The Untold Story


Irish History
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Leaders in History

Thomas D'Arcy McGee

Timothy Warren Anglin

Thomas D'Arcy McGee:
Irish Founder of the Canadian Nation


William G. Davis

Thomas D'Arcy McGee possessed many of the qualities traditionally associated with the Irish race. He was quick witted and eloquent, with a gift for phrases which lingered in the memory of those who heard him. He was throughout his career a foe of injustice and a champion of the oppressed, the downtrodden and the dispised. He had a vision of the future of his country that went far beyond the imagination of most men of his generation and he helped to make it a reality. At the height of his powers when he was only a few days short of his forty-third birthday, he was struck down by an assasin. Even after the lapse of a century, his life and work can still provide and example and an inspiration for our nation.

McGee was born April 13, 1825 at Carlingford in Ireland where his father was a coastguardsman. His family was poor and he had little opportunity for formal schooling. The wide knowledge of history and literature which he afterwards displayed was acquired by the lifelong habbit of private study. But he enjoyed one advantage. Much of his boyhood was spent in the old town of Wexford, the centre of much Irish history. The legends and traditions of the place, and the stories and ballads he had heard as a child helped to give him an intense feeling for the past greatness of his people and their present misery, a feeling which dominated his whole life.

For a young man of ambition, without money or influence, the prospects were not favourable in the Ireland of that day. In 1842, the 17 year old D'Arcy McGee embarked for the United States. He obtained a post on a Boston newspaper for the magnificent salary of "$50 for the first year, $75 for the second and $100 for the third" and within two years he had become one of the editors. One of his editorials on Irish affairs attracted favourable attention from Daniel O'Connell, leader of the Repeal movement in Ireland. This led to an invitation to join the staff of a well known Dublin paper, The Freeman's Journal. So, he returned to Ireland in the summer of 1845.

The Ireland which he returned to was entering the darkest chapter of its tragic history. It had lost the last vestige of independence with the Act of Union half a century before and now was ruled as an English province, the welfare of the people not being a high priority of the government. The arable land of the country was monopolied by a small group of landlords while the great mass of of tenant farmers lived at a bare susitence level, requiring only a failure of the potato crop for the situation to become oone of actual starvation.

The year after McGee's return, the long threatened disaster struck. The blight destroyed the potatoes all over Ireland. In the next two years, one fifth of the people died of hunger and disease and over a million more were driven to emigrate: the total population of the island was cut by more than a quarter.

It was impossible for any young man of spirit and patriotism to endure such things quietly. McGee soon joined an organization known as Young Ireland, whose members,having lost all faith in the peaceful methods of O'Connell, believed that immediate independence offered the only hope of saving the country. By 1848, they were laying plans for an armed insurrection. The leaders of Young Ireland were a brilliant group of men. One of their number, in after years, became Premier of New South Wales in Australia; two became Generals in the Union Army during the American Civil War, one a Governor of Montana and another a Governor-General of Newfoundland. Others were celebrated as poets and orators.

Young Ireland Members

But their talents did not include a gift for conspiracy. The plot was detected; the projected rebellion came to nothing and D'Arcy McGee found himself charged with treason with a price of 300 pounds on his head!

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In September 1848, disguised as a Priest, he slipped aboard a ship bound for America and a month later he was in Philadelphia. He probably thought of it as a temporary exile but in fact, his future lay in North America. Except for a few brief visits, he was not to see Ireland again: he ledt Ireland, an apparent failure in the fight for Irish independence. For a time after his arrival, he behaved in the traditional fashion of a political exile. Within a few weeks of his arrival, he started a newspaper of his own "devoted to Ireland and her emigrants and the European democracies." It was significant that he said nothing about North America. His interest was concentrated in Ireland and in arousing support for Irish independence among the trans-Atlantic Irish. He was often at odds with the hiearchy and the clergy. His intemperate zeal in this cause and his quarrels with other exiles brought him a rebuke from the celebrated Bishop Hughes of New York and led to the failure of his newspaper.

But as time passed, however, and especially after his wife and family had come over to join him, his thinking began to change. He realized that there was work to do be done nearer at hand. He was gripped by what was to become a common concern of his life- the condition of the Irish people in the United States and Canada. Having dedicated himself to helping his countymen, he had to decide how to go about it. He rejected any idea of violent revolution; he had had enough of that in Ireland. In fact, at this stage of his career, he had little faith in political action of any kind. He considered that the Irish in North America must raise themselves by their own efforts.

