Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Immortal Irishman, a book review

    The plight of immigrants and refugees is front page news locally, nationally and internationally, and Timothy Egan’s timely new biography of Thomas F. Meagher, The Immortal Irishman, tells an epic tale about one Irish immigrant’s journey in the middle 1800’s.  Pronounced “mar”, Thomas Meagher’s life and times bear an eerie resemblance to the things we read about today; as Yogi Berra might have said, it’s déjà vu all over again. 
   Meagher packed four life times from his birth in 1823 into what privilege existed in Ireland to a mysterious disappearance and presumed death on the Missouri River in Montana Territory in 1866.  Egan dives deep into the history of Ireland, English prison colonies, the Civil War, and vigilante Montana to place Meagher into the story of his life.
   Egan’s tale begins with an indictment of English oppression of the Irish.  It is not a pretty picture, and sounds very much like what happened to the Native Americans on our own continent.  The Irish were forbidden by English law to speak their own language, to play their harps, to worship as they wished, or to exercise any of the rights of citizenship that are every human’s natural right.  The English considered the Irish to be less than human, no better than monkeys in fact. 
   Meagher was born into a well to do merchant’s family.  His father was a Catholic land owning member of the English Parliament who wanted his son to lead a quiet contented life.  But the fire of revolution was burning hot throughout the European continent, and Thomas Meagher was drawn to the flame.  He had a silver tongue and loved to talk, and the social injustice of the Irish condition moved him to publicly oppose English rule.  When the potato blight wiped out the potato crop, which was the Irish common folks’ sole source of food, hundreds of thousands of his countrymen starved to death. Other hundreds of thousands, those that could, emigrated to America.  Today we would call them refugees.
   Egan’s account relies on reports of American travelers to Ireland and others who were horrified to see the Irish famine up close.  As Egan tells it, all the while the English exported from Ireland more than enough corn, wheat and barley to feed the starving people.  They argued it was for the Irish’s own good, to prevent the growth of a people dependent on charity.  Something like that sentiment still rears its ugly head.
   Meagher could stand by no longer, took up arms against the Queen, and for his advocacy for Irish independence, he was arrested, tried by a Protestant pro-English jury, convicted of treason and sentenced to death.  In 1848 Britain, capital punishment called for chopping off the head, cutting the body into quarters, and then disposal.  As gruesome as any ISIS atrocity today.
   Supporters in America and elsewhere persuaded the Queen to commute the sentence, and he was shipped off to life imprisonment at a penal colony on the island off the Australian southern coast known as Tasmania.  So begins the second chapter of Meagher’s full life.  Egan’s story is almost as thin here as Meagher’s life in the small cabin on a lake, but he finds love in a neighbor’s daughter, Catherine, and married her before he escaped the island, promising to retrieve his wife when he gets to America.
   His reputation preceded him, and New York City’s Irish gave him a hero’s welcome upon his arrival.  Egan’s account of tenement life in 1855 in lower Manhattan, home to over 600,000 immigrant refugees half of whom were Irish, is vivid.  Amid squalor, pig and horse shit, and the struggle against prejudice of the aptly named Know Nothing partisans against the Irish Catholics, the Irish fought to survive.  More than anything else, the Irish knew how to fight; Meagher’s dream was to return to his birthplace to finish the fight for Irish independence.
   Meagher’s third act sees him recruit an Irish Brigade in support of President Lincoln’s Civil War effort to save the union.  While the Irish were not so sure why they should fight to free the slaves, Meagher saw in slavery the same degradation the Irish suffered under English rule.  Believing it would require no more than three months of fighting, the New York Irish joined up and followed Meagher, eventually commissioned a general in the Union Army.  As the War ground to a near stalemate, Meagher continued to rally the Irish to join, coming late to realize his efforts sent too many of his countrymen to a brutal early death. 
   As the Civil War dragged on, even the fighting Irish stopped joining up.  Then Lincoln issued the Executive Order we know as the Emancipation Proclamation, and riots broke out when he imposed a draft.  The worst riot in US history lead to the near destruction of New York City, and was quelled only when Federal troops fought building to building to regain order.  
   Despondent over the scale of destruction, depressed about the apparent futility of the fight, and reconciled to never seeing Ireland again, Meagher resigned his commission in the Army and went West. 
   This, fourth act, brought no peace to Thomas Meagher.  Appointed Territorial Governor, he tried to govern an ungovernable lawless mob intent on exacting vigilante justice on those who crossed their path.  After several months, he disappeared one night in 1866, last seen on a steamboat tied up at Fort Benton on the Missouri River.  Most reporters, including Egan, suspect foul play, but the how and why of it remains unsolved.
   Timothy Egan is at his best when describing the physical geography where the stories play out.  Egan also writes a column for the New York Times and, true to his Irish heritage, he is a terrific story teller; many interesting men and women populated Meagher’s life.  His descriptions of the carnage of war and his account of General Meagher’s leadership in the battles of Bull Run, Fredericksburg and Antietam belong on the shelf with the best of the hundreds of books written about the Civil War. 
   Eagan’s reminder that men and women came to America for the liberty to make themselves a better life is well timed.  And the juxtaposition of white Irish and black Africans on the scale of oppression suggests the problem in the nineteenth century was one of class more than race.  Certainly, America should continue to be a beacon for the world’s oppressed.  But we should be mindful that none of the Irish came here to destroy our way of life.
Copyright 2017
Michael J. Bond