Thomas D’Arcy McGee

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He is one of the most important Fathers of Confederation, and he was the first Canadian politician to be assassinated, yet today he is mostly unknown to the majority of Canadians. Today, I am talking about Thomas D’Arcy McGee, the man who is called Canada’s First Nationalist.

D’Arcy McGee was born on April 13, 1825 in Carlingford Ireland and raised as a Roman Catholic. He would learn about the history of Ireland from his mother, which would have a deep impact on his life. It was also rumoured his mother’s family had been involved in the 1798 Irish Rebellion.

His father, James, worked for the coast guard and this caused the family to move every so often. When he was eight, McGee moved to Wexford. It was there that his mother passed away when McGee was still a young boy and his father remarried, leading to McGee and his sister leaving Ireland when he was 17 because of their poor relationship with their step-mother.

He would sail to the United States in 1842, one of 93,000 who crossed the Atlantic that year, and arrived in Boston.

It was in Boston he gave his first public address, speaking to the Boston Friends of Ireland on the Fourth of July. He said quote:

“The sufferings which the people of that unhappy country have endured at the hands of a heartless, bigoted, despotic government, are well known to you. Her people are born slaves, and bred in slavery from the cradle; they know not what freedom is.”

This raised his profile among the other Irish immigrants and he was asked to join the staff of the Boston Pilot, a Catholic newspaper.

He started out as a travelling agent, spending two years travelling around New England collecting overdue accounts and new subscribers. At the same time, he lectured to the Irish population of New England, talking of the movements for Irish independence. He would also write 40 articles for the Pilot during that same time, with his first editorial appearing on April 13, 1844, his 19th birthday. That same year, he published his first book, Eva MacDonald, a tale of the United Irishmen, and a second followed the next year, Historical sketches of O’Connell and his friends.

At the time, he believed that Canada and the United States should become one country. He would write quote:

“Either by purchase, conquest, or stipulation, Canada must be yielded by Great Britain to this Republic.”

His views were reinforced when the United States after the annexation of Texas in 1845 and after the Oregon boundary dispute with Britain.

When told that the Canadian government was more tolerant to the Catholics, he questioned if that was truly the case.

He would go back to Ireland in 1845 where he edited The Freeman’s Journal and in 1847, he married Mary Theresa Caffrey. Together, they would have six children. In Ireland, he wrote two more books, the Gallery of Irish Writers in 1846 and A Memoir of the Life and Conquests of Art MacMurrogh in 1847.

It was around this time he became involved in the Irish Confederation and the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848. He would speak throughout Ireland to support the leaders of the Irish Confederation.

Due to his involvement, a warrant for his arrest was issued and he would flee Ireland dressed as a priest, arriving back in the United States.

The New Orleans Crescent wrote on Oct. 28, 1848 quote:

“The British papers state that Mr. McGee is still somewhere in Ireland, and the British government is very anxious to catch him but he is in Philadelphia and it is said he looks very well unhung.”

In the United States, he blamed the Irish clergy for the failure of the rebellion and he started his own newspaper called The Nation. Before long, he began to alienate Irish republicans in New York when he began to support a new Irish reform movement that planned to work within the Irish constitution. He also antagonized the Bishop of New York because of his support for the Roman Republic against Pope Pius IX. Due to the opposition towards him, he left New York in 1850 and moved to Boston where he started the American Celt and Adopted Citizen newspaper.

He would tour through the United States giving speeches about writings. The Washington Sentinel wrote quote:

“The saloon was well-filled and he was listened to with marked attention, all evidently concurring in the ability with which he handled the subject. Well may Ireland be proud of her many gifted sons.”

In 1851, he published A History of the Irish Settlers in North America as a means to show the contribution the Irish had made to North America.

He continued to make speeches around the United States about the Irish and their impact on the country. In Portland, Maine on Nov. 18, 1851, the Portland Press Herald wrote quote:

“Mr. McGee, on rising, and throughout his address was warmly and repeatedly cheered. He gave an interesting account of the six gentlemen whose liberation was asked.”

He returned to New York in 1853 and for the next four years worked on behalf of Catholic interests in the United States. He also wrote three more books but was also gradually becoming critical of the United States, stating that American society needed the influence of Catholicism to balance its disorderly tendencies. Despite his belief earlier in life that the two countries should become one, he now accused the Americans of being expansionist and having their eyes on Canada

By 1855, he began to advocate for an Irish colony in the western portion of the continent. His advocation for an Irish colony in the western frontier would earn him the nickname of Moses McGee among his critics.

In his various talks on the topic, he would cause some to get quite mad at him. During one lecture in Boston, it was said in The National Era on Feb. 1, 1855 quote:

“In the course of his lecture, some of his remarks were construed by a few of the audience into a disrespect for the memory of Washington and led to much confusion and some severe fighting in the hall. The row was soon quelled and the disturbers ejected from the premises.”

He would organize a conference in Buffalo that was attended by hundreds of delegates to plan the colony, but Catholic leaders in New York prevented much progress being made.

