Meagher of the Sword, Exiles Honour the Great Irish-American in Montana

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The following is the full text of the splendid address on General Thomas Francis Meagher delivered at an Irish gathering in Butte, Montana, by a gifted Clonmel man, Mr. Richard P. O’Brien. We are sure it will be read with deep interest by his many friends in this county:-

“Mr. Chairman, Ladies, and Gentlemen,- Everybody in this audience is aware that a monument is to be erected this summer to the memory of General Thomas Francis Meagher. In view of the near completion of the monument, it may not be inappropriate to address a few words to you concerning the career and character of the man whose memory is about to be honoured in this signal manner, by the citizens of Montana.

“Thomas Francis Meagher was born in the city of Waterford, Ireland, in the year 1823. His father was a wealthy merchant of that ancient city, and his standing with his fellow-citizens may be gauged by the fact that he was elected mayor, being the first Catholic for over two hundred years to occupy that honourable position. This event was subsequently mentioned with pardonnable pride by his illustrious son.

” Thomas Francis was educated by the Jesuit Fathers at Clongowes Wood, Ireland, and at Stoneyhurst, England. At these two famous institutions were laid broad and deep the foundations of that classical learning and exquisite taste which afterwards shone so conspicuously in all his writings and speeches. Having completed his course at Stoneyhurst with great distinction, Meagher returned to his native land to find its passionate heart throbbing responsively to two mighty influences – the subtle witchery of Davis’ lyre and the scarcely less melodious cadences of Mitchel’s trenchant and powerful prose. These were literary influences directed to the attainment of a political end. In accurate nomenclature they would be termed politico-literary influences.

“To these the young student was destined in a short time to add a third, and not less glorious influence- a gorgeous and enchanting eloquence unsurpassed even in that land which has produced more orators of the first rank than Greece itself – an eloquence that, with intensest heat, fused the ore of his extensive reading, and produced the most finished blade of perfect speech that has been wielded in the assertion of a nation’s liberty since the days when Demosthenes attempted to revivify decadent Hellas by the thunder tones of his, immortal Philippics. The political situation in Ireland at that time was still dominated by the Titanic figure of O’Connell. That truly great man had, about fifteen years before, won Catholic Emancipation by means of constitutional agitation, and he believed he could win ‘Repeal’ by the same methods. But the prestige of the great ‘tribune’ had received a staggering blow. His ‘monster meetings’ had been suppressed. He had been cast into prison, from which he had emerged less sanguine, but still obstinately attached to his favourite policy The youthful section of O’Connell’s, followers never endorsed this policy. They argued that England would never repeal the Union (so disastrous to Ireland and advantageous to herself) which she had attained by means of the most nefarious corruption, and that revolution was the only course open to the people.

“O’Connell’s followers, in their zeal to tie down the younger and more ardent section, introduced for adoption a series of resolutions known as the ‘Peace Resolutions,’ which declared that ‘liberty was not worth purchasing at the price of one drop of blood.’ These resolutions, as might be expected, precipitated the issue. Meagher sprang to his feet, and delivered a speech against the adoption of the resolutions – a speech which for loftiness of thought, splendour of illustration, and sustained brilliancy of poetic diction has rarely, if ever, been equalled in the whole range of ancient or modern oratory.

“This was at the beginning of his career as an orator – a career, the meteoric splendour of which, from the delivery of the ‘Sword Speech’ in Conciliation Hall in Dublin, down to the noble and scholarly utterance in the dock at Clonmel, when he was about to be sentenced to death for high treason, Irish history proudly attests. This barbarous sentence, as you all know, was never carried out, having been commuted to penal servitude for life to Van Diemen’s Land. Of Meagher’s life at the Antipodes it is not my purpose to speak now. It was not entirely devoid of passing gleams of brightness, and of such happiness as, even in exile, falls to the lot of men who, like Meagher, have been endowed by Nature with an ardent and poetic imagination. The gloom of his exile was rendered less oppressive by the love of a beautiful young lady who became his wife, and who afterwards died in Ireland while her heroic husband, was in the United States, bending all
His energies to making a home for her in the country of his adoption.

“Meagher escaped from Van Diemen’s Land and arrived in New York in 1852. After lecturing with great success for some time, he studied law, entered into its practice, and in 1856 edited the Irish News. When the Civil War broke out he raised a company for the Sixty-ninth New York Volunteers, and fought bravely at Bull Run. This company was subsequently made the nucleus of that famous Irish Brigade in the Army of the Potomac which Meagher raised, and commanded in all the battles of that army from Fair Oaks to Chancellorsville. The fame of Meagher’s Irish Brigade fairly rivals that of the old Irish Brigade, which, in the service of France, won immortal renown on every battlefield of Europe from ‘Dunkirk to Bellgrade’; and the glory of Fredericksburg, Antietam, and Chancellorsville ranks with that of Cremona, Ramillies, and far-famed Fontenoy itself, where the fiery valour of the exiled children of the Gael turned the tide of battle against Cumberland’s well-nigh victorious legions, and won a decisive victory for the arms of France. But it is with Fredericksburg that Meagher’s name and fame are inseparably associated. To the student of history the mention of either name conjures up a mental picture of that magnificent charge up the grape-swept slopes of Mary’s Heights, where the flower of Ireland’s chivalry fell in their desperate attempt to storm the impregnable position of their gallant Southern foes.

