Thomas D’Arcy McGee: passion, reason, and politics, 1825–1857, vol. I

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Book Reviews, General, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2008), Reviews, Volume 16

Thomas D’Arcy McGee: passion, reason, and politics, 1825–1857, vol. I
David A. Wilson
(McGill–Queen’s University Press, $39.95)
ISBN 9780773533578

Now a somewhat obscure figure, Thomas D’Arcy McGee is a prime subject for scholarly biography. As author David A. Wilson’s concluding paragraph notes, McGee went from extreme Irish republican to extreme Irish American Catholic to extreme Canadian moderate. To top it all off, his career concluded at the receiving end of a bullet—Canada’s assassinated ‘father of Confederation’. A professor in the Celtic Studies Program and the Department of History at the University of Toronto, Wilson has written a book that, while suitably academic in terms of underlying rigour and resort to primary sources, also benefits from a flowing, accessible style. The pages turn easily. Although sympathetic to its subject, it’s not a work of hagiography. Nor is it a hatchet job. One can come away from it as an admirer, a sceptic or even a scoffer.
While a lengthy first chapter takes a broad overview encompassing McGee’s total career, the primary focus of this first volume is the years leading up to his 1857 move to Canada. It’s a good story, full of political advocacy, failed revolution and the subsequent life of a crusading exile in the United States. Five chapters are devoted to the Young Ireland years. Returning from the United States in 1845, McGee gravitates towards the movement gathered around Thomas Davis and Charles Gavan Duffy, ultimately aligning with them rather than with O’Connell’s Repeal Association. (Ironically, one of the points of division is American slavery. O’Connell refuses to accept money from American Repeal associations that acquiesce in slavery. The Young Irelanders insist that Repeal must take priority over Abolitionism, and at least one of them, John Mitchel, was favourably disposed towards slavery.)
Although some of his new colleagues consider him unpolished, McGee becomes a key player. For the most part, he allies with the movement’s relatively conservative wing in opposition to the more radical Mitchel and John Fintan Lalor. In the process, he falls under the influence of the English maverick David Urquhart. Then comes the European revolutionary fever of 1848. McGee, along with the other conservatives, is swept up. When the revolution falls flat that summer, he goes on the run, escaping by ship to the United States. The whole Young Ireland episode takes a bit over three years.
Like all good biographies, the book seeks to provide a sense of who its subject really was. Two attributes stand out. First, there is the sense of inner turbulence. Driven by a hunger for heroes and a penchant for melodrama, McGee wages a constant struggle between passion and moderation. An intellectual disciple of Edmund Burke, he comes to believe in Burke’s insight that ‘what is not possible is not desirable’, but readers will be excused for concluding that this belief was perhaps more aspirational than practically embedded. The other attribute is the importance of McGee’s Catholicism. Nothing else matters as much. Indeed, it is feasible to see his disillusion with life in the United States as primarily driven by a desire for social and political space where Catholic values could be nourished. In addition to what he perceives as anti-Irish discrimination, McGee comes to view the United States as hostile to family life, lacking in order and overly focused on the acquisition of material things. It has a thirst for excitement that offends him. In this environment, Irish Catholic immigrants are likely to lose their moral compass and succumb to homogenisation. To McGee, Americanisation becomes tantamount to Protestantism. In contrast, Canada appears to be a more tranquil, respectful place. And in its separate schools it has a social environment that facilitates the preservation of Catholic values. For someone whose earlier political career had been marked by hostility to Britain, the McGee of 1854 comes to a different view as far as Canada is concerned. To quote him directly, ‘The British flag does indeed fly here, but it casts no shadow’. All in all, a fascinating portrait. Roll on volume II!

A native of Dublin, Pat Murphy has lived in Toronto since 1965, where he presents the month-end edition of ‘The Long Note’ on CKLN radio.

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