Turtle Bunbury

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Ottawa, Canada, 7 April 1868. Shortly after midnight, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, one of the brightest lights in Canadian politics, inserted his key into the door of Mrs Trotter’s Boarding House on Sparks Street. He was puffing on a cigar and looking forward to a good night’s sleep after a long night of parliamentary debates. Just as he began to step through the door, there was a flash of light and a .32 calibre bullet slammed into his neck. D’Arcy McGee’s cigar and his dentures flew from his mouth and the 42-year-old ‘Father of the Canadian Confederation’ fell dead in the snow. With days, the assassination of D’Arcy McGee had become the cause célèbre in both Canada and Ireland.

Born in Carlingford, County Louth, on 13 April 1825, McGee had been a household name – certainly in Irish nationalist circles – since a warrant was issued for his arrest during the Young Ireland rebellion of 1848. His ‘radicalisation’ arguably began when he moved to Wexford as a young boy of eight, following the premature death of his beloved mother, a Dublin bookseller’s daughter, at their family home near Cushendall in County Antrim. His Catholic father, a coastguard, had married again and relocated to the Wexford coast.

The inquisitive McGee attended a hedge school run by Michael Donnelly where he listened to tales of British oppression and learned ballads about heroic Wexford rebels in the 1798 Rising. This was in an age when all the talk was of Daniel O’Connell’s Repeal campaign and Father Theobald Mathew’s temperance movement.

In 1842 seventeen-year-old McGee sailed for the United States from Wexford on board the brig, Leo. During the voyage he penned a number of poems about Ireland which helped secure him work as an assistant editor of the Boston Pilot, one of the principal Catholic newspapers in the US. By 1844, the 19-year-old was its lead editor.

McGee’s articles focused on Ireland’s right to self-determination, as espoused by O’Connell, while also insisting that Britain should cede control of Canada to the US ‘either by purchase, conquest, or stipulation.’

He returned to Ireland on the eve of the Great Hunger, joining the dynamic team of extreme Republicans who ran The Nation, Ireland’s leading nationalist newspaper. In 1847 he married Mary Theresa Caffrey, with whom he had six children. (Four of the six children predeceased McGee). That same year he was present when the Young Ireland nationalists founded the Irish Confederation in Dublin, vowing ‘to drill, seek arms, march and eventually attempt a rebellion.’ When Europe exploded into revolution in the spring of 1848 the Young Irelanders were swept up in the tsunami of rebellious passion. With a £300 price on his head, McGee opted to flee. Disguised as a priest, he boarded a Philadelphia-bound ship in Tremone Bay, County Donegal.

By 1850, the ‘short and stubby’ young man was one of the best-known figures in the Irish-American community, having established both the New York Nation and the American Celt (Boston), both of which newspapers he also edited. He tried but failed to spearhead a campaign to move immigrants out from the ‘big city’ slums to new suburban villages. He developed a series of night-schools to help people attain better education. As well as his poetry and pamphlets, he also found time to pen two pioneering works, ‘The History of the Irish Settlers in North America’ (1850) and ‘The Catholic History of North America’ (1855).

McGee’s ambition had been to garner support for Irish independence from the Irish diaspora but, perhaps triggered by the failure of the Irish American elite to rally behind him, a profound change of direction began to take place within McGee’s mind. As a devout Catholic, he was increasingly dismayed at how Irish Catholics were clearly doomed to be eternal underdogs in the US.

A series of brick walls and the omnipresent red tape also caused considerable disillusion and he rapidly became an ardent critic of the US with its aggressive expansionism, its republican proselytising and its materialistic way of life.

In 1857, fed up with the US, he crossed the border into Canada (which then comprised of the British provinces of Ontario and Quebec). He settled in Montreal, where one third of the city’s 70,000 inhabitants were Irish Catholics, and established another newspaper, The New Era. Through this, and accompanying pamphlets, he advocated his opinions, which, by now, had hardened into those of a Catholic Conservative.

Within a year, journalist-turned-orator had won a seat as an Independent MP in the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada (akin to the House of Commons). He quickly made his mark defending the rights of Irish Catholics in the face of Canada’s powerful Orange Order and doing much to promote reconciliation between the two sides. An enthusiast for modernisation, he also supported the manufacture industry (through a high protective tariff) and railway construction.

