Happy Birthday, Thomas Francis Meagher, born on the 3rd August, 1823.
Thomas Francis Meagher was one of the great political thinkers and orators of 19th century Ireland and the creator of Ireland’s national flag of green, white and orange. He was born in what is now the Granville Hotel in Waterford. His father, also named Thomas, was a wealthy merchant who had made his fortune in the Newfoundland cod fisheries and relocated his business to Waterford in the early 19th century. He was a loyal supporter of Daniel O’Connell and financed O’Connell’s political campaign in Waterford. He was prominent in politics as a moderate nationalist, becoming mayor of Waterford in 1843 – the first Catholic mayor of the city since 1690. He later served as member of parliament for Waterford. His portrait, on display in the Bishop’s Palace, shows him in his robes and chain as mayor of Waterford.
His eldest son, Thomas Francis, was educated by the Jesuits and sent to the best schools in Ireland and England. In England, he developed his life-long love of music and played the clarinet in the school orchestra. His clarinet is now on display in the Bishop’s Palace. As a young man, he was a supporter of Ireland’s ‘great liberator’, Daniel O’Connell, and supported his campaign ‘Repeal of the Act of Union with Britain’. He was greatly influenced by the spirit of revolution sweeping Europe in 1848. He visited Paris following the revolution that established the French Second Republic. The blue, white and red tricolour flag of revolutionary France inspired him and he based the Irish tricolour of green, white and orange on this. Meagher saw his tricolour as the flag of an independent Irish republic – the green representing the Catholics, the orange the Protestants and the white as peace between these two communities in a new Ireland. He flew the flag for the first time in history on 7th March, 1848, at 33, The Mall in Waterford. He wore the green uniform coatee on display in the Bishop’s Palace when he flew the flag for the first time. Meagher, together with other younger supporters of O’Connell who were known as the ‘Young Irelanders’, became disillusioned with O’Connell’s peaceful tactics. They favoured a more radical approach to achieving Irish independence. They decided, at the height of the Great Famine in 1848, to begin an armed rebellion against British rule in Ireland. It was easily suppressed and its leaders, including Meagher, were arrested.
Meagher was tried and convicted of treason and sent to an open prison called Van Dieman’s Land (present day Tasmania, Australia) from where he escaped and went to America.
“My Lord, this is our first offense, but not our last. If you will be easy with us this once, we promise on our word as gentleman to try better next time.”
– Meagher’s promise to the judge before sentencing was passed
Meagher arrived in New York in 1852. He established himself as a leading figure in the Irish–American community. He embarked on a series of lecture tours and qualified as a lawyer. He was involved in one of the first cases in the US where insanity was used as a defense plea to murder. He dabbled in journalism, establishing the Irish News, a newspaper catering for the growing Irish community.
He immersed himself in politics – in the Democratic Party. He campaigned against Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election. The 1860 election highlighted the differences between the southern slave-owning states and the non-slave states in the north and Lincoln’s election was followed by the secession of many of the southern states – forming the Confederate States of America. Civil war seemed inevitable. Meagher, although a democrat and sympathetic to the South, opposed secession and firmly supported the Union. He went on to become brigadier general of the Irish Brigade and had a distinguished career throughout the American Civil War, taking commanding roles in battles such as Gettysburg and Fredericksburg.
Meagher actively campaigned for Lincoln during the 1864 presidential election and was a member of the guard of honour at Lincoln’s lying in state following his assassination. He had hoped that his military service to the Union would result in a political appointment in the west – and was rewarded in being appointed secretary of the newly created territory of Montana in 1865, and soon afterwards acting governor.
Meagher’s unfortunate and untimely death occurred on 1st July, 1867, just a month before his 44th birthday. He fell from the steamship, G. A. Thompson, at Fort Benton on the Missouri River. His body was never recovered.
Happy Birthday, Thomas Francis!
Pictured here, is Meagher in the uniform of a general in the Union Army during the American Civil War, as commander of the Irish Brigade.