Escape of Meagher, The
DESCRIPTION: "In the year '48 he was taken, you know, Next on board a ship he had for to go" Meagher escapes in Van Dieman's Land. The police chief refuses to track him "for you know we are Irishmen" He lands safe in New York, greeted by 16,000.
EARLIEST DATE: 1852 (Zimmermann)
KEYWORDS: transportation trial escape America Australia Ireland police
Jan 1852 - Thomas Francis Meagher escapes from Tasmania to America. "[S]entenced to death after the attempted insurrection in 1848, [he] had been reprieved and transported to Tasmania." (source: Zimmermann)
REFERENCES (1 citation):
Zimmermann 61, "The Escape of Meagher" (1 text)
Bodleian, Johnson Ballads fol. 340[some words are illegible], "The Escape of Meagher," unknown, n.d.
LOCSinging,sb30363a, "A new song, on the Escape of Thomas Francis Meagher, the Irish Exile," J. Andrews (New York), 1853-1859
NOTES [1173 words]: Zimmermann: "He [Meagher] had given notice of his intention to leave the penal colony, but it seems that the police officers were afraid to arrest him. The news of his escape and of his triumphal reception in America reached Ireland several months later and was hailed with delight." - BS
Thomas Francis Meagher (1823-1867) was one of the more amazing characters in Irish history. As a young man, he thought Daniel O'Connell's campaigns for reform too peaceful, declaring that he did not believe that "the God of Heaven withholds his sanction from the use of arms.... I look upon the sword as a sacred weapon" (Kee, p. 254; Fry/Fry, p. 225). "Abhor the sword? Stigmatize the sword? No, my lord, for at its blow, and in the quivering of its crimson light a great nation sorang up from the waters of the Atlantic, and by its redeeming magic the fettered colony became a daring, free Republic" (Craughwell, p. 27). As a result, he came to be called "Meagher of the Sword" (Laxton, p. 83).
Ironically, he put forth this view in an English (Stonyhurst) accent (Kee, p. 247).
Along with John Mitchel (for whom see "John Mitchel") and William Smith O'Brien (for whom see "The Shan Van Voght (1848)"), he in 1847 split from Young Ireland to found the Irish Confederation (Golway, p. 116). Kee, p. 255, is of the opinion that no one intended the split to be permanent, but notes that, as far as the campaign for Irish rights was concerned, "[t]he damage proved irrevocable."
Meagher and friends went on to try to organize a rising. The British arrested them in March 1848 on charges of sedition (Laxton, p. 82). The juries deadlocked in the cases of Meagher and Smith O'Brien, who therefore went free (Kee, pp. 267-268). They responded by going back to their old tricks. This time they tried outright rebellion, and it was a complete disaster (for this too see the notes to "The Shan Van Voght (1848)" ). Smith O'Brien and Meagher were found and arrested again; this time, with the treason laws having been strengthened (Laxton, p. 83), they were transported (Fry/Fry, pp. 237-238; Kee, p. 287); sentenced to death, they were reprieved (supposedly by Queen Victoria; Laxton, p. 86; in Meagher's case, his youth was stressed; Beller, p. 14) and sent to Tasmania. This song of course chronicles Meagher's escape, in which he reportedly had help from another Young Irelander (Kee, p. 287); if the Irish had been as good at organizing protests and revolts as they were at organizing escapes, they might have gained independence much sooner.
Craughwell, pp. 35-37, outlines what happened. Meagher was lucky: upon arriving in Tasmania, he took an oath not to try to escape (a vow he would break, note, just in case you were thinking he was a moral person) and was granted his ticket-of-leave (permission to move about freely). His fiancee dumped him while he was in Tasmania, which prompted his decision to escape (although he never went back to the girl; when he married, it was apparently to a Tasmanian girl, Catherine Bennett; Bilby, p. 135. When she died, he married Elizabeth Townsend, a wealthy American Protestant; Bilby, p. 135. Frankly, it all seems a little tawdry). His wealthy father agreed to put up the money he needed; for 600 pounds, a captain named Betts would take him to Brazil, from where he could reach the United States. This took time to arrange, but in January 1852, Meagher left the place he had been staying and was carried to Waterhouse Island by two fishermen. Betts was late, but eventually arrived; Meagher reached Pernambuco in March, then boarded the Acorn for New York, where he was a celebrity.
It will tell you a little about Meagher's flamboyance that, once his plans were worked out, he turned in his ticket of leave. Had the local officialdom done his job, he would have been back in prison. But they didn't crack down (Beller, p. 16).
