MEAGHER, THOMAS, tailor, office holder, and businessman; b. c. 1764 in County Tipperary (Republic of Ireland); m. Mary Crotty, a widow, and they had three sons; d. 26 Jan. 1837 in Waterford (Republic of Ireland).
Thomas Meagher, likely the son of a farmer, settled in St John’s during the early 1780s. He became apprenticed to an immigrant Irish tailor, whose widow he was to marry. In the late 18th century, with the growth of a permanent population, tailoring like other trades was emerging in Newfoundland, and many who took it up were Irish. Nothing is known about how Meagher was to organize his craft or about its scale, but evidence suggests that between 1800 and 1807 he used British cloth suppliers and had a largely Irish Catholic clientele.
Meagher gradually accumulated enough capital to enter the retail and wholesale trade, and about 1811 he gave up his tailoring business. He was a member of the St John’s Society of Merchants in 1807 and a shipowner the following year. By then he was investing in the local land market, as was typical of the rising Irish in the town, and had leased an interest in a large waterfront property to two Tipperary merchants. In 1809 he had interests in two harbourfront premises which were insured for £2,500. He also held a large field southwest of Fort Townshend and a town garden. Two years later he rented two more lots, formerly fishing ships’ rooms, from the government for £120 annually. Most of these and the other properties he was to acquire were sublet to Irish shopkeepers and artisans, providing Meagher with capital to expand his mercantile enterprises.
By 1808 Meagher had bought the Mary, which he replaced the following year with the Triton; in the fall of 1809 he shipped more than 1,350 quintals of cod and other products to Waterford. On the return voyage the Triton carried provisions and 62 passengers, an example of the trade that formed the core of his operations for more than a decade. His trading routes quickly expanded to include other ports in North America. It was a propitious time to invest: the demand for cod in southern Europe was growing and profits from the passenger and supply trades were considerable.
Each fall Meagher dispatched orders for supplies and instructions for passengers in the subsequent season and sent local bills of exchange, usually drawn by Newfoundland-based agents or partners of British or Irish houses. Through the winter, Richard Fogarty, Meagher’s principal agent in Waterford, disposed of produce Meagher had shipped in the fall, notably cod and cod oil, and also lumber and occasionally re-exports such as sugar. He assembled supplies for Newfoundland from local artisans and merchants. Meagher did not restrict his transatlantic supply base to Waterford – he received regular shipments from England, in particular Liverpool, where in 1813 he registered his third brig, the Beresford, to replace the Triton, and engaged the firm of Ryan and Sons as agents [see Henry Shea*]. Diversification of import products was one of the keys to commercial success in the Newfoundland supply trade, and Meagher offered a comprehensive range of commodities from food and drink to clothes and feather beds. On 1 Jan. 1816 he formally admitted two of his sons, Thomas and Henry, as partners at a time when several St John’s firms were collapsing because of the recession in the fisheries. In fact, Meagher was even expanding his operations from Harbour Grace to Burin.
In 1818 Meagher moved to Waterford to supervise his trade and fulfilled the dream of almost every Irish merchant by purchasing a Georgian villa outside the town. He left Thomas Jr in charge of the St John’s business with a new partner, Thomas Beck, but by 1820 both Thomas and Henry had joined him in Waterford. With the establishment of a mercantile base in Ireland, Thomas Meagher, Sons and Company could conduct its Newfoundland trade more effectively, but just when the Meaghers seemed poised to expand their business, they decided to abandon it. In June 1820 they tried, unsuccessfully, to sell the Beresford. That August they signed an agreement dissolving the partnership with Beck and in December they announced they were withdrawing from St John’s. Yet 1821 was one of their busiest years. The Beresford continued to sail and the Meaghers bought the Betty and Nancy, already engaged in the Waterford–St John’s trade, from Beck who remained their agent. A year later, with Beck, they registered a shallop in St John’s, likely to replace a schooner they had lost on the French Shore.
The firm had, nevertheless, also suffered set-backs. A fire in July 1819 destroyed the main waterfront premises in St John’s and, although Meagher and Sons immediately began to rebuild, the effort was likely a drain on resources when considerable capital was being committed to the Waterford enterprise. That December the company advertised the property for sale. Meagher and Sons lost or sold at least four vessels between 1820 and 1823 and was not recorded subsequently as a shipowner, yet in 1824 it was listed among the few Waterford houses specializing in the Newfoundland trade. However, the city’s trade with Newfoundland was collapsing, and in 1825 the firm leased most of its premises in Waterford to other merchants. Only one further transaction of the company involving Newfoundland is recorded.
