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Pen and Sword: Thomas Francis Meagher and Clongowes College

James Durney

Thomas Francis Meagher was born on 3 August 1823 at a Georgian house now site of what is the Granville Hotel, on the Waterford quay. A plaque honouring the birthplace of the man known as Meagher of the Sword, or the National Orator, adorns the building, though some historians claim he was born at 19 the Mall, or 51 O’Connell Street. His father, Thomas Meagher, was a wealthy merchant, who spent his life, like other leading members of the old Catholic families, in trying to retrieve by trade overseas the family fortunes of which they had been dispossessed by confiscation and the penal laws. Most of Thomas Francis Meagher’s ancestry can be traced back to Catholic tenant farms in the hinterland of Waterford, specifically in south-east Kilkenny, south-east Tipperary, and east Waterford in the 18th century. His mother’s line – the Lattins and Kennedys – hailed from Morristown, in Co. Kildare. Thomas Meagher married Alicia Quan, daughter of another wealthy Waterford merchant, in 1820. They had four children – Thomas, Francis, Henry, Christiaana, Alicia. In 1843 Thomas Meagher became the first Catholic mayor of Waterford City in almost 200 years.
A strong admirer and supporter of Daniel O’Connell, Thomas Meagher sent his two sons, Thomas Francis and Henry, to Clongowes Wood College, a Jesuit-run boarding school, to begin their secondary education. Three of O’Connell’s sons went to Clongowes and John O’Connell was a contemporary of Thomas Francis Meagher there. During a visit to Clongowes Daniel O’Connell was said to have observed Meagher’s early genius and foretold his future greatness. A decade later O’Connell recommended Meagher be admitted to study law at the Queen’s Inn in Dublin. Clongowes College was an establishment for the sons of Catholic gentlemen and Meagher remained there for six years. In later years, Tom Meagher wrote of Clongowes, with deep affection, but complained that he and his contemporaries were taught nothing about their native land. While Clongowes burdened its pupils with many other subjects, ancient and modern, he wrote:
 ‘So far as Ireland was concerned, they left us like blind and crippled children in the dark. They never spoke of Ireland. Never gave us, even what is left of it, her history to read. Never quickened the young bright life they controlled into lofty conceptions and prayers by a reference to the martyrdoms, the wrongs, the soldiership, the statesmanship, the magnificent memories and illuminating hopes of the poor old land … Ireland was the last nation we were taught to think of, to respect, to love and remember … But I can’t bear to say anything against Clongowes. It is to me a dear old spot.’
 However, Thomas Francis Meagher was expelled from this dear old spot in 1839 at the age of sixteen after a rebellious incident. On Michaelmas Day a roast goose was supplied to each of the students table and the one offered to the senior students happened to be quite lean. Tom Meagher had the job of carving the goose and he complained to Fr. Kelly, saying he could not get a piece off the bird and demanded another fatter one. Fr. Kelly demurred and requested Meagher to cut it and see how far it would go. He refused and all the students at the table put down their knives and forks and sulked. After the senior students left, having eaten no dinner, several panes of glass in the great window were broken by stones. All the senior students were sent to the tower for an inquiry, but as no one would admit to the wrongdoing, or inform on who did it, they were given solitary confinement for a week.
 At the time, the senior students were allowed walks in the locality on their free days and on their first excursion after their solitary confinement to Carton House Tom Meagher led a group of friends off to Dublin. A pursuit party found the young men at an inn in Barrack Street, Dublin, and brought the rebels back to Clongowes. Four were expelled, including Tom Meagher. His uncle, Patrick Meagher, a Jesuit in Dublin, was instrumental in arranging Tom’s transfer to Stonyhurst College, another Jesuit-run school, in England. Here the sons of wealthy Irish, Spanish and French families were sent to receive a comprehensive British education.
 Meagher returned to Ireland in 1843 having completed his education at Stonyhurst, and went to Dublin to study law. He joined the Young Irelanders and in 1846 Tom Meagher delivered what became known as the ‘Sword Speech’ in Conciliation Hall. After the Rising of 1848 Meagher was arrested and found guilty of High Treason. He was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, but this sentence was commuted to Transportation to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). Meagher enjoyed considerable liberty in Tasmania and escaped in 1852, with the aid of his friend Patrick J. Smyth, who was a fellow student in Clongowes in 1839. He fled to New York, where he helped found the newspapers the ‘Citizen’ and the ‘Irish News.’ At the outbreak of the American Civil War Meagher raised a company of Irishmen for the 69th New York Volunteers, and served with the army of the North during the first campaign in Virginia and the subsequent first battle of Bull Run. Towards the end of 1861 he organised the Irish Brigade, which he eventually commanded. When the Irish Brigade was decimated by battle he resigned in protest. In 1866 Tom Meagher became Temporary Governor of the Montana Territory. Whilst acting in this capacity he fell from a steamboat into the Missouri and was drowned near Fort Benton, Montana, on 1 July 1867, aged forty-four. His body was never recovered.
A sculpture with Tom Meagher astride a horse stands in the Mall, Waterford, while he is honoured with another equestrian statue in front of Montana Capitol Building, in Helena, Montana.

Irish rebel and American soldier Thomas Francis Meagher's connections with Co. Kildare and Clongowes College

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