Preface to the 1916 publication of ‘Meagher of the Sword: Speeches of Thomas Francis Meagher in Ireland 1846-1848. Our thanks to Richard for scanning and transcribing this work.

THE Penal Laws enacted against the Catholics of Ireland in violation of the Treaty of Limerick had some results unforeseen by the English dominion. One was the growth of a wealthy and spirited mercantile class among the members of the penalised religion. Debarred from the liberal professions and employments, and from all part in the conduct of public affairs, industrious and enterprising Catholic townsmen who would neither recant their faith nor forsake their country turned naturally to trade and commerce, and built up a mercantile interest whose spokesmen held a manlier language to the English Oppression of their country and their religion than it had been wont to hear from the spiritless Catholic aristocrats who begged for their right to worship according to their faith as for a favour. This manly class sprang from dire oppression. The destruction of Irish legislative independence and the opening of the English Parliament and patronage to the ambition of Irish Catholics undermined its strong but not established structure. After the passage of the Emancipation Act, a perverted and denationalised social pride in wealthy Catholic circles destined the son to quit the counting-house of his father and assert Catholic equality in the Four Courts or the English senate. It was held a Catholic triumph when a Catholic mounted the Bench whence he was to sentence to transportation and to death men who essayed to recover the plundered liberties of their country, and True Equality was read in the gazetting of a Catholic Irishman to a commission in an army intended to despoil some hapless people of its lands or its treasures. So the Catholic office-holder and the Catholic office-seeker multiplied, but the Catholic merchant, sturdy and opulent, dwindled and passed away, till a legend grew that modern commerce and industry in Ireland had been the admirable creation and permanent possession of Englishmen and the sons of Englishmen.

Richard O’Gorman, of Dublin, and Thomas Meagher, of Waterford, were two of the last of the great class of Catholic merchants of which Sweetman, Keogh and Byrne were the old types. Thomas Meagher, whose ships carried freights between Waterford and America, married the daughter of another Waterford merchant – Quan – and Thomas Francis Meagher, their eldest son, was born in that city on the 3rd of August, 1823. Regarding Trinity College as anti-Irish and anti-Catholic, his father sent him to Clongowes and Stonyhurst for his education. In the first institution he was bred in ignorance of his country and all that related to it – in the second his preceptors, with some success, laboured to overcome what was termed his “horrible Irish brogue,” and succeeded in sending him back to his own country with an Anglo-Irish accent which grated on the ears of his countrymen when he addressed them from the tribune, until the eloquence and native fire of the orator swept the gift of the English school from their jarred consciousness. Meagher returned to Ireland in 1843 with vague plans for a soldier’s career in the Austrian army, to which the traditions of the Bradies, Taaffes, Nugents and other Irish families united Irish sympathy; but he discovered his country, whose history had been debarred in his education, and whose very accent had  been pronounced vulgar to him, swaying in a new passion of national vigour. The Nation had relit fires of patriotic pride in the people and O’Connell, stimulated by Davis, was sweeping the country with the slogan of “Repeal.” Meagher found himself when he found his country. He became the centre around which the young Nationalists of Waterford rallied, and his youthful eloquence sent his fame abroad. The eloquence and enthusiasm carried away O’Connell on his first meeting with Meagher and caused him to exclaim, “Bravo, Young Ireland!” Afterwards O’Connell was to seek to use “Young Ireland” as an epithet of opprobrium.

In 1844 Meagher came to Dublin with the intention of studying for the Bar. There he met the writers of the Nation and became, like each of them, one of the workers in the Repeal movement, in which the real labour of the committees was mainly discharged by Davis and his comrades. His eloquence at the public meetings in Conciliation Hall quickly made him celebrated in the capital, and any announcement that Meagher would speak crowded the Hall; for his was an eloquence that before was not heard within its walls, where there was no lack of trained and accomplished speakers. Passion and poetry transfigured his words, and he evoked for the first time in many breasts a manly consciousness of national right and dignity. As handsome and chivalrous as he was eloquent, he became something of a popular idol and as eagerly sought after in the social circles of Dublin as his colleague, John Pigot. But he disliked Dublin society for, as he wrote afterwards, “its pretentious aping of English taste, ideas and fashions, for its utter want of all true nobility, all sound love of country, and all generous or elevated sentiment.”