“Incredible as it seems, some people have endeavoured to condemn Meagher for rashness or something worse on that memorable occasion, and have actually striven to make it appear that the ultimate responsibility for the sacrifice of his command rested on his shoulders. Imagine anyone condemning Lord Cardigan for sacrificing the Light Brigade at Balaclava! yet both cases were exactly similar, as were also the results. In both battles the brigadier had no option but to obey the orders of his commander-in-chief, and Meagher at Fredericksburg and Cardigan at Balaclava would have been court-martialled had the former disobeyed Burnside and the latter Lord Raglan. The immortal lines of Tennyson are equally true of both-

“Was there a man dismay’d ?
No, though the soldier knew
Some one had blunder’d.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.’

“The field of Fredericksburg had been chosen by Lee himself, because the position afforded the natural advantages that would enable him to neutralise the numerical superiority of the enemy. The exact range of every position either held by the Federal forces or likely to be held by them had been accurately determined by actual measurement, and the rebel batteries swept the slopes of Mary’s Heights and the plain at their base with a besom of fire. Being an Irishman myself, any description which I might give of the battle, or at least of Meagher’s part in it, would be open to the suspicion of being too partial to my countrymen. I shall content myself, therefore, with quoting the words of Mr. Russell, the special war correspondent of the London Times, as neither he nor the paper he represented can be accused of partiality to Irishmen .

These are his words: ‘Never at Fontenoy, Albuera, nor at Waterloo was more undoubted valour displayed by the sons of Erin than during these six frantic dashes which they directed against the almost impregnable position of their foe with the dauntlessness of a race which has gained fame on a thousand battle-fields, and never more richly deserved it than at the foot of Mary’s Heights.’

“This is the praise of an enemy, and it is praise indeed. Oh; my countrymen, think of the imperishable glory of that peerless charge across the plain and up those heights swept by the iron tempest from Walton’s guns. Six times up the hill, and even to the very muzzles of the death-dealing guns, charged the devoted brigade, and each time at its head-ever in front of the foremost files-rode Meagher, cheering, and animating his troops, his uniform tattered with shot, and his good sword flashing in the frosty light of that deathless December day. Aye, be always proud of the memory of that historic charge and of Meagher’s fame, for it is a heritage of glory! At Chancellorsville, after Jackkson’s flanking attack had disrupted the Union line, Meagher and his brigade succeeded in saving the Maine battery, and he was complimented on the battle-field by General Hancock, who assigned him the post of honour, by ordering him to command the rearguard in the retreat. This was the last of his battles. His brigade, decimated at Fredericksburg, had been almost annihilated at Chancellorsville, and Meagher was given the military district of Etowah, with the brevet rank of major-general.

“After the war, Meagher was sent to Montana as territorial secretary, but in consequence of the absence of Governor Clay Smith, the duties of the governor devolved upon him. The territory was then passing through that embryonic stage of turbulence and lawlesssness which always seems to precede the births of new States. He firmly established law and order in the new territory, and his wit, eloquence, courtesy, and generosity endeared him to the hardy pioneers amongst whom this last phase of his life was cast. Tales of his marvellous horsemanship were told by many a hunter’s camp-fire, coupled with anecdotes of his early adventures in his native land, and of his war record, of which the fame was known to all. At meetings and public gatherings the potent influence of his oratory was felt, and several speeches delivered by him, while in Montana, proved that his eloquence had lost nothing of that wonderful rhythmic flow which was one of its most salient characteristics. But the end of this chivalrous and gloriously gifted being was close at hand. The sands in the hour-glass of Meagher’s life were running low. His brilliant and checkered course was nearing the last milestone, and the ‘angel of the amaranthine wreath’ was approaching to press the poppies of eternal sleep upon his brow. The catastrophe was sudden and unexpected. His wife (for Meagher had married again) was about to return to shed the rosy light of her love upon his home-and what a love !- a love which has endured and remained constant to the hero’s memory during all those darkened years that have elapsed since the disastrous tidings of his death smote the widow’s ears and blighted her young heart.

“There had been trouble with the Indians, and Meagher had been busy making preparations to subdue the hostile tribes. On the evening of July 1, 1867, he, accompanied by his staff, had ridden into Fort Benton and taken passage on the steamer G. A. Thompson to go down the river to superintend the delivery of arms and ammunition to the troops which he had organised. It appears that, for some reason that will never be known, he had left his state-room and gone on deck. The railing in front of his cabin was broken. Some coils of rope were lying near the edge, and it is thought that, in the darkness, he stumbled against one of them. That he must have received some injury in falling seems certain, because he emitted a deep groan as he fell into the seething waters. An alarm was at once raised, and some of the passengers caught fitful glimpses of his form as he struggled manfully against the yellow billows that were hurrying him relentlessly to his undiscovered grave. Meagher was a powerful and accomplished swimmer, but the Missouri at this place is full of cross-eddies and whirlpools, and the resistless current, with appalling speed, swept him beyond the reach of human aid for ever. His gallant struggle for life was unavailing, and the swirling waters of the tawny river closed above his dauntless head. The last melodious period had flowed from the gifted pen. The last rhythmic speech had fallen from the lips of gold. He had ridden his last charge, and the whirling sands of the raging river engulfed the form of as true a knight as ever-

“Shot thro’ the lists at Camelot and charged
Before the eyes of ladies and of kings.’

“His fiery life was quenched that night by the Misssouri’s rushing waves, but his fame flames on-a beacon light to guide the true and brave, and in the years to come fathers will lead their sons to where his martial effigy rises in enduring bronze, that, gazing on the handsome lineaments of the soldier-orator, their young souls may be fired to the utterance of noble thoughts and the achievement of gallant deeds.”

Written by RICHARD P. O’BRIEN, B.L. published in My Clonmel Scrapbook(Second 1000) by E. Downey & Co., Waterford 1907. Book Compiled & Edited James White – No. ISBN

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