Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/McGee, Thomas D'Arcy
McGEE, THOMAS D'ARCY (1825–1868), Irish-Canadian statesman and poet, born of an Ulster family at Carlingford, co. Louth, on 13 April 1825, was second son of James McGee, a coastguard. His mother's father, a Dublin bookseller named Morgan, had suffered imprisonment and financial ruin owing to his connection with the United Irishmen. In 1833 his father obtained an appointment in the custom-house at Wexford, and Thomas attended a day-school there. He showed an aptitude for study and a natural gift of eloquence. In 1842 he emigrated to America. After a brief stay at Providence, Rhode Island, he reached Boston in June, and entered the office of the ‘Boston Pilot’ as a clerk (Duffy, Four Years of Irish History, pp. 18–20). Before long he became editor of the newspaper. Reports of his activity in the Irish political movements in America, and his reputation as a writer and speaker, reached Ireland, and through the influence of O'Connell, it is said, he was appointed parliamentary correspondent of the ‘Freeman's Journal’ in London. Literature, however, had greater attractions for him than the business of the House of Commons. Duffy says he ‘was more absorbed in the achievements of Luke Wadding and Art Kavanagh than in those of Sir R. Peel or Lord John Russell’ (ib.) His connection with the ‘Freeman's Journal’ consequently soon closed. But he subsequently became London correspondent of the ‘Nation.’ To that paper he sent, besides letters, many poems, which appeared over one or another of the following signatures: ‘Montanus,’ ‘Amergin,’ ‘Feargail,’ ‘Sarsfield,’ ‘An Irish Exile,’ ‘GillaEirin,’ ‘Gilla-Patrick,’ and ‘M.’
In 1847 he was appointed secretary to the committee of the Irish Confederation, and returned to Ireland to take an active part in the literary propaganda of Young Ireland. In the same year he was arrested at Hollywood, co. Wicklow, but was released, and shortly afterwards he married. He was sent on a secret mission, which proved abortive, to Scotland in the following year. His orders were to rouse the Irish of Glasgow, to seize two or three of the Clyde steamers, and to force the hands to work the vessel round to the coast of Sligo. Thomas Francis Meagher [q. v.] bears testimony to the courage, enthusiasm, tact, and energy of M'Gee, and the charge that he betrayed the cause in Scotland may safely be rejected (Michael Cavanagh, Memoirs of T. F. Meagher, 1892, pp. 245–6). On his return to Ireland he was sheltered by Dr. Edward Maginn [q. v.], catholic coadjutor bishop of Derry, whose biography he wrote in later years, and finally, after the rout of his party, he escaped to America disguised as a priest. He arrived in Philadelphia on 10 Oct. 1848, and proceeding to New York, started there within a month the ‘New York Nation,’ which was a success until he came into collision with the clergy by his denunciations of the priests for dissuading the peasants from rebellion. He then went to Boston and founded in 1850 a paper called ‘The American Celt.’ The tone of this journal was at first republican or revolutionary, but McGee gradually changed his views, under the influence, it is said, of the Know-nothing movement in America, and advocated a return to constitutional methods (Drake, Dict. of Amer. Biog. p. 518). His secession from the ranks of his old comrades led to accusations of treachery, and he found it needful to remove his paper, first to Buffalo, and then to New York. But the continued attacks made upon him by Devin Reilly and others made it impossible for him to remain in America. Duffy remarks that ‘some of Reilly's articles about McGee were a disgrace to Irish-American journalism by their foulness and mendacity’ (Four Years of Irish History, 1883, pp. 458, 459, 775).
