Irish revolutionary murdered for embracing Canadian pluralism

(In the February issue of Celtic Life International, I write about Thomas D’Arcy McGee, the Irish revolutionary who became the great Canadian champion of minorities and First Nations.) 

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 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 point blank at his head. Biographer David O. Wilson
has called this killing “the greatest murder mystery in Canadian political

The assassination was also, arguably, the most tragic
single moment in that history. In the 19th century, D’Arcy McGee was
the great Canadian champion of minorities and First Nations. He had outlined a
plan to create a separate province for Indigenous peoples in the Canadian
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 Prime
Minister John A. MacDonald, might well have prevented the hanging which haunts
us still.

All this was on mind last spring when, while rambling
around southern Ireland, I spent a few days in Wexford, where D’Arcy McGee grew
up. Today, the colorful, bustling county town of 20,000 shows almost no trace of
his presence. In the graveyard at Selskar Abbey, a stone casket marks the
burial site of his mother. And I did locate the building where in 1865, McGee spoke
to the Catholic Young Men’s Society, giving a heart-felt speech that marked him
out and led to his murder. Today, surprisingly tiny and nondescript, the
edifice houses a used-clothing store run by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.


Thomas D’Arcy McGee was born in Carlingford 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 was transferred to Wexford, where his mother’s family had
been active in the 1798 Rebellion. She died in a coach accident while
relocating. D’Arcy 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
disliked 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
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 Providence, Rhode Island, and proceeded fifty miles north to Boston to
seek work.
 . . .

Early in 1850, he 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 Catholic 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 looked again at “manifest destiny,” the doctrine that the United
States would one day govern all North America. This time, he judged it

In the spring of 1857, in response to an invitation
from leading Irish Catholics, McGee 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
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,” which 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. Now began a decade of political wrangling. McGee organized Irish
Catholics in Canada West (Ontario). He issued a manifesto endorsing a federal
union of the two Canadas.

In 1863, McGee published letters and articles
outlining his vision of a British North America. He argued, as Wilson notes,
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. And he insisted that “a man can state his private, social,
political and religious opinions with more freedom here than in New York or New
England. There is, besides, far more liberty and toleration enjoyed by
minorities in Canada than in the United States.” . . .

(To read the rest of this article, pick up the February issue of Celtic Life International.)

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