One obvious need of the emigrants was education. It was natutally difficult for illiterate men to get steady work or to become part of an ordinary society. To remedy this situation, McGee promoted a system of night schools in the eastern cities. He was also active in plans for moving immigrants from the slums of the big cities and settling them in the land in Western New York and Canada. The principle was a sound one but the times were not favourable in the 1850's and nothing came of it. In addition, McGee was constantly busy with his pen, not only editing his newspaper but writing pamphlets in defence of the Irish and preparing lectures which he delivered to audiences throughout the eastern states.

Gradually, however, he grew disatisfied. He felt there was no future for the Irish in the United States and his thoughts turned increasingly to Canada- also a new country but less crowded, less urbanized and where the break with the traditions of Europe had been less sharp. In 1857, he accepted an invitation from a group of Irish Catholics to start a newspaper in Montreal.

The Canada to which D'Arcy McGee migrated was by no means the same as the country which bears that name today. It consisted only of of the modern provinces of Ontario and Quebec, which had been united under the name of the Province of Canada in 1841. The four Atlantic provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland had their own separate governments and had little trade or other connections with Canada. The immense territories of British North America west of the Great Lakes were still held, in theory, by the great fur trading corporation known as the Hudson's Bay Company. But in actual fact, there were only a handful of white (people) in the Company's domain and the Indian tribes still hunted and roamed as they had always done. On the Pacific coast, separated from the nearest Canadian settlements by thousands of miles of wilderness, were two tiny British colonies which grew into the province of British Columbia. Proposals for the union of all British North America into one vast federation had been made by a few people, but they were generally regarded as impractical.

Canada, in its restricted meaning of the period, was growing rapidly in population, agriculture and industry, and now had close to two million people. Though it was still a colony, subject to the ultimate authority of the Imperial Government in London, it had its own elected Legislature and enjoyed a large measure of self-government. But its progress was hindered by racial and religious strife. The conflict between the French majority in Quebec and the English majority in Ontario, which has bedevilled Canadian history down to our own time, was already much in evidence. The two races regarded each other with hostility and suspiscion and their representatives in the Legislature were in a state of perpetual deadlock.

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The English speaking element was divided by a conflict of its own between the Protestants and the Catholics, who, at that period were predominately of Irish origin. A kind of religious intolerance that was dying out in Europe still flourished in Canada, poisoning the life of many communities and sometimes leading to riots and bloodshed. This strife made stable governments difficult. In a Legislature divided along racial and religious lines, it was impossible for any party to hold together an effective majority, as the parliamentary system requires. Successive administrations were merely coalitions of hostile groups which quickly fell apart. It was difficult for such transient government to give proper attention to urgent problems such as transportation and immigration. In 1857, the feeling was already general that the constitution adopted in 1840 had failed.

At Montreal, D'Arcy McGee was at the heart of the turmoil. Montreal was then a city of 70,000, of which the Irish believed themselves to constitute a third. Despite their numbers, the Montreal Irish felt they were insufficently represented in the life of the city and the country. It was to provide the community with an effective voice that McGee had been encouraged to come to Canada and start his newspaper, The New Era.

McGee was to prove an exceedingly effective spokeman for his people. But he was never content with the role of an ethnic leader. It was characteristic that of the first three editorials he wrote for The New Era the first called for unity among the various races comprising Canada; the second discussed the special position of the French-Canadian and the third called for the union of the colonies of British North America. The step, in those days, from journalism was not far. McGee's trenchant editorials aroused wide attention. Before 1857 was out, he was nominated as a candidate for Parliament and at the end of the year he was selected as on of three members for Montreal.

Those who saw McGee at this time were not usually impressed. He was short and stubby. His face was homely and not much helped by shaggy hair and whiskers: it was redeemed from ugliness only by its remarkable expressiveness. But behind his unprepossessing appearance was a most winning personality. He was gay and convivical- sometimes to excess. His wit was keen, but usually genial, and he was remarkably free from personal animosities. Underlying his gaity was a streak of melancoly, which expressed itself particularly in his poems. Perhaps his most strking characteristic was his energy; besides running a newspaper and conducting a political career, he wrote incessantly- poetry, pamplets and books.

As a poet he was often excessively sentimental in the mid-Vistorian fashion, and much of his output was occasional stuff, for occasions long forgotten. But at his best, his verse has a remarkable swing and vigour. One example is from The Celts:

Long, long ago, beyond the misty space
Of twice a thousand years
In Erin old there dwelt a mighty race,
Taller than Roman spears;
Like oaks and towers they had a giant grace,
Were fleet as deers,
With wind and waves they made their 'biding place,
These western shepherd seers.

