The recent decision by Waterford City Council to present the dress-sword of Thomas Francis Meagher to the United States on the occasion of former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern’s address to the two houses of parliament in Washington is still creating ripples of resentment on both sides of the Atlantic.
Even though Meagher’s story is well known and celebrated in Waterford, it is surprising the number of requests we have received for me to repeat a column I wrote some years ago about the man whose statue now stands on the Mall opposite the Tower Hotel on a site once occupied by a statue of Luke Wadding.
Meagher was born in 1823 in a house on the Quay that later evolved to become the Granville Hotel but, when he was still quite young, the family moved to Derrynane House on the Mall, just down from the modern-day Maryland Guesthouse and opposite Waterford City Council’s engineering department in the former Bishop’s Palace. His father, a successful businessman, was the first Roman Catholic Mayor of Waterford and a friend of the great Daniel O’Connell.
Perhaps inspired by his father’s connections, Thomas Francis was a founder member of the Young Irelanders and, following his arrest after the failed rising of 1848, he was sentenced to penal servitude in Tasmania. He eventually escaped and made his way to the United States where he prospered and, when the American Civil War erupted, he formed the Irish Brigade and led it into battle on the side of the North.
After the war, Meagher was appointed Governor of Montana and, to this day, a statue of him astride a horse and brandishing a sword, stands outside the State legislature building. He disappeared in mysterious circumstances during a visit to a Missouri riverboat on the night of July 1st., 1867. The general belief was that he was killed and his body dumped overboard by people who resented some of his decisions as Governor or by former Confederate veterans from the Civil War.
Drama and adventure
Thomas Francis Meagher’s life was certainly one of drama and adventure and he carved out a special niche for himself in both Irish and US history. Among other things, he is credited with creating the tricolour as Ireland’s national flag.
There is in existence a fascinating piece written by Meagher himself about his native Waterford and it is a very interesting look at our city through the eyes of a man who made his mark as a rebel, soldier and politician.
In his piece, which is quite poetic, Meagher writes about his return to Waterford during Easter Week, 1843, following a year at Stoneyhurst public school in England. He also fondly recalls the friends he made in what was his local club and pub. It is clear that he loved Waterford and missed his family and friends. Incidentally, some of his descriptions are not entirely accurate, such as the relative positions of Cheekpoint and Dunbrody Abbey, but this can be put down to a lapse in memory as his recollections were written many years after he had left his native city.
He wrote: “A bright sun was lighting up the dingy walls of Duncannon Fort as we paddled under them. There was Cheek Point on the left, towering grandly over the woods of Faithlegg. Further on, at the confluence of the Barrow and the Suir, were the ruins of Dunbrody Abbey, an old servant with torn livery at the gateway of the noble avenue.
“Further on were the grounds and stately mansion of Snow Hill, the birthplace of Richard Shiel. Then, the Little Island with its fragments of Norman castle and its broad cornfields and kingly trees. Beyond this was Gaul’s Rock, closing in upon and overlooking the old city. Last of all, Reginald’s Tower, a massive hinge of stone connecting the two great outspread wings, the Quay and the Mall, within which lay the body of the city – Broad Street, the cathedral, the barracks, the great chapel, the jail, the Ballybricken Hill with its circular stone steps and bull-post.
“The William Penn stopped her paddles, let off he steam, hauled in close to the hulk and made fast. I was home once more.
“Waterford never appeared to me to change. For a century, at least, it has not gained a wrinkle nor lost a smile. In every season, and for a thousand seasons, it has been, and will be, the same old tree. If no fresh leaf springs, no dead leaf drops from it. The Danes planted it; Strongbow put his name and that of Eva, his Irish bride, deep into its bark and King John held court beneath its boughs. James the Second hid his crown into the crevices of its roots and fled from it to France.
