On April 7, 1868, after participating in a late-running session in the Canadian House of Commons, the most eloquent democrat ever to emerge from the Irish diaspora was ambushed and murdered on the steps of his rooming house in Ottawa; Thomas D’Arcy McGee was shot dead by a killer who ran up behind him and fired a bullet point blank into his head.
Biographer David O. Wilson has called the killing “the greatest murder mystery in Canadian political history.”
That cowardly assassination was arguably also the country’s most tragic moment. In the 19th century, D’Arcy McGee was the foremost champion of minorities and First Nations people in Canada. He had outlined a plan to create a separate province for Indigenous peoples in the nation’s northwest. Had he lived another decade, he would certainly have rejected – and might well have managed to overturn – the Indian Act of 1876, which aimed at assimilation and, today, remains a main obstacle to reconciliation.
Not only that, but as a staunch Roman Catholic who had long led the struggle against Orange Order intolerance, McGee would undoubtedly have opposed the 1885 judgment against Louis Riel and, given that he had the attention of then-Prime Minister John A. MacDonald, might well have prevented the hanging that haunts us still.
All this was on my mind while my wife Sheena and I were rambling around Wexford, Ireland, where D’Arcy McGee grew up. Today, that bustling county town of 20,000 shows almost no trace of his presence. In the graveyard at the now-ruined Selskar Abbey, a stone casket marks the early death of his mother. And I did locate the building where in 1865, McGee spoke to the Catholic Young Men’s Society, giving a brilliant but unanticipated speech that turned him into a marked man. Today, that small, nondescript edifice houses a used-clothing store run by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
Thomas D’Arcy McGee was born in Carlingford, CO. Louth, on April 13, 1825. His beloved mother was the daughter of a Dublin bookseller and taught him early to value history and literature. He spent his childhood at Cushendall on the north coast, where his father worked for the Coast Guard Service. When he was eight, his father secured a transfer to Wexford, where his mother’s family had been active in the 1798 Rebellion. She died in a coach accident while relocating. The motherless McGee attended a “pay school” run by a nationalist teacher whose father had been hanged at nearby New Ross after one of the bloodiest battles of 1798.
At fourteen, inspired by a nation-wide temperance movement, McGee published two poems in the local newspaper, both paens to sobriety. Around this time, his father remarried. McGee and his siblings could not abide their stepmother, and when a sister of their late mother invited them to join her in America, he and one sister quickly accepted. In 1842, at the age of seventeen, McGee became one of almost 93,000 Irishmen to cross the Atlantic. He sailed from Wexford on a timber ship to Quebec, deposited his sister with his aunt in Rhode Island, and proceeded fifty miles north to Boston to find work.
On the Fourth of July, American Independence Day, the fiery teenager gave a rousing speech to the Boston Friends of Ireland, blaming “a heartless, bigoted, despotic government” for the sufferings of the Irish. Ireland’s “people are born slaves,” he declared, “and bred in slavery from the cradle; they know not what freedom is.”
This bit of oratory won him a job at the weekly Boston Pilot, an Irish Catholic newspaper. For two years, he travelled around New England building circulation by giving speeches praising the efforts of Irish politician Daniel O’Connell and his movement to repeal the union of Ireland and Great Britain. Meanwhile, believing that Irish literature provided an argument for independence, he published profiles of forty Irish authors. In March 1844, McGee became editor of the Pilot.
Over the next year, he wrote editorials urging the Irish in America to support the independence movement in Ireland.
He led a campaign to establish evening schools for immigrants and wrote and published two books, one a novella about the United Irishmen of 1798, the other a celebration of O’Connell and his allies. Looking north, McGee initially backed the Anglo-Irish Canadian Robert Baldwin in his drive for responsible government. But according to Robin B. Burns in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, the 1845 Oregon boundary dispute between the British and the Americans led him to support the doctrine of manifest destiny: “Either by purchase, conquest, or stipulation,” McGee wrote, “Canada must be yielded by Great Britain to this Republic.”
On this subject, he would reverse himself. But in May 1845, after a year at the helm of the Pilot, McGee sailed home to Dublin to work for the Freeman’s Journal, which supported Daniel O’Connell. The following year, while covering parliamentary proceedings in London, he felt drawn to Young Ireland, a group of Irish intellectuals who were increasingly critical of O’Connell’s gradualist approach to independence. He moved from the Freeman’s Journal to their newspaper, The Nation, while also delving into Irish history and producing a book on Irish writers of the 17th century.
