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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 history.”
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 pernicious. 
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 Era 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.)
Ken McGoogan
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Before turning mainly to books about arctic exploration and Canadian history, Ken McGoogan worked for two decades as a journalist at major dailies in Toronto, Calgary, and Montreal. He teaches creative nonfiction writing through the University of Toronto and in the MFA program at King’s College in Halifax. Ken served as chair of the Public Lending Right Commission, has written recently for Canada’s History, Canadian Geographic, and Maclean’s, and sails with Adventure Canada as a resource historian. Based in Toronto, he has given talks and presentations across Canada, from Dawson City to Dartmouth, and in places as different as Edinburgh, Melbourne, and Hobart.