Seattle-based New York Times columnist and author Timothy Egan’s latest book tells the story of Civil War Gen. Thomas Francis Meagher, whose life and times stretched from Ireland, to a prison colony in Tasmania, and finally to the American West.
Timothy Egan’s path to the subject of his new biography, Thomas Francis Meagher, was a winding one. Meagher, a 19th-century Irish rebel who became a Union general in the American Civil War, was the vessel for a bigger story Egan longed to tell — that of the Irish themselves.
A National Book Award-winning author of eight books, Egan was still thinking about his previous biographical subject, Seattle photographer Edward Curtis (“Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher”), when the urge to write the Irish story overtook him.
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Curtis’ life’s work was documenting American Indian tribes, a people robbed of almost everything by the American government. Egan thought about the natives’ common ground with the Irish, whose land also was confiscated — by the English. Their native Celtic language was suppressed. They were persecuted, denigrated and even starved.
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Casting back to a long-ago conversation with Montana’s governor, Egan found the man on which to hang the tale — Meagher, a Civil War hero, a territorial governor of Montana, a nine-lives character who beat the reaper many times until his mysterious death in 1867 at age 43.
In a recent interview, Egan, a Seattle-based columnist for The New York Times, told how he followed Meagher’s trail, a multiyear research project that resulted in “The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 448 pp., $30), in bookstores Tuesday:
Q: Where did you first hear of Meagher?
A: His statue is on the Montana Capitol grounds; you absolutely can’t miss it. I had had an encounter with the governor; he said, you call yourself an Irish American and you don’t know who that is?
Then, doing the book on Curtis, about a people who had their religion, their language, their land taken from them, I realized I was looking for a way to tell the Irish story. Then I remembered him.
Q: Where did you travel to research the book?
A: There were several trips to Ireland, which I absolutely loved. I had been there once before in the last years of my mother’s life, with my mother, my daughter and a whole bunch of sibs. There were eight of us who went back to find our place, and we discovered we were from county Waterford (also Meagher’s home county).
I spent a lot of time in the archives of Dublin. I went and stood in his jail cell. Someone told me that you cannot go into this jail without hating the Brits. (After arrest by the British-controlled Irish government, Meagher was imprisoned in Dublin’s infamous Kilmainham Gaol, and sentenced to death. His sentence was commuted and he was shipped to Tasmania).
And then New York … and all these (Civil War) battlefields where I’d never been before. Then Montana. His cabin still stands there, absolutely intact. You can still smell the rat poop. The only place I didn’t go was Tasmania.
Q: In the book you mention recent research that has put the Irish famine, which pushed Meagher into rebelling against the English, in a grim light.
A: I got into this new scholarship, which was partially prompted by (former English prime minister) Tony Blair’s apology to the Irish. Blair issued a formal apology to Ireland for what is now recognized as genocide.
For years everyone blamed the potato blight. It did ruin the chief source of food for the people. But at the same time the Irish were starving, they (landowners) were exporting all this food from Ireland. They exported more beef than from any other part of the English empire. Grains, cereals, all this food raised by Irish hands.
Q: Who owned the land?
A: Anglo-Irish or Scots-Irish were the landowners. They were given the land after various purges.
Two things that came out of the new scholarship — the degree to which there was so much food in Ireland during this epic tragedy. Number two, the Brits knew it. It was a policy of extermination. All these governmental documents saying this is the hand of God, this is the proper thing to do.
Q: Can you recommend a book on the famine?
A: Of the newer books, the best, a bit of a tome, is “The Great Hunger” by Cecil Woodham-Smith. This was the first book to really get it right.
Q: Once he escaped from Tasmania to America, Meagher tried to unite New York City’s Irish to fight for the Union in the American Civil War. It wasn’t easy.
A: There were terrible divisions in the city. Class divisions — strong anti-Irish, anti-Catholic feelings, and strong anti-Union, anti-abolitionist feelings on the part of the Irish.
Q: From the book it appears that the Irish were key participants in the murderous anti-draft riots. Is that essentially correct?
A: The Irish were a big part of that. It was a dark, dark day for them, arguably the darkest day of Irish-American history. It was brutal, and savage, and racist.
It was mostly Irish names that were being pulled out of a barrel (for the draft). When this thing came out, where you could buy your way out of the draft … one rioter wrote to The New York Times and said — we’re doing all the killing and dying for you.
They were afraid liberated slaves would take their jobs. The worst racial hatred of all was unleashed that week (of the draft riots). If Meagher had been at home, they would have strung him up.
Q: You actually begin the book with Meagher’s death, which remains a mystery. Do you think it is close to being solved?
A: At the time, the word his enemies put out was that a drunken Irishman fell off a boat. I think there is very strong evidence that he was murdered by the very founding vigilante members of Montana society, who conducted the deadliest campaign of vigilante killing in American history.
There were no trials, they just pulled out people they didn’t like. Meagher pardoned a man, and then they grabbed him and hanged him the same day, with Meagher’s message in his pocket.
I think there is pretty good evidence, without being 100 percent sure, that he was murdered.