In the summer of 1846, when O’Connell announced an alliance with the British Whig government, McGee joined Young Ireland to help create the more confrontational Irish Confederation. A principal speaker at public meetings, he was elected secretary in June 1847. The following month he married Mary Caffrey, with whom he would have six children.
Meanwhile, increasingly alarmed about the worsening potato famine, McGee opposed mass emigration to Canada, arguing instead that the government should ban grain exports and spend money on improving the economy. He denounced wholesale emigration as a “swindling speculation” concocted by the landlords, who to save their own skins were ready to see “2,000,000 Irishmen…banished into the Canadian backwoods.”
At one point, McGee declared that the towns of Ireland had “become one universal poorhouse and fever-shed, the country one great grave-yard.” The survivors of famine and pestilence had “fled to the sea-coast and embarked for America . . . and the ships that bore them have become sailing coffins, and carried them to a new world, indeed; not to America, but to eternity.” His allusion to “sailing coffins” gave rise to the term “coffin ships.”
In February 1848, after the overthrow of monarchy in France, the Irish Confederation began advocating armed rebellion. In July, McGee was arrested for sedition but then released. The Confederation sent him to Scotland to gather sympathizers. While in Edinburgh, a local newspaper proclaimed that authorities considered him one of “the two most dangerous men now abroad.” Then he learned that, after a skirmish with police at what is now called the Famine Warhouse, the Confederation had fallen apart.
The government was rounding up Young Irelanders, most of whom would soon be transported in chains to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). With the authorities in pursuit, bent on arresting him for treason, McGee made his way to the northern coast. On September 1, 1848, disguised as a priest – and after arranging for his wife to follow -he boarded the Shamrock, a timber ship bound for Philadelphia.
Now began his transformation from Irish revolutionary into Canadian democrat.
Even before he fled Ireland, as David Wilson shows in his magisterial, two-volume biography, McGee had been taken with the thinking of Scottish intellectual David Urquhart, who led a small pro-Repeal group in the House of Commons. From Urquhart, he gleaned a new appreciation of decentralized federalism as a form of government.
After reaching Philadelphia in 1848, McGee moved to New York City and launched his own newspaper, The Nation. In his editorials, he supported nationalist revolutions in Europe and advocated the annexation of Canada. But by the end of 1849, he had created enemies by supporting an Irish reform movement that called for working within the existing constitution. Two Irish republicans, who later became Fenian leaders, challenged McGee to a duel.
Early in 1850, McGee returned to Boston and started The American Celt and Adopted Citizen. He moved this newspaper to Buffalo and then, in 1853, back to New York. Meanwhile, in the six years that began in 1851, McGee published five books. He treated the history of Irish settlers, revolutionary liberalism, the Protestant Reformation in Ireland, Catholics in North America, and the priest Edward Maginn.
Also, and crucially, he became critical of the American state, seeing it as discriminating against Roman Catholics. By 1855, he was urging Irish Catholics to leave the cities of the east to establish a colony in the American west. When that idea failed to gain traction, McGee looked north with fresh eyes. He realized that in Canada East (Quebec), Roman Catholics constituted a majority and had enjoyed legal protection since 1774. Now, the united Province of Canada provided them far greater security than the United States.
McGee reconsidered “manifest destiny,” the doctrine that the United States would one day govern all North America. This time, he judged it pernicious.
In the spring of 1857, in response to an invitation from leading Irish Catholics, he moved north to Montreal. He had already visited twice. And for two years, he had been urging Irish emigrants to choose Canada over the United States. McGee had barely got off the train from Boston in 1857, historian Christopher Moore writes, “when he began advocating federal union, westward expansion, and the nurturing of a national literature for Canada.” In Montreal, while thinking to enter politics, he launched the New Era newspaper. From this editorial perch, he began articulating a program for “a new nationality” involving railway development, immigration, and “a federal compact” among provinces.
McGee spoke of developing a North American alternative to the United States – a sovereign “kingdom of the St. Lawrence” that would retain a connection with Great Britain. In December 1857, backed by the St. Patrick’s Society of Montreal, McGee was elected to Canada’s Legislative Assembly, and so began a decade of political wrangling. He organized Irish Catholics in Canada West (Ontario), and issued a manifesto endorsing a federal union of the two Canadas.
In 1863, he published letters and articles outlining his vision of a British North America, arguing that by retaining their links with the crown under a constitutional monarchy, Canadians had achieved a better balance between freedom and order than existed in the U.S. To advance Roman Catholicism within Canada, McGee embraced pragmatism and pluralism and, by the early 1860s, found himself increasingly aligned with Conservative leader John A. Macdonald.
