Thomas Francis Meagher Flag-Raising Ceremony (Waterford, June 2021)
Speech28 June 2021
As a proud Freeman of Waterford, it is an honour for me to take part in this commemoration of the first raising of our national flag in Waterford in 1848 and to pay tribute to Waterford’s own Thomas Francis Meagher.
History is a continuum in which, in one way of looking at things, each new day, each month and each year remakes the world, usually by means of imperceptible increments. But there are times when the wheel of life spins more aggressively and new eras appear to be forming in the womb of time.
1848, when Thomas Francis Meagher first raised the tricolour at the Irish Confederation’s Wolfe Tone Club on the Mall, was one such juncture in history when an old world was on the wane and, in the desperation of that dark and dreadful year for Ireland, new imaginings about our country’s future were coming into focus. Thomas Francis Meagher was someone whose mind abounded with ambitions for Ireland and it is fitting that we remember him in his home city almost 200 years after the year of his birth.
We all come of age in different circumstances and it is undoubtedly a blessing to do so in settled times when the call of daunting, dangerous challenges is muted. Then there are those who lives coincide with a cusp in history when the call to action becomes difficult for vigorous minds to ignore.
Meagher became politically active at a time when the long ascendancy of Daniel O’Connell was ebbing and the Great Famine was about to unleash its waves of devastation that would change Ireland forever.
I like to compare that period in the 1840s with the turn-of-the nineteenth century when, in the wake of the fall of Parnell, a rising generation developed new attitudes that led to the Irish revolution in the second decade of the twentieth century.
When Meagher was born in 1823, the O’Connellite world was still in the making. It would be six years before the crowning achievement of Catholic Emancipation. Meagher’s family was deeply embedded in the political tradition of parliamentary nationalism created by O’Connell and indeed his father was an O’Connellite M.P. for this City for a decade after the Liberator’s death.
Meagher spent four of his formative years outside of Ireland at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire. When I visited Stonyhurst in 2016 to speak about another one of that school’s past pupils, Joseph Mary Plunkett, I was shown some of Meagher’s workbooks from his schooldays which included some juvenile poems of his.
In Ireland, the years between 1844 and 1848 were ones of political turbulence and economic disaster. Meagher returned to Ireland at nineteen in the year of Repeal, 1843, and joined the many young Irishmen who rallied in support of O’Connell’s bid to re-establish a form of self-government for Ireland. As the Repeal movement unraveled and O’Connell’s authority came under pressure, younger voices, Thomas Meagher among them, who took inspiration from the rise of romantic nationalism in Europe, asserted themselves and ultimately parted ways with O’Connell in 1846.
This led to the creation of the Irish Confederation and ultimately to the Young Ireland rising of 1848 which resulted in Meagher’s conviction, sentencing to death, commutation and transportation.
There are several reasons why I take a special interest in the life and legacy of Thomas Francis Meagher.
First, as a Waterford man, I see him as one of the great figures from this city’s history, and it is fitting that he is impressively memorialised not far from where he first raised our tricolour in 1848.
Second, more than 50 years after I first studied the subject at Mount Sion, I retain a keen interest in Irish history and especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I take the view that the Young Ireland movement, overshadowed by the Great Famine, and, in terms of political history, wedged between the age of O’Connell and the emergence of the Fenian movement in the 1860s, is a neglected domain. Meagher’s life provides a lookout point from which to view the Young Irelanders.
Third, as Ambassador to the USA since 2017, I have interacted intensively with Irish Americans and I see Meagher as a key figure from the history of the Irish in America.
During the pandemic, my wife Greta and I, detached from our family across the ocean, and unable to travel very far from Washington DC, took a number of day trips to places in the neighbouring states of Virginia and Maryland. These included visits to the Civil War battlefields at Bull Run, Fredericksburg and Antietam, at all of which Meagher fought as an officer of the Union Army.
On the day we visited Antietam to see the Irish Brigade Memorial, I was struck by the thought that Thomas Francis Meagher was a rare individual in that he made a notable impact on two countries, on Ireland as a romantic revolutionary and on America as a civil war General.
What’s more, there are memorials in Meagher’s honour on two continents. At the Antietam battlefield, Meagher’s image is engraved on the Irish memorial and he is listed among the Union Generals involved in what became the bloodiest single day in American history. In September, I am due to pay an official visit to Montana and look forward to seeing the Meagher equestrian statue in that State’s Capital, Helena. The spot at Fort Benton on the Missouri River where Meagher met his death is also marked in his memory.
In Ireland, Thomas Francis Meagher was part of a group of young Irish intellectuals who, with inspiration from the wave of romantic radicalism that swept across Europe in 1848, devised a new definition of Irish nationality. As an agent of immediate political change, their efforts were a failure, but they were part of a continuum that, through words and deeds, kept the flame of Irish freedom alive during that most tragic of eras in our history.
As we remember that idealistic young man, I cannot resist reading from one of his speeches delivered at Dublin’s Conciliation Hall in February 1846 when Meagher was still attached to O’Connell and the cause of Repeal:
“Let earnest truth, stern fidelity to principle, love for all who bear the name of Irishman, sustain, ennoble and immortalize this cause. Thus shall we reverse the dark fortunes of the Irish race, and call forth here a new nation from the ruins of the old. …. Thus shall an honourable kingdom be enabled to fulfil the great ends that a bounteous Providence hath assigned her – which ends have been signified to her in the resources of her soil, and the abilities of her sons.”
In America, Meagher’s contribution to the making of Irish America was an important one in that he was an avid supporter of the Union cause and urged his fellow Irishmen to follow his lead.
In nineteenth-century America, the Civil War was the kind of watershed that the Famine was in Irish history. After the Civil War, America experienced a period of rapid economic advancement during which immigrants, including the Irish, played a central role. Whereas in the 1840s and 1850s, nativist movements flourished in opposition to immigration from Ireland and elsewhere, the contribution of the Irish to the Union cause during the Civil War was one of the factors that brought about a waning of anti-Irish sentiment.
Allow me to finish by quoting an assessment of Meagher written in 1916 by Arthur Griffith in his introduction to a collection of Meagher’s speeches. Griffith wrote, that while Meagher was not the greatest of the Young Irelanders (that title he gave to Thomas Davis and John Mitchell), he was the movement’s ‘most picturesque and gallant figure’ and that ‘he stands above all his colleagues, and indeed above all Irishmen of the century as the National Orator’. His speeches, Griffith believed, would live forever as ‘the authentic and eloquent voice of Irish nationalism.’1
I do not know if Griffith’s book of Meagher’s speeches appeared before or after the Easter Rising of 1916, but it seems entirely fitting that the inspirational words of ‘Meagher of the Sword’ should have appeared in print during that fateful year when another idealistic generation of young Irish people decided to strike for freedom.
Daniel Mulhall is Ireland’s Ambassador to the United States of America.
1. Arthur Griffith (ed.), Meagher of the Sword, (Dublin: M.H. Gill, 1916), p. xviii.