is trying to ascertain whether he is trying to present a veracious account of the times before Meagher, or to give his readers an insight into the minds of the men and women determined to fight for an independent Ireland. It is most likely a little of both: a way to defend Meagher’s perspectives and the violent insurrection in which he took part.
But Meagher was not born into a tradition of militant nationalism. He was born in Waterford into a wealthy Catholic merchant and land-owning family. As a young man he attended the renowned Jesuit school, Clongowes Wood, and went on to study at Stonyhurst, in the heart of England. After graduation, Meagher returned to Ireland in time to witness the horrors of the Great Famine, or an Gorta Mór, as it is known in Irish. Despite his upbringing and privilege, the cataclysm of the Great Hunger caused Meagher to turn his back on the English and the institutions that had served him and his family well. Among these institutions was a single parliament for the Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, where Meagher’s father held a seat.
The younger Meagher, however, was transformed into an ardent Irish nationalist and joined Young Ireland, a revolutionary organization. They insisted Daniel O’Connell (known as “The Liberator” for delivering on Irish Catholic emancipation, and with whom the Meaghers were well acquainted) had not gone far enough with his new “repeal” movement that sought to repeal the Act of Union which created the united parliament for Britain and Ireland in 1801. Even more vehement and vocal in their promotion of Irish nationalism, Young Ireland pushed for total independence, and believed in achieving that goal through any means necessary, including armed rebellion. A rebellion led by Young Ireland did materialize in 1848, inspired in part by other revolutions throughout Europe that same year. But it was ill planned and lacked support. The rebels, with Meagher among them, were swiftly arrested and sentenced to death, but were spared the scaffold when their sentences were commuted to life imprisonment in Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania, Australia).
Meagher was not in custody in Australia for long. Determined to fight another day for Ireland, he managed a daring escape and fled to the United States. His reputation had proceeded him. His arrival in New York in 1852, and his movements thereafter, were reported widely in the press. He was greeted by welcoming throngs of recent immigrants who had fled the Famine, and in short order joined the lecture circuit in the state and throughout the country. But he met opposition too, in the form of the rabidly anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic Know-Nothing movement, on the rise at this time. As they denounced Meagher and other recent immigrants, the Know-Nothings garnered a great deal of power in New York and elsewhere by 1855. That year Meagher also married a woman from a prominent New York family, Elizabeth Townsend. The famous Archbishop, John Hughes, presided.
After nearly a decade of giving speeches, living in New York, and making a new life in the United States, Meagher was confronted with another major nineteenth century calamity: the American Civil War. With no serious conviction for the abolition of slavery and after some prevarication, he decided nevertheless to throw himself into the fray and fight for the Union, becoming the commander of the Irish Brigade. After many battles and a significant loss of men, Meagher resigned, but his entanglements with the United States were far from over. When the war ended Meagher went west, becoming the acting governor of the Montana Territory. After years of fighting in Ireland and on American battlefields, nearly losing his life an improbable number of times, it was in Montana that Meagher met his inglorious end after mysteriously falling into the swift and silty waters of the Missouri River, never to be seen again.
Every segment of Meagher’s life intersects a major period of Irish, American, and immigrant history. Careers have been built and many books have been written on small cross-sections of the times, circles, and movements in which Meagher operated. Irish nationalism, the Famine, emigration, the American Civil War, urban history, westward expansion – Egan touches on all these disciplines with their own historiography, methodology, and scholarly debates. It was a bold idea for Egan to tie them together through telling the story of Meagher’s prodigious life. In his ambitious approach, Egan consults the work of eminent historians like Kerby Miller and his still-unmatched tour de force on Irish immigrant history Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America, and also the work of Christine Kinealy, another authoritative scholar who is an expert on the Great Famine.
While unquestionably an admirably researched book that examines the work of leading scholars while drawing on archives from multiple continents, Egan comes up short at times when he fails to consider more recent scholarship in the field. This is perhaps most notable in his depiction of the Famine. Egan emerges clearly on one side of the rigorous debate questioning whether British actions, or lack thereof, constituted genocide. Irish revisionist historians (which in the parlance of Irish historiography refers specifically to a school of thought which seeks to deconstruct and neutralize Irish nationalist interpretations) have traditionally dismissed the assertions of Irish nationalists, like those famously made by Meagher’s contemporary and fellow Young Irelander, John Mitchel, who claimed that British policy in Ireland during the Famine was indeed genocide.
