Thomas D’Arcy Etienne Hughes McGee was an Irish-Canadian politician, Catholic spokesman, journalist, poet, and a Father of Canadian Confederation. The young McGee was a Catholic Irishman who hated British rule in Ireland, and worked for a peasant revolution to overthrow British rule and secure Irish independence. He escaped arrest and fled to the United States in 1848, where he reversed his political beliefs. He became disgusted with American republicanism and democracy, and became intensely conservative in his politics and in his religious support for the Pope. He moved to Canada in 1857 and worked hard to convince the Irish Catholics to cooperate with the Protestant British (members of the church) in forming a Confederation that would make for a strong Canada in close alliance with Britain. His passion for Confederation garnered him the title: ‘Canada’s first nationalist’. He fought the Fenians in Canada, who were Irish Catholics that hated the British and resembled his younger self politically. McGee succeeded in helping create the Canadian Confederation in 1867, but was assassinated by Fenian Elements in 1868.
Widely known as D’Arcy McGee, he was born on 13 April 1825 in Carlingford, Co Louth, and raised as a Roman Catholic. From his mother, the daughter of a Dublin bookseller he learned the history of Ireland, which later influenced his writing and political activity. When he was eight years old, his family moved to Wexford, where his father, James McGee, was employed by the coast guard. In Wexford he attended a local hedge school, where the teacher, Michael Donnelly, fed his hunger for knowledge and where he learned of the long history of British rule and Irish opposition, including the more recent uprising of 1798. In 1842 at age 17, McGee left Ireland with his sister due to a poor relationship with their stepmother, Margaret Dea, who had married his father in 1840 after the death of his mother 22 August 1833. In 1842 he sailed from Wexford harbour aboard the brig Leo, bound for the United States. On the Leo he wrote many of his early poems, mostly about Ireland. He soon found work as assistant editor of Patrick Donahoe’s Boston Pilot, a Catholic newspaper in Boston, Massachusetts. He specialised in articles expounding the movement for Irish self-determination led by Daniel O’Connell. He became the lead editor in 1844, While writing widely as well on Irish literature and politics. He advocated the union of Canada into the United States, saying, “Either by purchase, conquest, or stipulation, Canada must be yielded by Great Britain to this Republic.”
In 1845, he returned to Ireland where he became politically active and edited The Nation, the voice of the Young Ireland movement. In 1847, he married Mary Theresa Caffrey; they had six children but only two daughters survived their father. His involvement in the Irish Confederation and Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848 resulted in a warrant for his arrest. McGee escaped disguised as a priest and returned to the United States.
In the United States, he achieved prominence in Irish American circles and founded and edited the New York Nation and the American Celt (Boston). He wrote a number of history books. He grew disillusioned with democracy, republicanism and the United States. Historian David Gerber traces a dramatic transformation from the Young Ireland revolutionary who sought a peasant insurrection to expel the British from Ireland. Gerber writes:
After 1851, however, he veered increasingly toward the opposite pole, espousing an ultramontane conservatism…. Catholic dogma and triumphalism, anti-Protestantism, cultural nationalism, and social conservatism were the framework of McGee’s thought during the 1850s.
McGee emigrated to Montreal in 1857, believing Canada was far more hospitable to the Catholic Irish than was the United States. He downplayed the importance of the Orange Order in Canada. He remained a persistent critic of American institutions, and of the American way of life. He accused the Americans of hostile and expansionist motives toward Canada and of desiring to spread its republican ideas over all of North America. McGee worked energetically for continued Canadian devotion to the British Empire seeing in imperialism the protection Canada needed from all American ills.
In 1857, he set up the publication of the New Era in Montreal, Quebec. In his editorials and pamphlets he attacked the influence of the Orange Order and defended the Irish Catholic right to representation in the assembly. In terms of economics he promoted modernisation, calling for extensive economic development by means of railway construction, the fostering of immigration, and the application of a high protective tariff to encourage manufacturing. Politically active, he advocated a new nationality in Canada, to escape the sectarianism of Ireland. In 1858, he was elected to the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada and worked for the creation of an independent Canada. By 1861, McGee had earned a law degree at McGill University.
McGee became the minister of agriculture, immigration, and statistics in the Conservative government which was formed in 1863. He retained that office in the “Great Coalition”, and was a Canadian delegate to the Charlottetown and Quebec conferences of 1864. At Quebec, McGee introduced the resolution which called for a guarantee of the educational rights of religious minorities in the two Canadas.
Moderating his radical Irish nationalist views, McGee denounced the Fenian Brotherhood in America that advocated a forcible takeover of Canada from Britain by the United States. Following the Confederation of Canada, McGee was elected to the 1st Canadian Parliament in 1867 as a Liberal-Conservative representing the riding of Montreal West. However, he had lost much of his Irish Catholic support.