In 1857 McGee disposed of his newspaper property in America and settled in Montreal. There he started another paper, the ‘New Era,’ which was less successful than the ‘American Celt,’ but he soon achieved a high place in Canadian politics. Within a year of his arrival he was elected one of the three members for Montreal in the Legislative Assembly, and in May 1862, and again in 1864, his eloquence and administrative capacity procured him the important post of president of the council. He devoted much energy to assisting the formation of the Dominion of Canada and the federation of the provinces. ‘To him is due the chief credit of having all over British North America, in the maritime provinces as well as in Ontario, popularised the idea’ (Irishman in Canada, p. 654). When the union was accomplished, in 1867, his post of president was exchanged for that of minister of agriculture and emigration, and he was elected member for Montreal West in the Dominion parliament on 6 Nov. 1867.
McGee resolutely denounced the threatened Fenian invasion of Canada, and supported the prosecution of disloyal Irishmen. A plot to murder him was consequently matured, and in the early morning of 7 April 1868, as he was returning home after a parliamentary sitting, he was shot before his own house in the streets of Ottawa. Public indignation was intense, and McGee was accorded a magnificent state funeral. He left a widow and two daughters, who were provided for by the Canadian government. Twenty thousand dollars were offered for the capture of the murderer, and one P. J. Whelan was taken and hanged.
McGee was gifted with great eloquence, and his verse possessed a strength and terseness not very common in Irish poetry. His prose was virile and picturesque, and his ‘Popular History of Ireland’ is considered the best of its kind. His efforts to promote the union of the Canadian provinces and to render them loyal to England have met with due recognition, while his name is as well known in Ireland as that of any of the Young Irelanders, except Thomas Davis. His dark complexion gave him the sobriquet of ‘Darky’ McGee.
His published works, apart from separately published pamphlets and speeches, and twenty-eight lectures on English, Irish, and Canadian subjects (see H. J. Morgan, Bibl. Canadensis, pp. 265–7), are:
- ‘Historical Sketches of O'Connell and his Friends,’ 3rd edit. 12mo, Boston, 1845.
- ‘Irish Writers of the Seventeenth Century,’ 18mo, Dublin, 1846.
- ‘Memoir of the Life and Conquests of Art McMurrogh, King of Leinster,’ 12mo, Dublin, 1847.
- ‘Memoir of C. G. Duffy,’ Dublin, 1849.
- ‘A History of the Irish Settlers in North America,’ 12mo, Boston, 1851; 2nd edit. 8vo, 1852.
- ‘Irish Letters,’ New York, 1852.
- ‘History of the Attempts to establish the Protestant Reformation in Ireland,’ 12mo, Boston, 1853.
- ‘Catholic History of North America,’ 12mo, 1854.
- ‘Life of Edward Maginn, Coadjutor Bishop of Derry,’ 8vo, New York, 1857; Montreal, 1857, 12mo.
- ‘Canadian Ballads and Occasional Pieces,’ 8vo, Montreal, 1858.
- ‘A Popular History of Ireland,’ 8vo, 2 vols. New York, 1862; another edition in one volume, London, 1869.
- ‘The Crown and the Confederation’ (‘by a Backwoodsman’), 8vo, Montreal, 1864.
- ‘Notes on Federal Governments Past and Present,’ 8vo, Montreal, 1865; a French translation appeared in the same year at the same place.
- ‘Speeches and Addresses, chiefly on the subject of the British American Union,’ 8vo, London, 1865.
- ‘Two Speeches on the Union of the Provinces,’ 8vo, Quebec, 1865.
- ‘Poems,’ edited by Mrs. M. A. Sadleir, with introductory memoir and portrait, 8vo, New York, 1869.
[A Sketch of the Life of Hon. T. D. McGee, by H. J. O'C. French, Q.C. (Montreal); Appleton's Cyclop. of Amer. Biog. iv. 116–17; Allibone's Dict. of Engl. Lit. Supplement, ii. 1046; Nation, 18 and 25 April and 2 May 1868; Webb's Compendium of Irish Biog. pp. 312–13; Morgan's Bibl. Canadensis, pp. 265–7; Duffy's Four Years of Irish History; N. F. Davin's Irishman in Canada, Lond. 1887, pp. 648–59; O'Donoghue's Poets of Ireland, p. 146; Brit. Mus. Cat.]