And the following from his ballad, Jacques Cartier (the 16th century discoverer of the St. Lawrence River) is a classic description of the Canadian winter and the Canadian spring:

He told them of a region, hard, iron-bound, and cold
Nor seas or pearl abounded, nor mines of shining gold
Where the wind from Thule freezes the word upon the lip
And the ice in spring comes sailing athwart the early ship.
He told them of the frozen scene until they'd thrill's with fear
And piled fresh fuel on the hearth wo make him better cheer

His prose writings reveal another side of his talent, his capacity for combining sound scholarship with a vivid and eloquent style which appealed to the orinary reader. Two books he wrote while living in the United States- The History of the Irish Settlers in North Ameruca and The Catholic History of North America were pioneer studies in their field. After he settled in Canada, he somehow found the time to write a two volume Popular History of Ireland which held its place for many years as one of the standard works on the subject and was used as a text in Irish colleges. This is all the more remarkable because the book was written far from Irish libraries and archives and with only limited materials available in Canada.

But it was as a speaker that McGee excelled above all. Quite apart from his political oratory, he devoted much of his time to lecturing. That was the golden age of the lecturer when the chance of listening to eminent men talk was often the only form of cultural entertainment available to people on the farms and in the small towns. Just as Emerson and Edward Everett were the stars of the lecture circuit in the United States, D'Arcy McGee was the most popular lecturer in Canada. He was superbly equipped for this work. He had a melodious, perfectly controlled voice which contrasted sharply with his ungainly appearance. His command of language was splendid; he could paint pictures with words. Yet he never let these gifts tempt him into sloppy and superficial work. All his lectures were carefully prepared and based on throrough research. He gave his audiences their money's worth.

In selecting his subjects, he avoided political and other controversy. When he spoke to mixed audiences, he often spoke on English and Scottish literature. When he addressed Irish groups, his themes were generally taken from the history of Ireland. One of his most popular lectures, for example, was on the Irish Brigade, the famous corps of exiles from Ireland which formed the shock troops of the old French army before the revolution. There is no doubt that in selecting such subjects he aimed to raise the morale of homesick, hard pressed men and women by reminding them of the heroes and past glories of Ireland.

Lecturing in the Canada of the 1850's and 60's was a harsh profession. Quite apart from the hardships of travel in a pioneer country with notoriously bad raods and worse inns, there was an additional danger. For, although McGee was careful to avoid controversial topics, there were grim bigots in many of the communities he visited who took it ill that an "Irish Papist" should speak in public at all. When he addressed a meeting in Toronto on St. Patrick's Day 1858, the Orangemen attacked the hotel with loud cries of "Get McGee" and the affair developed into one of the worst riots in the city's history. In 1860, he met with still more direct action in the town of Bradford, north of Toronto. He was scheduled to deliver a lecture on "The Historical Relations Between Ireland and Scotland" - surely a harmless subject. But when he arrived at the station, he was met by a delegation of leadiing citizens with drawn revolvers. At gun point, they forced him to to cancel his lecture and leave town. Despite such incidents, McGee continued his lecture tours. Besides bringing in much needed revenue, they made him well-known across the country and provided part of the foundation for his nation wide influence.

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When McGee was elected to Parliament in 1857, he was given two definite mandates by his electors. One was to fight to secure for Catholics schools of their own faith and not to have them obliged to send their children to the newly established non-denominational schools. The second was to opposee "representation by population". Under the 1840 constitution, Quebec and Ontario had been assigned an equal number of seats in Parliament. In the intervening years, however, the population of Ontario had increased much faster than that of Quebec. There was a growing agitation in Ontario to abandon this system and replace it by one in which the number of seats alloted to each province would be proportionate to its population. French Canadians and Irish Catholics in Quebec were opposed to this because they feared that they would be submerged by an English and Protestant majority.

On the subject of Catholic schools, McGee's mind was firmly and irrevocably made up. He belived passionately that any system of education worthy of the name must have a religious basis. In concert with the Ontario spokemen for the Church, he participated in a long and skillful battle to secure for the Catholics of Ontario the right to this kind of education, and undoubtedly his eloquence helped persuafe Parliament to accept this principle. In 1863, he finally had the satisfaction of seeing legislation passed which recognized the separte school system in Ontario.

