HIGH DIVE by Jonathan Lee

The Grand Hotel in Brighton, after a bomb attack by the IRA, 12th October 1984. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and many other politicians were staying at the hotel during the Conservative Party conference, but most were unharmed.

(The Grand Hotel, Brighton, England IRA bombing , October 12, 1984 designed to assassinate British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher)

HIGH DIVE by Jonathan Lee is an interesting historical novel that develops a number of fascinating characters as it unfolds.  The novel seems to travel on two tracks, the first are the Eriksonian identity crisis’ that evolve as each character is forced to ponder their roles in society, their life’s work, and what the future holds.  The second are the ever present problems that infect the Irish-British relationship that have gone on for centuries.  What makes the novel impactful is that behind the interaction of each character with their environment is the proposed visit of British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher to the Grand Hotel, a resort in Brighton, England in 1984, and a possible assassination attempt on her life.  The politics of the era are integrated in an accurate fashion as Thatcher’s Conservative Party record is dissected in terms of its onerous effect on Catholics in Northern Ireland and the poor of England in general.  The setting is historically accurate as Thatcher did visit Brighton in 1984 and there was an IRA assassination attempt on her life.  What Lee tries to do is explore IRA planning involving the real assassin, Patrick J. Magee and the fictitious character, Dan, who is created to be his assistant in planting the bomb with its timing device a few weeks before the visit.

The novel opens with Dan, a handyman-electrician type meeting Dawson McCartland, an IRA operative who tests him whether he is worthy enough for “the cause.”  Once he passes his initiation, Dan’s new life has begun as a freedom fighter for the Republican army against the British and their Protestant allies in Ulster.  The evolution of Dan’s character is extremely important first using the alias of Roy Walsh, and later in the novel as Lee explains Dan’s relationship with his mother and provides insight into what it was like to grow up dealing with the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) raids and beatings at home and on the street.  As the “Thatcher” mission is planned and implemented we witness a person who experiences doubts about his actions and who he is, and has become.  Dan interacts a great deal with Freya Finch, a nineteen year old girl, who has a crush on him, and is trying to break away from her father, but is confused about what path to take.  She is very bright and her father wants her to enroll in the university, but she is uncertain.  Her parents divorced when she was very young and has been raised by her father with whom she has a strong bond.  She spends her summers working at the hotel, but that is not enough for her.    Her father, Peter Finch, whose nickname is “Moose” runs the Grand Hotel after giving up a career in teaching and must deal with his own identity issues.  He grew up as a champion athlete and still practices his high dives in the hotel pool.  His entire life is wrapped up in the everyday details of the resort as he tries to fight off his personal demons that date back to Vivienne, the wife who left him.  A few weeks before Thatcher’s visit he has a heart attack and must reassess his life.  There are many other characters that provide the glue that holds the novel together from surfer John, IRA operatives, and the hotel staff, but it is the three mentioned that form the core of the plot.

Lee has a very distinctive approach in his writing.  He can be humorous, sarcastic, and serious all within the same few sentences of dialogue as he describes the plight of Catholics in Northern Ireland.  For example, “The whole of your life in Belfast was organized around light and dark, visibility and invisibility, silence and sound, information and secrecy, the private rubbing up against the public and making you feel tired.”  Lee repeatedly comments about the politics that infect the “the Irish problem,” as Ireland “at night was a repeated dream,” as well the everyday existence of even famous people, by his reference the birth of Prince Henry, and stating “the baby prince looked tricksy, sardonic, chubby, blotchy, and would hopefully cheer up his sad eyed mum.”  Lee also provides an interesting description and insights into how a large resort is managed and what they prepare for such an important VIP visit.  Further, Lee offers an account of the Conservative party gathering when many self-important people went about trying to impress their peers. In addition, Lee goes inside the planning of the terrorist attack, from its inception and actual implementation.  Once the bomb is placed in the hotel, it seems that the story begins to creep along at a much slower pace as Lee returns to the crisis’ that affect each major character, and at times you feel that the story should speed up and see if the attack will be successful.

