Irish Montrealers mark 150 years since assassination of Thomas D'Arcy McGee

A prayer service and wake in Montreal honoured Thomas D'Arcy McGee, an architect of Canadian Confederation.

The Montreal MP's death in 1868 prompted one of largest public funerals in Canadian history

More than 80,000 people attended D’Arcy McGee’s funeral procession in Montreal on Apr. 13, 1868. At the time, there were approximately 105,000 people living in Montreal. (James Inglis/Library and Archives Canada)

It was well past midnight when Thomas D'Arcy McGee left Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Apr. 7, 1868 and started on his short walk home to a boarding house down the block.

Debate had gone on late, and the Montreal MP, considered "the most eloquent" of the founders of Confederation, had just finished delivering a speech.

It would be his last. 

D'Arcy McGee, 42, was shot dead on his doorstep that morning — the first political assassination in the history of the fledgling Dominion of Canada.
Formerly a pro-annexation Irish nationalist, Thomas D'Arcy McGee moved to Montreal in 1857 at the invitation of the city’s Irish community. (William Notman/Library and Archives Canada)

150 years later to the day, Irish Montrealers, including some of D'Arcy McGee's descendants, gathered to remember his legacy.

"He was instrumental in shaping the country the way it is today, with our emphasis on minority rights — be it minority language or minority religious rights," said Ken Quinn, vice-president of Montreal's St. Patrick's Society and one of the organizers of Saturday's several events. 

The day began with a service at D'Arcy McGee's grave site in the Notre-Dame-des-Neiges cemetery on Mount Royal. It was followed by a memorial mass held at Saint Patrick's Basilica, and ended with a 'Irish wake' at Hurley's Irish Pub.
On the 150th anniversary of D'Arcy McGee's death, his descendant D'Arcy Quinn and the VP of the Montreal St. Patrick's society Ken Quinn talk about how the founder of confederation is being remembered. 12:28

The events were a more modest affair than D'Arcy McGee's funeral procession on Apr. 13, 1868, which drew a crowd of 80,000 in Montreal, out of the city's total population of 105,000 at the time. The day would have also marked his 43rd birthday.

"I don't think you'd see a percentage like that [for a funeral] again," said Quinn, who likened it to the funeral of Maurice "Rocket" Richard, in terms of its impact on Montreal. 

"The city closed down for the day," he said.

"The streets were just lined with people from all walks of life." 

From rebel to moderate

Born in Carlingford, Ireland, D'Arcy McGee arrived in Montreal in 1857.

Within a year, he had founded a newspaper, was elected to the legislative assembly of the Province of Canada and, not long after, completed a law degree at McGill University. 
Descendants and members of the St. Patrick's Society lay wreaths at the crypt of D'Arcy McGee in the Notre-Dame-des-Neiges cemetery Saturday. (Sarah Leavitt/CBC)

"They called him the most eloquent of Fathers of Confederation," said Quinn. 

"He just had a way of speaking. He had a way of convincing people."

His vocal support for Confederation was a far cry from his previous view: that the United States should annex Canada.

Later in life though, D'Arcy McGee began to see Canada as a place where religious minorities could co-exist and have their rights respected, according to Quinn.  

"The one thing needed for making Canada the happiest of homes is to rub down all sharp angles and to remove those asperities which divide our people on questions of origin and religious profession," D'Arcy McGee said. 

"The man who says this cannot be done … is a blockhead."

But perhaps D'Arcy McGee's biggest political about-face was his stance on Irish independence. 
Thomas D'Arcy McGee's book, A popular history of Ireland: from the earliest period to the emancipation of the Catholics, Volume 1, is one of the original works that will be on display at Saint Patrick's Basilica in Montreal Saturday. (Canadian Museum of History)

"In his early years, he was rebellious," said Quinn. "He spoke against the Irish being under the British thumb."

As a newspaper writer in Ireland and the U.S., D'Arcy McGee had been a staunch Irish nationalist and had agitated for independence during the failed Young Irelander rebellion of 1848, according to Library and Archives Canada.

Yet by 1861, he would say: "We have no right to intrude our Irish patriotism on this soil; for our first duty is to the land where we live and have fixed our homes."

Fenian plot?

D'Arcy McGee began to use his platform to condemn the Fenian Brotherhood, an Irish republican movement founded in the U.S., sparking anger from some of his former supporters. 

"Secret Societies are like what the farmers in Ireland used to say of scotch grass," he wrote in the Montreal Gazette. "The only way to destroy it is to cut it out by the roots and burn it into powder." 
The City of Ottawa offered a $2,000 reward for the assassin of Thomas D'Arcy McGee, though according to the Canadian Encyclopedia, authorities arrested Patrick James Whelan less than 20 hours after D'Arcy McGee's death. (The Canadian Encyclopedia/Historica Canada)

While it's widely believed that Patrick James Whelan, the Irish Montrealer and tailor who was tried, convicted and publicly hanged for D'Arcy McGee's murder, did so as part of a Fenian plot, Library and Archives Canada points out that the Crown never accused Whelan of being a Fenian.

Though police found pro-Fenian materials and a .32 calibre revolver that had been recently fired in his possession, Whelan maintained his innocence until his execution in 1869, in one of Canada's last public hangings. 

Back into the fold

Even Montreal's St. Patrick's Society, though it has organized events in his honour and has cared for his burial site for decades, has a fraught history with D'Arcy McGee. 

Just a few months before his death, he was kicked out of the society because his views on Irish republicanism did not sit well with Fenian sympathizers within the group, according to Quinn. 

D'Arcy McGee was even, the Montreal Gazette noted, absent from that year's St. Patrick's Day parade in Montreal — opting to celebrate in Ottawa after the fallout.

Despite the parting of ways, the St. Patrick's society still took part in D'Arcy McGee's funeral cortege, in front of thousands of his supporters in Montreal.

D'Arcy McGee was finally posthumously reinstated to the society in 2012.

"We recognized that perhaps his being expelled really was unfounded back then," Quinn said.

About the Author

Ainslie MacLellan

Ainslie MacLellan is a journalist at CBC Montreal. Follow her on Twitter: @CBCAinslie.