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Thomas Meagher's life, and mysterious death, takes the stage in Polson

Posted at 4:50 PM, Nov 12, 2021

POLSON — Historians have debated what happened to Montana's notable Territorial Governor Thomas Meagher for more than a century-and-a-half.

Did he fall overboard from a Fort Benton steamboat? Or was his death political an assassination?

The Port Polson Players production of "No Coward's Epitaph" doesn't promise answers. But it will entertain, and educate you about this fascinating man who lived several lives.

Neal Lewing has worked on the story for more than a decade after reading Paul Wylie's book, and referred to him while his Irish folk group was playing in Fort Benton years ago.

"And we read the book, and our mouths are still open. So since 2009 I just can't get enough of this story. It's so many layers! And the more I dig in the more layers I peel back and I just 'oh that's fascinating!' Oh my gosh are you kidding?" Lewing relates with a laugh.

The play certainly tells the story of Meagher's demise but fleshes out his incredible life as an Irish Revolutionary, escapee, and Civil War hero long before he came to Montana.

"It's a great character to play," Mike Gillpatrick said backstage before the final dress rehearsal. "Because you start off and he's full of life. Even to the bitter end, he was full of passion. You know, I mean he was non-stop and he never did anything a little bit right? Whatever he did, he did it with his full heart and passion."

One of the big scenes recreates Meagher's infamous "Sword Speech" when he unveiled the tricolor Irish flag that would get him convicted for treason.

"One of my designs, inspired by France's Revolutionary banner. I hope one day to see this flag wave as Ireland's national banner!", Gillpatrick yells to the cheers of his fellow revolutionaries.

Gillpatrick feels he might not be up to the task of bringing the firebrand to life.

"This guy deserves just a rock star. I mean I'm very thankful for the opportunity that it game me and I'm happy to fill-in at this. But I just feel like Meagher deserves something better than me. So I'm giving it all I can and trying to bring him to life as best I can."

But throughout the performance, you can't help but feel Gillpatrick and the players have opened a window on a spirited, through brief season in Irish history.

The play opens with the heartbreak of his widow decades after the drowning, but flashes back in musical form, with period costumes and Irish folk music.

"Yes, I believe that this story deserves a musical treatment because books have been written about Thomas Meagher and, sadly, I don't know why a film hasn't been made," Lewing says wistfully. "But to me I think is the first time that the story's been on the musical theater stage."

"My honor is all I have left," Gillpatrick proclaims in a jail scene where Meagher has been sentenced to death, only to open another chapter when he's banished to Tasmania. That's where he would later escape the penal colony, coming to the U.S. where he became a Civil War hero. President Lincoln rewarded him with the Montana post, only to be thrust into the Governorship on the first day he arrived in Bannack.

"What his legacy gave to us is still just as important as it was a hundred fifty years ago," Lewing reflects.

The play opens this weekend with performances through Nov. 21. Visit the Port Polson Players web page for tickets and information.