“The Immortal Irishman,” indeed. Some lives splash across a larger-than-life canvas. Such a saga is that of Thomas Francis Meagher. In the finely wrought new biography “The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero,” National Book Award winner and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Timothy Egan has brilliantly captured the proverbial force of nature that was Thomas Francis Meagher.
In many ways, Meagher’s story embodies the quintessential struggle of immigrants escaping oppression to seek a better life in America. As the Great Famine ravaged Ireland in the 1840s, the handsome, well-educated Irishman unleashed his fiery oratory against the British government, denouncing Ireland’s oppressors as at least a million of his fellow Irish perished from starvation and disease.
Meagher translated his words into action when, as a leader of the Young Ireland movement, he launched a revolt against British rule that the empire crushed, in the process transporting Meagher to a prison colony in remote Tasmania, where and early death from hard labor loomed a certainty.
Willing to risk death rather than remain a prisoner, Meagher made a daring escape. Some six months later he turned up in New York City, seething with determination to make his way in America and with a desire to return to Ireland someday to fight for her freedom again.
Acclaimed as a rebel hero by the Irish in America, Meagher’s course moved inexorably, perhaps fittingly, to the carnage of America’s Civil War. As the commander of New York’s legendary Irish Brigade, he led by example, always in the thick of the action. Under his valiant, inspirational leadership, his regiments earned a reputation for fighting prowess that was second to no other unit on either side in the conflict. In many of the war’s bloodiest frays, such as Antietam and Fredericksburg, the Irish Brigade endured stunning casualties but never broke. Meagher was shot from his saddle twice while leading charges against the Confederates. One time, he was left for dead; but to no one’s surprise, he got right back up.
Meagher was revered by his fellow Irishmen as a commander who led from in front. Throughout the fighting, he never gave up his dream to return to Ireland –this time at the head of Irish and Irish-American combat veterans hardened on the battlefields of the Civil War and ready to take on the Royal Army on Irish soil.
That dream was one that would elude Meagher. As the territorial governor of Montana after the war, he perished in a manner that remains both tragic and murky to this day. I won’t delve into it, as Timothy Egan brings compelling new evidence to the mysterious circumstances of Meagher’s death.
For anyone interested in Irish, Irish-American, and American history, “The Immortal Irishman” is an absolute must-read. It is of equal importance to Terry Golway’s “Irish Rebel,” the masterful biography of John Devoy.
(“The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero,” Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, hardcover, 384 pages; ISBN-10: 0544272889; ISBN-13: 978-0544272880, $28.)
RIP to Galway’s grand gift to the links game
In May, Galwayman Christy O’Connor, Sr., passed away at the age of 91 in Dublin’s Mater Hospital. While a great many golfers these days might believe that “Irish Golf” somehow started with a bright star whose first name is Rory, O’Connor, Sr., was a trailblazer for the likes of McIlroy, Graeme McDowell, Padraig Harrington, Darren Clarke, and others in international golf. The Irish Post aptly accorded him the status of “Irish golf legend.”
So how good was O’Connor? There’s a reason – there are many, in fact – why he was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2009. From 1955 to 1973, he played in every Ryder Cup competition. Only Great Britain’s Nick Faldo appeared in more. O’Connor competed in fifteen World Cups for Ireland, his victory in 1958 with Harry Bradshaw proving front-page news across the Emerald Isle.
Former British Open champ and Northern Irishman Darren Clarke lauded O’Connor as man and golfer: “Christy was in many ways the father of Irish golf and his death, so soon after that of his nephew, Christy Jr., means that Ireland has lost two Ryder Cup legends in the space of five months. Christy, Sr., was a golf icon and a wonderful person as well.” (In January 2016, Christy O’Connor, Jr., named for his uncle and a splendid Ryder Cupper and European Tour professional himself, died at the age of 67.)
In a statement to the media, Ireland Taoiseach Enda Kenny lauded the Galway great: “Christy O’Connor, Sr. was known as ‘Himself’ and always was himself, a wonderful man who left an indelible mark on professional golf and the sporting world.”
He was born in Galway on Dec. 21, 1924, into a famous farming family. His future did lie on “good old Irish turf,” but not on fields marked by stone demesne walls. Instead, he mastered the intricacies of knocking a small ball along rain-kissed, wind-swept fairways.
In his 20s, O’Connor served notice that his links talent was world-class, so much so that Irish golfers soon placed him in the rarefied company of Fred Daly, the first Irishman to win the British Open (1947), and Harry Bradshaw, an Irish Open stalwart and loser to Bobby Locke in a playoff at the 1949 British Open.
Although O’Connor was 13 years younger than Daly and 11 years younger than Bradshaw, the Galwayman joined them as part and parcel of Ireland’s “Great Triumvirate,” on the Irish and British professional circuit of the 1950s.
Possessing a smooth and rhythmic swing, O’Connor was sometimes plagued by a fickle putter. His near misses in the British Open – ties for third place in 1958 and 1961 and a bitterly disappointing second to Peter Thomson in 1965 – would frustrate him. And he was stung by British golf great Henry Cotton’s assessment that Daly, because of his triumph in the 1947 British Open, was Ireland’s “greatest player.”
O’Connor retorted: “The consistent winning of major tournaments over a long period of time, as in my three decades, might be adjudged to be of greater merit than hitting the jackpot once.”
O’Connor rightfully but politely made his case that his on-course resume took a backseat to neither of his fellow members of the Irish triumvirate. The dossier is a full one: Ten Irish PGA titles, ten Ryder Cup teams, 21 wins on the British and Irish circuits, and a PGA Match Play championship.