A chance encounter with a statue in Montana inspired Timothy Egan’s latest incredible true story.

This time his subject is Thomas Meagher, a once famous Irish patriot of the mid-1800s who is now virtually unknown. But in his day, he incited poets to revolt. He pressed immigrants to wage impossible war. He searched for a New Ireland in the American West. And oh, how he talked.

Meagher (pronounced Mar) could have been a success story in Ireland. His family was wealthy, his father a member of the British Parliament. But young Thomas could not play the gentleman while his countrymen suffered.

He learned he could speak like few others. Dublin resistance writers called him the Young Tribune. As Britain exported Irish grain during the Great Famine, thousands came to hear him rage, and some took up arms.

It wasn’t to be. A failed revolt in 1848 earned him a life sentence in a penal colony in Tasmania. Yet he escaped to New York City, where the swelling Irish population received him like a conquering hero.

Real heroism came later. Meagher saw the Civil War as a chance for Irish immigrants to win acceptance in their new country, and train for the next fight to free their homeland.

So many answered his call that a unit of the famed Irish Brigade was named for him. Two horses were shot from under him. He was recognized by Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee. But again, it wasn’t to be. His soldiers’ bravery was repaid in blood: at Bull Run, Antietam, Fredricksburg. So many died so pointlessly that after the Wilderness, Meagher resigned. Back in New York, a grieving community wanted nothing more to do with war, or with him.

The man who believed “in luck and lost causes” tried one more time. He went to Montana Territory as the governor’s assistant in hopes of establishing a New Ireland. A look at the map shows that wasn’t to be, either.

He gave it all that he had left. Again he filled lecture halls and opposed the men in power. Within two years, he was dead. Suicide, said his adversaries. Murder, said his friends.

Meagher’s memory is carried in a statue outside the statehouse in Helena, Mont. And something more recognizable that he designed as a young rebel: the orange, white and green tricolor that flies over the Republic of Ireland today.

Egan drops gems of detail such as that throughout “The Immortal Irishman.” Fans of his other narrative nonfiction (“The Worst Hard Time,” “The Big Burn,”) will see him work his magic again to let one story illustrate the larger convulsions of history and their legacy for today’s world.

 

Maureen McCarthy is a team leader at the Star Tribune.