This Celtic alliance, Irish Catholic and Scottish Protestant, augmented by the Quebec Roman Catholic George-Étienne Cartier, built on the democratic foundations inspired by earlier Scottish and Irish figures. Together, McGee and Macdonald would orchestrate Confederation into existence, unifying four separate British colonies into one country, Canada.
Nobody knew better how much the Irish shared with the Scots. He demonstrated as such in his Popular History of Ireland: From the Earliest Period to the Emancipation of the Catholics.
Most think of McGee as a politician who died a martyr to democratic principles, but he was – primarily perhaps – a towering intellectual.
Biographer David A. Wilson tells us that this Popular History “was the crowning achievement of McGee’s literary career.” It fulfilled a boyhood ambition, influenced subsequent histories of Ireland, and at times echoed “his oft-delivered lecture on the historical connection between the Irish and the Scots.”
And now came the launching of Confederation. For years, Thomas D’Arcy McGee had been warning against the doctrine of manifest destiny then popular among Americans: “They coveted Florida, and seized it; they coveted Louisiana, and purchased it; they coveted Texas, and stole it, and then picked a quarrel with Mexico, which ended by their getting California…had we not had the strong arm of England over us, we should not now have had a separate existence.”
At the same time, and as a corollary, he advocated that the projected intercolonial railway should extend not just from central Canada to the Pacific Ocean but also to the Atlantic – a position that won him friends in the east. In 1864, when the maritime colonies organized a conference in Charlottetown to discuss forming a political union among themselves, he led a Canadian delegation in successfully promoting a larger federation.
Maritime newspapers published paeans to the “brilliant D’Arcy,” who could be “joyous and grave, comic and refined, all in the same sentence.” Charles Tupper, soon to become premier of Nova Scotia, observed that “Mr. McGee has done more to promote the social, commercial and political union of British North America than any other public man in these provinces.”
Having cleared the way, McGee relinquished the spotlight when the Charlottetown Conference began, allowing Macdonald to hammer out the details of a federal arrangement dividing powers between national and provincial governments. As Wilson writes, McGee’s main contribution to the conference lay not in working out details but in the whirl of related social events.
At the Quebec Conference that followed Charlottetown, McGee intervened only to protect minority rights in education, moving an amendment to guarantee “the rights and privileges which the Protestant or Catholic minority in both Canadas may profess as to their denominational schools.” On July 1, 1867, after a few further amendments, the British North America Act would create the Dominion of Canada.
Meanwhile, during an 1865 visit to Ireland, where former rebels like himself had been pardoned, Thomas D’Arcy McGee spoke in his hometown of Wexford and again urged emigrants to choose Canada over the United States. As a forty-year-old democrat who believed in the ballot box and constitutional change, he repudiated the American-based Fenian Brotherhood, which advocated attacking Canada as a way of pressuring Great Britain to vacate Ireland. And he disavowed his own revolutionary days as “the follies of one and twenty.”
This speech, widely reported, created quite a backlash. In September 1867, denounced even in Canada, and having been expelled from the St. Patrick’s Society, McGee nevertheless won election to the House of Commons. But as a politician, he had become a lightning rod for criticism. He decided to quit politics and devote himself to writing literature and history. Prime Minister Macdonald promised to give him a civil service position that would enable him to do so.
And then, in Ottawa in April, 1868, the eloquent democrat was ambushed on the steps of his rooming house – shot to death by a Fenian sympathizer.
In Montreal, where McGee resided with his family, more than 80,000 people attended his funeral procession.
Today, one cannot help imagining how different Canada might be if D’Arcy McGee had escaped assassination. Historian Christopher Moore reminds us that McGee had outlined a plan “for a separate province to be set aside for the native nations on the plains of the far North West. He had begun to imagine a new country where none existed.” McGee would surely have opposed the Indian Act of 1876 and, given that he had the ear of Macdonald, might well have succeeded in subverting it. And what of 1885? A staunch Roman Catholic, he could never have supported the hanging of Louis Riel. Given his force and eloquence, he might well have prevented it.
In Wexford, at Selskar Abbey, we stood a moment, Sheena and I, reading the inscription on the stone casket dedicated to the memory of Mrs. Dorcas Catherine McGee, who died on August 23, 1833 at the age of forty-one: “A woman perfect in every office of life, as a daughter, sister, wife and mother/ With talents unusual in either sex, she combined all the gentle and gracious gifts which are the peculiar endowment of her own.” In those cadences I heard a familiar voice speaking as if from beyond the grave. And I shook my head at the terrible magnitude of Canada’s loss – Thomas D’Arcy McGee, taken before he had finished his work.
Story by Ken McGoogan