The Rebel Had Second Thoughts

By Peter Duffy

Thomas D’Arcy McGee By David A. Wilson (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 432 pages, $39.95)

In the summer of 1848, during the worst days of the Great Irish Famine, a band of idealistic revolutionaries tried to spark the starving Irish people into rebelling against their cruel British overlords. But the writers, poets and orators known collectively as Young Ireland weren’t able to deliver food to the nation’s dying peasants, and the uprising, famously confined to a single incident in the Widow McCormack’s cabbage patch in Ballingarry, County Tipperary, was over before it began.

The skirmish was pathetic – Irish-Americans were certain that the British had made the tale up to conceal a rebel victory. But it was also destructive. The British government’s meager relief efforts were curtailed still further in the wake of what was regarded as a galling act of disloyalty. It could be argued that Young Ireland has the blood of Irish peasants on its hands.

But it rarely is. There is nothing like a dashing band of rebels fighting for a good cause – particularly a dashing band of Irish rebels – to make myth out of exiguous reality. But the brief rebellion was not without effect: It served to inspire future challenges to imperial rule, including the one that finally drove the British from (most of) the island in the 1920s. In my childhood home in Syracuse, N.Y., a framed poem in tribute to the men of ’48 was hung in a place of honor. Some failure.

Yet even if we question the rebellion’s mythic status, we must pay heed to the figures who stood behind it, a brilliant lot whose story is ready-made for theatrical adaptation. (Think Tom Stoppard’s “The Coast of Utopia” with a Celtic accent instead of a Russian one.) They delivered eloquent speeches from the dock, attempted daring prison escapes and wrote gripping accounts of their experience. Some made history in the diaspora – among them was a governor of Montana and a prominent Australian politician. Others returned from exile to aid the Irish cause, either openly in constitutional politics or covertly in seditious societies.

Every revolutionary story needs an apostate. In the case of Ireland and 1848, that role fell to Thomas D’Arcy McGee, a journalist, orator and politician whose youth and tumultuous early career is neatly captured in the superb first volume of David A. Wilson’s biography.

Less than a year after the failed uprising, Mr. Wilson tells us, McGee was in New York running a weekly newspaper. By then he had turned against his former comrades, writing in favor of moral-force nationalism that sought accommodation with the British crown and attacking physical-force republicanism that sought separation. A participant in the fracas at Widow McCormack’s house, also in New York exile, marked McGee’s conversion by punching him “down a flight of stairs,” Mr. Wilson writes. Another challenged McGee to a duel. With the word “traitor” ringing in his ears, McGee rightly worried about assassination.

Mr. Wilson describes how McGee first immigrated to the U.S. as a teenager, in the late 1830s, becoming the editor of the country’s most prominent Irish Catholic organ, the Boston Pilot, at the age of 19. He was then recruited by a moderately nationalist newspaper to return to Ireland. As famine descended on Ireland, McGee grew more radical, entering the Young Ireland orbit. After the failed uprising, he returned to the U.S. disguised as a seminary student. For the next eight years he lived in New York, Boston and Buffalo, wrote books on Irish subjects, and founded organizations to assist Irish emigrants.

He was an intellectually restless character, and Mr. Wilson is good at tracing the trajectory of his thought. At first McGee was deeply anticlerical, blaming the failure of the uprising on reluctant priests (“priestly preachers of cowardice”) and feuding with New York’s Bishop John Hughes, known as “Dagger John,” who was so incensed by McGee’s attacks that he branded him an infidel. Then McGee swung in the opposite direction, briefly embracing an ultramontane brand of Catholicism that sought to replace British rule in Ireland with Roman authoritarianism.

An advocate of teetotalism, McGee had problems with drink. He opposed myth-making: “Metaphorical trash about ‘days of old,’ and ‘unstrung harps,’ and ‘British lions’ are as odious to the taste as a vomit to the palate,” he wrote. Yet he was something of a myth-maker himself. Mr. Wilson writes that McGee’s “History of Irish Settlers in North America” (1851), a popular book in 19th-century Irish America, “could easily have been entitled ‘How the Irish Saved North American Civilization.’ ”

But it was McGee’s journey from rabid revolutionary – “nothing is so practical as a bullet,” he wrote in May 1849 – to rabid antirevolutionary that most fascinates us now. “For God’s sake, let us have no more loud threatenings, which are to end in nothing,” he wrote less than a month later, as if to rebuke himself. By the mid-1850s – roughly where Mr. Wilson’s “Thomas D’Arcy McGee: Passion, Reason, and Politics” leaves off – he was urging Irish-American immigrants, spat upon by nativists and subjected to the squalor of big cities, to move to more tolerant and devout Canada, a territory that was part of the hated British Empire. It was a journey that McGee himself would make. Indeed, he would enter electoral politics and become one of the founding fathers of modern, dominion-status Canada, honored with a statue on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

In Canada he would remain a vociferous opponent of violent Irish nationalism, directing his ire at the Irish Republican Brotherhood (or Fenians), the heirs of the men of ’48. On April 7, 1868, McGee was rewarded for his views with a gunshot through the back of the neck, fired by an Irish nationalist. Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, a Fenian who would later organize a dynamite campaign of English cities, wrote that McGee deserved a dog’s death, “and a dog’s death he got.” Some of us, looking back on a bloody century of nationalist violence, prefer to regard it as a hero’s death.

Mr. Duffy is the author of “The Killing of Major Denis Mahon: A Mystery of Old Ireland” (HarperCollins), a work of history that concerns the Great Irish Famine.