Representation by population was another matter. A few months' experience in Parliament convinced McGee that equal representation from Ontario and Quebec could produce nothing but a perpetual deadlock. Representative government could not work unless the basis of represention depended on population. He accordingly plumped for representation by population, provided there was constitutional protection for the basic rights of the people of Quebec. His change in position led to a ferocious row with some of his supporters in Montreal but he stuck to his guns. This was characteristic of him. He would fight to the finish for a principle he himself believed in, but he would not take a position he considered false because of pressure from his constituents.

McGee had entered Parliament as an Independent. At the time, the government was in the hands of a coalition of various small parties from Ontario and Quebec which might vaguely be called the Conservatives. The Prime Minister was a man who was destined to dominate Canadian politics for many years to come- John Alexander MacDonald. The opposition was a loose coalition which with equal vagueness be called the Reformers. McGee voted with the oppostion, largely because, like his people, he automatically identified the Candian Conservatives with the British Tories he had oppossed in Ireland. This stance involved him in some strabge alliances including an odd friendship with George Brown of Toronto, who was the spokeman and the embodiment of militant Protetsantism- a friendship which became important.

McGee became known as one of the effective speakers on the opposition benches and when, in 1862, the Reformers finally got their turn in office, he was given the cabinet post of president of the council- a resouding title for a job with little real authority; his leader was John Stanfield Macdonald, an Ontario politician.

McGee, however, was beginning to look beyond the parish-plump politics of the time. His mind was fixed on a larger idea- Confederation. Perhaps simply because he was a newcomer, he saw more clearly than most natives that there could be no real future for the scattered colonies of British North America except for a union and he began to preach this idea. He was not, of course, alone in this. For years before he had arrived, others had been calling for a union of the colonies and as the 1860's opened, the movement was growing in strength. McGee's advoacy was different than that of his predecessors. They had stressed the immediate practical benefits- that it would break the deadlock in Canadian politics, for example, or make it easier to fianance railway building. McGee, however, saw the issue in terms of the founding of a great new nation with unlimited possibilities that would include not only the established colonies but the vast undeveloped territories in the west. Here, for example, is an extract from one famous speech he delivered in Parlaiment in 1860:

I see in the not remote distance one great nationality, bound, like the shield of Achilles, by the blue of the ocean.

I see it quartered into many communities, each disposing of its own internal affairs, but all bound together by free institutions, free intercourse, free commerce.

I see, within the round of that shield, the peaks of the western mountains and the crests of the eastern waves. The winding Assinaboine, the five-fold lakes, the St. Lawrence, the Ottawa, the Sauguenay, the St. John, the Basin of Minas,by all these flowing waters in all the valleys they fertilize. In all the cities they visit in their courses, I see a generation of industrious, contented moral men, free in name and in fact- men capable of maintaining, in peace and in war, a constiution worthy of such a country.

It was speeches like these that D'Arcy McGee appealed to the immagination of the people, not with the statistics of economic arguments but with the vision of a greater Canada and the privilege of participating in a new experiment in natinhood. Many men contributed to confederation but it was McGee who mobilized the popular enthusiasm that made it possible.

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In 1861, there was a sudden change in the international weather which abruptly changed the prospects for confederation. The American Civil War broke out. This conflict produced a series of incidents between the United States and Britain which several times threatened to erupt into war. Canadians from Ontario to Newfoundland suddenly awoke to find themselves threatened with invasion by the powerful Union Army. A new and grim argument was added to the case for Confederation- the need for common defence. For the first time the Union of the colonies became practical politics.

The Standfield Macdonald administration, McGee soon saw, could not rise to the crisis. Disagreements within the ministry led to his resignation in 1863. Late in the year, he took that most difficult of all steps for a politician in our Parliamentary system. He crossed the floor, abandoning his colleagues in the Reformers for the Conservatives of John A. MacDonald, who, he sensed, could give the country the leadership it needed. Soon after, what is known in Canadian history as the "Great Coalition" was formed, designed to achieve the union ofthe colonies. It was an extraordinary combination, including the Puritan, George Brown, the fiery Celt, McGee and the genial cynical Scotsman John A. MacDonald, the most masterly of practical politicians. Strange as it was, it held together until the job was done.

McGee played a prominant part in the long and complex negotiations, first with the Maritime provinces and then with the British government. The constitution which was finally adopted bore many marks of his influence, especially in the clauses which attempted to protect the rights of religious minorities. But, before the negotiations were completed in 1866, he had been drawn into the last and bitterest and in the end, most tragic of his controversies.