In 1857, McGee moved to Canada and settled in Montreal on the invitation of the city’s Irish community. He did this because Canada was more hospitable to Catholic Irish immigrants than the United States was at the time.

McGee began to push, through his writings in newspapers and books, that Canada be devoted to the British Empire, feeling it was the only way to protect against the Americans.

Macleans would write of him in 1962, quote:

“Thomas D’Arcy McGee, the shrewd Irish member for Montreal, advocated Confederation as a measure of defense. But McGee was always advancing fresh reasons in favor of Confederation, and it was a little while before he was taken seriously.”

On May 28, 1857, the McArthur Democrat out of Ohio wrote quote:

“Thomas D’Arcy McGee, disgusted with his countrymen, the Irish, who refused to aid in the election of Fremont last fall, has retired from the American Celt, which he edited, and has gone to Montreal, Canada, where he will be more at home.”

In Canada, upon his arrive, he set up The New Era, a newspaper that allowed him to attack the Orange Order, while also defending Irish Catholics and their right to sit in the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada. He would also write to promote modernizing the economic development of Canada through the building of railroads, increased immigration, and the application of a high protective tariff to encourage manufacturing within the Province of Canada.

He would also advocate for making Canada a place where religious minorities could co-exist and have their rights completely respected. He would write quote:

“The one thing needed for making Canada the happiest of homes is to rub down all sharp angles and to remove those asperities which divide our people on questions of origin and religious profession. The man who says this cannot be done … is a blockhead”

In December 1857, McGee was elected to the Legislative Assembly.

The Milwaukee Daily Sentinel wrote quote:

“Thomas D’Arcy McGee has been nominated for the Canadian Parliament by the Irish citizens of Montreal, who claim one member from that city, on the strength of their population.”

In one of his first speeches as a politician in Canada, on Dec. 15, 1857, he would immediately attack the Orangemen, which would anger many Protestants. He would say quote:

“The existing Ministry, I am sorry to be compelled to say, are acting in a great degree under the dictation of the Orange Confederacy. The new prime minister has officially been gazette by the Grand Lodge as a habitue of their conclave, a legal advisor of their courses and a warm advocate of their incorporated by Act of Parliament.”

Three years later he earned a law degree from McGill University.

At this point, he had long abandoned his previous ways when it came to Irish nationalism, and felt that it had no place in Canada, something that would anger a group called the Fenians. He would write quote:

“We have no right to intrude our Irish patriotism on this soil; for our first duty is to the land where we live and have fixed our homes.”

He would write about the Fenians in the Montreal Gazette, stating quote:

“Secret Societies are like what the farmers in Ireland used to say of scotch grass. The only way to destroy it is to cut it out by the roots and burn it into powder.” 

He would support the short-lived Reform government of George Brown in 1858, and he would develop a political organization among Irish Catholics of Canada West. He also developed the idea of using the Irish national school system as a model for solving the school problems in Canada West. This was widely attacked by the Roman Catholic church in Canada, which hurt the Reform Party under Brown. McGee would split with Brown when his separate school bill was introduced and Brown’s newspaper Globe did not support it.

In 1863, McGee became the Minister of Agriculture, Immigration and Statistics. It was around this time he became a more vocal supporter of Confederation. He would organize tours of the Maritimes for delegates from the Province of Canada, where he gave speeches in favour of a union of British North America.

He would say at one stop quote:

“I invoke the fortunate genius of a united British America, to solemnize law with the moral sanction of religion, and to crown our fair pillar of freedom with its only appropriate capital, lawful authority, so that, hand in hand, we and our descendants may advance steadily to the accomplishment of a common destiny.”

In 1864, McGee became an open supporter of Confederation and he would attend both the Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences. At the conferences, he advocated for the guarantee of educational rights of religious minorities within the country.

No longer following the radical Irish nationalist views of his youth, McGee denounced the Fenian brotherhood, which advocated for a takeover of Canada by the United States, to force Britain to leave Ireland. This gave him the moniker of traitor by those in the Irish community he had agreed with in his past.

In 1865, he was part of the Canadian delegation to the Dublin International Exposition and he addressed an audience in Wexford, where he had grown up, and spoke of his life as an Irish immigrant in Canada and the United States. He would say that his career as an Irish rebel was one of follies. His speech attracted attention throughout Ireland, the United States, Britain and Canada.

The Weekly British Whig wrote quote:

“Mr. McGee was well received by his fellow townsmen and as the audience was composed of persons of all creeds, classes and politics, he was able to speak his mind freely. He is not ashamed of Young Ireland, they were honest in their folly. If he was a fool at 20, that was no reason why he should be at 40.”

By the time 1866 came around, his Irish constituents in Montreal were unhappy with him and he was not invited to the London Conference of 1866, nor was he included in the first Dominion Government. He was also expelled from the St. Patrick’s Society and the society’s president ran against him in the first Canadian federal election.

In 1867, McGee was elected in Montreal West to the first Canadian Parliament. Despite winning his seat, he wanted to leave politics and Sir John A. Macdonald promised to give him a civil service post. McGee wanted to also put his attention to literature and Canadian history.

Unfortunately, it was not to be.

