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.
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 judgements 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
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. 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
Irelands 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 olds voice rose up and held a massive crowd enthralled.
".... 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!"
"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.
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