The Immortal Irishman by Timothy Egan
Timothy Egan’s The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero is a captivating biography of Thomas Francis Meagher (1823-1867) and his indispensable contributions to Irish-American identity. Meagher’s incredible life is a saga worthy of passing down for generations, and Timothy Egan’s masterful knack for refining history into gripping anecdotes gives Meagher’s story the power and cohesion it deserves.
In Ireland, Meagher was a beloved, inspiring orator who stood for independence in the face of Britain’s oppressive rule (he even designed the country’s tri-colored flag). He and his associates were dubbed “Young Ireland” and gained influence as England increased their tyrannical threats on Irish identity. “For the better part of seven centuries, to be Irish in Ireland was to live in a land not your own,” Egan explains:
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….. 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.
Meagher fought not just to be free from England, but to be free to be Irish. When the potato famine erupted in 1845, and Meagher watched as his countrymen died exporting blight-free produce at the insistence of English rule, he and Young Ireland had enough, and tried to incite the Irish to “stand and fight for their starving brothers and sisters.” In a famous speech, he claimed “it is the weaponed arm of the patriot that can alone prevail against battalioned despotism”:
Abhor the sword? Stigmatize the sword? No, my lord, for at its blow a giant nation started from the waters of the Atlantic and by its redeeming magic, and in the quivering of its crimson light, the crippled colony sprang into the attitude of a proud republic — prosperous, limitless and invincible!
Meagher’s political rallies grew more troublesome and he was arrested and deported to a prison colony in Tasmania. Egan beautifully chronicles these quiet, disconnected years of letter-writing and discreet networking with other political prisoners. After over three years in Tasmania, Meagher manages to escape on a ship bound for New York City: “his calling would be to translate a history of famine and oppression, exile and humiliation, into a life of possibility in a country found on the opposite principles of the penal colony.”
In New York, Meagher saw America to be many steps further than Ireland was when he was first deported. While Ireland needed encouragement to begin fighting, America needed to win the battles that they had already started. Meagher saw America as a place that the Irish might finally be able to be Irish, and he took to the battlefield to secure that freedom.
The Immortal Irishman begins to lose its shape during the chapters about Meagher’s involvement in the Civil War, but this is due to Timothy Egan nobly attempting to keep this biography about a man and not about his country. Meagher commanded, for the North, the 69th Infantry Regiment through a series of violent battles towards the end of the war, and with an army composed entirely of Irish ex-pats his troops fought as if their entire culture’s acceptance in America relied upon their victory. Egan wisely plods forward in these chapters with somewhat of a myopic focus on Meagher and his exploits, and he tries not to get bogged down with the wealth of historical details that could fill volumes on the Civil War and its politics.
This decision is the right one, but at times The Immortal Irishman reads as if Egan assumes readers will know the circumstantial details of the war that he glosses over in the name of Meagher’s story. This is particularly noticeable when comparing how much Egan focuses on certain pivotal scenes. For instance, a gory (and unnecessary) paragraph regales the aftermath of Antietam as Meagher reels over his losses:
The lanterns of medics flickered over plowed fields covered with the dead and those who wished they were dead. Some bodies formed a gory frieze: Yank and rebel, each with a bayonet in the other’s gut, united in death. Antietam Creek carried corpses of bloodied men who had snaked along the grass to get a drink of water, only to fall in and drown. Horses with just a pair of working legs dragged themselves forward, their rear limbs shattered. A merciful man shot them.
Only a page later, in about just as many sentences, Egan recounts the events, in Washington, leading up to Lincoln’s emancipation of the slaves:
At the White House, Abraham Lincoln had no trouble finding meaning in the graveyard of Antietam. On September 22, five days after the battle, he assembled his cabinet and let them in on a secret. He told them he’d made a promise when the Southerners entered Northern territory: if Lee could be driven back across the Potomac, the president would make good on the idea he’d first floated to his advisers in July.
Even after the war, as Meagher’s story moves out west into outlaw country by way of the Homestead Act, Egan tries to keep his story human: about the blood and sweat, fear and hope of the individuals who are bold enough to try and make a difference in their country. This makes for a cracking read, but does so at the cost of rendering the specifics of historical context into something easily overlooked. This is okay, as The Immortal Irishman is Meagher’s story first and foremost, but some readers may yearn to see a larger picture once this shaded, overlooked segment of American history is revealed.