In June, 1846, the English Tory Ministry of Sir Robert Peel fell, and the Liberals under Lord John Russel returned to power. O’Connell simultaneously attempted to swing the Repeal movement into support of English Liberalism. The agitation which had been carried on for four years was to be damped down in return for a profuse distribution of patronage through Conciliation Hall, and a promise of remedial measures. Aware of the intrigue Meagher and the other Young Irelanders fell vehemently denounced from the platform of Conciliation Hall any discrimination in the attitude of the Repeal movement towards English Whig or Tory, so long as Repeal was denied. The people approved, and the “Tail,” – as the corrupt gang of politicians who fawned on O’Connell and hoped for English Government places, was nick-named – decided that the Young Irelanders must be driven out of Conciliation Hall and represented to the country as Factionists, Revolutionaries, and Infidels. For this purpose resolutions were introduced to which no honest and intelligent man could subscribe and retain his self-respect – resolutions which declared that under no circumstances was a nation justified in asserting its liberties by force of arms. It was in opposition to these resolutions Meagher delivered the speech that caused him to be afterwards known Meagher of the Sword. He had carried the audience, at first semi-hostile, towards his side, and the plot against the Young Irelanders was in peril of defeat when O’Connell’s son, observing the danger, intervened to declare that either he or Meagher must leave the hall, and thus compelled the secession of the men who had made the Repeal movement a reality. As the Young Irelanders refused to accept defeat, their opposition to the resolution which assured England that no physical resistance would ever be offered to any measure she took against Ireland or the Irish was represented by the O’Connellite orators and journalists as an attempt to turn the Repeal Association into a revolutionary movement. The leaders of Young Ireland were denounced as infidels secretly conspiring to subvert religion, and as traitors in receipt of “French” and “Castle” gold – devices familiar since the days of the volunteers in English-controlled Irish politics, and not yet outworn. O’Connell made a special effort to detach Meagher from Young Ireland, for he realised the power of Meagher’s eloquence and he was personally attached to the generous and gallant young Irishman. But although Meagher was careless and even weak of will in many matters, he was adamant on questions of national principle.

The Conciliation Hall machine failed to ruin the Nation newspaper and erase its writers. A sturdy minority of the people stood firmly by Young Ireland, and when the hurricane of calumny had exhausted itself, and men returned to reflection, a steady stream of recruits flowed towards the maligned Irishman. The Irish Confederation was founded to receive them, and rally the country against the barter of the National movement to the English Liberal Government. In 1847 a vacancy occurred in the representation of Galway in the English parliament, and the Confederation decided to send Mitchel, Meagher, and other of its leaders to oppose the Government nominee, Monahan. Conciliation Hall was obliged to affect a virtue which it had decried and follow the example of the Young Irelanders. Monahan was returned by a few votes, to afterwards pack Mitchel’s jury and become a judge of what is termed the High Court of Justice in Ireland; but the battle so well begun against the English nominee and the Irish placehunter reacted on the other constituencies, and the Alliance between the O’Connellites and the English Liberals was in danger of destruction, when the death of Daniel O’Connell plunged the island in grief. The Whigs and corruptionists who controlled Conciliation Hall turned the event to their profit by inventing the story that the Young Irelanders were responsible for O’Connell’s death, and fanatical mobs attacked some of the Young Ireland leaders. Physical menace failed, equally with moral intimidation, to deflect the chiefs of the Irish Confederation from their campaign against English Whiggery in Irish National politics, but another event led to divided counsels in the Young Ireland ranks. This event was the Blight that fell upon the potato crop in Western Europe in the autumn of 1845, and continued to destroy the crop to a lesser or a greater extent for five years. Wurtemburg and other Continental states seriously affected, closed their gates to the export of corn until it was ascertained that the destruction of the potato would not involve famine or hunger to their people. In Ireland, apart from the potato crop, corn and cattle were raised annually on the soil sufficient to provide for a population of some sixteen millions of people. The population of Ireland at the time was under eight and one-half millions. The Young Irelanders demanded that, as in the case of Wurtemburg, the ports should be closed to the export of corn until the people of the country had been succoured. The demand was ignored. A series of Acts was passed, under the guise of relief measures, which accentuated the Famine it was ostensibly designed to alleviate. The farmer who accepted relief was obliged to surrender his lands and himself become a pauper. Hundreds of petty Government offices were created where Famine functionaries waxed fat while the people perished. The corn and cattle of Ireland were annually drafted away to cheaply feed the people of England, and while the sustenance of twelve millions of people was borne out of the Irish harbours, ships laden with food from abroad to succour the producers sailed into these harbours to be discharged under the supervision of the English Government and in some cases to have their charitable cargoes stored to rot, lest the purpose of the benevolent foreigners might be fulfilled and the Irish population be maintained at its dangerous ratio to the population of England.