Meagher’s commercial success in St John’s was based in part on the accumulation of properties which he then sublet. He followed a similar strategy in Waterford where he gradually acquired much of the extensive holdings of the Quans, a mercantile family related to him through marriage. Meagher sold his country estate in 1829 and moved into Waterford, where he and his wife lived with their son Thomas. Retired from active trade, and widowed in 1832, Meagher made a will leaving all his property to Thomas in trust for Thomas’s children. He died in 1837.
Meagher’s progression from apprentice tailor to successful merchant was a major accomplishment and gained him respect from all denominations. In St John’s he was one of the few Catholic Irish elected to a committee of the Benevolent Irish Society, which had been established in 1806, and he served as treasurer from 1814 until his departure from Newfoundland. In 1812 Meagher provided “a very liberal gift of books” to the newly established Sunday school in the town and he was president of the parish committee appointed to organize the construction of a house for the Catholic clergy. The Meagher company ranked with merchant James MacBraire* in assisting the St John’s poor in 1817 during the recession. Moreover, because of Meagher’s long residence in Newfoundland and consequent knowledge of its economic and cultural character, he frequently acted as a juror or arbiter in disputes over payment for goods and services, infringements of shipping regulations, transfers of property, and cases involving theft, assault, and murder. In 1811 he was appointed to the grand jury, one of only a dozen Irishmen to be so honoured, and he also served as a fire warden, special constable, and member of the hospital committee. Meagher and his wife forged close links with the emerging middle-class Irish community, particularly the tailor-traders and the Tipperary merchant families. He was, for example, godfather to the eldest child of Patrick Morris and to the daughter of Henry Shea.
A loyal and impartial public servant, Meagher was rarely involved in politics. He had joined the general protest in 1811 over the government’s decision to allow the ships’ rooms in St John’s to be leased and in 1813 was on the jury that acquitted the tailor John Ryan in a controversial suit brought by the government. Meagher had quit Newfoundland before the growth of political protest in the 1820s, and in Waterford he left politics to his son Thomas, who was to be elected the first Catholic mayor of the city in two centuries and later served in the House of Commons. The most famous member of the Meagher dynasty was a grandson, Thomas Francis, known as Meagher of the Sword. A lawyer and gifted orator, he departed from his family’s position of support for Daniel O’Connell and became a leader of the Young Ireland movement; he was exiled and eventually became temporary governor of the Montana Territory in the United States.
Basilica of St John the Baptist (Roman Catholic) (St John’s), St John’s parish, reg. of baptisms, 1803–17; reg. of marriages, 21 Nov. 1807, 13 Feb. 1809, 24 Oct. 1814 (mfm. at PANL). PANL, GN 2/1/A, 10: 66; 19: 120; 20: 117; 21: 157; GN 5/2/A/1, 1804, 1806–9, 1811–16, 1820–21, 1826; GN 16/1, reg. of rents: 2; P1/5, 18 Dec. 1809, 12 Oct. 1811; P3/B/14, letter-book, 1811–13 (photocopies); P7/A/18, letter-book and ledger, 12 March, 6 May 1814; 17 Aug. 1817; 9, 30 May 1818. Phoenix Assurance Company Ltd. (London), Jenkin Jones, report to Matthew Wilson on St John’s, 6 June 1809 (photocopy at PANL). PRO, BT 107, 1820: 31, 84: 1822: 27 (copies at MHA). Registry of Deeds (Dublin), Deeds, 737: 579; 801: 227; 803: 424, 426; 876: 399, 401. “Extracts from the census of the city of Waterford, 1821,” comp. E. W. Kelly, ed. Kathleen Kelly, Irish Genealogist (London), 4 (1968–79): 23. Lloyd’s List (London), 1810, 1817. Morning Post, and Shipping Gazette (St John’s), 22 Nov. 1849. Newfoundland Mercantile Journal, 23 May 1817–2 July 1821. Public Ledger, 16 May 1817. Ramsey’s Waterford Chronicle (Waterford, [Republic of Ire.]), 4 April 1811–18 April 1822. Royal Gazette and Newfoundland Advertiser, 11 June 1810–8 Dec. 1817; 1 May 1832. Waterford Mirror, 24 April 1810, June 1819, 30 March 1825, 27 March 1830, 26 Jan. 1837. The register of shipping (London), 1808, 1818, 1820. Michael Cavanagh, Memoirs of Gen. Thomas Francis Meagher . . . (Worcester, Mass., 1892). Centenary volume, Benevolent Irish Society of St. John’s, Newfoundland, 1806–1906 (Cork, [Republic of Ire., 1906?]). M. F. Howley, “How Meagher became a millionaire; a true story of old St. John’s,” Nfld. Quarterly, 4 (1904), no.3: 2–3.