Meagher, Thomas Francis (DNB00)

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MEAGHER, THOMAS FRANCIS (1823–1867), Irish nationalist, was born in the city of Waterford on 3 Aug. 1823. His father, Thomas Meagher, a retired merchant, represented the city of Waterford in the House of Commons from August 1847 to March 1857, and was mayor of the city. To a branch of the family settled in the seventeenth century in Tipperary belonged Thaddeus or Thadée de Meagher (1670–1765), who on leaving Ireland served in the French army, and subsequently, in 1739, became chamberlain to Frederick Augustus II, king of Poland and elector of Saxony. In 1740 the king made him colonel of the 1st battalion of foot guards, in 1744 captain proprietor of the Swiss guards, in 1744 major-general in the Polish army, and in 1752 lieutenant-general. When Frederick the Great crossed into Saxony at the opening of the Seven Years' War in 1756, Meagher was despatched by his master to negotiate terms with the invader. He died in Dresden in May 1765 (Choix de Correspondance du Marquis de Valori, ii. 178; Carlyle, Frederick the Great, iv. 551; Archives of the Royal Saxon War Office, No. 450 I A; information from J. C. O'Meagher, esq.).

Thomas Francis was educated by the jesuit fathers at Clongowes Wood College, Kildare, and subsequently at Stonyhurst College, Lancashire. In 1844 he went to Dublin with the intention of studying for the bar, but soon abandoned law for the political platform. In spite of his boyish appearance and somewhat affected manners, Meagher quickly established his reputation as a powerful orator at the meetings of the Repeal Association. He made a brilliant speech against the peace resolutions in Conciliation Hall on 28 July 1846, refusing to condemn the use of arms as immoral, and hailing the sword as a sacred weapon (Sullivan, Speeches from the Dock, pp. 140–1). On being interrupted by John O'Connell he left the meeting with O'Brien, Duffy, Mitchel, and others, and seceded from the association. His speech on the occasion led Thackeray subsequently to dub him ‘Meagher of the Sword’—an appellation that adhered to him. He was one of the founders of the Irish Confederation, the first meeting of which took place on 13 Jan. 1847. Meagher unsuccessfully contested the city of Waterford at a by-election in February 1848.

At a meeting of the Irish Confederation on 15 March 1848 Meagher passionately declared that the people were justified in saying to the government: ‘If you do not give us a parliament in which to state our wrongs and grievances, we shall state them by arms and force.’ For this speech he was arrested on a charge of sedition on 21 March, but was allowed out on bail the following day. Shortly afterwards Meagher, with O'Brien and Holywood, visited Paris in order to present an address of congratulation to the provisional government. The return of the Irish deputation was celebrated by a banquet on 15 April 1848, when Meagher, through the president, presented an Irish tricolor to the citizens of Dublin. On 16 May following he was tried at Dublin before Lord-chief-justice Blackburne for his speech of 15 March. Meagher was defended by Butt, O'Loghlen, and O'Hagan, and the jury being unable to agree were discharged on the following day without giving a verdict. On 21 July Meagher was appointed a member of the war directory of the Irish Confederation, and thereupon accompanied O'Brien in his expedition through Ireland for the purpose of organising the proposed revolution. On the 28th a warrant was issued for his arrest, and a reward of 300l. offered for his capture. On the following day Meagher left O'Brien at Ballingarry with the idea of raising an insurrection elsewhere, and thus for a time escaped being captured. Though all chance of success had vanished, Meagher refused to leave the country, and on 13 Aug. he was arrested on a country road in Tipperary and conveyed to Kilmainham gaol on the same day.