On April 7, 1868, McGee was shot outside his Ottawa home.

The Kingston Weekly British Whig reported quote:

“As he reached his door, and was in the act of opening it, a pistol shot was fired at him from behind, the ball entering the back of his head and escaped through his mouth, breaking several teeth. His lodging house keeper, who was up, alarmed by the shot, opened the front door when Mr. McGee fell heavily into the entrance, quite dead.”

Before long, Ontario premier John Sandfield Macdonald and Prime Minister John A. Macdonald were on the scene, as were other members of Parliament.

His body was transported to Montreal. The Ottawa Daily Citizen wrote quote:

“The special train, conveying his remains, arrived precisely at 5 o’clock, yesterday. The station was draped in mourning, a large number of citizens accompanied the hearse to the late residence of the deceased. Here the body was placed in the dining room and the public admitted to view the face, which was visible through the glass lid of the coffin.”

McGee’s funeral procession would run through Montreal flanked by a crowd of 80,000, or roughly 75 per cent of the city’s population. Several schools would be let out and students would attend the funeral.

The Montreal Gazette wrote of the funeral, quote:

“Never since Jacques Cartier first planted the foot of a European on the site on which now stands the great city of Montreal, was there ever before a demonstration either funeral or other, within its borders such as that which took place yesterday.”

The next day, 40 people, mostly Irish immigrants, were arrested including Patrick Buckley, the stablehand to Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, who would implicate someone else, Patrick Whelan.

Whelan was arrested at 9:30 a.m. that day and in his pocket was a Smith & Wesson pistol with all six rounds still loaded.

Before long, the newspapers began to attack Whelan’s character heavily. The Montreal Star wrote quote:

“Patrick Whelan was sent down for two months as a vagrant. He is reported insane.”

Whelan had come to Canada from Ireland in 1865 and worked as a tailor in Quebec City, and actually fought as a volunteer against the Fenians but his actions led some to believe he had sympathy for them and he was arrested but released without charge. He would move to Montreal in 1867 and married a woman named Boyle, who was 30 years older than him and a member of the upper class.

On Dec. 31, 1867, Whelan had apparently gone to the home of McGee and warned them that people were plotting to burn the house down in the middle of the night. He was given a note to give to the police station relating to the alleged arson attempt, which he delivered at 4:45 a.m. in the morning. On March 17, 1868, he would also serve as the Assistant Marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

The main evidence against Whelan was a witness named Lacroix, who pointed him out as the murderer. The Ottawa Daily Citizen wrote quote:

“He was taken to the county jail and there picked out the prisoner Whelan as the murderer, from a party of some 15 persons, all of whom were strangers to him.”

The sheriff, named Powell, had made Whelan dress himself in the clothes he was apparently wearing on the night of the shooting, before he was identified by Lacroix. Lacroix had said quote:

“I think this is the one who fired the shot. I recognize him by his size and way of acting.”

During the trial, Prime Minister Macdonald sat next to the judge while evidence was heard. Agnus Macdonald was also watching the trial and she called Whelan a small, mean-looking man in her diary.

On the last day of the trial, which lasted eight days, Whelan would say quote:

“Now I am held to be a black assassin, and my blood runs cold. But I am innocent, I never took that man’s blood.”

On Sept. 15, 1868, Whelan was found guilty. Whelan would tell the jury after the sentence was laid down, quote:

“I am held to be a murderer. I am here standing on the brink of my grave, and I wish to declare to you and to my God that I am innocent, that I never committed this deed”

On Feb. 11, 1869, Patrick James Whelan would be hanged for the assassination of McGee. Whelan was accused, convicted and subsequently hanged for his crime. Many believe to this day that he was nothing more than a scapegoat for a Protestant plot. Whelan maintained his innocence throughout the proceedings, but the government needed someone to blame. Most of the evidence against him was circumstantial. There were also allegations of the bribing of witnesses to ensure a guilty verdict. Whelan would be hanged in front of 5,000 people and it was said that he met his death with manliness and faith. He told the crowd he was innocent, but he did know who killed McGee. His last words were God save Ireland and God save my soul.

According to the Weekly British Whig, Whalen stated quote:

“I am prepared but am not the man who done the deed. There are others. No matter now. I am under oath and I won’t break it.”

This was the second-last public hanging in Canadian history.

Today, McGee is honoured throughout Canada and Ireland, where several monuments have been built to recognize him. In 2012, the Thomas D’Arcy McGee Summer School in Ireland was named for him. The Thomas D’Arcy McGee Building on Sparks Street in Ottawa is named for him, as are four schools in Canada in Ontario and Quebec. The provincial riding D’Arcy-McGee in Quebec is named for him as well.

On the day of his death, 150 years later, Irish Montrealers, including some of McGee’s own descendants, came out to his grave site to hold a service and honour the Father of Confederation.

Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Macleans, Biographi, CBC, Wikipedia, HistoryMuseum.ca, Washington Sentinel, New Orleans Crescent, The National Era, Portland Press Herald, McArthur Democrat, Kingston Whig Standard, Ottawa Daily Citizen, Montreal Star,

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