Project:1867 – Thomas D’Arcy McGee

Of the four fathers of confederation, I’ve explored in these blog posts the one with the strangest story, and the youngest in both age and political experience is Thomas D’Arcy McGee. Born the 13th of April 1825 in Carlingford, County Louth, Ireland. Raised by Irish Roman Catholic Patriots, much of his early education came from his mother, who as a Dublin Bookseller filled McGee with the stories of the Irish heroes of old. His knowledge continued in the illegal Hedge Schools where he learned of the past and ongoing struggles for Irish independence from British Occupation. His experience continued when his family moved to Wexford when Thomas was eight, the same year his mother passed away. When his father remarried in 1840, McGee and his sister did not get along with their new step-mother, and in 1842 both would emigrate to the United States alone. During the voyage, Thomas took to writing some of his earliest poems with Ireland being the primary subject. Thomas would continue his writing as an assistant editor for the Boston Pilot, a pro-Irish newspaper. The theme of Irish independence featuring prominently in his editorial work. He would even promote the idea of American annexation of Canada through either Conquest or Purchase. By 1844, McGee would be the lead editor of the Pilot.

Project:1867 - Thomas D'Arcy McGee
A Statue to Thomas D’Arcy McGee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
Mamiya m645 – Mamiya-Sekor C 150mm 1:3.5 N – Ilford HP5+ @ ASA-200 – Pyrocat-HD (1+1+100) 9:00 @ 20C

Inspired to put his beliefs into action he returned to Ireland in 1845 joining the Young Ireland movement, a group of men who desired radical change and the disillusion of the 1801 Act of Union and of course, Irish independence. With his newspaper experience, Thomas would join Young Ireland’s newspaper, Nation. He would also be present during the uprising in 1848 by the group at the Widow McCormack’s farmhouse. He managed to avoid arrest while the leaders of the group were rounded up, while John O’Mahoney and James Stephen escaped to France, McGee returned to the United States. He continued to spread the word of Irish independence and became well known among the Irish-Americans. McGee would establish two Irish Independence papers, in New York City the American version of Nation and Boston the American Celt. But the general feel of Americans towards the Irish had shifted in the latter days of the mass migration of Irish during the Great Famine. Faced with increasing anti-Irish, anti-Catholic, and anti-immigrant feelings by a group in the United States called the “Know-Nothings” he began to come up with the idea of an Irish colony in the American or Canadian West. And while McGee was among the group of Irish who could speak English, had a skill outside farm labour, and money, as a devote Roman Catholic he began to distance himself from American Republicanism. Diving deeper into British Parliamentarism he made several trips to Canada where he made contacts in the Reform Movement and the Irish Community in Canada. He saw that Canada offered more freedoms and liberties to minorities, even with the Radical Protestant group the Orange Order. Although by this point, the influence of the Orange Order in the political theatre had wained. In 1856 he brought together some one-hundred delegates in Buffalo to explore the idea of an Irish colony and while support was high, lack of money and discouragement from the Roman Catholic church he failed to gain the needed funds. But in 1857 the Irish-Canadians offered McGee a chance to immigrate to Canada East, stating that he would be a great leader for their community. McGee took their request seriously and ran for a seat in the next elections and won.

Project:1867 - Thomas D'Arcy McGee
A historic plaque near where McGee was shot in 1868, located today on Sparks Street in Ottawa, Ontario.
Mamiya m645 – Mamiya-Sekor C 45mm 1:2.8 N – Ilford HP5+ @ ASA-200 – Pyrocat-HD (1+1+100) 9:00 @ 20C

McGee saw the chance for a new union between all the British North American provinces. McGee, inspired by the writings of Joseph-Charles Taché, began to promote the idea whenever he could in the Assembly. He would use his skills as a writer and open his paper, New Era, in Montreal and used it to promote the Union plan. And while he originally ran under the Clear Grits, the more he explored union, the more conservative he became. He was gaining a great deal of respect for British democracy rather than a more Republican stance. He formally switched to the Liberal-Conservatives when he saw the need to support John A. MacDonald’s separate school’s bill. Having grown up and educated in an illegal school because he was Roman Catholic, being able to see that Religious Minorities could teach legally would be a win for McGee. MacDonald and Cartier would appoint McGee as Minister of Agriculture, Immigration, and Statistics in their cabinet. Because of his early support for the union, he would attend both the Charlottetown and Quebec conferences in 1864. At Charlottetown, he was well known for informal stump speeches in support of the union. Two such speeches were even published. During the Quebec Conference, he fought for continued support for a separate school system in both Ontario and Quebec for Religious minorities. But his glory days in the political arena were coming to a close as the rise in Feniansim lead to a Green Scare across Canada. And while McGee had his roots in the Irish independence movement, he had denounced the aggressive methods of the Fenians. He would be a supporter of MacDonald’s calls to bring out the militia in defence of Canada although it caused many to label him a traitor. He would not attend the London Conference in 1866. Despite his loss of popularity, he would be elected to the Federal Parliament in 1867 although took on a lesser role merely sitting as a backbencher. He devoted his energies to improving Canadian literacy and creativity. In 1868, he would be walking the short distance from Parliament to the boarding house on Sparks Street after a debate went into the early hours of the morning. McGee would open the door to the boarding house and be shot through the neck. Thomas would die instantly on the 7th of April 1868. In the aftermath, Patrick J. Whellan would be arrested for the murder. Some 80,000 would attend his funeral as he was laid to rest in Cimetière Notre-Dame-des-Neiges in Montreal. Following McGee’s death, Parliament established the Dominion Police Service. The service would be charged with guarding Parliament Hill, providing bodyguards for its members, and running intelligence on terrorist groups like the Fenians. Whellan’s trial would be raft with Political influence and racism. While there was no direct evidence against Whellen, aside from the fact, his gun had been fired that day and some second-hand evidence that he threatened McGee, he continued to plead his innocence in the matter. The Jury found him guilty, and he would be executed by hanging on the 11th of February 1869.

The Gun
The gun that supposedly fired the shot that killed McGee.
Sony a6000 + Sony E PZ 16-50mm 1:3.5-5.6 OSS

In 1972, further forensic tests would prove that the bullet which killed McGee could not have come from Whellen’s gun, nor was there even evidence that Whellen was even a member of the Fenian Brotherhood. Thomas remains the only Canadian member of Parliament to be assassinated. The Dominion Police would in 1923 merge with the Royal North-West Mounted Police to form the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. They still provide services to defend Parliament Hill and our Members of Parliament, although intelligence was taken away in 1984 when the Canadian Security Intelligence Service took over that aspect. The name Thomas D’Arcy McGee is attached to many schools across both Ontario and Quebec, in Ontario, they are mostly connected to Roman Catholic Schoolboards. His parent’s graves in Wexford Ireland are marked, and a monument to his escape stands at Tremon Bay. A statue to McGee stands on Parliament Hill, and the McGee building stands on Sparks Street in Ottawa. Also on Sparks Street is a plaque near the spot where he was killed, and the D’Arcy-McGee Pub stands kitty-corner to the place. In 2005 the Canadian Museum of History acquired the gun that supposedly killed McGee and has it on display in the Hall of Canadian History. In a strange twist, it would be Fenian General, John O’Neill that would establish an Irish colony in the American West and the city of O’Neill, Nebraska is named in his honour. Two Canadian towns, D’Arcy and McGee, are named for Thomas and located in central Saskatchewan. Thomas is more remembered for his death than his role in Canadian Confederation, yet his story is far more interesting. Being a rebel turned reformer, turned Conservative pro-British Irishman. Funny how the imperfect often have the most significant impact on history?

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