British Conservative prime minister Margaret Hilda Thatcher, addressing the Tory Party Conference in Brighton, following the bombing of The Grand Hotel, where many delegates were staying.

(British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher)

The book is more than a recreation of an IRA terrorist planting a bomb at the Grand Hotel.  It plies the depth of class disappointment that is the core of Irish Catholic hatred of the British government, and particular the policies of the Conservative party and its Irish Protestant allies.  It is more a reflection of the daily humiliation an oppressed people must cope with and its psychological impact.  Dan is a key character who at age 24 learns he will be involved with the assassination plot.  Dan describes his past as the paras killed his father and on a number of occasions barged into his house and beat his mother, or forced him to dance a “jig” as they attacked a local pub.  These events are more than enough to put Dan over the edge and turn him into a terrorist.  Having lived in southeast London while conducting research at the Public Records Office in 1987 I witnessed the hatred of the poor against the Thatcher government as each night in this working class neighborhood, men would pour out their hearts at their local pubs.  It is easy to understand their frustration and why many turn to violence.

HIGH DIVE is a remarkable read as Lee captures the tension that existed in early 1980s Ulster.  He creates sincere characters, and a part from some pacing issues it should be a positive experience for those who put aside the time to engage the story.

The Grand Hotel Brighton, soon after the IRA bombing during the Tory conference.

(The Grand Hotel, October 12, 1984 following the IRA bombing)

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SPAIN IN OUR HEARTS: AMERICANS IN THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR, 1936-1939 by Adam Hochschild

(Anarchist workers in the Spanish revolution)

Years ago I saw the film, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie about a teacher in a Scottish girl’s school who strayed from the school curriculum by praising Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini while romanticizing the Spanish Civil War.  The arguments she used in her classroom reappear in Adam Hochschild’s new book SPAIN IN OUR HEARTS: AMERICANS IN THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR, 1936-1939 as the author presents the positions of multiple sides engaged in the fight for Republican Spain.  The title leads one to believe that the books main focus is on the American experience, but in reality Hochschild paints a much wider canvas that includes Spaniards, French, Italian, German, Russian, in addition to American actors.  Hochschild is a prolific author whose work includes KING LEOPOLD’S GHOST, BURY THE CHAINS, and the award winning TO END ALL WARS.  He begins his latest effort in striking style as two naked American volunteers fighting for the Spanish Republic against the fascists emerge from the Ebro River as they flee Francisco Franco’s forces.  Fortunately for them, they run into Herbert Matthews, a New York Times reporter and Ernest Hemingway, who at the time is a free-lance writer for a newspaper syndicate covering the civil war.  The reader is immediately hooked as Hochschild begins to narrate a conflict that many historians describe as the precursor of World War II as Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy allied with Franco’s forces as a testing ground for new weapons and allowing their soldiers to gain significant combat experience.  It became very difficult for the Republican government to gain support outside of Spain.  England and France were in the midst of appeasement after allowing Hitler’s troops to seize the Rhineland.  In the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt facing reelection refused to provide aid as not to anger isolationist forces who preached neutrality.  This left only Stalin’s Soviet Union as a source of weapons and soldiers which for the Republican government became a “devil’s bargain” with the Russian dictator.

(Fascist dictator Francisco Franco)

Hochschild does a superb job describing all the major aspects of the war.  He details the ideological conflicts that exited in Republican ranks; those who supported the Comintern, better described as the Communist Party of the Soviet Union; anarchists who were to the left of the communists; and the Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista, or Spanish communists.  The conflicts between these groups greatly hindered creating a united front against Franco’s forces. Aside from the ideological battle on the left, another existed among the journalists who covered the war.  Among New York Times reporters was William P. Carney who admired Franco and his reports from the front mirrored fascist propaganda.  Herbert Matthews a Times colleague sparred with Carney repeatedly as he refused to give up on the Republican cause.  Another important journalist was Louis Fischer, married to a Russian woman, was in the Stalinist camp, even after witnessing the purges in the Soviet Union.  Literary figures abound in the narrative as we encounter George Orwell, who would be wounded fighting for the British Battalion, in addition to Virginia Cowles, Ernest Hemingway and others.  The actual fighting is covered in detail as Hochschild describes the enormity of the conflict.  The amount of aid and troops poured in by Hitler and Mussolini is staggering and as a portent for the future the author describes the new weaponry that is tested that will be staples for the Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy during World War II.  Franco never could have been victorious without the aid of Germany and Italy.

