Flying the flag – An Irishman’s Diary on Thomas Francis Meagher

Thomas Francis Meagher: died 150 years ago on July 1st

Thomas Francis Meagher: died 150 years ago on July 1st


That the tricolour of green, white and orange became our national flag is largely due to a man called Thomas Francis Meagher, who died 150 years ago on July 1st.

During his historic and emotional visit to Ireland in 1963, President John F Kennedy presented the flag of the brigade Meagher led during the American Civil War to the Irish people and today it hangs in Dáil Éireann. In this way, Kennedy was probably crediting Meagher with paving the way for a Catholic Irish-American such as himself to attain to the highest political office in the US.

Born into a wealthy mercantile background, Meagher could have led a quiet, comfortable life but the politics of Irish nationalism called him and led to a hectic, adventurous life and premature death in what some suggest were mysterious circumstances.

He was born in August 1823 in Waterford city. His father Thomas, a wealthy merchant, was a supporter of Daniel O’Connell and became MP for Waterford and the city’s first Catholic mayor in 200 years. Meagher boarded at Clongowes Wood College in Kildare, where he developed the oratory that he later displayed in public life, and afterwards attended the prestigious Jesuit Stonyhurst College in Lancashire.

Back in Dublin in 1844 and planning to study law, he joined O’Connell’s Repeal Association and was particularly drawn to the young writers of its Nation newspaper. He proved a popular and effective public speaker, and when the association became divided over whether to support the incoming Whig government in 1846, Meagher joined with the Young Ireland group in opposing support for any British party unless repeal was granted.

At the meeting where O’Connell wanted all members of the association to agree to a pledge of non-violence, Meagher gave his famous “sword speech”, essentially saying he would not rule out a resort to violence in all circumstances. The Young Irelanders were forced out of the association and became increasingly militant as the Great Famine devastated parts of the country.

In 1848, Meagher and Smith O’Brien went to France to learn about the revolution happening there and they returned with a tricolour flag made for them by French supporters. “The white in the centre signifies a lasting truce between the ‘Orange’ and the ‘Green’ and I trust that beneath its folds the hands of the Irish Protestant and the Irish Catholic may be clasped in generous and heroic brotherhood,” he said of the flag.

Following the abortive Young Ireland rising in late July 1848, Meagher and other leaders were sentenced to death but the sentence was commuted to transportation to Van Dieman’s Land (now Tasmania).

He escaped from there to the US in 1852 and was welcomed as a hero in New York. Years of work as a newspaper publisher (of the Irish News), lawyer and public speaker followed, as well as travels to Central America to test its suitability for Irish immigration.

Following the outbreak of the American Civil War, he joined an Irish-American volunteer regiment of the New York Militia that became known as the “Fighting 69th”. After the Battle of Bull Run, he recruited an Irish brigade and was appointed brigadier-general in charge of it. The brigade showed great courage in the fighting, suffered heavy losses at the Battle of Antietam and was almost wiped out at Fredericksburg.

When his request to return to New York to raise reinforcements for his battered brigade was turned down, he resigned his commission.

He returned to active service some months later but an increasing reputation for heavy drinking saw him returned to New York. Despite that setback, he was among the honour guard of army generals that surrounded the assassinated President Lincoln’s open coffin.

After the war, he became acting-governor of the new Montana Territory, where his role brought him into conflict with some of the Native American tribes living there. On a tour of duty during this campaign, he fell overboard from a steamer into the fast-flowing Missouri River and his body was never recovered. Timothy Egan, whose biography of Meagher was published in 2016, believes there is strong evidence that political enemies killed him.

Monuments in New York, Montana, Waterford and elsewhere commemorate “Meagher of the Sword”, as he came to be known. His words and actions showed his love of Irish freedom and he was clearly a man of undoubted courage. His appeal had a unifying influence on much of Irish America and he contributed hugely to turning that section of the US population into a potent political force.