Observing the First Centenary of D’Arcy McGee
Canada honors this month an Insh-Canadian, who died “the most eloquent defender of British rule on the face of the globe.” Fifty-seven years ago this week Thornas D’Arcy McGee, M.P., fell, by an assassin s hand, in Ottawa.
M. GRATTAN O’LEARY
ON APRIL 13, 1825, there was born in Ireland, Thomas D’Arcy McGee. On April 7, 1868, there fell in Ottawa, by an assassin’s hand, Thomas D’Arcy McGee.
On April 13, this year, there will be held in Ottawa a gathering, international in character, to honor the memory and achievements of this romantic Celt of tragic memory who, reared in the Young Ireland movement, lived to become, in the words of Lord -Mayo, “the most eloquent defender of British rule on the face of the globe.”
The event will be one of the most imposing, the most unique, ever held in Canada. Representatives .of Ireland and of the United States—for McGee shed lustre on three nations—will be present; Liberal and Conservative, Catholic and Protestant, Orangeman and Hibernian, captain of industry and representative of Labor—all will unite to pay homage to the memory of this illustrious Irish-C anadian.
Germinated in the mind of Hon. Charles Murphy, Postmaster General, the gathering will be a roll call of the “Sea-divided Gael”—but it will be something more than that. It will be Canada’s tribute to an adopted son who belongs to the centuries; and an event of significance in the national life that will have its place in history.
The Story of McGee
POLITICAL biography holds nothing more tragic, and little more strange, than the story of D’Arcy McGee. Starting upon the road to fame through the pathway of journalism, he had attracted at the early age of eighteen years, the attention of an entire nation; and at twenty he had become a power in the journalistic and the literary world of his native land. At the age of eighteen he crossed the seas and engaged in newspaper work in Boston for three years.
Boston was then the home of Longfellow, Emerson, Prescott, Lowell, Holmes, and the rest of that brilliant group of New England geniuses; yet in this atmosphere D’Arcy McGee, still in his teens, achieved a literary reputation. In 1845 one of his articles came to the attention of Daniel O’Connell, the great Irish liberator, and McGee was invited to return to his native land to join the editorial staff of the historic Freeman's Journal. For three years thereafter he threw himself into the whirlpool of Irish politics, his ardent temperament forcing him into the ranks of the Young Ireland movement. The light of O’Connell was then on the wane, and McGee left the Freeman for the columns of The Nation, a newspaper which made the written word a power in Ireland, and awakened a new spirit of Celtic nationality. His colleagues were John Mitchell—grandfather of the man who some years ago was a famous mayor of New York— Charles Gavan Duffy, who became Prime Minister of Australia; Thomas Davis, one of whose descendants sat for years in Canada’s Senate, and Thomas Francis Meagher—“Meagher of the sword”—who won imperishable glory in the American Civil War. No more brilliant
group of young intellectuals ever battled for a cause in any land, but it was the old story of heroic effort, of crushing disaster, of miserable defeat.
Comes to Canada
THE insurrection of 1848 ended with the arrest of the principal leaders, but McGee, with a price upon his head, managed to escape to America. Then followed a memorable controversy with Archbishop Hughes and various journalistic ventures. The Native American Party, with its record of bitter hostility to the Irish, was then at the flood tide of its power, and from it McGee seems to have imbibed a keen dislike for republicanism. On a lecture tour through Canada he was struck with the wide measure of liberty enjoyed by his church and his countrymen under British rule, and this undoubtedly went far toward influencing him once more to take up residence under the Union Jack. He, therefore, migrated to Montreal where, in 1857, he established the New Era, and threw himself with characteristic energy and enthusiasm into politics and public life.
McGee’s expansive intellect, with its historic sweep, immediately visualized the need of Canadian federation, and in 1858, one year after taking up residence in Canada, and years before contemporary statesmen dreamed of union, he made this prophetic utterance:
“I look to the future of my adopted country with hope, but not without anxiety. I see in the remote distance one great nationality bound like the shield of Achilles by the blue rim of ocean. I see it quartered into many communities, each disposing of its internal affairs, but all bound together by free institutions, free intercourse and free commerce. I see within the round of that shield the peaks of the western mountains and the crests of the eastern waves, the winding Assiniboine, the five-fold lakes, the St. Lawrence, the Saguenay, the St. John, the Basin of Minas. By all these flowing waters in the valleys they fertilize, in all the cities they visit in their courses, I see a generation of industrious, contented, moral men, free in name and in fact—men capable of maintaining in peace and in war a constitution worthy of such a country.”
In the years that followed we find McGee in
opposition in the Cartier-Macdonald administration; a member of the Sandfield Macdonald-Sicette government as President of the Council; and as Minister of Agriculture in the cabinet of a former antagonist, Sir E. P. Tache. Up to this time McGee had not found scope for his peculiar genius, but with the opening of the movement for Confederation he cast aside all minor problems and threw all that he had of energy and eloquence into that great campaign.