A Mansion House Committee, composed of all political sections, was formed with Lord Cloncurry as its chairman, which pointed out that the prohibition of the export of the oat crop alone would keep in the country sufficient food to provide for all. The Committee was ignored, but an English Liberal Government sent over the chef of its Reform Club – M. Soyer – to show the starving Irish how to live on a soup containing three ounces of solid food to one quart of water. M. Soyer boiled his soup on a public platform erected above the pit at Arbour Hill in Dublin wherein the bodies of ’98 insurgents were rudely buried by their executioners, and he distributed his elixir of Irish life from chained ladles to those who supplicated, while an English military band discoursed music and the Union Jack waved triumphant above the scene. The Viceregal Court graced the opening of the Government soup-ladles with its presence, and the English newspapers published leading articles for transmission abroad on the general topic of English benevolence and Irish ingratitude, with particular reference to the strenuous exertions England was making to preserve the Irish from the evils of a famine for which the Irish improvidence and Celtic laziness were responsible.

At the end of 1847 a Coercion Act, under which it was made felony at the pleasure of the Lord Lieutenant for an Irishman in Ireland to be outside his own house between dusk and morning, was passed through the English Parliament. Mitchel abandoning faith in the Confederation policy of a union of classes – which he held in the circumstances unfeasible, since the landlord class had encouraged the passing of the new Coercion Act – proposed a policy of passive resistance, culminating in armed insurrection and potential revolution. His policy was rejected after debate by 317 votes to 188. The majority of the Young Ireland leaders spoke against the proposal and the speech of Meagher powerfully influenced the vote. Mitchel withdrew from the Confederation and established the United Irishman, in which he preached his policy week by week. Meagher, adhering to the Confederation, went to Waterford to contest the Parliamentary representation of the city as an opponent of all English parties and Governments in Ireland. The vacancy was caused by the appointment of O’Connell’s son, Daniel, to a government post, and the O’Connellites nominated as his successor a Kilkenny solicitor named Costello, notorious as a placebeggar. Mitchel, with grim humour, wrote that he was “for Costello,” for “Mr. Meagher’s return to the British Parliament would do that Parliament too much honour and bring it too much credit. We cannot bear to think of our strongest and most trusted men being, one after another, sent to flatter the pride of our enemies – shorn Samsons making sport for the Philistines or toiling ‘at the mill as slaves’ – tongues of fire sent down by Providence to kindle a soul within our people employed in pyrotechnic performances for the pleasure of the foreign tyrant.

Think of Sheil! In short we desire to bring that Parliament into contempt in Ireland and to put and end to the ‘moral force’ system by the process known as reductio ad absurdum. And we have but little fear on the present occasion; we have confidence in Alderman Delahunty and the organised corruption of Waterford.”

