O Canada! Thomas D'Arcy McGee

O Canada! Getting to know you!

This is one of a series on the heartbeat of Canada

From the Desk of Frances Sedgwick

as found in Montreal the Days that are No More, by Edgar A. Collard

'If ever I were murdered it would be

by some wretch who would shoot me from behind'

Thomas D’Arcy McGee

On Sunday, September 8, 1867 Thomas D’Arcy McGee said to his wife: “Tell the grocer tomorrow, to come and take every drop of wine and liquor out of the cellar. I have made up my mind to have nothing more to do with it.”

The cellar where that wine and liquor were stored was in the Montmorenci  Terrace—a row of gray limestone town houses at the southeast corner of St. Catherine Street and Drummond. That house had been a gift to McGee from the constituents of the Montreal riding he represented in Parliament and from friends and well-wishers in many other parts of the country. They had made the house a distinctive gift by having shamrocks carved in rows in the stone windowsills. Those shamrocks could still be seen, above the lower, added shop fronts, until the house was ruined by fire in the 1900s.

D’Arcy McGee’s teetotal resolution was variously regarded among his friends and enemies. Many, in both camps, were amused and cynical. They thought they knew D’Arcy McGee. His good intentions would never last; self-indulgence had seemed part of his nature, the recurring pattern of his life. It was late in the day to reform.

Others, however, praised and honoured him, and wished him well. They even prayed for him. Within a few weeks, McGee’s resolution was discussed at a temperance meeting in Montreal. It was reported in a newspaper item headed: “Mr. McGee’s Conversion to Teetotalism.” The item read:

“At the religious Temperance meeting last Sabbath, one of the speakers said, that, having business with Mr. McGee, he took occasion to congratulate him upon the noble stand he had taken, and to assure him of the joy he had given to all good men, and of their earnest desire that he would prove faithful. Mr. McGee said he had made up his mind before the election to become a teetotaler, but he had delayed till after that had taken place, fearing that his motives might be construed into a desire to make political capital.

“The chairman suggested that Mr. McGee should be remembered in the closing prayer-a suggestion which was heartily and earnestly complied with, and the prayer was joined in by the audience with peculiar interest.”

McGee had had phases of alcoholism even as a young man, before he settled in Montreal in 1857. After he had entered Canadian political life his weakness gained immensely in publicity. The very prominence he achieved as a statesman made his want of self-control all the more conspicuous. Since he could not hide his light under a bushel, he could not hide his weakness either.

To make matters worse he was the close political colleague of John A. Macdonald. They gained a mingled reputation as tipsters. Often, in fact, they were drinking companions. During election campaigns they sometimes went on tours together. On the hustings they made a powerful combination. But when the day’s electioneering was over, they withdrew to share a bottle-even more than one. An old squaw had once remarked to Macdonald that “too much was just enough.” Macdonald and McGee tended to agree it was.

If their drinking had been reserved for the evenings and behind closed doors, the public notoriety might have been less serious. The trouble was that they both had a reputation for drinking bouts, they might remain tipsy for days on end. Such prolonged indulgence could not be concealed, and the lightheadedness of their sprees made them less aware of the danger to their careers.

Their sprees were not always concealed even from the House of Commons. John A. Macdonald sometimes came to the House with a thick voice; he might be scarcely intelligible. When he rose to speak, he might feel compelled to lean on the desk in front of him for support.

D’Arcy McGee showed greater sense. He generally absented himself from the house when unfit to appear. But his absences were often conspicuous; the explanation of them was soon rumored. McGee himself often confirmed the rumors at such times by going about town, visiting his friends in newspaper offices, joking with the boys and ending up in a drunkard’s sleep on a pile of old papers in a corner.

At times McGee’s wife, Mary Teresa, was called from Montreal to the capital to sober her husband. She could do little. One day n 1863 she was writing to a friend: “As my visit…has not been productive of any good result, and as my staying here is not the least check to Mr. McGee’s unfortunate propensity, I have come to the conclusion to return today…”

“He has just come in, and from his appearance, it is just a repetition of yesterday, so that I have given up all hope.”

