Timothy Egan's latest work of nonfiction makes me reflect on what has changed in the world, particularly since the 1840s, and changed for the better. To get anything from one land to another—whether it be letters, goods or people—used to require a ship and took weeks, if not months, to accomplish. Now we can do the same in a matter of hours. Illnesses that killed millions have been essentially wiped from the planet. It is no exaggeration to suggest science and technology have remade the world a couple times over, all inside of 200 years. But Egan's book makes me realize that for all this technological progress, socially speaking, we have hardly budged.
The subject of The Immortal Irishman is a high-born Irishman named Thomas F. Meagher (pronounced "Mar") who could have lived a life of wealth and leisure. He chose not to because, unlike his father, he wasn't willing to submit to English authority. Instead, he became the leader of an Irish revolutionary group called the Young Irelanders, who staged an unsuccessful rebellion against England in 1848. He dodged a death sentence for sedition but was exiled—or, in the euphemism of the day, "transported" to live on Van Dieman's Land, what is now called Tasmania. He later escaped by ship and made his way to New York City, where he began a new, high-profile existence. He packed a lot of life into his short 43 years before disappearing off the deck of a steamboat on the Missouri River in 1867.
Montanans may know some of this story, depending on how long it's been since their last Montana history class. During the American Civil War, Meagher ended up out West and, for his efforts leading the Irish Brigade as a brigadier general on behalf of the North, he was appointed the acting governor of the Montana Territory. (He is the subject of a statue in Helena.) As acting governor, Egan suggests, as do other theorists, Meagher's efforts against vigilantes opposed to immigration led to his demise—a murder rather than a mere disappearance.
I've been a fan of Egan's brand of in-depth narrative nonfiction since his 1990 debut, The Good Rain. His book about the American Dust Bowl, The Worst Hard Time, won a National Book Award. His two subsequent books, The Big Burn and Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, have been bestsellers. His new book holds its own as a page-turner and deals with issues of race, class and immigration—topics he tackled as a contributor to The New York Times' 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning series on race in America.
I wasn't 10 percent into The Immortal Irishman before I was aghast at how the Irish have fared under English rule. I knew they were oppressed, but I didn't know know. Egan's reporting is extensive and moving in its details: the rights they didn't have in their own country, their treatment as kind of subhumans, the fact that as millions were starving during their potato famine they were being forced under English guard to export record amounts of food. Of course, that oppression led to the Irish becoming less poor immigrants and more embattled refugees. The English blamed the Irish's poverty on their own lack of character, unwillingness to work and sense of entitlement.
This is the stuff that outraged Meagher and made him choose exile over submission. When he arrived in New York, he found a city—and a nation—deeply racist and loudly and vigorously opposed to immigration. His Irish brothers and sisters were packed into the most squalid part of the city. A public figure embraced as a savior by the large Irish American community, Meagher's arch enemies became the Know-Nothing Party, a political group whose virulent positions echo in the voices of today's Tea Party extremists. When it comes to right wing media in 21st century America, there is little difference between the rhetoric toward the poor and immigrants now from what it was in the 1850s.
The common thread that binds The Immortal Irishman's three sections is Meagher's lifelong battle against that hatred he found everywhere he went. It was in Ireland and England, and even among the lowest of the castoffs in Australia, where they shot Aborigines for sport. He found it in America, where then, as is the case now, pursuit of individual wealth reigned supreme. And he found it on the Western frontier, where he ultimately died. In telling Meagher's story, Egan is also delivering a cautionary tale for today's America—one that should help us reflect on what kind of people we really want to be.
Timothy Egan reads from The Immortal Irishman at Imagine Nation Brewing Wed., April 20, at 6:30 PM.