Thomas D’Arcy McGee
D’Arcy McGee, as he was widely known, is one of the most fascinating political figures in Canadian History. He was an Irish Nationalist, a journalist, a poet, a defender of Catholicism and of course, a Father of Confederation. He is the only federal politician in Canadian history to have been assassinated, and many believe his murder was a Fenian plot, though this has never been conclusively proven. McGee, it is said, was “the most gifted orator ever to sit in Canada’s Parliament.” He was given a state funeral in Ottawa, and the following procession in Montréal was attended by 80,000 people; accounting for 80% of the city’s overall population.
It is generally accepted that McGee’s assassination was a Fenian plot, though this has never been conclusively proved, as McGee had been very vocal about his criticism of the Fenian Brotherhood, and the violent attacks they advocated for and participated in. Former Ontario Premier, and a generous donor to the Bicentennial Commission, theHonourable William Davis, delivered a speech at the University of Minnesota where he elaborated on McGee’s criticism of the Fenians:
“[McGee] was no lover of British rule in Ireland. But he had acquired a bitter distaste 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 economic 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 threw himself into the fight against the Fenians without reserve and without worrying about the consequences. In a series of fiery speeches, he warned Irish Canadians against the secret society. He denounced not only the Fenian organizers but the politicians and community leaders who countenanced 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 grievously damaged.
McGee was assassinated on the night of April 7th, 1868. After attending a parliamentary debate that lasted late into the night, where he delivered an impassioned speech on the importance of unity, he returned to his boarding house and was fatally shot in the head as he attempted to enter the building. Sir John A. Macdonald heard about the shooting almost immediately, and rushed to the scene, where McGee was still lying on the street. With the help of another friend, Macdonald carried his fellow Father of Confederation into the house. Lady Agnes Macdonald, his second wife, purportedly said that she had never seen her husband as upset as he was on the night of McGee’s murder.
Thomas D’Arcy McGee (actor David Rockne Corrigan) as portrayed on In Sir John A.’s Footsteps, our Theatrical Walking Tour of Kingston.
McGee’s assassination remains one of the biggest mysteries in Canadian history.Patrick J. Whelan, an Irishman with rumoured Fenian sympathies, was arrested and convicted of the crime, though he maintained his innocence throughout the trial. The evidence pointing to his guilt remains circumstantial, and records indicate a strong potential for corruption. Whelan was publicly hanged, the last public hanging in Canada, on February 11th, 1889. In August of 2002, Whelan’s remains were exhumed from the prison cemetery in a Catholic ceremony and were repatriated in Montréal’s Côtes des Neiges cemetery.
Thomas D’Arcy McGee’s story is one of the most interesting in Canadian history, due as much to his fascinating life as to the mysterious circumstances of his death. He was an important player in the Confederation of Canada; particularly for the instrumental role he played in persuading the Irish population to support Confederation. Sir John A. Macdonald greatly respected McGee as both a colleague and as a friend, and was quite personally affected by his death.
So, Happy 188th Birthday Mr. McGee! We wouldn’t have Canada without you!