Seattle author Timothy Egan’s “The Immortal Irishman” tells the true story of Thomas Francis Meagher, who rebelled against the English, was exiled to Tasmania and eventually fought for the Union in America’s Civil War. Egan appears Tuesday, March, 1 at Town Hall Seattle.
“The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero”
by Timothy Egan
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 448 pp., $30
Timothy Egan has made his writerly reputation by exploring the back roads of American history, traveling with Dust Bowl survivors (“The Worst Hard Time”), the National Forest Service (“The Big Burn”), and photographer Edward Curtis (“Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher”).
His latest book takes a more winding path. In “The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero,” the Seattle writer chronicles the life of Thomas Meagher, a man who, despite the book’s title, is far more celebrated in his native Ireland than he is here. Committed to the cause of Irish independence, he ended up fighting to save the Union in the American Civil War.
“His was a mind that needed the inspiration of great purpose,” a friend once noted about him. “The Immortal Irishman” shows how this impulse defined the course of his life and even factored into his death.
The author of “The Immortal Irishman” will appear at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 1, at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave. Tickets are $5; available at townhallseattle.org and at the door. Information: 206-652-4255.
Meagher, born in 1823, was raised in country-squire comfort. His father, a wealthy merchant in Waterford, played politics but on the safe side, with a seat in the British Parliament. His son chose otherwise. Radicalized by the infamous potato famines of the 1840s, he joined the independence movement known as Young Ireland.
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Handsome, witty and silver-tongued, Meagher quickly demonstrated his “passion for political vandalism,” as Egan calls it. But risking it all to rise up against Ireland’s British occupiers quickly exacted its price: At the age of 26, Meagher narrowly escaped a death sentence and was exiled, instead, to Tasmania, a dumping ground (along with Australia) for those the British deemed criminal or undesirable.
This banishment was a death of its own kind, we learn, for “a soft-handed man who spoke five languages, who lived for the thrust and parry of ideas, who had studied law but was never more at ease than when reaching for oratorical high notes in a packed hall.”
Escape was the only option.
Within three years, Meagher landed in New York City, joining a tidal wave of Irish who had fled famine during that same brief period. Within this stunning diaspora Meagher found an audience for his political ideas and then, when the Civil War broke out, a source of foot soldiers: His lofty and unattainable goal was to forge his troops’ fighting skills on behalf of the Union and then turn them against their true enemy, the English.
Egan, with the Irish gift for storytelling, creates a vivid, well-researched account from the prodigious and poetic record Meagher left. He paints a graphic picture of Meagher’s vaunted Irish Brigade amid the Civil War’s “acres of slain and dying,” scenes that help explain Meagher’s turn to drink and despair. He captures the leader’s bewilderment after he embraces the Emancipation Proclamation but his rank-and-file will not. Odd as it may sound, soldiers who were willing to die for the Union rejected the idea of freeing the slaves because they didn’t want to compete with them for jobs.
Egan ends his story by attempting to solve the mystery of Meagher’s death — an afterthought, really, to such a compelling life. Appointed territorial governor of Montana, the “immortal Irishman” headed west, only to discover a new form of political infighting in which political power struggles were often resolved with a bullet. He had his enemies.
In July 1867, he either jumped, fell or was pushed into the Missouri River, and his body was never found.