How a 22-Year-Old Firebrand Became 'Meagher of the Sword'

The very subtlest eloquence
That injured men can show,

Is the pathos of a pike-head,
And the logic of a blow.
Hopes built upon fine talking
Are like castles built on sand
But the pleading of cold iron
Not a tyrant can withstand.

In antebellum America, many former Irish revolutionary leaders, men of the Young Ireland party who had been exiled from their native soil by the English "justice" system, made their way to America. Men like John Mitchel, Michael Doheny and John O'Mahony. Upon reaching the shores of America, they made their influence felt among the ever growing Irish communities in the larger cities, especially New York City. But among all these men, there was one whom the Irish community looked up to perhaps above all others, the man who would one day lead the Irish Brigade into battle: Thomas Francis Meagher; "Meagher of the Sword."

(Left: Equestrian statue of Meagher in his home town of Waterford, Co. Waterford, Ireland)

Condemned to death by the English in 1848 for his part in the abortive Young Irelander's rising of the same year, Meagher's last words to the judges in court before sentencing concluded, "I hope.... to appear before a higher tribunal - a tribunal where a Judge of infinite goodness , as well as justice will preside, and where, my lords, many - many, of the judgments of this world will be reversed." His eloquence, in this instance, was wasted on men such as them, but the death sentence was later commuted to "Transportation for life" to Australia. Meagher and many of the others Young Irelanders who were transported to Australia might have remained there and had productive lives, but they were men who were devoted to a higher purpose. Meagher shortly made his escape to America.

When Meagher arrived in the US, on May 26th, 1852, the Irish community, and many of his comrades of '48, greeted him with open arms. He spent the next several years in various pursuits, writing, lecturing, traveling widely, always keeping his name in the eye and the heart of the Irish in America. By the time Fort Sumter was fired on, Meagher was well known in the rest of America as well, and looked on as a leader of the Irish community.

Many may think that Meagher earned his sobriquet, Meagher of the Sword, by his martial exploits later during the American Civil War (right, in his US Army general's uniform). But, in fact, Meagher arrived in the US already carrying that warlike nickname. Meagher was not really a military man, however; he was a politician and, above all, a great orator. It was in the field of oratory that Meagher earned the nickname.

It was a very early example of Meagher's articulate speechifying, as mid -nineteenth century Americans used to say, that had put "of the sword" behind his name for life. In Conciliation Hall in Dublin, on July 28th, 1846, Meagher gave a speech to the assembled throngs of Daniel O'Connell's supporters, defending the position of the Young Irelanders. O'Connell had called on all his supporters to renounce violent revolution as a means of freeing Ireland; the twenty-two year old Meagher had been chosen to give Young Irelands answer. Imagine yourself for a moment, at the age of twenty-two, standing in front of a crowded hall, filled with the supporters of a man called the "Uncrowned King of Ireland," and in front of that great man himself, about to give a speech rejecting that man's position.

The speech Meagher gave that day is one of the most famous in Irish history. An eyewitness said: "He warmed on his subject, and the warmth became contagious; until when he rose to the height of his theme there appeared to be but one heart in the meeting, and it beat in accord with the orator." This last part of the speech, as Meagher gave Young Ireland's reasons for not renouncing the possibility of using the sword, would stick in the minds of those listening and earn him his nickname. Read some of these lines now, and imagine the scene in that hall, as a twenty-two year old's voice rose up and held a massive crowd enthralled.

(Below: Meagher, with sword in hand, leading the Irish Brigade at Antietam in Don Troiani's "Sons of Erin.")

".... His Almighty hand hath ever been stretched forth from His throne of Light, to consecrate the flag of freedom - to bless the patriot's sword! Be it in the defense, or be it in the assertion of a people's liberty, I hail the sword as a sacred weapon; and if, my lord, it has sometimes taken the shape of the serpent and reddened the shroud of the oppressor with too deep a dye, like the anointed rod of the High Priest, it has at other times and as often, blossomed into celestial flowers to deck the freeman's brow."

"Abhor the sword - stigmatize the sword? No, my lord, for , at its blow a giant nation started from the waters of the Atlantic, and by its redeeming magic, and in the quivering of its crimson light, the crippled colony sprang into the attitude of a proud Republic - prosperous, limitless, and invincible!"

(Right: Daniel O'Connell addressing meeting of supporters at Conciliation Hall in 1844.)

"Abhor the sword - stigmatize the sword? No, my lord, for it swept the Dutch marauders out of the fine old towns of Belgium - scourged them back to their own phlegmatic swamps - and knocked their flag and sceptre, their laws and bayonets into the sluggish waters of the Scheldt."

"My lord, I honor the Belgians, I admire the Belgians, I love the Belgians, for their enthusiasm, their courage, their success, and I, for one, will not stigmatize, for I do not abhor, the means by which they obtained a Citizen King, a Chamber of Deputies ...."

Meagher's speech ended abruptly there, as Daniel O'Connell's son, John, no doubt upset by the support Meagher was beginning to build for the Young Irelander's position, jumped up and did not let him continue further. Shortly afterward the Young Irelanders walked from the hall, their support of, and connection to, Daniel O'Connell severed forever. It was a tragic day for the cause of Irish independence, as the Irish camp divided in two; but it was a remarkable performance by the twenty-two year old Meagher. He would spend the rest of his life giving speeches and addresses to civilians and soldiers alike; but from that day forward he would be: MEAGHER OF THE SWORD.


Speeches of Thomas Francis Meagher in Ireland

Text of the Sword Speech

Meagher's Civil War Legend and His Kildare Boyhood

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Tags: America's Civil War, Irish Freedom Struggle, Irish in Australia, Revolutionaries, Young Ireland

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on April 18, 2016 at 2:16pm

Nice article as always Joe 


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