Wednesday, April 5, 2017

D - D'Arcy McGee, Irish Rebel and One of Canada's Founding Fathers

Thomas D'Arcy McGee was born in a small village in Ireland in 1825 and grew up in a household with a strong Irish identify and no love for the British. At 17 McGee moved to Boston and got along fabulously with the equally British-hating Americans. He became a journalist and writer and became a famous figure among the Irish ex-pats in New England.

In 1845 at the start of the Potato Famine, McGee traveled in the opposite direction of most of his countrymen and returned home to Ireland where he fell in with a revolutionary Irish emancipation organization. After failed attempts to start revolutions in Scotland and Northern Ireland, McGee fled back to the US, his hatred of Britain redoubled. He went so far as to start preaching that the US should annex the Canadian colonies to prevent England from having any foothold on the North American continent.

“The United States of North America must necessarily in course of time absorb the Northern British Provinces,” he wrote. “A river like the St. Lawrence cannot safely be left in European hands. […] Either by purchase, conquest, or stipulation, Canada must be yielded by Great Britain to this Republic.”

The point is that the dude really hated Britain. But that's when this gets weird.

Turns out McGee didn't hate Britain so much as he just really loved the Irish (true, the two go hand in hand, but stay with me). He felt that his people needed to establish new communities in North America (they were leaving Ireland in droves, after all), and deduced that the more tolerant Canada would actually be a better home for them, especially after a rampant rise in US anti-immigration movements in the 1840s. (Seriously? You guys have been doing this for 170 years?)

He became so disillusioned with the US that in 1857 McGee moved to Montreal, started a newspaper and was elected to the legislature. He immediately started campaigning for Confederation, switching several parties until settling with the very British-friendly Conservatives. He toured the country and became well known as a speaker and helped sway the provinces, until Confederation officially made Canada an independent state in 1867. Prime Minister John A. MacDonald made McGee a member of his cabinet, as minister of agriculture, immigration and statistics. Wait, that seems like a weird portfolio...

This is the face of a guy who knew the difference between carrots and refugees.

McGee was assassinated less than a year later, allegedly by Irish nationalists who didn't like him buddying-up with the British. Ironically, he was killed by revolutionaries not much different than himself from his youth. The man tried and found guilty of his murder - a tailor named Patrick James Whelan - claimed he was innocent right up until his execution, and truth be told much of the evidence against him was almost too perfect (who keeps the murder weapon and Irish revolutionary materials in his house?), and the primary eye witness against him was completely discredited in court. Whelan still hanged, though. I'm sure it had nothing to do with the lawyers on both sides being Irish Orangemen...

Interesting side note: the assassination revealed to the new Canadian government that they probably needed to beef-up security, so the Dominion Police was founded in 1868 to guard the Parliament buildings in Ottawa. This was one of the forces that was later absorbed to create the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

A LOT of people showed up for McGee's funeral. Some were there to pay their respects, others just wanted to make sure he was dead.

You know the weirdest part of the story? There's a pub in downtown Ottawa today called D'Arcy McGee's, where they have on display a plaster cast of McGee's death hand. It was taken shortly after his assassination as a momento to his family, as well as a reminder of his great career as a orator. Apparently because that's the hand he wrote his speeches with? I guess we're lucky they didn't do a cast of his throat. Either way, you can enjoy the hand whilst sipping your pint and eating fish & chips on Sparks Street.


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