(Male and female militia fighters who fought against Franco)

The title of the book intimates the role of Americans in the war and here Hochschild does not disappoint.   We meet a number of Americans, married couples and single individuals who played a prominent role in the war and provided new sources of material for the author.  The story that Hochschild narrates from the battle front and operations in the rear and the efforts to end American neutrality come from Charles and Lois Orr, economics instructors in California who as socialists believed that democracy could be attained peacefully, not like in the Soviet Union.  They will arrive in Barcelona in September, 1939 and help describe the disaster that will eventually evolve in that Catalonian city.  Bob and Marion Merriman, had lived in the Soviet Union, and witnessed the disaster of collectivization and would have a major impact on the International Brigade, particularly the Lincoln-Washington Brigade of American soldiers.  The intensity of the fighting is often told through the eyes of Bob Merriman who became one of the commanders of the International Brigade.  One of the most important documents that turned up at least fifty years after the fighting was a diary kept by James Neugass, an American ambulance driver for Dr. Edward Barsky, an American surgeon who seemed to operate twenty-four hours a day.  Neugass’ diary depicts the paucity of medical supplies and physicians that attended to American volunteers.  The diary also describes the International Brigades’ retreat as Franco’s forces split the Republicans in two as they reached the Mediterranean Sea.  Another important aspect of the war that Hochschild presents his description of the fighting in and around Madrid that will end up as a siege of the Spanish capitol.  Hochschild places the reader inside the city and is witness to the horrors that ensued.

(International volunteers for the Republic)

Perhaps the most disturbing part of the book aside from the horrors of war was the role played by Texaco and the blinders that the Roosevelt administration employed in order to not make political waves that could endanger elections.  Texaco was headed by the Norwegian born Torkid Rieber who rose from very little to become the top executive of the oil company.  Rieber was an admirer of Hitler and early on in the fighting switched supplying oil from the Republican government to Franco’s armies.  Further, Rieber allowed Franco to purchase the oil on credit.  This violated American law and if Roosevelt had wanted to he could have almost stopped the fighting by enforcing US statutes. Roosevelt, fearing a catholic backlash in the 1936 election refused to do so.  Not only did Texaco supply the oil for Franco’s victory, they also supplied over 12,000 trucks and Firestone tires that were extremely scarce as well as providing important shipping intelligence to Franco pertaining to oil deliveries to Republican forces.  All told Texaco provided over $200 million worth of oil in over 300 deliveries. (343)  the role of the papacy in the war gains Hochschild’s attention as Spanish priests with the approval of the Pope supported Franco’s war to the hilt.  Many Spanish priests supported the execution of their brethren who did not support Franco in addition to the execution of Republican soldiers.  Further, they were apoplectic when the Republican government implemented land reform and church properties were given to peasants, a major reason for their support of the Spanish dictator.

The civil war itself exhibited the Spanish class struggle and Hochschild delves into the economic and moral implications of Spanish land policies.  One of the most important points the author puts forth is that “while much [the civil war] of that feels distant now, other aspects of the 1930s Spain still seem all too similar to many countries today; the great gap between rich and poor, and the struggle between an authoritarian dictatorship and millions of powerless people long denied their fair share of land, education, and so much more.  These things make Spain of the 1930s, a crucial battleground of its time, a resonant for ours as well.” (xix-xx)  Hochschild has written an important book that revisits the Spanish Civil War integrating a number of new sources that previous authors had not uncovered.  For those interested in the topic, you will not find a better read.