With revisionists dominating the field until the 1990s, extensive scholarly works examining the Famine could at that point still be counted on one hand. The most widely read was Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849. Published in 1962, this book led many readers to conclude that the British government was guilty of genocide. Egan’s narrative relies heavily on Mitchel and Meagher’s primary source materials, but also on Woodham-Smith’s half-century-old secondary account. In doing so, he appears to take the Young Irelanders’ version at face value, and therefore also comes to the same conclusion that many of Woodham-Smith’s readers had.
Egan also relies on his own interviews with Kinealy and on her published research. Her findings, along with a large body of work produced since the time of the Famine’s sesquicentennial, has given credence to certain beliefs long held by various strands of Irish nationalists. But almost every serious scholar of this period including Kinealy have repeatedly asserted that the situation is not so cut and dry as those who would like to interpret the Famine for their own ideological purposes would suggest. It is without question that the British government employed an inhumane policy that created the context in which the blight of a single crop caused famine so acute that the population of Ireland was reduced by millions. But their Malthusian philosophy and laissez-faire economic policy was not uniquely applied to Ireland in this era. Moreover, the vast majority of recent scholarship on this point suggests that the historical record simply does not indicate that the British had genocidal intentions. The British allowed hundreds of thousands of Irish refugees to land on English shores. The influx of Irish into their cities was not always welcomed by everyone and the process of integration also came with its own complex set of difficulties and social consequences. But the fact alone that Irish refugees were allowed to flee to England belies the argument that the British carried out a policy of genocide in Ireland.
Egan’s account, which may nevertheless resonate with the folk memory and assumptions of the Famine held by many Irish-Americans, reflects more an oft-repeated populist and nationalist interpretation than it does historical reality. The depictions of the suffering found in Woodham-Smith’s account, in Mitchel’s polemics, and in Egan’s new book are all harrowing, painful reminders of the grim reality of death by starvation and disease. There is no doubt that the horrors they described took place. But an accretion of graphic accounts and the personal opinions of British bureaucrats and government officials do not answer questions of culpability. Lacking complexity and nuance and relying more often on descriptive accounts of this most crucial epoch of Irish, British, New York, and United States history, it is at times difficult to know where the rhetoric of Meagher, Mitchel, and Young Ireland ends and where Egan’s own assertions begin.
Even if one chose to examine such bold claims, the method of source citation employed in this book leaves one feeling frustrated and nonplussed. Citations are most often present where Egan quotes sources directly. But the notes are not numbered, and the reader must locate a reference through a confounding system of abridged quotations followed only by the title of the source without reference its page or chapter. As such, the foundations of Egan’s contentions are often difficult to track down, while the notes serve more as a rolling bibliography, which in a formal sense this volume lacks. It is all the more a pity that a better system was not employed in mapping out the source material as this book could have served otherwise as a useful tool for historians. Presumably, footnotes are thought to be a distraction to the general reader, and it is unsurprising to find this system in this publication as many popular history titles are regrettably printed with a citation style just like it.
The Immortal Irishman is a relatively well-researched story based on fact, but not anchored to it. An academic history this is not, nor does it purport to be, as the blurb from the New York Times on the paperback edition cover makes clear. There, Egan’s book is celebrated not as biography or history, but rather, as an “historical thriller.” Egan’s terse prose moves the sweeping narrative of Meagher’s life effortlessly from one phase to the next, while Egan’s careful use of direct quotation is one of his most clever moves. He employs the written works or transcribed speeches from the figures he examined in such a way that it creates the illusion of dialogue, generating an accessible, novelistic style. It is a pleasure to read if one seeks to read this volume solely for entertainment. But scholars looking for a truly frank, academic assessment of Meagher and his life and times will have to look elsewhere.
R. Bryan Willits is a New York based historian working in the fields of trans-national and comparative history, with a focus on immigrant history, diasporas, imperialism, nationalism, race, and empire. His most recent work appeared in Ireland's Allies: America and the 1916 Easter Rising, published by University College Dublin Press. His research and other articles have also been published in the Irish Times, IrishCentral.com, and Irish America.
The author would like to acknowledge Drs. Marion Casey and Barry McCarron for their assistance and insights in creating this review, but also the ongoing mentorship of the collegial community of scholars I found both as a student and employee of Glucksman Ireland House, NYU. Also thanks to Dr. Peter-Christian Aigner for being a most accommodating editor. All of the opinions in this review are the author’s. Any errors should be attributed solely to myself.