On 5 November 1867 McGee delivered an oration titled “The Mental Outfit of the New Dominion.” The address surveyed the literary status of Canada on the eve of the first Dominion Parliament. McGee’s views were a combination of Tory principle, revelation, and empirical method. He suggested a national literature inspired by the creativity and ingenuity of the Canadian people.
On 7 April 1868, McGee participated in a parliamentary debate that went on past midnight. After finishing, he walked back to the boarding house where he was staying. McGee was opening the door to Trotter’s Boarding House in Ottawa when he was shot in the neck by someone waiting for him on the inside. Several people came running to the scene; however, there was no sign of the assassin. It was later determined that McGee was assassinated with a shot from a handgun by Patrick J. Whelan. He was given a state funeral in Ottawa known to be the one of the largest funerals in Canadian history and interred in a crypt at the Cimetière Notre-Dame-des-Neiges in Montreal. His funeral procession in Montreal drew an estimated crowd of 80,000 (out of a total city population of 105,000).
Patrick J. Whelan, a Fenian sympathiser and a Catholic, was accused, tried, convicted, and hanged for the crime on 11 February 1869 in Ottawa. The jury was decisively swayed by the forensic evidence that Whelan’s gun had been fired shortly before the killing, together with the circumstantial evidence that he had threatened and stalked McGee. Historian David Wilson points out that forensic tests conducted in 1972 show that the fatal bullet was compatible with both the gun and the bullets that Whelan owned. Wilson concludes:
The balance of probabilities suggests that Whelan either shot McGee, or was part of a hit-squad, but there is still room for reasonable doubt as to whether he was the man who actually pulled the trigger.
Nevertheless, conspiracy theorists questioned his guilt, suggesting that he was a scapegoat for a Protestant plot.
The government of Canada’s Thomas D’Arcy McGee Building stands near the site of the assassination.
The case is dramatised in the Canadian play Blood on the Moon by Ottawa actor/playwright Pierre Brault. Patrick J. Whelan was hanged in front of an audience of 5,000 people. The assassination of McGee is also a major component of Away, a novel about Irish immigration to Canada by Canadian novelist Jane Urquhart.
Toner (1981) argues that the assassination was an important historical marker in Irish-Canadian history. He argues that the Fenian element among the Canadian Catholic Irish was powerful in the 1860s. The reasons for Fenian influence included McGee’s failure to rally moderate Irish support before his death, and the fact that no convincing moderate leader replaced McGee after his death. In addition the Catholic bishops proved unable to control the Fenians in either the US or Canada; a final factor explaining the influence of the Fenians was the courting of the Irish Catholic vote by Canadian non-Catholic politicians. Behind all these reasons was Canadian fear of the ‘Green Ghost’: American Fenianism. After 1870, however, the failure of American Fenian raids into Canada, followed by the collapse of American Fenianism, finally led to the decline of Canadian Fenian power.
A monument to McGee stands at Tremone Bay, in north County Donegal, Ireland near the bay from which he escaped to America in 1848. There is a monument to him in his native Carlingford, Co Louth, unveiled during a visit in 1991 by former Prime Minister of Canada Brian Mulroney and Irish Taoiseach Charles Haughey. His parents’ grave in the grounds of Wexford’s historic Selskar Abbey is marked by a plaque presented by the government of Canada.
On 20–22 August 2012, the inaugural Thomas D’Arcy McGee Summer School was held in Carlingford, Co Louth, Ireland to commemorate and celebrate his legacy.
On Sparks Street, in downtown Ottawa, the Thomas D’Arcy McGee Building is a prominent government-owned office building. The popular D’Arcy McGee’s Pub stands on the corner of Sparks and Elgin Streets. D’Arcy McGee also has several schools named in his honour including: D’Arcy McGee Catholic School (elementary, Toronto Catholic District School Board, Toronto, Ontario) and Thomas D’Arcy McGee Catholic School (elementary, Ottawa-Carleton Catholic School Board, Ottawa, Ontario), D’Arcy McGee High School, Western Québec School Board (Gatineau, Québec) and Thomas D’Arcy McGee Catholic High School in Montreal which closed in 1992 (English Catholic School Board of Greater Montreal).
The Quebec provincial electoral district (riding) of D’Arcy-McGee is named in his honour, as well as two villages in central Saskatchewan: D’Arcy and McGee, located approximately 20 kilometres apart.
In 1986, a Chair of Irish Studies was set up in his honour at Saint Mary’s University, Halifax. In 2005 the gun that was used to assassinate McGee was bought at an auction for $105,000 by the Canadian Museum of Civilization and is currently part of their collection.