A brilliant public speaker, McGee was the most popular lecturer in Canada during the 1860s, wooing vast crowds with his melodious voice and evocative language. He generally spoke on uncontentious issues such as literature and Irish legends but sometimes Orangemen would protest at the presence of this ‘Irish Papist’; on one occasion he hopped off a train only to be greeted by a group of men with drawn revolvers who suggested he hop right back on again.

Lecturing brought him a small fortune and a good deal of fame.

His political beliefs were harder to pin down. Perhaps fatally, the man who had once opposed the British Empire, urged Canadian settlers to stay loyal to British rule, largely on the basis that it offered them protection against the behemoth of the US. ‘The British flag does indeed fly here,’ said McGee, ‘but it casts no shadow’.

He had long been of the view that the only way forward for the disparate colonies of British North America was to unite as one great nation. ‘I see it quartered into many communities,’ he declared, ‘each disposing of its own internal affairs, but all bound together by free institutions, free intercourse, free commerce.’

In 1863, his dream of Canadian unity led him to abandon his reformist colleagues in Parliament and he crossed the floor to become Minister of Agriculture, Immigration and Statistics in a new Conservative government.

As the most vocal supporter of Canadian Confederation, he was also a key figure in the ‘Great Coalition’ that oversaw the creation of the new Canada in 1867. He attended the 1864 conferences in Charlottetown (on Prince Edward Island) and Quebec at which the confederation was largely conceived. At the Quebec conference, he introduced a resolution that led to the guarantee of the educational rights of religious minorities in Canada.

McGee’s failure to keep onside with Irish nationalism was fatal. In 1866 the Fenian Brotherhood launched two abortive raids from the US on Canada. McGee hotly denounced the attacks, furious at the backlash they caused to Irish Catholics in Canada. Such influential condemnation of the Fenians appears to have been his death warrant; the former Young Ireland rebel was accused of selling his soul in pursuit of political power. Castigated as a traitor, he was expelled from the St Patrick’s Society of Montreal.

As his popular support among Irish Catholics plummeted, the Canadian prime minister dropped him like a hot potato. Nonetheless, he was elected as the Liberal-Conservative member for Montreal West when the first Canadian Parliament met in the new Canadian capital of Ottawa in 1867.

On 6 April 1868, he delivered a powerful speech in Parliament, urging the people of Nova Scotia to keep faith in the confederation. His assassination on the streets of Ottawa later that night caused widespread shock. His funeral was one of the largest in Canadian history. An estimated 80,000 people (out of a city population that now topped 105,000) followed his hearse and he was interred in a crypt at the Cimetière Notre-Dame-des-Neiges in Montreal.

Within twenty-four hours of the murder, over forty men were in custody, primarily Irishmen. Among them was Patrick Buckley, a coachman to Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, who directed the authorities towards Patrick James Whelan, a tailor from Galway with well-known Fenian sympathies.

Jim Whelan, as he was known, had served as Assistant Marshal of Ottawa’s St Patrick’s Day Parade three weeks before the killing. He knew McGee and had watched his Nova Scotia talk from the parliamentary gallery that night. A police raid on his hotel room revealed a .32 Smith & Wesson pistol with six rounds in it.

An eight-day trial followed, remarkable for the number of questionable testimonies by people with one eye on the $2000 reward up for grabs if Whelan was convicted.

The Galway man was found guilty and sentenced to hang. ‘I am here standing on the brink of my grave,’ he responded. ‘And I wish to declare to you and to my God that I am innocent, that I never committed this deed.’

He was publicly hanged in Ottawa on 11 February 1869. He reiterated his innocence to the 5000-strong crowd but also stated that he knew the true identity of McGee’s killer. ‘God save Ireland and God save my soul,’ he said, shortly before the trapdoor dropped. His spirit reputedly haunts the Ottawa Jail where he died, now an unlikely but popular guest hostel.

There is a permanent exhibition on McGee in Carlingford while the Thomas D’Arcy McGee Foundation runs an annual summer school in the town, tackling such thorny historical issues as the Great Hunger, Revolutionary Republicanism, Orangeism and Fenianism. thomasdarcymcgee.com


David A. Wilson, 'Thomas D'Arcy McGee: The Extreme Moderate’ (McGill-Queen's Press - MQUP, 2008)

NB: McGee’s great-nephew, the Honourable Frank McGee served in the government of John Diefenbaker in 1963.