Today in Canada's Political History: D'Arcy McGee born in Ireland

  • National Newswatch

It is, of course, the birthday of the poet of Confederation, the great Thomas D'Arcy McGee.  To help mark this important Canadian anniversary, I have turned to his modern-era biographer, Professor David Wilson of the University of Toronto. A distinguished academic, he has brought the inspirational story of D'Arcy McGee to a whole new generation of Canadians. Our country is in his debt. Over to you Professor David WilsonOf all the Fathers of Canadian Confederation, none had a more remarkable past, none was more intellectually gifted, none was younger, and none met such a tragic end than Thomas D'Arcy McGee.  Less than a decade before he committed himself to creating a “new nationality” for Canada, D'Arcy McGee had been a revolutionary in Ireland, and declared with pride that he was “a traitor to the British government.”  By the time of his death in 1868 – felled by an assassin's bullet a week before his 43rd birthday – he was described as “one of the most eloquent advocates of British rule and British institutions on the face of the globe.”The journey from Irish revolutionary to Canadian conservative was the product of hard-bought experience, earned through his decade-long experiences as an exile in the United States.  Faced with a Protestant nativist backlash against Irish Catholic immigrants and appalled by what he saw as the collapse of public and private morality in the American republic, McGee abandoned his earlier liberalism and embraced an ultra-conservative form of Catholicism.  Alienated from American life, he became increasingly attracted to Canada, where Catholics could educate their children in their own schools, and had a secure place in political life – despite the best efforts of militants within the Protestant Orange Order.   “The British flag does indeed fly here,” he wrote, “but it casts no shadow.”A brilliant orator,  an outstanding journalist, author of a dozen books and hundreds of popular poems, McGee moved to Canada in 1857 and rapidly established himself as one of the country's leading figures.  He was reborn as a moderate politician who attempted to balance liberty and order, soften the edges of sectarian conflict, uphold minority rights, and foster a society in which people could bring out the best in themselves and others.  Canada could not only become a model of good government, but also provide an important lesson for the United Kingdom: when Irish Catholics were treated fairly, as he believed they were in Canada, they would be loyal subjects of the Crown.The major threats to this vision, in his view, were militant forms of Orangeism and revolutionary Irish nationalism, both of which had the potential to reproduce in Canada the kind of ethnic conflict that was tearing Ireland apart.  As revolutionary Irish nationalism assumed the form of Fenianism in North America, McGee took an utterly uncompromising stand against the movement – becoming an extremist in the defence of moderation, and fighting a version of his revolutionary younger self in the process.  His battle against Fenianism was conducted in the service of both his native and his adopted country.  In the end, it cost him his life.[caption id="attachment_550515" align="alignleft" width="494"] Thomas D'Arcy McGee, Father of Confederation[/caption]Arthur Milnes is an accomplished public historian and award-winning journalist.  He was research assistant on The Rt. Hon. Brian Mulroney's best-selling Memoirs and also served as a speechwriter to then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper and as a Fellow of the Queen's Centre for the Study of Democracy under the leadership of Tom Axworthy.  A resident of Kingston, Ontario, Milnes serves as the in-house historian at the 175 year-old Frontenac Club Hotel.