To-day, looking over the records of that historic period, it is not too much to say that this Confederation might never havebeen achieved or, at least, would have been long delayed had it not been for the abundant genius of Thomas D’Arcy McGee. His was the breadth and the range of mind, ripened by rich scholarship, which fathered the idea; his the eloquent pen and tongue which fastened it upon the consciousness of the dis-united provinces; and, to the very end, when faint hearts contributed but doubts and fears, his was the voice that soared most confidently and most persuasively on to the final victory. In his paper, the New Era, McGee was the first Canadian journalist to advocate federation. In that journal, with
all the limpidity and beauty of English which added to the richness of his gifts, he preached the doctrine in issue after issue; and later on, at a time when Macdonald and Cartier and Brown were still far from cooperation, he carried his message from Upper Canada to the Maritime Provinces in a series of brilliant orations. Without the statesmanship of Macdonald, the patriotism of Cartier, and the moral courage of Brown, unity could never have been achieved; but it still stands true that without the vision, inspiration and eloquence of McGee their co-operation could have never taken place.
TN THESE days when
voices are raised in fear as to the future of Confederation, it strengthens to go back to some of the utterances of D’Arcy McGee. For throughout all his orations, and they were many and notable, the central theme is unity, unity of these provinces, of all races, classes and creeds, in what he termed “a great new Northern nation,” a “United British America.”
A Prophet of Unity
“The next motive for union to which I refer,” he said in one speech, “is Continued on page 50
Observing Centenary of D’Arcy McGee
Continued from page 21
that it will strengthen rather than weaken the connection with the Empire, so essential to these rising provinces. It may be said that it is rather strange for an Irishman, who spent his youth in resisting that government in his native country, to be found amongst the admirers of British constitutional government in Canada. To that remark this is my reply: If in my day Ireland had been governed as Canada is now governed I would have been as sound a constitutionalist as is to be found in Ireland.”
To those of his own racial origin he addressed these words: “We Irishmen, Protestant and Catholic, born and bred in a land of religious controversy, should never forget that we now live in a land of the fullest religious and civil liberty.”
It was characteristic of the man that when Sir John Macdonald was forming his Cabinet, after Confederation, McGee waived his just claims to a portfolio in favor of a much lessableman, a Mr. Kenny of Halifax. The election of 1868 was held in the summer and McGee stood for a part of Montreal known as the “Fenian local centre.” His opponent was a Mr. Devlin, and there is little doubt that McGee’s bitter denunciation of Fenianism had considerable to do with the dwindling of his former majority, but no one ever dreamt that already his life had been marked out for extinction.
McGee As An Orator
IN THE debates of the following session McGee stood out as an orator of supreme beauty. He became the leading champion of Confederation, and, at a time when Parliament contained giants like Macdonald, Cartier, Tilley, Tupper and others, stood out as the most picturesque, the most engaging, and perhaps the best-beloved figure in Canadian public life. His speeches were contributions of lasting quality to the nation’s political literature. He possessed something of the torrential eloquence of O’Connell, the “proud full sail” of Grattan, and the beauty and simplicity of Lincoln. No Canadian orator, except Laurier, perhaps, has approached him in fidelity of diction.
Just two days before his death McGee wrote his famous letter to Lord Mayo. On that day he dined with an old friend, Alderman Goodwin. Dinner was scarcely over when he excused himself, saying he had a letter or two to write—one of great importance. Being pressed to do so, he wrote in Mr. Goodwin’s study, and on reentering the dining room he remarked to Mrs. Goodwin:
“I have written a letter to Lord Mayo on the state of Ireland, compared with Canada. I feel happy in having done so, for it has been on my mind for some time; now it is done, and something tells me it will do good to Ireland. So in God’s name I will go now and post it at once.”
Long before the letter had reached its destination McGee was cut down by the pistol of the assassin. It has been written that the letter “struck the heart of the British nation like a cry for justice from the grave.” Its pleadings sank deeply into the minds of British statesmen, and among those who paid their mede of tribute to McGee in later years, was the great Gladstone himself.
The Fatal Night
THE fatal night of April 6-7 arrived and the news that McGee was to speak drew a large crowd to Parliament Hill. The speech was a model of fervid parliamentary eloquence. Speaking, as he said, not as a representative of any class or creed, McGee eulogized Confederation, made an earnest plea for conciliation with the Maritime provinces and a noble defence of his absent friend, Dr. Tupper. It was McGee’s last and greatest effort. It has been written that House and galleries were held in hushed awe by the
eloquence of the orator. And while the sound of applause was still ringing in his ears, McGee left the chamber to go home —and went to eternal silence.
The news of the tragedy spread like fire throughout the city. Cables sped the tragic story across the seas. Old newspaper correspondents still tell, in connection with the tragedy, of one of the greatest exclusive stories ever secured by a Canadian morning newspaper, when the old Toronto Leader managed to give all available details of the murder to its readers on the same morning of the crime; its Ottawa correspondent having been one of the first to arrive upon the spot where the body of the dead statesman lay before his hotel door.
The greatest excitement prevailed in Ottawa, and before the day went by the county jail was filled with suspects. Through his connection with the Fenian Brotherhood, suspicion fell upon Patrick J. Whelan.
