Thomas D’Arcy McGee was born in Carlingford, co. Louth on April 13th 1825, the son of James McGee, a coast guard, and of Dorcas Catherine Morgan a Dublin bookseller who took part in the 1798 insurrection. When he was 8 years old they moved to Wexford town and he was educated there. At the age of 17, he emigrated to America and was interested in the Irish Repeal Movement. On 4th July 1842, he gave a speech at a Repeal meeting in Boston, and Daniel O’Connell used to refer to his speeches as “the inspired utterances of a young exiled boy in America.” McGee became editor of the ‘Boston Pilot’.
In 1845, Thomas D’Arcy McGee became London correspondent of the ‘Freeman’s Journal’ and soon afterwards he became the London correspondent of the Irish newspaper ‘The Nation’ and from there, he became leader writer of ‘The Nation’.
Charles Gavan Duffy admired McGees’ skills and describes him in this way:
“The young man was not prepossessing. He had a face of almost African type; his dress was slovenly even for the careless class to which he belonged; he looked unformed and had a manner which at first sight struck me as being too deferential for self-respect. But he had not spoken three sentences in a singularly sweet and flexible voice, till it was plain that he was a man of fertile brains and great originality; a man in whom one might dimly discover rudiments of the orator, poet, statesman, hidden under this ungainly disguise.”
Sir Samuel Ferguson regarded McGee as the most gifted of the Young Ireland poets, and it is by his poetry he will be best remembered. McGee published a large number of historical poems, his earlier poetry was purely national; his later verses were of a religious character. “At a time when his voice was loud in the Parliament of his adopted country in favour of Imperialism,” Martin MacDermott wrote, in the Introduction to the New Spirit of the Nation: “When his pen, in the History of Ireland, could find excuses for Pitt and scarce an execration even for Castlereagh, the poet still yearned with love and longing towards the distant island of his birth.”
McGee was an ardent Young Irelander in his youth but changed his views in later life.
From a lecture he gave in Wexford in 1865 entitled: “Twenty Years Experience of Irish Life in America””You will remember that I spent the years from 1842 to 1845 in the United States, and that I was one of the Young Irelanders in 1848. I am not at all ashamed of Young Ireland – why should I? Politically we were a pack of fools, but we were honest in our folly; and no man need blush at 40 for the faults on one and twenty, unless indeed, he still perseveres in them, having no longer the fair excuse of youth and inexperience.”
He was then the Hon. Thomas D’Arcy McGee, Minister of Agriculture in Canada and on an official visit to Ireland to represent Canada at an International Exhibition in Dublin.
At the meetings of the Repeal Association (pre 1846)and the Irish Confederation, of which he became Secretary, McGee delivered eloquent speeches. At the meeting of the Confederation on the 5th April, 1848, in seconding a resolution proposed by Mitchel (whose policy he had disapproved a few months previously with Smith O’Brien) for the formation of a National Guard, McGee said: –
“I second the resolution proposed by Mr. Mitchel for the enrolment of people because I consider such enrolment will be the best guarantee for life and peace and because I agree with the proposition that liberty is not a commodity that we can import in our ships or bring from France to order. It must, root itself in men’s hearts – it must nerve their arms in action, and their step to take unfalteringly the way to the gallows – it must circulate with the current of their blood, or they are not fully free. Freedom – native freedom, can only be the work of native men. Before this year of 1848 is out, the Irish people, are resolved to obtain that freedom at any cost. If 50,000 Frenchmen should come as allies to Ireland, I will welcome them as brothers and benefactors; if they came with any other object I would meet them as enemies and resist their landing. I support this motion of Mr. Mitchel because it will render foreign aid less necessary to us – because it proposes openly to invite neighbours in a neighbourly alliance, for the defence and assertion of the liberties of this country……. I tell the British Minister from this place (and a small trumpet may utter a great noise) we spurn his triennial Parliament – we spit on his federalism – we want no visits from the Sovereign of the Empire, and none from the Irish Sovereign, except she comes to summon her Irish estates in the Irish capital. I appeal to you, be firm and full of ostentatious courage in this crisis of our fate. Let England be quick – let her offer unconditional Repeal; we will take it and -forgive her.”
McGee was arrested on the 14th July, 1848, for delivering a “seditious” speech in the chapel grounds at Roundwood on the 2nd of that month, and returned for trial to the Wicklow Assises. He was accused of encouraging people to form clubs for the Repeal of the Union, such as those which had been formed Dublin, Cork and Limerick, and which were, ready, when necessity required it to strike a blow on the first opportunity.