Meagher was tried at Clonmel in October 1848 before a special commission, consisting of Lord-chief-justice Blackburne, Lord-chief-justice Doherty, and Mr. Justice Moore. He was defended by Whiteside, Butt, O'Loghlen, and F. Maher. After a trial lasting six days he was found guilty of high treason, with a recommendation to mercy on account of his youth. He was sentenced by Lord-chief-justice Doherty on 23 Oct. to be hanged, drawn, and quartered, but this sentence was subsequently commuted to penal servitude for life, and in July 1849 he was transported to Van Diemen's Land, where he was allowed considerable liberty under a ticket of leave. While there he contributed some reminiscences of 1848 to the Dublin ‘Nation.’ On 3 Jan. 1852 he gave notice to the district magistrate that he was about to withdraw his parole, and defying the police sent to arrest him, he made his escape, with the aid of P. J. Smyth. After a number of vicissitudes he arrived at New York at the latter end of May, and was presented with a congratulatory address by the corporation and offered a public reception on behalf of the city, which he refused (Speeches, pp. 311–17). For the first two years after his arrival in America, Meagher followed the occupation of a public lecturer with considerable success. In September 1855 he was admitted to the New York bar. In January 1854 he had helped Mitchell to found the ‘Citizen’ newspaper in New York. On 9 April 1856, assisted by James Roche, R. J. Lalor, and John Savage, he published the first number of the ‘Irish News’ in New York. Meagher wrote a good deal for it at first, including ‘Personal Recollections,’ but was unfitted for a journalist, and the paper became extinct in July 1860. In 1857 he undertook an exploring expedition to Central America, and upon his return recounted his experiences in a series of lectures. At the outbreak of the civil war Meagher raised a company of Zouaves for the 69th New York volunteers, and served with the army of the North during the first campaign in Virginia. His horse was shot under him at the first battle of Bull Run (21 July 1861). Towards the close of this year Meagher organised the ‘Irish Brigade,’ and was elected colonel of the first regiment. The command of the entire brigade was subsequently assigned to him, and on 3 Feb. 1862 he was granted the rank of brigadier-general. Meagher took a gallant part in the seven days' battles round Richmond, in the second battle of Bull Run, and in the battle of Antietam, where his horse was again shot under him. At Fredericksburg he received a bullet wound in his leg, and lost the greater part of his men. He led the remnant of the brigade for the last time at Chancellorsville, where its annihilation was completed, and a few days afterwards sent in his resignation, which was officially accepted on 14 May 1863. In the following year he was recommissioned as brigadier-general of volunteers, and appointed to the command of the Etowah district. At the conclusion of the war in 1865 Meagher was nominated by President Johnson secretary of Montana territory, and in September 1866 he became the temporary governor of that territory. While acting in this capacity he fell from a steamboat into the Missouri, and was drowned near Fort Benton, Montana, on 1 July 1867, aged 43. His body was not recovered.

‘Meagher of the Sword’ was an impulsive and reckless Irishman, a fiery orator, and a brave soldier. Thackeray makes a cutting allusion to him in the 'Battle of Limerick' (stanzas 6 and 16). Personally he was very handsome. Meagher was twice married, and left a widow and an only son. Before leaving Ireland Meagher appears to have given his papers to Duffy (Young Ireland, pt. i. p. viii). Assisted by his friend John Savage, Meagher published in 1853 his 'Speeches on the Legislative Independence of Ireland, with Introductory Notes' (and a portrait), New York, 12mo. He was also the author of 'Recollections of Ireland and the Irish;' 'The Last Days of the 69th in Virginia. A Narrative in three Parts … with a Portrait,' New York [1862?], 8vo. He contributed the following articles to Harper's 'New Monthly Magazine:' 1. 'Holidays in Costa Rica,' xx. 18-38, 145-64, 304-25. 2. 'The New Route through Chiriqui,' xxii. 198-209. 3. 'Rides through Montana' (left unfinished), xxxv. 568-85.

[A voluminous biography of Meagher, written by his friend Michael Cavanagh, with letters, speeches, and autobiographical fragments and portrait, Worcester, Mass. U.S.A. 1892; Captain W. F. Lyons's Brigadier-General Thomas Francis Meagher, New York, 1870 (with portrait); Meagher's Speeches, 1853; Sir C. G. Duffy's Young Ireland, 1884, pt. i. p. 209, pt. ii. passim; Mitchel's Jail Journal. 1868; Mitchel's History of Ireland, 1869, ii. 400-50; Sullivan's New Ireland, 1878; Sullivan's Speeches from the Dock, 1887, pp. 137-47; Read's Cabinet of Irish Literature, 1880, iv. 54-8; Irish Monthly, xiv. 11-16; In Memoriam Thomas Francis Meagher, Melbourne, 1867; Appleton's Cyclopædia of American Biography, 1888, iv. 283; Webb's Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878, pp. 338-9; Wills's Irish Nation, 1875, iv. 74-8; Annual Register, 1848 passim, 1852 Chron, pp. 81-2; Freeman's Journal, 17 and 18 May 1848, 17-24 Oct. 1848, and 20 July 1867; Notes and Queries, 7th ser. xii. 209; information kindly supplied by D. J. O'Donoghue, esq.]

G. F. R. B.