Turning to the index of the latest edition of the Penguin History of Canada you will not find an entry with his name. Were you to float his name at a cocktail party you are likely to do a bit better with some hazy responses having to do with ‘Fenianism’, ‘Confederation’, ‘alcohol’ and ‘assassination’ beginning to form a rough picture. But for David Wilson, professor in the Celtic Studies Program at the University of Toronto, there is much to say indeed about the life of the man born in Carlingford in 1825 and killed, by a bullet to the head, in Ottawa in 1868 called Thomas D’Arcy McGee.
It was hearing Conor Cruise O’Brien some years ago propose a toast to McGee as “the greatest Irishman in Canadian history” that prompted the Co. Antrim-born Wilson, who has been teaching in Celtic Studies at U of T since 1992, to fulfill the need for a full-scale biography of a figure around which has circulated much misunderstanding, several half-truths and generous dustings of myth. a figure around which has circulated much misunderstanding, several half-truths and generous dustings of myth The first part of Wilson’s efforts is Thomas D’Arcy McGee: Passion, Reason, and Politics, 1825-1857 which traces McGee’s beginnings in Ireland through to the end of his lengthy American sojourn that, as much as McGee’s Irishness, was instrumental in shaping McGee’s thoughts about governance, religion, ethnicity, and many other matters that McGee would later carry with him, or passionately repudiate, upon his move to Canada. We will have to wait a bit longer for Wilson’s coverage of McGee’s Canadian years, but there is no shortage of insight and gripping reportage in Wilson’s account of the pre-Canada McGee.
Though born in Carlingford, Co. Louth, McGee spent most of his youth in Wexford surrounded by numerous sites of Irish history and lore. In part a sensitive, ‘Romantic’, soul, McGee would soon be widely praised for his tremendous oratorical skills; his feeling for Ireland’s mythic and historical heroes greatly shaped his spirit his feeling for Ireland’s mythic and historical heroes greatly shaped his spirit and was funneled into a life-long passion for verse-writing and toward an early career as a journalist. And what a career it was. McGee left Ireland for Boston at age 17, sympathetic to Daniel O’Connell’s Repeal campaign, and within two years was editor of the Boston Pilot, the largest Irish newspaper in America. The call of Repeal was powerful for McGee and most of his writings at this time were passionate pieces in support of O’Connell, or else contributions to what we now call ‘cultural nationalism’—essays about Irish authors and music aimed at raising patrimonial pride. In the words of McGee, “At this time, when Ireland is striving for the right to govern herself, it can not be superfluous to show that she possesses wisdom, learning, patriotism and ability sufficient to the task.” A few years later, and somewhat chastened by his experiences amid the Irish in America, McGee would temper his tributes to the Irish past by encouraging his readers to be frank about their current situation. “The ‘Emigrant’ Press,” he wrote, “have foolishly concealed the faults of our people, and they have not sought out their weaknesses, nor attempted to cure their character of the strange solecisms which weaken and deprave it.”
McGee’s commitment to Repeal, and, as Wilson effectively demonstrates, his displeasure with the petty infighting among Irish Americans coupled with his strong anti-Protestantism, drove him back to Ireland in 1845. His attachment to the fallen O’Connell and his circle waning (even as he took up a post writing for the circle’s Freeman’s Journal in Dublin, as well as a stint as their London correspondent), he soon joined the Young Ireland movement grouped around Thomas Davis and Charles Gavan Duffy. The Famine soon became, of course, an increasingly unavoidable backdrop to all politics and Wilson nicely chronicles McGee’s developing relation to the issue. In October of 1845 McGee remarked, “On the whole, though we must accept some degree of scarcity, I think I may safely add there are as yet no sufficient grounds for apprehending anything like famine.” History was to tell another story and Wilson’s description of the horrible winter of 1846-47 is suitably chilling, adding that the situation was “exacerbated by inadequate, inconsistent, and ideologically driven British relief policies”. “exacerbated by inadequate, inconsistent, and ideologically driven British relief policies” McGee, though he worked toward various solutions, often felt a sense of helplessness and reacted angrily to a suggestion that Irish leaders back a plan of mass migration of the Irish population to British North America. Ironically, Wilson notes, years later McGee would trumpet just such a plan for the movement of the Irish poor from American cities to rural Canada.
Last Updated (Tuesday, 09 June 2009 07:52)