Meagher arrived in America in 1852 (Jameson, p. 408), where he made a living by lecturing and writing. In the next decade, Meagher gradually turned less radical; when James Stephens approached him in the United States, he said it would be "unworthy" of him to support a revolution (Golway, p. 132). He didn't exactly develop a strong sense of reality, though -- when he visited the American South, he wrote, "I could see none of the horrors I had been taught to believe existed among [Southerners]... I found a people sober, intelligent, high-minded, patriotic, and kind-hearted.... I saw no poverty" (Beller, p. 20). In other words, he managed to not see slavery or the extremely large number of Southerners who lived in absolute squalor. No doubt his handlers knew just where to lead him by the nose.
For his career in the American Civil War, see the notes to "By the Hush."
After the war, he was appointed territorial governor of Montana -- he had stumped on behalf of new President Andrew Johnson (Bilby, p. 140), who gave him a post for which he probably was not suited -- the previous governor had had to spend his own money to run the place, and here was Meagher. a Republican governor of a state that was largely Democratic; many of the residents were southern (Craughwell, p. 217). The governor, faced by a hostile legislature, apparently suffered death threats.
Meagher didn't face the threats for long -- he fell into the Missouri River after only a short time in office, dying at the age of just 44. Some have suggested suicide, but he was a Catholic, so this seems unlikely. His body was not found, but it is likely that he was drunk at the time; there were many reports at the time that he had taken to drink, and his military record was not unspotted -- quite a few people who knew him said he was often drunk (Bilby, p. 137). Although this might be anti-Irish prejudice, there is secondary evidence. At the Battle of Antietam, for instance, he fell from his horse and hurt himself, and there were rumors he was drunk, though they were not proved; Murfin, p. 255; Sears, pp. 243-244. It may be that he was just a lousy horseman; he had also fallen and gotten hurt at the First Battle of Bull Run (Bilby, p. 17), where he had shown conspicuous courage (Dutch courage?). What is certain is that his fall at Antietam left him In the hospital (Craughwell, p. 100). Interestingly, he does not always seem to have been so courageous; at Fredericksburg, he managed to sit out his men's disastrous charge (Bilby, p. 66).
In 1892, Michael Cavanagh published Memoirs of Gen. Thomas Francis Meagher (Messenger Press, Worcester, according to Colum, p. 326). Colum publishes an excerpt on pp. 326-331. If this is indicative of his later writing, he seems to have lost the vitality of expression of his youth. He is still given to strong metaphors, but he is really, really wordy. (And he had been pretty bombastic even in his early days, as the "Sword Speech" showed.) - RBW
Broadside LOCSinging sb30363a: J. Andrews dating per Studying Nineteenth-Century Popular Song by Paul Charosh in American Music, Winter 1997, Vol 15.4, Table 1, available at FindArticles site. - BS
Last updated in version 4.0
- Beller: Susan Provost Beller, Never Were Men So Brave: The Irish Brigade During the Civil War, Margaret K. McElderry Books, 1998
- Bilby: Joseph G. Bilby, The Irish Brigade in the Civil War: The 69th New York and Other Irish Regiments of the Army of the Potomac, Combined Publishing, 1998 (originally published 1995 as Remember Fontenoy)
- Colum: Padraic Colum, A Treasury of Irish Folklore, 1954; revised edition 1967 (I use the 1992 Wings Books edition)
- Craughwell: Thomas J. Craughwell, The Greatest Brigade: How the Irish Brigade Cleared the Way to Victory in the American Civil War, 2011(I use the 2013 Crestline illustrated paperback)
- Fry/Fry: Peter and Fiona Somerset Fry, A History of Ireland, 1988 (I use the 1993 Barnes & Noble edition)
- Golway: Terry Golway, For the Cause of Liberty, Simon & Schuster, 2000
- Jameson: J. Franklin Jameson's Dictionary of United States History 1492-1895, Puritan Press, 1894
- Kee: Robert Kee, The Most Distressful Country, being volume I of The Green Flag (covering the period prior to 1848), Penguin, 1972
- Laxton: Edward Laxton, The Famine Ships: The Irish Exodus to America, 1996 (I use the 1997 Henry Holt American edition)
- Murfin: James B. Murfin, The Gleam of Bayonets: The Battle of Antietam and Robert E. Lee's Maryland Campaign, September 1862, 1965 (I use the 1985 Louisiana State University Press edition)
- Good luck with the class and with anyone else you have to frantically reticule. :-)
- Sears: Stephen W. Sears, Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam, Ticknor & Fields, 1983
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