He escaped conviction owing to the fact that through some mistake his case did not come before the Grand Jury at the Assizes then sitting, he was then allowed out on bail, and before the Assizes again met he was in America.
McGee wrote in a signed article “The Army of the League” which appeared in ‘The Nation’ on 22nd July, entitled ” The League must know when it is beaten from the halls of argument to the fields of force, and that, I foresee, is not a distant event. But if it will not know this, the people will, nay, do, and the next jury packed in Ireland will be the signal of a revolution which will sweep away every barrier of artifice and every obstacle opposed by power.”
McGee was a member of the War Council, and went to Scotland on a mission to procure recruits, arms and ammunition, and, if possible, to seize some ships on the Clyde and force the crews to bring them to the coast of Sligo for the projected Rising. The mission did not succeed, and he crossed to Ulster, where he was concealed by the Coadjutor-Bishop of Derry (Dr. Edward Maginn – who in 1848 had sent Sir John Gray to Charles Gavan Duffy with a message to the effect that he would take the file at the head of the priests of his diocese, if the insurrection did not take place before the harvest had been reaped.) . When he was in Ulster he met with his wife.
In Scotland he had read his description in the newspaper, ‘Eve and Cry’: “Thomas D’Arcy McGee-Connected with The Nation newspaper; 23 years of age; 5 feet 3 inches in height; black hair; dark face; delicate, pale, thin man; dresses generally black shooting coat, plaid trousers, light vest.” Disguised as a priest, be escaped to America, arriving in Philadelphia on the 10th Oct., 1848, and was befriended by Judge Emmet.
McGee started the ‘New York Nation’, which was devoted to the interests of Ireland. He placed the blame for the failure of the rising in 1848 on the priests and hierarchy, and so gained the disapproval of Archbishop Hughes who was very critical of him.
In 1850, he abandoned the paper which suffered badly in circulation owing to the Archbishop’s criticisms, and started the ‘American Celt’ newspaper in Boston. His political opinions underwent a complete change soon after this and he renounced all his revolutionary ideas. In a letter to Thomas Francis Meagher, McGee stated “that it is the highest duty of a Catholic man to go over cheerfully, heartily and at once, to the side of Christendom – to the Catholic side – and to resist, with all his might, the conspirators, who, under the stolen name of liberty, make war upon all Christian institutions.”
While connected with the Celt, McGee delivered a number of lectures on Irish and Catholic, subjects. He became very unpopular among a large section of the Irish population because of his abandonment of his earlier principles and was denounced as a traitor by the physical force party. He moved his paper to Buffalo, and from there to New York, and, in 1857, he left the country and settled in Canada. He started the ‘New Era’ in Montreal, and became active in politics. Within a year of his arrival in the city he was elected a member of the Legislative Assembly.
Replying to an accusation that he had been a “rebel” in Ireland, he said:-
“It is true I was a rebel in ’48. I rebelled against the misgovernment of my country by (Lord) Russell and his followers. I rebelled because I saw my countrymen starving before my eyes, while my country had her trade and, commerce stolen from her. I rebelled against the Church Establishment in Ireland, and there is not a Liberal man in this community who would not have done as I did, if he were placed in my position, and followed the dictates of humanity.”
He soon attained Cabinet rank, and in both 1862 and 1864 he was President of the Council. He took an active part in the formation of the Dominion of Canada and the federation of the provinces, and came to be regarded as one of the foremost statesmen and orators in the Dominion, to the Parliament of which he was elected as a member for Montreal in 1867, and appointed Minister for Agriculture.
McGee strongly denounced the invasion of Canada, by the Fenians and supported the prosecution of persons disloyal to the Crown In 1867 he visited Paris as a Canadian Commissioner to the Exhibition, and made a tour of the Continent. In the same year, with other members of the Canadian Cabinet, he laid before the British Cabinet in London the plan for the federation of the Canadian provinces.
On the morning of the 7th April, 1868, six days before his 43rd birthday, Thomas D’Arcy McGee was shot dead as he was entering his own house in Ottawa after returning from the Legislature. The Fenians, were accused of having been responsible for his death, and a man named Whelan was executed for it. A public funeral was given to McGee, and provision was made by the State for his widow and children.
McGee wrote a good deal in prose and verse. He contributed two volumes to the Library of Ireland:”Irish Writers of the Seventeenth Century”, and “Memoir of the Life and Conquests of Art MacMurrogh King of Leinster”. He also contributed many articles and numerous poems to The Nation during his residence in Ireland and in America under the pseudonyms “Montanus”; “Amergin”; “Sarsfield”; “Feargail”; “Gilla-Patrick”; “Gilla-Erin”; “M.” “T.D.M” and “An Irish Exile” amongst others.