Thomas Meagher senior was born in Newfoundland and the Meagher family traded extensively with St Johns. In 1836 over half the population of Newfoundland was Irish. Ireland and in particular Waterford has strong cultural connections which still exist to this day.
Since the days of Wolfe Tonne Irish nationalists were inspired by the French revolution. In 1848 Thomas Francis Meagher travelled to France to study the principles of the French revolution. The birth of the French state and the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity inspired Meagher and he returned to Ireland with a tricolour flag of orange, white and green.
Following the failed rebellion of 1848 Thomas Francis Meagher and other key members of the Young Ireland movement were banished to Tasmania. Even this transportation to a distant land failed to break the spirit of the movement. Meagher and comrades continued to meet in secret. Remarkably Meagher escaped from Tasmania to America ( via Brazil ) in 1852.
Meagher in America
In America Meagher became a noted lecturer and newspaper publisher. With the outbreak of the American Civil War Meagher felt it was his moral duty to fight on the side of the union.
“It is not only our duty to America, but also to Ireland. We could not hope to succeed in our effort to make Ireland a Republic without the moral and material support of the liberty-loving citizens of these United States.”
In a speech at Jones’ Wood in August 1861, Meagher asked his audience to cast party politics aside and to support the President and protect the Constitution. As he said;
“I ask no Irishman to do that which I myself am not myself prepared to do.. My heart, my arm, my life are pledged to the national cause, and to the last it will be my highest pride, as I conceive it to be my holiest duty and obligation to share its fortunes.”
1862 would be marked by the rise of the new Irish Brigade and its growing fame for tenacity and bravery at Fair Oaks, Gains Mill, White Oak Swamp, Malvern Hill, Antietam and Fredericksburg. Both Meagher and the Brigade were commended by Union and Confederate generals alike. The brigade was fiercely proud of their green banners and their Irish war cry faugh a ballagh which translates to “clear the way”
After the war Meagher became acting governor of Montana and campaigned for statehood for his adopted home. Meagher County in Montana is named in his honour and he is remembered by organisations such as ‘The Friends and Admirers of Thomas Francis Meagher.’
During President John F. Kennedy’s visit to Ireland in 1963, when he addressed the Houses of Parliament in Dublin. There, while presenting to the Irish people a restored flag of the 69th New York, Kennedy paid tribute to the bravery displayed by the Irish Brigade and, in particular, by its General, Thomas Francis Meagher during one of the bloodiest battles in American history, Fredericksburg, 13 December 1862. Indeed, Kennedy attributed to Meagher by his unconditional support for the American Constitution in its hour of need, the assimilation of the Irish into American society and in facilitating his own ability to access the highest office in the Republic.