He was one of the most colourful and erratic characters in 19thcentury Irish history. Thomas Francis Meagher was born to a wealthy Waterford merchant family in 1823. He was educated by the Jesuits at Clongowes wood and later at Stonyhurst in England, where he replaced his Irish accent with a clipped upper-class English drawl – something that was to alienate many of his fellow-countrymen in the years that followed.
His involvement with the Young Ireland movement in the 1840s led to his falling out with Daniel O’Connell and a drift towards militancy. This culminated in the farcical 1848 rebellion – but before that dismal revolutionary failure, Meagher had conferred on the Irish nation perhaps his most abiding legacy – the green, white and orange tricolour. He had been gifted the flag on a visit to France, it was unveiled in his native Waterford in 1848, and its use in the 1916 rising copper-fastened its status as the flag of the Irish republic. It gained formal recognition in Article 7 of the 1937 constitution.
Meagher’s involvement in the 1848 rebellion led to his transportation to Tasmania. 1852 he escaped to the USA where, arguably, he made a greater contribution to American history than he did to that of his native country.
His most significant impact came after the outbreak of the Civil War. Taking over command of the Irish brigade from Michael Corcoran he proved to be an excellent recruiter for the Union army. Knowing his target market well one of Meagher’s recruiting posters read –‘The Cotton Lords and Traitor Allies of England Must Be Put Down Once and for All.’
To his detractors, of whom there were many, Meagher was a self-important, fractious and pompous alcoholic. But to his troops he was their General, known to one and all in the Irish Brigade as ‘Meagher of the Sword’. His reputation was sealed by an iconic engraving of the celebrated American artists Currier and Ives in which he was depicted on horseback leading the Irish Brigade into the Battle of Fair Oaks in June 1862.
After the Civil War, Meagher was rewarded by the US administration—if indeed it can be described as a reward—with something called the secretaryship of the territory of Montana. This may sound like he was expected to take minutes of a lot of meetings, but that is not how things turned out. On Meagher’s arrival in the future capital of the state, Helena, the sitting governor just upped and left. That should probably have served as a warning to the Waterford man that perhaps he too should make his excuses and scarper.
Instead, Meagher became acting governor of the territory and found himself in charge of a large and relatively lawless region of the American West. Not all the inhabitants were friendly. The assertive Lakota nation disputed the writ of the Federal government in suitably muscular fashion. In addition to an Indian war, Meagher also found himself in the middle of some vicious factional disputes among the tiny white population. As Meagher had something of a shortish fuse he didn’t take long to make enemies. Indeed it may have been his political adversaries who were responsible for his mysterious death on 1 July 1867. He died at Fort Benton on the Missouri river when he disappeared from a steamboat. His body was never found. It was presumed to have been whisked away rapidly by the fierce river currents. Various theories have been advanced as to the cause of his death, the most popular is that he was drunk and fell overboard. Others suggest he was killed by native Americans, renegade Confederates or Montanan political enemies. We shall never know.
Statues honour the man who gave us the Irish tricolour, in the Mall in Waterford, and outside the Capitol building in Helena, Montana. Both depict him on horseback waving his sword. There is also a bust of the man near the spot where he disappeared more than 150 years ago.
So, in answer to the question was the Irish tricolour first unveiled when it was flown over the GPO in 1916, no it wasn’t. That event took place in the city of Waterford sixty-eight years before the Easter Rising. [It’s fake history].
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