The collapse of Young Ireland 20 years before had not ended the Irish revolutionary movement. During the 1850's, a new organization entered the field. This was the Fenian Brottherhood, modelled on the secret societies then flourishing in France. Its aim was the violent overthrow of British rule in Ireland. The Fenians gained a considerable following, not only in Ireland but among Irish emigrants in the United States. They also became active in Canada. No-oone ever knew what their Canadian membership actually was. Probably, the number of active members was small but around them was a larger circle of sympathizers. The Fenians, moreover, were experts at infiltratiing exisiting organizations such as local Irish societies and taking them over.

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As the Civil War drew to a close, alarming reports began to reach Canada. The Fenians in the U.S. were planning an attack. They proposed to recruit an "army of liberation" among the many thousands of Irish Americans who had served in the Union forces. The movement of this body across the Canadian border would be timed to coincide with a rising of Canadian sympathizers. The government of Canada would be overthrown and the country would be occupied until the British government granted independence to Ireland. It was a sort of international kidnapping plot. The idea may seem fantastic today but in 1866, the Fenians actually attempted it. They launched two invasions, one in New Brunswick and one in Ontario. The New Brunswick expedition was a fiasco but the Ontario force penetrated a considerable distance into the Niagra penninsula and fought a pitched battle with the Canadian malitia before it withdrew.

To D'Arcy McGee, all this was like a red rag to a bull. He was no lover of British rile in Ireland. But he had acquired a bitter distaste for for secret societies and conspiracies. And he dreaded the effect of Fenianism on the fortunes of the Irish in Canada. The Irish had been steadily improving their exonomic and social condition and winning the respect of their fellow citizens. (He feared) the old suspicions would be revived and the whole Irish-Canadian community would become suspect pariahs.

McGee thrw himself into the fight against the Fenians without reserve and without worrying about the consequences. In a series of feiry speeches, he warned Irish Canadians against the secret society. He denounced not only the Fenian organizers but the politicians and community leaders who countenaced them and angled for their support. His attacks, coupled with the influence of the clergy, were effective in halting the spread of the organization, preventing it from accomplishing its aims in Canada.

The success was gained at a terrible price. McGee was denounced as a traitor to Ireland. Old friends turned their backs on him. He was expelled from the St. Patrick's Society of Montreal. Threats were made against his life. More than that, his political career was greviously damaged. He had been promised a cabinet post in the first government of the new Dominion but John A., always a hard boiled realist, concluded that the spiltting of the Irish support had destroyed McGee's value to the party. The cabinet offer was withdrawn. Macdonald was so convinced in fact that D'Arcy McGee was finished that he gave him no support in the election of 1867.

To everyone's surprise, McGee won the election of 1867, though by a very narrow margin. The contest was a bitter one and the result produced a serious riot in Montreal. The threats against his life increased. He was apparently unconcerned when he went to Ontario to attend, as a private member, the new Parliament of the Dominion of Canada. On the night of April 6, 1868, he made his last speech- an appeal to the people of Nova Scotia where secessionist tendancies had already developed, to stay in confederation.

The House rose after midnight. McGee walked through the dark streets to his boarding house. As he turned the key in the lock, there was a sudden roar of a revolver. He fell, shot through the head. By the time a doctor arrived, he was dead.

For the moment, the assasin escaped. Later, a young Iris immigrant with Fenian sympathies was tried and executed for the crime. It has been argued, however, for a hundred years, whether the authorities caught the right man.

D'Arcy McGee's career was cut short tragically in his prime. No-one can tell what he might have accomplished, in politics or literature had he lived longer. Yet in the short time permitted him, he made precious contributions to his adopted country. He was one of the founding fathers of Canada as we know it today. He did morre, perhaps, to ease the religious and racial strife that had threatened to tear the country apart. To his own Irish people, he gave wise leadership in the painful struggle for what we now call integration. Like Martin Luther King, he shared a passionate concern for a beleagered and suppressed minority. But perhaps his greatest contribution of all was the example he gave, not to Canada, but to all free countries, of a public man prepared to do what he considered right, regardless of unpopularity ad the danger of death.

William Davis is the former Premier of Ontario. He originally presented this speech to St. Paul's University in Minnesota. Davis notes that McGee's grand nepheew, the Honourable Frank McGee served in the government of John Diefenbaker in 1963.

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