A confederate felled by Fenians
BIOGRAPHY:Thomas D’Arcy McGee, Volume 2: The Extreme Moderate, 1857-1868 By David AWilson McGill-Queen’s University Press, 510pp. €34
THE YOUNG IRELANDERS were a talented group. Thomas Davis inspired one of the greatest journals in Irish history, the Nation. Its cofounders (in 1842) were Charles Gavan Duffy, whose son George was a signatory of the 1921 Treaty, and John Blake Dillon, who established a dynasty of political leaders and scholars.
Thomas D’Arcy McGee belonged to the second division. Nonetheless, in the course of his brief and controversial life he produced a dozen (mainly historical) books, about 300 poems and countless newspaper articles. The first volume of this biography, Passion, Reason and Politics, recounted McGee’s life to 1857, when he was invited to Montreal by leading members of the Irish community. His variegated career spanned the trajectory of Young Ireland rebel, Irish-American journalist, ultramontane Catholic and imperial politician.
McGee was born in Carlingford, Co Louth, in 1825. He emigrated at 17, was offered a job with the Boston Pilot and became editor within two years. He was invited to join the staff of the Dublin Freeman’s Journal and served as its parliamentary correspondent in London. He transferred to the Nation and, as the Young Irelanders moved towards insurrection in 1848, was sent to Scotland and, later, Co Sligo to rouse sympathisers. When the rebellion collapsed he was sheltered by the Catholic bishop of Derry, before fleeing to the US disguised as a priest.
He started a New York edition of the Nation. The fastidious Dillon – then an emigre, too – considered him an opportunist who lacked “good feeling” and traded on the misfortunes of his country. At first McGee criticised the church for its opposition to revolution, but, not wishing to contribute to anti-Catholic nativism in the US, he soon moderated his views. As a result he was reproached for abandoning Irish republicanism.
The second and final volume of David A Wilson’s biography, The Extreme Moderate, discusses McGee’s emergence as the leading Irish-Canadian politician and chief publicist of confederation. It is a political rather than a personal biography, with only oblique references to McGee’s heavy drinking. The chapters on Fenianism will be of particular interest to Irish readers. McGee became a force for moderation while developing a Burkean aversion to revolution. His constitutional conservative model for Canada brought him into conflict with militant Irish nationalism.
His bilious attitude towards Fenianism cost him his life. He mocked the leader of the American Fenian Brotherhood, John O’Mahony, as “incurably insane”. McGee became a hate figure to many Fenian sympathisers, one of whom assassinated him on the doorstep of his Ottawa boarding house in April 1868. His funeral, the largest that Canada had seen, took place on what would have been his 43rd birthday.
In challenging the view that Fenianism was primarily an external threat, Wilson overestimates its significance in Canada. He asserts that “although the number of sworn Canadian Fenians was small, they were a pervasive presence throughout Irish Catholic Canada”. He estimates that there were about 3,500 members in an Irish Catholic population of 260,000, with only “a minority within a minority” being prepared to use force in Canada to hasten annexation to the US and promote revolution in Ireland.
McGee remarked that, in Canada, the Irish were dispersed throughout the countryside rather than crammed into cities, as in the US. In this environment there was little room for Fenianism, except in Toronto, where “Orangeism had been made the pretext of Fenianism, and Fenianism is doing its best to justify and magnify Orangeism”. But, even there, “the brethren of sedition are a handful, and their head centre is a nobody”. This was a reference to Michael Murphy, whose quasi-Fenian Hibernian Benevolent Society emerged as a response to Orange provocation. On Guy Fawkes night 1864, 400 Hibernians assembled at Queen’s Park, formed two companies, marched, and saluted each other with rifle fire.
In April 1866 Murphy was intercepted, along with six other Toronto Fenians, en route to take part in O’Mahony’s farcical attempt to capture Campobello, a British island off Maine. This Fenian alarm played a crucial role in swinging New Brunswick behind confederation.
“Red Jim” McDermott, informer and agent provocateur, who called McGee a traitor, joined the British secret service in 1865, and not in the 1880s as Wilson suggests. McDermott helped to split the American brotherhood by encouraging it to invade Canada. Murphy supported the O’Mahony wing and denounced the “mad and traitorous” idea of liberating Ireland through an attack on the “unoffending people” of Canada.
With synchronicity, the term Fenian, in its generic sense, entered the sectarian lexicon through Canada. In the climate of fear and uncertainty following a raid by Irish veterans of the American Civil War in June 1866, the Stratford Beacon observed: “With some narrow-minded people the idea appears to prevail that if a person is a Catholic, he must necessarily be a Fenian.” To what extent a major incursion would have tested Irish-Canadian ambivalence remains conjectural. Wilson, a Toronto history professor, has written the definitive biography of McGee but not the last word on North American Fenianism.
Brendan Ó Cathaoir is a journalist and historian