The story of Thomas Meagher (1823-1867), an Irishman radicalized by the famine who became a hero on three continents.
New York Times columnist Egan (Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis, 2012, etc.), winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, could have written multiple books about Meagher’s broad successes. He was a natural-born orator, and his gift encouraged his fellow Irish in hopes of freedom sooner, rather than “in time,” as per the Great Liberator, Daniel O’Connell. The author imparts the desperation of the starving families while pointing to the many wealthy Catholics and Protestants who worked to achieve liberty. During the Great Famine, England exported 1.5 billion pounds of grain as well as more beef than any other colony, while millions starved without the blighted potatoes that sustained them. After a fiery speech in Conciliation Hall and a betrayal by John Balfe, the English arrested Meagher and a handful of others for speaking out. Meagher was sent to Tasmania, and while he was not put into forced labor, he had limited contact with his fellow Irish. Discovering that the traitor Balfe had been given a land grant, he sent an anonymous series of letters to the press, exposing his perfidy. Eventually, with help from his wealthy father, he escaped. His reputation preceded him, and his welcome in America was riotous. His leadership and oration made him a great recruiter of his fellow countrymen during the Civil War. A different side of the Civil War emerges as the author describes the frustrations of war under Gen. George McClellan and the devotion of Meagher’s men. Exhausted after Chancellorsville, Meagher resigned and moved to Montana with his wife, where he fought yet again against a rabid vigilance committee.
A fascinating, well-told story by an author fully committed to his subject. Egan’s impeccable research, uncomplicated readability, and flowing narrative reflect his deep knowledge of a difficult and complex man.