Saturday 23 February 2019

Joe Kennedy: Thomas Francis Meagher deserves his place among Ireland's heroic pantheon

A painting of Thomas Francis Meagher. Photo: Patrick Browne
A painting of Thomas Francis Meagher. Photo: Patrick Browne
A plaque at the house in Waterford where Meagher was arrested. Photo: Patrick Browne
Congressman Joe Kennedy and his wife in front of the 69th Regiment’s banner

Joe Kennedy

I grew up in a family where we thought of Ireland as the neighbouring parish. Standing on the beach at Cape Cod and looking out over the Atlantic, it was easy to imagine the crowded ships that brought our family to these shores.

My family was from Wexford, just next door to Waterford, whose most famous son, Thomas Francis Meagher, led an astonishing life, crossing not just the Atlantic but seas around the globe in pursuit of liberty and prosperity for all.

To be a part of the Meagher Foundation and its work to teach the history of the Irish Tricolour and Meagher's extraordinary contribution to the great causes of his time and ours - freedom, equality and justice - is a great privilege.

While the story of Meagher's trip to France in 1848 and his return with the Tricolour - uniting the Orange and the Green between the white stripe of truce - is often told, he crossed the Irish Sea not in search of a flag but liberation itself.

Movements of working people were sweeping away the old order with economic and social reforms. Meagher went to France as leader of the Young Irelanders in hopes of bringing the same revolutionary message back to Ireland.

About the time Meagher's role in the failed 1848 Irish uprising led to a death sentence, commutation, exile to Australia, and escape to America, my grandfather's great-grandfather Patrick Kennedy was leaving New Ross in Wexford for a new life in Boston.

Unfortunately, their paths never crossed. Patrick died of tuberculosis in 1858, three years before Meagher appeared at the Boston Music Hall to urge the city's burgeoning Irish population to defend the union.

Meagher stood up against the Confederacy and everything it stood for, not just with words but with deeds, marching with the Fighting 69th with sprigs of clover in their hats.

My great-uncle, President John F Kennedy, presented the brigade's bullet-riddled banner of the Irish Brigade during his famous trip to Dublin in 1963. My grandfather, Robert F Kennedy, spoke with pride of the New York regiment as the US senator from the state.

Meagher went on to become Montana's first governor after surviving some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. My great-uncle, Senator Ted Kennedy, loved history and traded stories of Meagher's heroism with his close friend Senator Mike Mansfield, whose statue now stands near Meagher's at the state capital in Helena.

As the world prepares to honour the martyrs of the 1916 Easter Rising, it's important to recall the names of those who came before. Thomas Francis Meagher well deserves his place in the pantheon of Irish heroes. He deeply embraced the rights of man. He deeply understood that aspirations toward freedom and justice were universal - whether among the serfs of Europe, the peasants of Ireland, the slaves of America's south or the impoverished immigrants of its northern cities.

Being Irish is not just the songs we love - and we know how much the Kennedys love the rebel ballads - but the causes we embrace.

And the truth is that anyone who stands for racial equality and social justice is an honorary member of Meagher's Irish Brigade.

Congressman Joe Kennedy is a member of the US House of Representatives from Massachusetts's 4th district

Irish Independent

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