(Workers who supported the Republic)

THE OTHER SIDE OF SILENCE by Philip Kerr

Map of Côte d'Azur

(The site of Philip Kerr’s new novel, the French Reviera)

The Other Side of Silence (Bernie Gunther Series #11)

In the eleventh installment of Philip Kerr’s thoughtful and entertaining Bernie Gunther series, we find our protagonist ensconced on the French Riviera contemplating suicide.  For those familiar with Gunther’s odyssey through World War I, World War II and the post war world you will not be surprised by his behavior.  Gunther is bored with his life and misses Berlin since he exiled himself to France, and became employed as a concierge at the Grand Hotel du Saint-Sean-Cap.  Gunther’s problem is that he misses his life as a detective, but his exile is about to change when a guest named Harold Heinz Hebel checks into the hotel.  The problem is that Hebel is an alias for Harold Hennig, a former Captain in the Nazi SD Security service, and an accomplished murderer.  It is that recognition by Gunther that Kerr’s new novel THE OTHER SIDE OF SILENCE pivots.  From that point on as Kerr develops his plot the reader is exposed to Gunther’s sarcastic humor and comments about a range of historical figures from Leopold II, to Gauguin, to numerous Nazi henchmen and British intelligence figures.

Kerr has created a number of scenarios that he develops with his usual skill as a writer and a practitioner of conspiracies.  They begin when Gunther meets the nephew of the British writer, W. Somerset Maugham who is being blackmailed by none other than Harold Hennig.  Maugham, a known homosexual finds out that Hennig has obtained a picture of him with three British spies who were turned by Soviet intelligence, Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, and David MacLean.  The picture is extremely compromising sexually and Maugham, even at eighty two years of age is worried about his reputation in England where homosexuality is illegal, and in the United States which is in the throes of the McCarthy hearings.  He asks Gunther to be his agent with Hennig to make sure the transaction is carried out so he has nothing further to worry about.  To show Maugham what he is dealing with, Gunther describes a situation that occurred in Berlin in 1938 when Gunther, no longer a German police detective, is approached by Captain Achim von Frisch, a man who saved his live in Turkey during the Great War.  Frisch is also being blackmailed, by you guessed it, the same Harold Hennig.  It seems that there is a political and military shakeup going on within the Nazi command structure, and another officer, General Freiheir von Fritsch is being accused of being a homosexual.  Frisch, who previously was blackmailed by Hennig to the point of poverty is privy to important information that would clarify the situation.  However, he is afraid, and wants Gunther to investigate and determine how high up in Hitler’s regime this plot reaches before he comes forward.  In the end Hitler achieved his goals and took over as the head of the Reich’s military by stepping over any body that got in his way.

Kerr goes back and forth between Berlin in 1938, Konigsberg in 1944, and the south of France in 1956.  For Gunther they are all related in some manner and they seem to all involve Harold Hennig.  The events that took place for Gunther go a long way in explaining his sarcastic and cynical view of people and life in general.  Apart from the plot, Kerr’s command of German history is excellent, though he does make a minor error by stating that Frederick III built a hunting lodge in Konigsberg in 1690, when in fact he did not assume the throne until 1888.  However, his description of historical figures like Erich Koch, Erich Mielke, Guy Burgess, and the sinking of the MV Wilhelm Gustloff in early 1945, and the use by the CIA and KGB of former Nazis is right on, as is his integration of the 1956 Suez crisis as historical background.

