The Irish Exiles: Thomas Francis O’ Meagher

Thomas MeagherThomas Francis was one of the seven Irish exiles who came out to Van Diemen’s Land in 1849 on the charge of high treason and was transported aboard the Swift.

He arrived as an exile as did his colleagues, William Smith O’Brien, John Mitchel, Terrance Bellew McManus, John Martin and Patrick O’Donohoe. All of these were involved with the Young Ireland Movement, which had fermented revolution in 1848 in protest to British rule. Meagher, as he was then known, was arrested, tried, found guilty of high treason and was sentenced to death. This was commuted to transportation for life. He arrived in Van Diemen’s Land on October 17th, 1849.

When the exiles arrived at Hobart Town they were all offered a ‘ticket-of-leave’ on the provision that no one wandered or tried to escape from their allotted areas of living. They all accepted the ‘ticket’ except Smith O’Brien. He was soon sent to Maria Island. O’Meagher was confined to the district of Campbell Town. (By now, Meagher had adopted the suffix ‘O’).

Upon arrival O’Meagher jotted this paragraph down: “Twenty minutes rendered me fully conversant with the subject of my inquiry. A glance indeed was sufficient to inform me that this celebrated town consisted of one main street with two or three dusty branches to the left and at right angles with these a sort of boulevard in which the police office, the lock up and the stocks were conveniently arranged.”

He got to know the inhabitants of the township rather well and became one of their favourite citizens. He later mentions Campbell Town as the “fourth largest township in the island, after Hobart Town, Launceston and Oatlands.” He met an Irish widow named Kearney and became close friends with her. Kearny managed the hotel in the town and hailed from the county of Kildare.

Soon O’Meagher was moved to Ross, which he called, “a little apology of a town”. Here, he made friends with Father Dunne of St Johns, Richmond, and spent many a happy day with him.

It was at Ross that O’Meagher met Catherine Bennett. He courted her and it was not long before he decided to make this Tasmanian girl his wife. Subsequently, on February 22 1851, in Dr Hall’s house at Ross, they were joined in holy matrimony. Bishop Willson conducted the ceremony. They honeymooned at Lake Sorell.

Thomas found a haven at the lakes where he was free to secretly meet his comrades, O’Doherty, Martin, Mitchel and Dr McNamara. They had happy times together reminiscing and setting plans for the future. His enthusiasm for these secret rendezvous is clearly seen in an extract to Dunne where he says, “Hip, Hip, Hurrah! So three cheers for the lakes believe me my dear Father Dunne.” It was signed, “Yours very affectionately, T.F. O’Meagher.” They met many times at their treasured hiding place.

O’Meagher was by nature a patient man and endured his restrictions admirably. As the days progressed, however, Thomas became more and more restless, until eventually he simply could not tolerate the ever present confinement. His restlessness caught the eye of the watchful military. O’Meagher, himself, was aware of this but still made plans for escape.

It was a difficult decision to make. O’Meagher had to leave Van Diemen’s Land, which he loved, and his wife, his friends and his fellow exiles. He was very fond of Smith O’Brien who alone had defied the authorities. Escape operations went smoothly and according to plan for O’Meagher. He soon set sail for Waterhouse Island in Bass Strait where he spent ten miserable days until the Elizabeth Thompson picked him up. He arrived firstly at New York in May 1852. America at this time was still a very young nation and Americans were proud of the fact that their land was the ‘home of the free’. Any story highlighting defiance against foreign despotism ensured the sympathetic attention of the public.

Meagher Statue in Helena Montana

Thomas was quick to send word to his pregnant wife concerning his success and ask her to come and join him in America. Before his letter reached her, Catherine had their child, a son who died a short time afterwards. Outside the church of St John’s Catholic, Richmond is the grave of the O’Meagher child, Henry Emmett Fitzgerald, son of Thomas Francis and Catherine O’Meagher who died June 8th 1852. He was four months old and died from influenza.

With good intentions she left Hobart Town aboard the Wellington on the 5th February 1853 and set sail for London. From there she crossed to Dublin where she was met by 20,000 cheering people exalting her and her husband. It was a jubilant experience. Now it was time to undertake the last leg of her journey and set sail for the USA. She stayed there, but for a short time, returning to Ireland to live with her father-in-law, as she was suffering from ill health. Her reunion with husband Thomas, was not a success. In May 1854 at the age of 22 years she passed away shortly after giving birth to a second son, also called Thomas. Although the boy survived into manhood he never saw his father, even though they corresponded.

Thomas had publicly given allegiance to the US. Everything was going exceptionally well until he heard the news about Catherine. For a brief period of time he hid himself from the limelight, but still the generous American people granted O’Meagher many favours. He eventually became the Secretary of the Territory of Montana and later Acting Governor. Prior to this, he remarried to Elizabeth Townsend and saw distinguished service in the War between the States, obtaining the rank of Brigadier General in the Union Army.

O’Meagher died when he fell overboard from the steamer The Thompson into the Missouri River and drowned. One of Meagher’s acquaintances, Captain James Fisk, noted in his diary concerning the incident, “The Benton coach came in this morning bringing news of the drowning of Gen. Thomas Francis Meagher on the night of the first inst. He had been on board on one of the steamers to visit some of his friends – got on a spree – went to bed – was heard to get up and got out on the guards – a splash was heard – and the once brilliant and brave man was seen no more. Another victim of whisky.” To be fair, one must add that this report expressed only the opinion of the diarists as it was never substantiated that O’Meagher was in fact drunk.

The grave of O’Meagher’s first child in Van Diemen’s Land, was originally in the cemetery behind St John’s Church Richmond; because of erosion and the crumbling of the steep bank it was decided that the remains should be moved with the approval of the Health Department in the 1950s just in case the whole section collapsed and fell into the Coal River. The grave was removed to the present site. The original cedar casket still intact, though very powdery, was placed in a larger one and reinterred. A Justice of the Peace was present to witness the event.

Tombstone of Thomas Meagher's Son Richmond Tasmania

For a fuller account of the mystery of Meagher’s death, please consult Reg Watson’s book entitled, “The Life and Times of Thomas Francis Meagher”. More details at his website: http://members.iinet.net.au/~rwatson1/meagher.htm