Meagher was defeated, and so was Costello, Sir Henry Winston Barron being elected. The French Revolution next startled Ireland and in the wave of enthusiasm for the overthrow of the European despotism erected by the Treaty of Vienna, Mitchel’s policy was acclaimed by most of those in the Confederation who had been its opponents. Meagher, O’Brien and Hollywood were despatched to Paris to congratulate the French nation in the name of Ireland. Lamartine received them courteously but coldly. He had been threatened by the British Government with the possible breaking-off of diplomatic relations if he offered encouragement to Ireland and he was, of all the French statesmen of the time, the most susceptible to English pressure. Ledru-Rollin, Cavignac and Loius Napoleon were not unsympathetic. After the return of the deputation to Dublin, Meagher was prosecuted for sedition, but owing to an over-sight, by which the prosecution permitted one independent citizen to be sworn on the jury, the Government failed to secure a conviction. An attack was shortly afterwards essayed on Meagher, Mitchel and O’Brien while they were attending a banquet in Limerick, the life of Mitchel being particularly aimed at, but the objective was missed. At the end of May, Mitchel was arraigned for the new crime of Treason-Felony, invented to meet his case, and condemned to penal transportation for fourteen years. The Dublin Confederates desired to rise in arms, barricade the streets, and attempt a rescue. They were persuaded by the other Young Irelander leaders, including Meagher, not to do so. The reasons advanced were strong and they were sincerely put forward by men of undoubted personal courage on whose shoulders responsibility for the movement rested. In the light of after years Meagher acknowledged the advice he gave had not been justified.

Six weeks after the transportation of Mitchel, Meagher was arrested at his father’s house in Waterford on a second charge of sedition, and brought to Dublin by a troop of cavalry and three companies of infantry. The people of Waterford rose in the streets and barricaded the bridge with the intention of rescuing him from his captors, but he peremptorily forbade them to do so and obliged them to remove the barricades. He was released from custody in Dublin on giving recognisances to appear at the assizes in Limerick, in which county the sedition was charged. On the following Sunday, with Doheny, he addressed a great hosting on Slievenamon, after which he returned to Waterford, whence he came to Dublin again, as he relates in the Personal Narrative published in the present volume, and embarked on his insurgent career. A proposal of Joseph Brenan’s involving the beginning of the insurrection in Dublin was rejected and the final scenes took place in Tipperary. The insurgent leaders made a fatal error when they retreated from Carrick-On-Suir and fell back on rural districts where they were neither organisation, armament, nor knowledge of their identity among the people. The last hope was quenched by O’Brien’s refusal at the Council of War held in Ballingarry on the 28th of July to permit the necessary supplies for his followers to be commandeered and to offer farms rent-free, in the event of victory to all who joined the insurgent standard. Meagher, M’Manus, O’Donoghue, Dillon, O’Mahony, Doheny, Stephens, James Cantwell,[1] Devin Reilly, Cavanagh,[2]  Wright,[3] Cunningham[4] and Leyne,[5] took part in the council, and on its conclusion Meagher, Doheny, Leyne, Stephens, and some others, left to attempt to rally and organise forces at Slievenamon and in the Comeraghs with which to threaten the garrison of Clonmel. The affair at Ballingarry, however, the next day disarranged their plans and after a fortnight’s wanderings in Tipperary, Meagher, Leyne and O’Donoghue were arrested at Rathgannon, near Thurles, and brought to Dublin where they were confined in Kilmainham Jail with O’Brien and, subsequently, with M’Manus, until the opening, in October, of a special Commission at Clonmel, presided over by Chief Justices Blackburne and Doherty. Four well-packed juries convicted O’Brien, M’Manus, O’Donoghue, and Meagher of high treason, and they were sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered.[6] However, General Sir Charles Napier had in his possession a letter dated June 25, 1832, sent from the Home Office in London at the direction of some of the men who constituted the Government of England in 1848, nominating him to take command of the Birmingham section of an English insurrection planned by the English Liberals in that year. He was subpoenaed to produce it at the trials in Clonmel, but the Judges refused to permit it to be received. Thereupon it was published in the press and its publication made the carrying out of the death-sentence impossible to Lord John Russell and his Government colleagues who had planned ten years before to commit High Treason against the Constitution of their own country. The sentences were changed to transportation for life, and Meagher, in January, 1852, succeeded in escaping to America, where he was received with enthusiasm, and where the remainder of his eventful life was spent. In turn orator, journalist, lawyer, explorer, and soldier, he raised the celebrated Irish Brigade which under his gallant leadership in the American Civil War enhanced the military reputation of Ireland. “Meagher,” wrote the Confederate Commander, General Lee, “though not equal to Cleburne in military genius, rivalled him in bravery and in the affection of his soldiers. The gallant stand which his bold brigade made on the heights of Fredericksburg is well known. Never were men so brave. They ennobled their race by their splendid gallantry on that desperate occasion.”