Throughout the book Kerr is at his deceptive best as the novel reeks of disinformation, misdirection, spies, and counterspies, and of course conspiracies enveloped within other conspiracies.  The intricacies of the plot are based upon Maugham’s actual experiences as a British spy during the late 1930s and World War II as the myriad of scenarios keeps the reader engrossed.  Who is really behind the blackmail?  Is it the Russian KGB, is it remnants of the Third Reich, is Hebel acting alone, or is it something else?  Is the British intelligence community the real target? MI5 or MI6?  Does the United States have a role to play?  How does W. Somerset Maugham fit in?  How about the Cambridge Five that was penetrated by Russian intelligence during and after World War II?  How does Bernie Gunther fit into these complex questions?  Why was Gunther’s bridge partner murdered?  Does that fit into the paradigm?  The answers will keep the reader riveted to THE OTHER SIDE OF SILENCE, and it makes one look forward to Kerr’s next Bernie Gunther novel, PRUSSIAN BLUE.

(The French Rviera, the site of Philip Kerr’s new novel)

THE RIGHT WRONG MAN: JOHN DEMJANJUK AND THE LAST GREAT NAZI WAR CRIMES TRIAL

(Sobibor Death Camp)

As Lawrence Douglas, an Amherst College law professor describes in his new book, THE RIGHT WRONG MAN: JOHN DEMJANJUK AND THE LAST GREAT NAZI WAR CRIMES TRIAL, the former Ford Motor employee was “little more than a peon at the bottom of the Nazis exterminatory hierarchy.”  However, what makes him important is the legal odyssey he navigated from 1975 to his death in 2012.  Demjanjuk survived a number of major trials; denaturalization hearings in the United States, prosecution in Israel, and his final legal confrontation in Germany.  Throughout the process Demjanjuk lied, acted, obfuscated, as he tried to avoid conviction.  The end result was finally being found guilty of “crimes against humanity” in 2011, after having previous convictions overturned because of prosecution errors and the failure of memory on the part of Holocaust survivors.

Demjanjuk’s biography is quite amazing.  During the outset of the war Demjanjuk was a soldier in the Red Army.  After being captured by the Germans he volunteered to be a guard at the Sobibor death camp.  Once the war ended, he was able to immigrate to the United States by lying on his application associated with the Truman administrations 1948 Displaced Persons Act.  He settled in Cleveland and became a machinist at a Ford Motor plant, and was able to hide his Holocaust related activities for years, until 1975 when American officials first learned of his possible wartime activities.

(Demjanjuk’s wartime pass placing him in Nazi occupied Poland; discovered in 2002 by the United States)

Douglas provides intricate detail and analysis of Demjanjuk’s legal journey.  He dissects the strategies pursued by defense attorneys, prosecutors, and judges as they try to convict Demjanjuk of being Ivan Grozny, “Ivan the Terrible” for his sadistic acts at Treblinka.  Further, Douglas explores the gaps in the legal systems that tried to bring him to justice and how previous trials, Nuremberg, and Eichmann in particular impacted legal strategies.  The problem that emerges is that Demjanjuk was misidentified and was not Ivan Grozny, but a man who served at Sobibor and contributed to the death of thousands of Jews for which he was finally convicted.  Demjanjuk’s legal battles began in 1975 and continued until later in the decade when he would be identified as the former Treblinka guard, “Ivan the Terrible.”  Demjanjuk was stripped of his citizenship and extradited to Israel.  In 1988 he was convicted and sentenced to death by an Israeli court.  After numerous appeals and the emergence of new evidence, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the government had the wrong Ivan.  He was returned to the United States and his citizenship was restored.

Demjanjuk may not have been at Treblinka, but earlier testimony seemed to place him at Sobibor, another Nazi death camp.  In 2001 he lost his US citizenship for a second time and in 2009 he was dispatched to Germany for trial.  On May 12, 2011 he was found guilty by a German court for assisting in the murder of 28,060 Jews.  Before his death sentence could be carried out he died, ending one of the last prosecutions of perpetrators of the Holocaust.  Douglas’ book is an important contribution to the legal issues that have surrounded the prosecution of Nazi war criminals.  Douglas raises many important subjects including; the justice of trying old men for superannuated crimes, the nature of individual responsibility in the orchestration of state-sponsored crimes, the nature and causes, and possible justifications of collaboration in the perpetuation of atrocities, and how three different legal systems went about creating legal alloys to master the challenges posed by the Nazi genocide.

