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Thomas Meagher: badass

The Immortal Irishman by Timothy Egan

If Thomas Francis Meagher (1823-1867) hadn’t lived, no author of fiction would have been brave enough to invent him: his life and his accomplishments were simply too big, too many, too improbable.

Consider:

In a time and place (Ireland in the 1800s) when most people lived out their lives within a few miles of their birthplace, he traveled to Tasmania and America, and in America from the streets of New York and the battlefields of the Civil War to the vast expanses of the Montana territory.

Born into wealth and privilege, he threw away a gilded future to cast his lot with the anti-British revolutionaries of the 1840s, and became one of its leading lights and most famous orators, and thus a hunted man.

Imprisoned and exiled for his trouble, he was sent to brutal isolation in Tasmania – and made an escape right out of an adventure novel, arriving in America after a stint as a castaway on a tiny island.

He not only fought in the Civil War, but led legendary Irish Brigade into some of the bloodiest and most horrifying battles of the conflict, including Bull Run and Antietam, in the process becoming an Irish-American legend while nearly dying twice.

He is most probably the only man who met with both Daniel O’Connell and Abraham Lincoln, both of whom spoke fondly of him.

And on top of all of that, he invented –yes, invented – the tricolor, the famous Irish flag that is perhaps the most potent symbol of the Emerald Isle.

I am not making any of this up.

Meagher did all this and more – he was, in effect, a rock-star-like hero on two continents before his 40th birthday – and his story (and this book, by proudly Irish-American author Timothy Egan) should be required reading for any Irishman or Irish-American.

Egan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for the New York Times, is one of the great non-fiction writers of our time; deftly reported social history does not get any better than the National Book Award-winning The Worst Hard Time, his 2006 examination of the Dust Bowl and those who lived through it.

Like Worst, Immortal’s success is a result of Egan’s two main attributes as a brilliant journalist: his ability to put the people he is writing about in the context of their times, and the sense of immediacy he brings to describing scenes and events. In the case of Immortal, this means it feels like we are actually there as Meagher delivers speeches for Irish freedom, escapes from isolation in Tasmania, and leads his troops into battle time and again. We understand the social currents and realities that existed in Ireland when Meagher was a young man, and the ideals that led him to set aside a cozy life for being a rebel, and why his skills as a writer and orator made him such a hero, and the need for such men in an Ireland that was largely, in effect, starving to death.

Immortal is one of those books that has both sweep and fine detail, a sense of history and an immediacy that puts us into the heart of the moment. Thomas Meagher was both an Irish hero for his time and for all time, and Egan is to be lauded for how marvelously he has told his improbable, outsize story.