“The Escape of Meagher”


"In the year '48 he was taken, you know, Next on board a ship he had for to go" Meagher escapes in Van Dieman's Land. The police chief refuses to track him "for you know we are Irishmen" He lands safe in New York, greeted by 16,000.


Zimmermann: "He [Meagher] had given notice of his intention to leave the penal colony, but it seems that the police officers were afraid to arrest him. The news of his escape and of his triumphal reception in America reached Ireland several months later and was hailed with delight." - BS

Thomas Francis Meagher (1823-1867) was one of the more amazing characters in Irish history. As a young man, he thought Daniel O'Connell's campaigns for reform too peaceful, declaring that he did not believe that "the God of Heaven withholds his sanction from the use of arms.... I look upon the sword as a sacred weapon" (Robert Kee, _The Most Distressful Country_, being volume I of _The Green Flag_, pp. 254; Peter and Fiona Someset Fry, _A History of Ireland_, p. 225). As a result, he came to be called "Meagher of the Sword."

Ironically, he put forth this view in an English (Stonyhurst) accent (Kee, p. 247).

Along with John Mitchel (for whom see "John Mitchel") and William Smith O'Brien (for whom see "The Shan Van Voght (1848)"), he in 1847 split from Young Ireland to found the Irish Confederation (Terry Golway, _For the Cause of Liberty_, p. 116). Kee, p. 255, is of the opinion that no one intended the split to be permanent, but notes that, as far as the campaign for Irish rights was concerned, "[t]he damage proved irrevocable."

They went on to try to organize a rising. The British arrested them in March 1848 on charges of sedition. The juries deadlocked in the cases of Meagher and Smith O'Brien, who therefore went free (Kee, pp. 267-268). They responded by going back to their old tricks. This time they tried outright rebellion, and it was a complete disaster (for this too seee the notes to "The Shan Van Voght (1848)" ). O'Brien Smith and Meagher were found and arrested again; this time, they were transported (Fry/Fry, pp. 237-238; Kee, p. 287); sentenced to death, they were reprieved and sent to Tasmania. This song of course chronicles Meagher's escape, in which he reportedly had help from another Young Irelander (Kee, p. 287); if the Irish had been as good at organizing protests and revolts as they were at organizing escapes, they might have gained independence much sooner.

In America, where he lived by lecturing and writing, Meagher gradually turned less radical; when James Stephens approached him in the United States, he said it would be "unworthy" of him to support a revolution (Golway, p. 132).

For his career in the American Civil War, see the notes to "By the Hush." After the war, he was appointed territorial governor of Montana, but drowned in the Missouri River after only a short time in office. His body was not found, but it is likely that he was drunk at the time; there were many reports at the time that he had taken to drink, and his military record was not unspotted. - RBW

Broadside LOCSinging sb30363a: J. Andrews dating per _Studying Nineteenth-Century Popular Song_ by Paul Charosh in American Music, Winter 1997, Vol 15.4, Table 1, available at FindArticles site. - BS

Historical references

  • Jan 1852 - Thomas Francis Meagher escapes from Tasmania to America. "[S]entenced to death after the attempted insurrection in 1848, [he] had been reprieved and transported to Tasmania." (source: Zimmermann)


  • Bodleian, Johnson Ballads fol. 340[some words are illegible], "The Escape of Meagher," unknown, n.d.
  • LOCSinging,sb30363a, "A new song, on the Escape of Thomas Francis Meagher, the Irish Exile," J. Andrews (New York), 1853-1859


  1. Zimmermann 61, "The Escape of Meagher" (1 text)
  2. BI, Zimm061


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1852 (Zimmermann)