Thomas D’Arcy Etienne Hughes McGee, PC, (April 13, 1825 – April 7, 1868) was an Irish Nationalist, Catholic spokesman, journalist, and a Father of Canadian confederation. He fought for the development of Irish and Canadian national identities that would transcend their component groups. He is, to date, the only Canadian victim of political assassination at the federal level.
Widely known as D’Arcy McGee, he was born on 13 April 1825 in Carlingford, Ireland, and raised as a Roman Catholic. From his mother, the daughter of a Dublin bookseller, he learned the legends and lore of Ireland’s heroic past, which later influenced his writing and political activity. When he was eight years old, his family moved to Wexford, where his father was employed by the coast guard. On the way his mother had an accident and died soon afterward. 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 English occupation and Irish rebellion, including the more recent uprising of 1798. It was in Wexford that he wrote his first poems and gained recognition as a talented public speaker. In 1842 at age 16 he sailed from Wexford harbour aboard the brig Leo, bound for the United States via Quebec, Canada. He soon found work as assistant editor of Patrick Donahoe’s Boston Pilot, a Catholic newspaper in Boston, Massachusetts. A few years later he returned to Ireland where he became politically active and edited the nationalist newspaper The Nation. His support for and his involvement in the Irish Confederation and Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848 resulted in a warrant for his arrest. McGee escaped the country by steamship and returned to the United States.
In the U.S., he achieved prominence in Irish American circles and founded and edited the New York Nation and the American Celt (Boston). He grew disillusioned with democracy and the American republic, and emigrated to Canada in 1857. McGee remained a persistent critic of the U.S., of American institutions, and of the American way of life. He accused the U.S. 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 defending the Irish Catholic right to representation in the assembly. In terms of economics he promoted modernization, 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.
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. A faction of American Fenians sent an invasion force into Canada in 1866 that was repulsed by Canadian forces and arrested by the American authorities. Canadians, with Irish sympathizers in their midst, and spurred by numerous rumours of another, more massive invasion, lived in fear of the Fenians for several years.
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.
On November 4, 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 April 7, 1868, McGee participated in a parliamentary debate that went on past midnight. He walked to the doorstep of his Sparks St. apartment afterward, while turning his key in the lock, was purportedly assassinated by Patrick J. Whelan. He was given a state funeral in Ottawa and interred in a crypt at the Cimetière Notre-Dame-des-Neiges in Montreal. The government of Canada’s Thomas D’Arcy McGee Building stands near the site of the assassination.
Patrick J. Whelan, a Fenian sympathizer and a Catholic, was accused, tried, convicted, and hanged for the crime. Decades later, his guilt was questioned and many believe that he was a scapegoat for a Protestant plot. His case is dramatized in the Canadian play, Blood on the Moon by Ottawa actor/playwright Pierre Brault. Patrick J. Whelan was hanged with an audience of 5,000 people. This was the last public hanging of Canada. The Canadian folk music group Tamarack’s song “The Hangman’s Eyes” was inspired by Whelan. The assassination of McGee is also a major component of Away, a novel about Irish immigration to Canada by Canadian novelist Jane Urquhart.
Impact of the assassination
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 U.S. 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, County 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 Sparks Street, in downtown Ottawa, the Thomas D’Arcy McGee Building is a prominent government-owned office building. 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 is D’Arcy, British Columbia and 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 St. Mary’s University, Halifax.