(Demjanjuk stated he was too ill to sit up at his trial in Munich)

Douglas points out that Nazi crimes were so great that retributive justice based on didactic exercises organized around survivor testimony was not enough.  What was needed was to use trials as a means of historical education, present history through the eyes of survivor memory as what done at the Eichmann trial.  However, even this noble ideal was fraught with holes as was seen in the prosecution of Demjanjuk.  What was needed according to Douglas was to develop the role of historians to assist in the preparation and prosecution of Nazi crimes.  One of the major drawbacks in the prosecutorial process was the lack of historical context that only historians could provide.  This gap was overcome in Demjanjuk’s Munich case as historians came into play in every aspect of the case from drafting of the indictment to the core of the court’s judgement.  For the first time a new type of Holocaust trial emerged: the Holocaust as History.

These developments overcame many of the obstacles that were evident in earlier prosecutions. In the United States turf battles between the Justice Department and other agencies, difficulties handling atrocity cases with routine prosecutory tools, the lack of linguistic skills on the part of lawyers, and little or no training in historical research all hindered the development of sound cases against war criminals.  Douglas traces the evolution of new techniques and approaches to these types of cases beginning with the Nuremberg Trials, the Eichmann Trial, and the prosecution of the real Ivan Grozny, Fedor Fedorenko that culminated in the final conviction of Demjanjuk.

(At his trial in Munich, Demjanjuk claimed that file #1627 in the Russian archives would prove his innocence)

Douglas asks the important question as to the benefits to mankind that emerged from the Demjanjuk case.  “First, it yielded a modified theory of culpability, directly ‘connected to the exterminatory process.’  This disposed once and for all of the defense ‘I was no more than a cog in the machine…I was obeying orders.’  A machine cannot run without its small constituent parts.”  As a result it was now enough to prove that a defendant worked in a death factory to obtain a conviction because without the numbers of these types of defendants the Holocaust could not have reached the magnitude that it did.  Further, this allowed for the further prosecution of lower-level war criminals and permitted three separate judicial systems to learn from past errors and instill confidence in this type of judicial process.  (New York Times, February 26, 2016)

Douglas astute dissection of the Demjanjuk case and the application of his analysis to the overall problem of culpability for war crimes is a major contribution to this type of literature.  Though at times it is written in legalese, overall it should be easily understood by the layman resulting a satisfying reading experience.

(October 14, 1943, Sobibor Death Camp following a failed revolt)

THE IMMORTAL IRISHMAN: THE IRISH REVOLUTIONARY WHO BECAME AN AMERICAN HERO by Timothy Egan

(Thomas Francis Meagher during the Civil War)

Biography is an exceptional art form especially when a unique life story is represented.  In the case of Thomas Francis Meagher, author Timothy Egan, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the New York Times has unearthed a somewhat obscure, but remarkable historical figure, who impacted the course of Irish history in a remarkable way.  Meagher, a man who like a cat seemed to have had nine lives left Ireland in 1848 after being arrested and tried for treason by the British government.  He was imprisoned in a remote area of Australia where he escaped in 1852 and landed in New York City where he stood against the anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic Know Nothing Party and later led an Irish brigade against the south during the Civil War.  If that was not enough for one lifetime, he concluded his astonishing career as the territorial governor of Montana.

Egan’s THE IMMORTAL IRISHMAN: THE IRISH REVOLUTIONARY WHO BECAME AN AMERICAN HERO presents a wonderful narrative about a man who seems to be everywhere.  Though Meagher had reached hero status among the Irish people, he seemed to encounter enemies everywhere he turned.  The British saw him as a fugitive, politicians in the United States viewed him as an abolitionist, vigilantes in Montana felt he was a traitor.  Meagher was a man who escaped death repeatedly.  He escaped the English gallows, Tasmanian sharks missed their opportunity as he swam away from Australia, and survived the Battle of Bull Run.  But in 1867 when he was trying to organize a democratic government in the Montana territory, was his fall from a Mississippi steam boat an accident, or did his luck finally run out when he may have been pushed.


