This week is the 48th anniversary of one of the world’s great murder mysteries, the assassination of the greatest of all Irish Americans, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. JFK was killed for a radical idea. The radical idea was the talk of the abolition of war. JFK chose talk over war – in Cuba, twice, in Berlin and in Laos. The military industrial complex came to see this as high treason. They killed him for it.
Canadians also have their own political murder mystery. Just as we do not know the name of those who actually killed Kennedy – Oswald was as he said he was, the patsy – we still do not really know who killed Thomas D’Arcy McGee, even though Patrick Whelan was hanged for it. It was said of Whelan that "he didn’t kill McGee – but he held the horse for the man who did." His trial was a farce. He was railroaded to the gallows, the last public hanging in Canada.
The name Thomas D’Arcy McGee has poetic power. A poet, a writer and the greatest speaker of his time. A key figure in the cabinet of Sir John A. Macdonald, he became a father of Confederation. He too was murdered for a radical idea. The idea was Canada – a Canada where the Old World hatreds would be left behind.
According to the magisterial new two-volume biography of McGee by David A. Wilson, "You always knew where McGee was in a room: that was where people were laughing." McGee believed that the country could be sewn together, and could work using principles of fairness and equity. The key to his vision was the recognition of minority rights. At the time this was another radical idea. His nationalism became broad minded and inclusive, with a place for francophones and Protestants. He also recognized that the English of Canada were not the English of his native Ireland. English Canadians were not the English who took advantage of a potato famine to drive a million people from the land, and kill another million.
In Ireland, the young McGee became a revolutionary during the potato famine of the 1840s. McGee was a ferocious republican in the face of the racism and contempt with which the English viewed the Irish. McGee participated in the rising of radical nationalists in 1848. It failed – too small and too intellectual.
The failure of the 1848 uprising against the British fuelled the Fenian movement. The Fenians were American Irish nationalists. They wanted to raise a rebellion in the U.S. against British controlled Canada. They wanted to kidnap Canada and hold it to free Ireland. They even launched a series of cross-border raids from Vermont and New York state. It now seems like a hare-brained scheme. But it was deadly serious. McGee’s denunciation of it had deadly consequences.
McGee believed that the horror of the famine should be left behind. "There is nothing to be more dreaded in this country than feuds arising from exaggerated feelings of religion and nationality," he said.
McGee came to believe that the English Crown in Canada should be used as a shield against the American republic, a republic which showed little regard for minority rights, notably Catholic. Only 50 years earlier the United States had attempted to capture Canada during the War of 1812.
The death threats rolled in to McGee. There were so many, McGee kept them in a scrapbook.
McGee gave one of his gem-like speeches during a night sitting of Parliament. Two men, including Whelan, denounced him from the visitor’s gallery. McGee walked down to Sparks Street, turned right and approached his boarding house, Mrs. Trotters’. She heard him fumbling with his key in the lock and opened the door. Suddenly she heard a shot. McGee fell to the ground, dead, with a wound in the back of his head.
His funeral was an extraordinary event. It filled the pews of the new Irish Catholic Cathedral, St. Patrick’s. More than 80,000 people lined the streets of Montreal to witness the procession. The city population was only 105,000. It was the biggest gathering of any kind up to that time in the history of British North America. McGee is buried in a crypt in the side of the hill in the Catholic mountain cemetery.
Wherever you are this weekend, on the anniversary of JFK’s funeral, raise a glass in honour of two great politicians with Irish in their blood – Kennedy and McGee.
Thomas D’Arcy McGee, Volume 2: The Extreme Moderate, 1857-1868
by David A. Wilson
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 528 pp.