Scenes in the Commons
THE scene in the Commons when the House met in the afternoon was a moving one. Sir John Macdonald rose amid breathless silence, and, manifesting an emotion that stopped his power of utterance for some time, paid tribute to McGee, preparatory to moving the adjournment of the House.
“He who last night, nay this morning, was with us, whose voice is still ringing in our ears, who charmed us with his marvelous eloquence, elevated us by his large statesmanship, and instructed us by his wisdom, his patriotism, is no more-— is foully murdered. If ever a soldier who fell on the field of battle deserved well of his country, Thomas D’Arcy McGee deserved well of Canada and her people. He might have lived a long and respected life had he chosen the easy path of popularity, rather than the stern one of duty.”
Hardly less impressive and eloquent were the tributes of Mackenzie, Cartier, Anglin and others. The House could scarcely realize that the voice of McGee was hushed forever.
The trial of Whalen for the murder of McGee stands out as the most dramatic in Canadian criminal annals.
It is interesting to note that the accused, an Irish Catholic, was defended by an Orangeman, and prosecuted by one of his own faith.
Link by link the penetrating mind of O’Reilly forged a chain of guilt around him. He showed how on one occasion Whalen had threatened to “shoot McGee like a rat”; how for more than a year he had dogged McGee’s footsteps; how he had called at his boarding house on two occasions on the pretence of getting a drink; how he had sat in the Gallery of the Commons on the night that McGee made his last speech. A messenger of the House swore that Whalen showed great agitation when McGee was delivering his oration; that he had shaken his finger menacingly at the orator; and that when McGee left the House, Whalen followed and was later seen lurking in the shadow of the porch.
The last link in the chain of guilt around Whalen was furnished by a young French-Canadian, John Baptiste Lacroix, who swore he witnessed the murderous deed, and that Whalen was the man who fired the fatal shot. This, with the proof that the revolver found in Whalen’s possession was emptied of one cartridge, and that the bullet found in the murdered man’s head was of the same calibre, made the evidence against Whalen seem overwhelming; and the verdict of “guilty” came as no surprise.
When sentence was passed upon him, Whalen made a dramatic and impassioned profession of innocence. He displayed a power of language and ar, Continued on page 56
Continued from page 50 intensity of eloquence that profoundly stirred the court.
The Crown exhausted every means at its disposal to show that McGee was the victim of a Fenian conspiracy, and utterly failed. There is hardly a doubt that Whalen was actuated by political motives. But for the sake of historical accuracy it is right to recall that there was nothing in the evidence to show that he acted other than on his own responsibility, and for himself alone. There are those, even, who to this day hold that he was not the perpetrator of the crime.
McGee’s Literary Genius
IN THE realm of literature, McGee, had his life been spared, might have reached the summit of fame. It has been said of him, that of all the rhetorical qualities of poetry—rhythm and phrase and picturesque diction—he possessed a greater measure than any other of the Nation poets. But he wrote with a careless energy which if it always produced something remarkable, yet rarely left it strong and finished in every part. As a writer of prose he possessed a graceful, yet dashing and vigorous style; though his writings were always more remarkable for their message than their form. In the final years he spent in Canada, when the cares of statecraft weighed heavily upon his mind, McGee’s poetry was chiefly of a religious character. About two years before his death he penned these beautiful lines:
“Mighty our Holy Church’s will To guard her parting souls from ill; Jealous of death she guards them still Miserere Domine!
The dearest friend will turn away And leave the clay to keep the clay.
Ever and ever she will stay—
Among McGee’s papers after his death was found a list of topics for poems as follows: “He came unto His own and His own received Him not,” “The night com-
eth in which no man can work,” and “I believe in the Communion of Saints.”
The solemn significance of these scriptural texts, selected as the subjects of future verses, probably a few weeks or a few days before his untimely death, is interesting. Indeed some of his very latest poems read like the voice of Impending Doom—
“So have bright spirits been Eclipsed and lost
For ever dark, if by death’s Shadow crossed.”
And again still more like presentiment:
“Oh, even thus death strikes the Gifted then
Come the worms—inquests—and The ward of men.”
The celebration to be held in Ottawa on April 13th will be but a fitting recognition of D’Arcy McGee’s services. To Canada he gave abundantly of his genius. In the cause of national unity no voice was more eloquent, no pen mightier than his. He died at the cradle of Confederation. His heart loved Ireland to the last; but it was big and generous enough to admit of other affections, and beside a love of the land of his birth.there grew up a love almost as strong and enduring for the land of his adoption.
“Oh no, not a heart, that ere knew him but mourns
Deep, deep over the grave where such glory is shrined—
O’er a monument fame will preserve ’mong the urns
Of the wisest, the bravest, the best of mankind.”
One may be permitted to hope, too, that this celebration, coming at a time wljen doubt seems to chill the hearts of söïüë>over the future of these provinces, wäll Teinvigorate the faith of our people; and that its echoes may carry across the seas to prove that Irishmen can unite, and to inspire the ideal of a common heritage in the cradle of their race.