“Digging for potatoes” from the London Illustrated News, 1849:

“‘Searching for Potatoes’ is one of the those occupations of those who cannot obtain outdoor relief. It is gleaning in a potato field, and how few are left after the potatoes are dug, must be known to everyone whohas ever seen the field cleared. What the people were digging and hunting for, like dogs after truffles, I could not imagine, till I went into the field, and then I found them patiently turning over the whole ground, in the hopes of finding the few potatoes the owner might not have overlooked. Gleaning ina potato field seems something like shearing hogs, but it is theonly means by which the gleaners could hope to geta meal.”

Egan has created a somewhat literary approach to his subject as he constantly weaves his and other Irish poets and their work throughout his story.  The author tells a tale encompassing the plight of the Irish throughout their enslavement by the British culminating in the Great Famine of the 1840s.  At a time when the potato blight led to the starvation and immigration of millions of Irish poor, the British government exported the Irish crops that could have fed their people overseas for profit.  The lassaiz-faire trade policy was a death knell for the Irish people that even brought certain British officials to admit they were engaged in genocide.  The overt ethnic cleansing of the Irish people led men like Thomas Francis Meagher to stand up against this holocaust and organize a revolt against the London government.  The slow limiting of civil rights through penal laws and the presence of the British navy and soldiers made it impossible for the “Young Ireland” movement for Irish independence to have any chance for success.

Meagher himself did not come from a poor family.  His father was a Member of Parliament, he himself attended Stonyhurst where the “tried to squeeze the Irish out of him,” and grew up in a mansion in Waterford.  Meagher quickly gained a reputation as a debater and his reputation as an orator preceded him everywhere.  Egan reviews the other 19th century historical figures who worked for Irish independence as the potato famine spread.  The author does a wonderful job providing the reader a feel for the disastrous blight that ravaged Ireland and the English government’s complicity in its catastrophic results.  For London, the blight presented an opportunity to populate Canada and Australia which were in dire need of cheap labor, and at the same time solve their Irish problem.  As Egan discusses Meagher’s situation he weaves in the story of the founding and development of Australia, and with the presence of the Irish down under Australia’s independence was eventually achieved!

(Meagher and his wife Libby dubbed this cabin as the governor’s mansion when the Irish hero was became acting governor of the Montana territory after the Civil War)

Once he arrived in New York City, Meagher was greeted as a hero and his popularity presented Egan with the opportunity to develop the history of that city, where one in four people were Irish.  To make a living Meagher went on a series of speaking tours and argued that he did not oppose slavery because it was the law of the land, what he opposed was breaking up the union.  After Fort Sumter and secession, Meagher changed his mind, as he realized that the plight of southern slaves and Irish peasants were one and the same.  Meagher’s irresistible story continues as he went against the majority opinion of his own people to fight against slavery as he helped lead an Irish brigade against the Confederate at Bull Run, that later in the war brought the union general, William Tecumseh Sherman, who hated Meagher, to heap praise on the Irish for their bravery in battle.

In times of peace, Meagher could not maintain his level of popularity and his life went into decline.  During his life Meagher witnessed much too much of the underside of history.  Eventually the price to be paid was a later life where he was plagued by alcoholism, financial issues, and loneliness.  He ended his career as the Secretary of the Montana Territory and tried to bring law and order to a very unruly area.  It was because of this governmental service that Meagher died, not by falling off a riverboat while drunk, but as Egan argues, was captured by Montana vigilantes and thrown off the ship’s deck to his death.  As Egan tells his story we see an imperfect protagonist, but one who never backed away from a fight and never turned away from his core principles.  THE IMMORTAL IRISHMAN is an exceptional work of history, even though at times Egan’s prose can be become somewhat flowery, a need for more specific citations, and a few minor historical errors.  But overall, the work of Timothy Egan is exceptional, as he turns a sound historical work into something that reads like a well thought out novel.