“It has witnessed many other events. Many other familiarities have been taken with it. Many worse blows have been given it since the Earl of Pembroke hacked it with his sword. But it has suffered nothing. The dews and the storms, and the frost, and the summer heat, have come and passed away, hurting nothing, improving nothing, leaving it, at the end of ages, the same old dusty, quiet, hearty, bounteous, venerable tree. Heaven bless it! And may the sweet birds long fill its shady trellises with music and the noble stream with full breast nourish the earth where it has taken root.”
Some things never change and Thomas Francis Meagher, like many a Waterford man before him and after him, enjoyed a drink and a smoke. He was a member of the Waterford County and City Club on Adelphi Quay, where the bar of the Tower Hotel now stands. In his essay he describes his feelings towards the club and its members/customers.
“For all their conceit and pretensions, there were good souls amongst the old Tory fashionables of Waterford. I was a member of the County and City Club and had many opportunities afforded me of learning their worth and conceiving a genuine fondness for them. The Marquis of Waterford, the Earl of Huntingdon, Lord Carew, Sir Joshua Paul, Sir Henry Barron, Sir Nugent Humble were members of it. Purely a social club, a place for pleasant intercourse and merry meetings, politics were rigorously excluded from its walls. No one entered with his Repeal button or Orange sash. Both were left in the umbrella-stand at the outside door.
“Whatever they were without, however widely they differed in the streets, within all were Irish gentlemen, cordial, generous and jovial. Very nearly three-fourths of the club were Conservatives or Tories. Only two or three were Repealers and I had the honour to be one of the latter. But so true were the members to the fundamental principles of the club that they might all have been Repealers for anything offensive was ever heard to the contrary.
Friendly and affectionate to a rebel
“The majority were loyalists to the marrow and never lost an opportunity to assert the fact. They were sincerely so. Truthful, high-toned, gallant, their loyalty won my respect though it failed to invite my concurrence. Loyal as they were however, they were friendly and affectionate to the Rebel. Inwardly condemning his insubordination to the Queen, they openly loved him for his fidelity to the club. A staunch friend of the pleasant institution they knew me to be. Of the principle on which it was established, they knew I warmly approved.
“Well do I remember how cordially they used to drink my health and cheer my stammering speeches at their dinners. Well do I remember the jovial welcome and the shuffling of chairs round the fireplace every night I came in. Early or late, the later the better, they always had a chair and a cheer for me.
“Well too do I remember the kind importunity with which many of them endeavoured, as the fatal time drew near, to dissuade me from the enterprise, the failure of which, they predicted, would remove me from the old house on the Adelphi for ever and a day. Some of them, a few days before my arrest in July 1848, met me at dinner in a friend’s house, close to the Lunatic Asylum on John’s Hill, and urged me to withdraw from the movement.
“Of the Waterford County and City Club, and all belonging to it, I cherish the liveliest remembrance. Many a time do the old faces I so often saw there re-appear to me, sparkling and laughing, grinning or frowning, darkened into horror at some catastrophe, or bursting into boundless mirth at some rich joke, as they used to do, night after night, in that magic circle round the fireplace in the smoking room.”
‘I was a day in Waterford’
If you would like to read the full text of Meagher’s essay, entitled `Recollections of Waterford’, please do yourself a big favour and buy a copy of Tom Fewer’s wonderful book, ‘I was a day in Waterford’. First published in 2001 and available at the Book Centre in Waterford, Tom gathered together a hugely entertaining collection of impressions about Waterford, some written by residents but others by famous visitors to our city down the years. There are almost 80 articles in the book with contributions from the 18th. to 20th. centuries and it really is a treasure-trove. No Waterford home, anywhere in the world, should be without a copy.
Incidentally, Joseph O’Connor’s successful novel ‘Redemption Falls’ (his follow-up to the world wide best seller ‘Star of the Sea’) is set during the American Civil War and one of the main characters is based on Meagher.
My lips are sealed at present as I have been vowed to silence but expect a big, headline making US Civil War story to come out of Waterford in the not too distant future.