Father of Confederation Had His Roots in Ireland

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The D’Arcy McGee Museum is located in Carlingford, Ireland. (Photo Supplied)

Carlingford is a small town between Carlingford Lough (lake) and the mountain of Slieve Foye in northeast Ireland. 

It has quaint cobblestone streets and medieval buildings, including St. John’s Castle, built in the 12th century, and the ruins of the Dominican Priory at the other end of town. It was established in 1305, but all priories were dissolved by Henry VIII in 1540 and fell into disrepair. Now all that remains are the walls of the nave and the church.

Of great interest to me, Carlingford is the home of Thomas D’Arcy McGee, one of the founding Fathers of Confederation. Born on April 13, 1825, he was quick witted, intelligent and an eloquent speaker.

His father worked as a coast guard, but was poorly paid so there was little chance for schooling for his son. 

McGee was only 17 when he left Ireland for the United States, and soon after got a job in Boston working for a newspaper. Within two years he was an editor. When a job came up in Dublin, he returned in 1845. 

That was poor timing, because the Great Famine hit that year with failing crops in 1846 and 1848 due to potato blight. More than a million people died of starvation, and by 1856 over a million people immigrated, mostly to the States.

McGee was part of a plot to start a rebellion against the British. They were found out and McGee was charged with treason, so he fled to the U.S., ending up in Philadelphia. 

He worked for a newspaper there for seven years, but became disenchanted with the American way of life and took a job in Montreal, writing for a Roman Catholic newspaper. He was amazed that Catholics and Protestants could live together without fighting. He attended McGill and earned a law degree in 1861. 

He worked with devotion for the British Empire, wanting to protect Canada from American ills. 

He got into politics and was interested in an independent Canada and worked well with John A McDonald, who appointed him as Minister of Immigration, Statistics and Agriculture in 1863. 

He was changing in his political views and working hard to convince Irish Catholics to co-operate with the Protestant British to form a Confederation. In one of his speeches he said, “We have no right to intrude our Irish patriotism on this soil, for our first duty is to the land where we live and have fixed out homes.” 

The Fenians (an organization comprised of people living in Ireland and Irish immigrants) were planning to invade Canada and hold it as ransom until the British gave Ireland independence.  Today, it would be labelled a terrorist organization. McGee spoke out strongly against them, both with his pen and in his speeches. 

That is why he was assassinated by Patrick Whelan in 1868. He had made an impassioned speech to Parliament urging Nova Scotia to stay in Confederation and got to his boarding house around midnight.

As he was waiting for the door to open, he was shot in the back of the neck, blowing off part of his face. All the other Fathers of Confederation had death masks made, but for D’Arcy the best they could do was make a plaster cast of his hand. 

They made three — one for the D’Arcy McGee Museum in Carlingford and two for Ottawa. The gun that shot him was sold to the Canadian Museum of Civilization for $105,000. It was the first political assassination in the history of Canada.

He was buried on his 43rd birthday, with the largest funeral in Canadian history. An estimated 80,000 attended on April 13, 1868. At that time, Montreal only had a population of 105,000. He is buried in Notre Dame Cemetery on Mount Royal.

Not many of us change our position on religion, politics or loyalties. D’Arcy McGee came to Canada with the belief that Canada should be annexed to the United States. Later in life he began to see Canada as a place where religious minorities could co-exist and have their rights respected. 

He envisioned Canada one great nationality bound together like the Shield of Achilles and continued to tell Canadians that there is “unity in diversity.”

(Doreen Kerby is a Saskatoon freelance writer.)