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Memory Of Potato Famine Burdens 'Immortal Irishman'


In the Ireland of 200 years ago, Thomas Francis Meagher was born into privilege. His father was a wealthy Catholic merchant at a time when Ireland had been occupied by Great Britain for hundreds of years. Catholics had been barred from practicing their religion or speaking their language. At one point, an Irishman's fingernails would be pulled out for playing the harp. Still, by the early 1800s, the young Meagher could have settled into a fine home and an easy life of picnics and fancy dress balls.

TIMOTHY EGAN: But he gets radicalized rather dramatically by the Great Famine.

MONTAGNE: That's Timothy Egan. In his new biography of the Irish revolutionary Thomas Meagher, he writes of the terrible years when rural Ireland's main source of food, the potato, was wiped out by a blackening blight. The streets of Ireland's cities filled with starving families driven from their farms, and yet Britain insisted that crops continue to flow out to foreign markets. Horrified, Thomas Meagher joined others young rebels, and a gifted orator raised his voice.

EGAN: There was plenty of food on the island while a million people died. And was grain, there was beef, corn wheat, oats, barley - food from Irish land and Irish labor, but it didn't go into Irish mouths. So one of the things that Thomas Meagher tried to do was to stop food from being exported from Ireland. And there are all these documents now that have come out and shown there was a British policy called extermination. They thought the Irish had breeded too fast, and this was nature's way - in some cases they said God's way - of culling the Irish. It was so much more than a potato famine, which of course, there was an awful blight on the potato crop, but it was so much more than that.

MONTAGNE: As you write, a great hunger was unfolding in the midst of great plenty.

EGAN: Exactly. And that's why it's recognized now as a great crime. I mean, we didn't have this term genocide back in the early Victorian age. But a lot of historians now apply the term genocide to what happened.

MONTAGNE: So what kinds of people made up the leaders of what came to be known as the Young Ireland?

EGAN: It was one of the most fascinating tempted revolutions in modern history because these people didn't know diddly (ph) about fighting a war because they were young and they were in love with each other, and they were all well-educated. They were poets, they were educated women, they were philosophers, they were journalists. One of the women who was in love with Thomas Francis Meagher was a poet named Speranza. She went on to become the mother of Oscar Wilde. And they had this earnestness that only the young have, that they could take on the British Empire and move the British Empire by their words alone. But eventually they had to take up arms. And they were trying to move a largely illiterate peasant class - the masses - to rise up against their British overlords with poetry. And I can't think of a parallel in modern revolutions. Perhaps that's why it failed (laughter).

MONTAGNE: But it failed also at a time when Great Britain had more troops in Ireland than it did in colonial India.

EGAN: Isn't that amazing? So here again, you have the greatest empire on Earth and, you know, one-fourth of the land surface has the Union Jack flying over it. And the only part of the British Empire that's totally ungovernable is 30 miles away, is Ireland. And there was a larger garrison in Ireland than there was in India for more than 200 years, troops stationed ready to level any city that would threaten uprising against British rule.

MONTAGNE: Though they never got off so much as a shot, the Irish rebels were rounded up. Thomas Meagher was sentenced to hang. That sentence was commuted, and he was shipped out to a penal colony in Tasmania from which he escaped. And that's when his second life began.

EGAN: A few years after he was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, he arrives in New York City. And he's like a savior, someone who's going to show and direct the Irish immigrants on how they can find their dignity in this new world.

MONTAGNE: And what intervenes is the Civil War. And that gives him a cause.

EGAN: Exactly. All his life, he wants to free Ireland. So now he's in exile, and the Civil War - it's interesting because at the time, there was all this anti-Irish sentiment. When the Civil War comes along, people are unsure which side they'll fight on. And so he leads the Irish brigade, the Fighting 69th they were known as. They were these people who were living in the lower East side in these awful tenements. From those people, he recruits this Irish brigade, and people think they won't fight, the Irish can't organize a parade, let alone a brigade of their own. But it was a brilliant move by Abraham Lincoln to name Meagher as a general because it was a way to bring the Irish onto the Union cause.

MONTAGNE: And the Irish brigade ended up at the battle that gave the Civil War the bloodiest day in history.

EGAN: That's right. They fought in Antietam, the bloodiest single day in American history. There were 23,000 casualties. And at a battle that was fought at Fredericksburg in December of 1862, they stormed wave after wave of this barrier called Mary's Heights, and Robert E. Lee was sitting on the other side. They were just mowing down the Irish, and Meagher had told his soldiers that we're going to put a little sprig of green in our caps. We know many of us are going to die today but when they find our body, they'll know we're Irish. And they just get mowed down. But because of Antietam, because of the bravery of Irish and other soldiers - remember, 140,000 Irish ended up fighting on the Union cause - Meagher comes to a conclusion that this great sacrifice they make is for the liberation of African-Americans in this country.

MONTAGNE: The title of your book is "The Immortal Irishman." And yet in fact, he is really not well-known considering what he did at these great moments in history. Why is that?

EGAN: He's certainly well-known in the Irish-American community, where he was once one of the most famous Irish-Americans. When John F. Kennedy went to Ireland, he brought with him the flag of the Irish brigade, the flag of Meagher's brigade. But he sort of fell into disrepute because so many people had died that Meagher was just disgusted. He could no longer face the mothers of people who'd died on his watch who they thought they were going to free, so he goes to Montana and sort of falls off the map. He becomes their territorial governor, and they think Meagher is out of sight and he's gone. But I call him the immortal Irishman because his words lived. His sacrifice lived. So the interesting thing about the way, I think, every person who's in the global Irish diaspora looks at this is, you know, we have this burden of memory. That burden of memory is our history, and we will not forget that. We'll not forget the famine, we'll not forget the centuries of oppression. And Meagher, even at his most joyous points when he would be the key speaker at a banquet, he would say that there's a skeleton at this feast. That skeleton is that burden of memory.


MONTAGNE: Timothy Egan. His new book is "The Immortal Irishman." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.