In founding the brigade Meagher had hope of returning at its head to Ireland, for the relations between the Northern States and England were strained and on the arrest of the Confederate envoys, Mason and Slidell, when sailing under the British flag, by a Federal cruiser, he wrote exultantly to his Brigade that the war with England was imminent and that the Irish-American soldiers would be the first chosen to land in Ireland. But war did not ensue, and his bright hope of returning to Ireland at the head of an Army of Deliverance was quenched.

At the conclusion of the war Meagher was appointed Secretary and subsequently Acting-Governor of Montana. In that position he incurred the hostility of the professional politicians who lost some of their profits by his upright administration. Threats were muttered against him. One July evening he arrived at Fort Benton on official duty and went aboard a moored river steamer to rest for the night. A few hours later a cry was heard and Meagher disappeared down the river. His death was generally attributed to accident. A few years ago a man named Miller confessed to having murdered him for hire, but subsequently withdrew his confession. Whether accident or an assassin’s hand ended the life of Thomas Francis Meagher is not likely to be ever ascertained. Meagher has appealed to the popular imagination in Ireland more warmly than any other Irish patriot of the nineteenth century except Robert Emmet. Chivalrous, eloquent, generous, ardent and handsome he inspired personal affection and public trust. In the Young Ireland movement he was not of the greatest men. In strength of intellect and character he did not stand on the plane with men such as Davis and Mitchel. But he was the most picturesque and gallant figure of Young Ireland and he stands above all his colleagues, and indeed above all Irishman of his century as the National Orator. In the speeches he delivered in Ireland from 1846 to 1848 he will live for ever. They are the authentic and eloquent voice of Irish Nationalism. Save Emmet’s Speech from the Dock no modern oratory has rung so true to the Irish Nation as the oratory of Meagher. The Young Ireland movement had its philosophers, its poets, its statesmen, but without Meagher it would have been incomplete. In him it gave to Ireland the National Tribune. It gave to Ireland, too,  in Thomas Francis Meagher a knightly exemplar for young Irishman, one who never forgot or forsook the cause of his native land, or doubted its ultimate victory. “God speed the Irish Nation to liberty and power,” was the last prayer written by “Meagher of the Sword.”


[1]  A Dublin Confederate leader and hotel proprietor. He died in 1875

[2] Afterwards an officer in the American army. He was slain in the American Civil War.

[3] Afterwards a successful New York Lawyer.

[4] Afterwards well known as an American Journalist.

[5] Maurice Leyne, whose mother was a daughter of Daniel O’Connell, was the only member of the O’Connell family who identified himself with Young Ireland. Owing to the failure of a Crown witness to identify him, the Government abandoned the prosecution against him. He afterwards joined Gavan Duffy on the staff of the revived Nation, and died prematurely in 1854.

[6] One Catholic, a Unionist, was permitted on Meagher’s Jury. The jurors were: Jas. Willington of Castle Willington; Augustus Hartford of Willington Lodge; Samuel Ryan of Anna Villa; Thos. Lyndsley of Lindville; Benjamin Hawkshaw, Falleen; Benjamen Hawkshaw, Knockane; Edward Chadwick, Ballinard; Richard Kennedy, Knockballymaher; Richard Mason, Clonkenny; Richard Hamersley, Bansha House; Thomas Heirden, Summerhill; and Nicholas Greene, Knockanaspie.