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A tale of two countries: The life of Thomas D’Arcy McGee

April marks the anniversary of both the birth and the assassination of Thomas D’Arcy McGee. The former took place in Ireland and the latter in Canada.

Most Canadians will be familiar with the name, as it features on buildings, monuments, parks, street signs and even in the names of towns and electoral districts.

Along with 35 other men, Thomas D’Arcy McGee is considered a Father of Canadian Confederation thanks to his attendance at conferences which began the process of uniting Britain’s North American colonies.

However, most people are less familiar with McGee’s revolutionary roots in Ireland – and the smaller monuments to him there. They may even be surprised by how radically different his political beliefs were before he settled in Montreal.

Below, we explore five of the landmarks that McGee gives his name to and how each place influenced his political beliefs.

The Thomas D’Arcy McGee Monument, County Louth

Monument to Thomas D'Arcy McGee by Eric Jones

Monument to Thomas D’Arcy McGee by Eric Jones, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Along the seafront in Carlingford, county Louth, is a bust of McGee alongside a plaque presented by former Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. It highlights that McGee was born there on April 13th, 1825.

McGee’s mother and, later, a teacher in county Wexford taught him about Irish culture and history. This informed the radical republican politics that McGee supported throughout his early life.

In 1842, aged just 17, McGee emigrated to the US with one of his sisters to join an aunt in Rhode Island. McGee then continued on to Boston where he made a name for himself as a revolutionary writer by criticising British rule in Ireland. He even called for Canada to join the US.

The Thomas D’Arcy McGee Monument, County Donegal

In 1845, at the onset of the Great Famine, McGee returned to Ireland to write for the Freeman’s Journal – a nationalist newspaper associated with the movement to repeal the Act of Union and establish a parliament in Dublin.

However, McGee soon joined The Nation newspaper, which was associated with the more radical Young Ireland movement. He became involved in its Irish Confederation organisation, which sought complete independence from Britain, and even took part in the unsuccessful Young Irelander Rebellion of July 1848.

As a result, McGee was charged with High Treason and a warrant for his arrest was issued. In September, he fled to the US disguised as a priest. Today, his escape by boat from Tremone Bay, county Donegal, is commemorated with a monument.

The towns of D’Arcy and McGee, Saskatchewan

Upon his arrival in New York, McGee established an Irish republican newspaper. But from 1851 onward, he became disillusioned with US politics and his views became much more conservative. Although he remained loyal to the interests of the Irish community, he converted to ultramontanism – which prioritised the pope’s authority.

During the famine, the influx of immigrants to the US had sparked anti-Irish sentiment and this led McGee to advocate for an Irish colony to the west of both the US and Canada. In 1856, he even organised a meeting in New York to promote the idea. But his endeavour failed to raise enough funds to claim a township. 

Today, by coincidence, two towns in Western Canada are called D’Arcy and McGee. Their names were inspired by a local post office that was named after McGee in 1911.

Rue D’Arcy McGee, Quebec

After a couple of visits to the Canadian colonies, McGee concluded that the Irish there were treated better than in the US – even though the region was still under British control.

He began to encourage Irish emigrants to choose Canada over the US. Then, in the spring of 1857, he relocated to Montreal at the invitation of members of the Irish community.

Here, McGee established another newspaper which immediately began to advocate for Canadian Confederation. He believed this would protect the region from the US’s influence.

By 1858, McGee was an elected representative for the people of Montreal province and, by 1863, he was the government minister for agriculture, immigration and statistics. During this time, he became known as an admirable public speaker. At the 1864 Charlottetown Conference on confederation, one newspaper reported “McGee’s wit sparkled brightly as the wine”.

Today, Rue D’Arcy McGee and Parc D’Arcy-McGee in Montréal both bear his name. They’re just a short way from the shamrock-clad house that he lived in on St. Catherine’s Street.

The Thomas D’Arcy McGee Building, Ontario

Thomas D’Arcy McGee Building, Ontario

Jeangagnon, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Following the Confederation of Canada in 1867, McGee was elected to the first Canadian parliament in Ottawa, Ontario. This was despite losing a lot of Irish support for denouncing the Fenians, who had carried out raids on British forts in Canada the previous year.

On April 7th, 1868, McGee took part in a late night parliament debate. It was after midnight by the time he returned to the Sparks Street boarding house he was staying at. On the doorstep, he was ambushed by an assassin and shot in the neck.

Within 24 hours, the police had arrested an Irish immigrant named Patrick James Whelan and concluded that McGee’s death was the result of a Fenian conspiracy. The tailor was publicly executed the following year, but doubts of his guilt still remain today.

McGee’s funeral took place in Montreal on what would have been his 43rd birthday. Although his popularity had been in decline, more than 80,000 people joined the funeral procession. The population of Montreal was only around 105,000 at that time.

Today, the government-owned Thomas D’Arcy McGee Building stands on the same street where he was killed in Ottawa – just a stone’s throw away from Parliament Hill.

Thomas D’Arcy McGee is just one of the many influential Irish emigrants who have made their mark on the world. Discover more at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum.