Book of the Day

Immortal Irishman

The Immortal Irishman

By Timothy Egan

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN 978-0544272880
Published March 1, 2017

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The Immortal Irishman

Review by Laura Stewart Schmidt

The Immortal Irishman (Timothy Egan, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is the story of Thomas Francis Meagher (pronounced Muh-HAHR), an important figure in Irish history and the man who designed the Irish flag as we know it. Even to the reader who doesn’t trace his or her roots back to Ireland, this fascinating book is well worth reading for the historical significance of a man who spent his life struggling on behalf of the poor and downtrodden. Meagher’s life is well documented, but his death under mysterious circumstances in 1867 was never adequately explained.

Meagher grew up in an Ireland suffocated by English rule and dismissed in an unconscionable manner when catastrophe struck. Potatoes were the major crop, and because they were easy to grow in their many varieties, often fed entire large families. The potato famine, brought about by a fungus believed to have arrived on a ship from the young country of America, devastated Ireland. The people basically had two choices—flee or die of hunger. Many couldn’t afford passage, and the ones who tried often died en route to another country, or arrived as indentured servants, owing more for their passage (and that of deceased family members) than they could hope to pay. The ones left behind were not a concern to the ruling English, whose treatment of the starving Irish was appalling. They promised “relief”—but only to those who could pay for it.

Young Thomas and his friends, incensed and tired of being second-class citizens, staged an uprising. Unfortunately, they were eventually caught, tried and sentenced to Tasmania at a time when England used its new colony of Australia as an Alcatraz of sorts. Meagher ultimately escaped and fled to America, which was on the verge of the Civil War. The blacks’ struggle for emancipation hit home with Meagher and he joined the Union army. Although many of his fellow Irish immigrants, finding themselves on the bottom rung of society in their new home, despised blacks and had no interest in fighting and dying for them, Meagher saw the Confederate States behavior as allegorical to the English treatment of his own people. He wasn’t fooled by politicians who spurred poor whites to hate blacks and immigrants, understanding better than most the destructive results of such divisionary tactics.

Following the war, Meagher found himself in Montana, acting as territorial governor. He helped to establish a “New Ireland” in his adopted home, but not without a further struggle. A gang of vigilantes terrorized the settlers, accusing and passing “sentence” on anyone they did not like. Meagher was wearying of serving as governor, an unpaid position when he was sent to pick up a cache of arms from a riverboat. Ultimately he ended up in the Missouri River, and his body was never recovered.

The leader of the vigilantes gave an account of Meagher’s actions, implying the governor had committed suicide. This is possible; however, when the story of a man’s last day is iterated by his worst enemy, it doesn’t quite pass the smell test. Egan examines the various possibilities (suicide, accident, murder) and offers a plausible theory as to what really happened to Thomas Meagher. The book reads like a novel with history lessons, both educating and entertaining readers. Among the fascinating tidbits are names of famous Irish emigrant families and the parentage of playwright and poet Oscar Wilde. Unfortunately, many of the accounts of ill-treatment of entire races and classes are not unfamiliar to modern readers. Perhaps we can learn from history and try to stop repeating it.

Laura Stewart Schmidt is a lifelong reader who was inspired by “good books for bad children” such as Harriet the Spy and Otis Spofford. She has a degree in Political Science with a minor in Criminal Justice from the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Laura worked for several years as a community education coordinator, encouraging parents to read to their children and setting up reading clubs for middle-school students.

Laura spent two years as a family court advocate for at-risk youth and parents suffering from substance addiction. She also worked for several years at an agency offering one-on-one support for children and adults with developmental disabilities and their families.

Her current writing project is:

DON’T  FEAR, MY DARLING, a suspense novel in the tradition of Hallie Ephron’s THERE WAS AN OLD WOMAN. Louisa is grieving her cherished grandfather’s death and stumbling through a series of demeaning  jobs when she finds the perfect position–a live-in secretary to an elderly author, Marguerite Roberts. Louisa’s Native American heritage teaches respect of elders, and she is puzzled that Marguerite’s family members have nothing to do with her. But Louisa soon realizes there is much more to the job than she expected. Nothing in the family is what it appears to be, and Louisa begins to fear for Marguerite’s life–and her own.

Laura lives near St. Louis with her husband and two dogs. She is a member of Sisters in Crime   and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI)