St. Patrick’s Day, the flag and Irish America

by Kevin Meagher

The green, white and orange of the Irish tricolour, currently fluttering to questionable purpose outside a thousand pubs, has an interesting history.

It was presented to the Irish nation by my illustrious forebear, Thomas Francis Meagher, in Dublin in 1848. Shortly afterwards he, and a gallant band of brothers in the Young Ireland movement, launched one of the many heroic, but ultimately fruitless, insurrections against British rule.

This was midway through the Irish Famine – An Gorta Mor (“The Great Hunger”) in which Ireland’s population fell by a quarter, with a million people starving to death and a million more emigrating to America, Canada, Australia and Britain. Cruel Victorian indifference to the plight of the Irish cast a lingering shadow until Tony Blair’s welcome apology for this disgusting episode in British history back in 1997.

Meagher was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered for his sedition – a sentence reprieved after public outcry – and instead he and his comrades found themselves transported for life to Van Dieman’s land in what is now Tasmania.

They were meant to remain there for life, checking in once a week with the authorities and expected to eschew thoughts of escape, on their word as gentlemen. Meagher thought better of it (as you would), procured a rescue ship and set sail for America whereupon he became a cause celebre to Irish immigrants who had reached America in less salubrious confines, usually aboard the infamous “coffin ships”. So great were the incidences of typhus among the starving Irish that a third died on the perilous Atlantic crossing. (It is said sharks could be seen following the ships, such were the numbers of corpses thrown overboard).

After starting an Irish newspaper and working as an attorney (he was on the defence team of Congressman Daniel Sickles, who shot his wife’s lover outside the White House and became the first person to successfully mount a defence of temporary insanity) Meagher became embroiled in the American civil war.

He founded the Irish brigade in the union army, fought at every major battle of the Potomac campaign and earned the rank of brigadier-general for his trouble. After the war he became acting governor of Montana (and first suggested the creation of Yellowstone National Park) before dying in mysterious circumstances on a Mississippi steamboat. A Hollywood epic awaits.

So why the history lesson? There are two enduring legacies of TF Meagher which are particularly apposite for St. Patrick’s Day. The first is that he is one of the key founding fathers of Irish America. The Irish Brigade took the sixth heaviest casualties of any regiment in that bloody war. By their appalling sacrifice the Irish earned their right to call themselves Americans. A necessary requirement when you consider the Ku Klux Klan was originally founded to persecute Irish catholic immigrants to America.

Those emigree patriots are responsible for the modern phenomenon that is St Patrick’s Day. The 69th New York Infantry, (later immortalised in the Jimmy Cagney film “The Fighting 69th”) were the key division of Meagher’s Irish Brigade. They will take pride of place in Saturday’s St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York as they always do. It is Meagher’s Irish Americans who exported this day of celebration and commemoration back to the Irish world.

Meagher’s second legacy is that flag. As he himself put it when first unveiling the design: “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.”

It has not always worked out that way, alas, but in its original intention the flag remains an enduring and under-appreciated symbol of reconciliation and the possibility of a new shared future, one that all those who consider themselves Irish can, and should, hold equity in.

Meagher himself was something of a curiosity in 19th century revolutionary circles. The son of a wealthy merchant, he was educated at the English Jesuit public school, Stonyhurst and spoke with an English accent, having had his native brogue “knocked out of him”.

A renowned orator, his stoical response to that death sentence bears retelling: “Judged by the law of England, I know this crime entails upon me the penalty of death; but the history of Ireland explains that crime and justifies it. Judged by that history, the treason of which I stand convicted loses all its guilt, has been sanctified as a duty, and will be ennobled as a sacrifice…I shall go, I think, with a light heart before a higher tribunal—a tribunal where a judge of infinite goodness, as well as of infinite justice, will preside, and where, my lords, many, many of the judgements of this world will be reversed.”

Were he alive today it is highly unlikely he would, even as an enthusiastic imbiber, be found staggering out of an Irish theme pub wearing one of those ridiculous Guinness hats.

Hardly the attire and decorum of a gentleman revolutionary. After all, the Irish Brigade’s regimental cocktail was a measure of Irish whiskey topped-up by three measures of champagne. Worth a try, I can heartily attest.


Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut

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