The Immortal Irishman
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The Immortal Irishman

The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero

Timothy Egan

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eBook - ePub

The Immortal Irishman

The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero

Timothy Egan

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About This Book

In the New York Times bestseller The Immortal Irishman, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Timothy Egan illuminates the dawn of the great Irish American story, with all its twists and triumphs, through the life of one heroic man. A dashing young orator during the Great Hunger of the 1840s, Thomas Francis Meagher led a failed uprising against British rule, for which he was banished to a Tasmanian prison colony for life. But two years later he was "back from the dead" and in New York, instantly the most famous Irishman in America. Meagher's rebirth included his leading the newly formed Irish Brigade in many of the fiercest battles of the Civil War. Afterward, he tried to build a new Ireland in the wild west of Montana — a quixotic adventure that ended in the great mystery of his disappearance, which Egan resolves convincingly at last. "This is marvelous stuff. Thomas F. Meagher strides onto Egan's beautifully wrought pages just as he lived — powerfully larger than life. A fascinating account of an extraordinary life."—Daniel James Brown, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Facing the Mountain

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Mariner Books

Last Day—July 1, 1867

Look to the edge of the swollen Missouri in Montana Territory, where the longest river on the continent holds a blush of twilight, to see what becomes of an Irishman just before he disappears. There he is, woozy and paper-legged on the upper deck of a steamboat at anchor. Not like himself. No great witticisms or Homeric allusions as the evening darkens. No stories ending in punch lines that prompt a toast. No snippets of mournful song. Not a jab of nationalistic indignity to rouse a heart. Though his face is bronzed by sun that squats on the high prairie for fifteen hours a day, his color is off: the blue of his eyes dimmed, the polish of his cheeks matted. He glances at the town, Fort Benton, scours the huddle of saloons, dancehalls, outfitters, cathouses and grub shacks known as the Bloodiest Block in the West. He can’t be sure if that shadow, that clank of spurs on boardwalk, is harmless or the herald of an assassin. Saddle-blistered after a long ride through a territory nearly five times the size of Ireland, he should be falling into a deserved slumber. Instead he asks for a book and a gun from a new friend, John Doran.
At once a shout goes out, guttural and primal, followed by a splash and another cry. It’s the general’s voice. Doran can tell from the lower deck.


To Be Irish in Ireland


Under the Bootheel

For the better part of seven centuries, to be Irish in Ireland was to live in a land not your own. You called a lake next to your family home by one name, and the occupiers gave it another. You knew a town had been built by the hands of your ancestors, the quarry of origin for the stones pressed into those streets, and you were forbidden from inhabiting it. You could not enter a court of law as anything but a criminal or a snitch. You could not worship your God, in a church open to the public, without risking prison or public flogging. You could not attend school, at any level, even at home. And if your parents sent you out of the country to be educated, you could not return. You could not marry, conduct trade or go into business with a Christian Protestant. You could not have a foster child. If orphaned, you were forced into a home full of people who rejected your faith. You could not play your favorite sports—hurling was specifically prohibited. You could not own land in more than 80 percent of your country; the bogs, barrens and highlands were your haunts. You could not own a horse worth more than £5 sterling. If you married an Englishman, you would lose everything upon his death. You could not speak your language outside your home. You would not think in Irish, so the logic went, if you were not allowed to speak in Irish.
Thomas Francis Meagher was born on August 3, 1823, in one of the largest houses of the oldest city in Ireland—Waterford. The workaday port on the River Suir was founded in 914 by Vikings with ambition and a talent for on-shore piracy. Thomas grew up just steps from where conquerors had tramped through and a tower that had withstood a siege by the hated Oliver Cromwell. As a boy, he climbed up the chapped hills across the river, looked down at the port and seethed at the sight of British warships in the harbor. He imagined the last gasping breaths taken by Francis Hearn, hanged from the Waterford Bridge until his neck snapped for his role in a failed 1798 uprising. He played inside the eleventh-century round tower of the Vikings, said to be the oldest surviving building in Ireland.
The seven-plus centuries of organized torment originated in a letter from Pope Adrian IV in 1155, which empowered King Henry II to conquer Ireland and its “rude and savage people.” It was decreed that the rogue Irish Catholic Church, a mutt’s mash of Celtic, Druidic, Viking and Gaelic influences, had strayed too far from clerical authority, at a time when English monarchs still obeyed Rome. Legend alone was not enough to save it—that is, the legend of Patrick, a Roman citizen who came to Ireland in a fifth-century slave ship and then convinced many a Celt to worship a Jewish carpenter’s son. Patrick traveled with his own brewer; the saint’s ale may have been a more persuasive selling point for Christianity than the trinity symbol of the shamrock. There followed centuries of relative peace, the island a hive of learned monks, masterly stonemasons and tillers of the soil, while Europe fell to Teutonic plunder. The Vikings, after much pillaging, forced interbreeding, tower-toppling and occasional acts of civic improvement (they founded Dublin on the south bank of the Liffey), eventually succumbed to the island’s religion as well. They produced children who were red-haired and freckled, the Norse-Celts. But by the twelfth century, Ireland was out of line. Does it matter that this Adrian IV, the former Nicholas Breakspear, was history’s only English pope? Or that the language of the original papal bull, with all its authoritative aspersions on the character of the Irish, has never been authenticated? It did for 752 years.

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