“a national flag is the most sacred thing a nation can possess”
In his relatively short life – he died aged just 43 – much of which was spent outside of Ireland, Thomas Francis Meagher made a significant contribution to both Irish nationalism and to the preservation of the United States and particularly to the assimilation of the Irish into American society.
When Thomas F. Meagher flew the tricolour from the window of 33 the Mall, the Wolf Tone Confederate Club in Waterford on the 7th of March 1848, it was a display of national identity.
In presenting the tricolour to the Irish people on his return from Paris on 13 April 1848 Meagher outlined this philosophy when he stated that,
“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.”
For his part in the Rising of 1848 Meagher was put on trial for high treason. Having been sentenced to death he addressed the court
“your honour if you do not sentence me to death I will try again”
The death sentence was commuted to transportation for life to Australia. Writing his last letter from Richmond Prison in 1849, Meagher prophetically described the Ireland of the future
“Never was there a country so utterly downcast, so depressed, so pitiful, so spiritless. Yet I do not, could not, despair of her regeneration. Nations do not die in a day. Their lives are reckoned by generations, and they encompass centuries. Their vitality is inextinguishable.”
With the transportation of the 1848 rebels in 1849, Meagher’s tricolour was more or less forgotten until retrieved in the years leading up to and during the 1916 Rising when a clear break took place in national symbolism; most visibly manifested in the national flag.
To Meagher, reputation and honour were inextricably linked. After the failed Irish Revolution of 1848 “my character is now more dear to me than my life” and if not withdrawn “will deprive me of all that remains to me – my reputation, my honour and my fame.” And in New York in 1863, while being presented with a gold medal for his contribution to the war effort Meagher stated that the Irish soldier never once lost sight of the inviolability of the magnificent symbolism of the Stars and Stripes. Throughout the war, whatever his faults, and there were many, Meagher was consistent in his support for the President and the Constitution which supported that institution, as well as the liberty and freedoms it protected.
“Restrict the freedom of a nation and you check all those passions which make it noble and progressive.” The nation that does not possess the power to shape its own destiny “will have no heart, no courage, no ambition.”
President John F. Kennedy when addressing the combined houses of the Irish Parliament during his visit to Ireland in 1963 spoke about Thomas F Meagher and the 69th Regiment of the ‘Irish Brigade’. It is truly extraordinary that the man associated with the creation of the Irish tricolour should be resurrected in modern consciousness by an equally enduring flag resonant of bravery, freedom and democracy in the most powerful nation in the world.
“The 13th day of September, 1862, will be a day long remembered in American history. At Fredericksburg, Maryland, thousands of men fought and died on one of the bloodiest battlefields of the American Civil War. One of the most brilliant stories of that day was written by a band of 1,200 men who went into battle wearing a green sprig in their hats. They bore a proud heritage and a special courage, given to those who had long fought for the cause of freedom. I am referring, of course, to the Irish Brigade. General Robert E. Lee, the great military leader of the Southern Confederate forces, said of this group of men after the battle: “The gallant stand which this bold brigade made on the heights of Fredericksburg is well known. Never were men so brave. They ennobled their race by their splendid gallantry on that desperate occasion. Their brilliant, though hopeless, assaults on our lines excited the hearty applause of our officers and soldiers”.
Of the 1,200 men who took part in that assault, 280 survived the battle. The Irish Brigade was led into battle on that occasion by Brigadier General Thomas F. Meagher, who had participated in the unsuccessful Irish uprising of 1848, was captured by the British and sent in a prison ship to Australia, from whence he finally came to America. In the fall of 1862, after serving with distinction and gallantry in some of the toughest fighting of this most bloody struggle, the Irish Brigade was presented with a new set of flags. In the city ceremony, the city chamberlain gave them the motto “The Union, our Country, and Ireland Forever.” Their old ones having been torn to shreds by bullets in previous battles, Captain Richard McGee took possession of these flags on September 2nd in New York City and arrived with them at the Battle of Fredericksburg and carried them in the battle.
“Today, in recognition of what these gallant Irishmen and what millions of other Irish have done for my country, and through the generosity of the Fighting 69th, I would like to present one of these flags to the people of Ireland.”
Following the failed rebellion of 1848 Thomas Francis Meagher and other key members of the Young Ireland movement were banished to Tasmania. Even this transportation to a distant land failed to break the spirit of the movement. Meagher and comrades continued to meet in secret. Remarkably Meagher escaped from Tasmania to America ( via Brazil ) in 1852.