Inevitably the convivial habits of Macdonald and McGee played into the hands of the opponents. The Toronto Globe denounced their conduct as scandalous. The Globe was taken to task for indulging in “personalities,” and invading private lives. It retorted that the degrading habits of public men could not be considered as private. The public welfare was endangered when men in posts of responsibility might be carrying on in public with impaired judgement.

John A. Macdonald viewed his own failings with an indulgent eye. His attitude toward himself was almost invariably charitable. He tolerated his own weaknesses. D’Arcy McGee felt differently. Though he easily gave in to his weaknesses, he felt the shame of them when he had recovered himself. Wile Macdonald’s conscience was seldom disturbed, McGee’s was seldom at ease. Macdonald in his cups never felt himself to be other than Macdonald. McGee, however lively his geniality, knew he was leaving himself behind, that he was failing himself, and sinking.

When Macdonald and McGee appeared before their voters, they had to admit their weakness, as it was so well known, and would be used against them. Macdonald’s admission was jaunty and without apology. In a campaign against his chief political enemy, George Brown, he said he was sure the voters would rather have John A. drunk than George Brown sober. McGee’s admission to his Montreal constituents had no such flippancy. “If you wish to have me as I am, “ he said, “personal faults and all-and God knows I have my share of them-I am ready to serve you”

Macdonald could joke about McGee and himself as a pair of tipstirs. The problem came up in the Cabinet. Someone said, “This sort of think is a disgrace.” Macdonald turned to McGee. “Look here, McGee,” he said, “this Cabinet can’t afford two drunkards and I’m not quitting.”

McGee saw the humor of it, but he saw the tragedy also. In his days in Ireland he had witnessed the curse of drink among the people. As a temperance speaker he had begun his career as an orator. He was then very young-only about fourteen or fifteen. Father Theobald Mathew had set out on his great life’s work as “the Apostle of Temperance” in Ireland. Young Thomas D’Arcy McGee was one of his followers. The temperance harangues by “little Tommy McGee” became one of the chief attractions of the Wexford Temperance Society. After listening to one of Tommy’s eloquent appeals, Father Mathew had patted him on the head and been full of praise and encouragement. He was delighted to find a supporter so gifted, so promising.

An Irishwoman, Mary Banim, wrote of young McGee in her reminiscences many years later: “Tommy McGee’s first speeches made him quite famous as a lad. They were on temperance, and were delivered at tea-parties held in connection with the society, and when the boy, then only sixteen, decided on seeking his fortunes in America, a social tea-party was given in his honour, gentlemen of the best social position in town and country attending to show their regard for the talented and high-principled youth.”

McGee soon fell away from his early commitment. Temperance tea parties knew him no more. Lapses as sot and clown interspersed his new achievements in oratory, statesmanship and literature. But in the last months of his life his veneration of Father Mathew revived, though Father Mathew had been dead more than ten years. McGee was returning to his boyhood vow when he cleared the wine and liquor from the cellar of his Montreal home.

He even went s far as to appear again in public as an advocate of temperance. He wrote a long account in two installments on “Father Mathew and His Work.”  It appeared in a Montreal magazine, The Dominion Monthly, in the last issue for 1867 and the first for 1868. The founder and chief editor of the magazine was the Presbyterian John Dougall, the leading Apostle Temperance in Montreal. Dougall kept a vow o total abstinence for the last fifty yeas of his life. His daily newspaper, the Montreal Witness, aggressively attacked “the liquor interests.” He had been one of the founders of an earlier periodical, The Canada Temperance Advocate.

McGee needed courage to come out publicly as a writer on temperance in one of John Dougall’s publications. To the skeptical, well acquainted with his bouts of drunkenness only a few months earlier, his sudden transformation into a campaigner for abstinence seemed delightfully risible. But McGee’s new resolution was so firm that not even his physician could prevail against it. McGee had been seriously ill. His physician recommended some alcohol as a medicinal stimulant. McGee refused to take it. “I have made my resolve,” he said, “and not to save my life will I break through it.”

This abstinence from alcohol was art of a revival of his religious feelings. He was taking his duties as a Roman Catholic more seriously. He was seen more regularly in his pew in St. Patrick’s Church in Montreal-the same pew that still stands, number 240, in the “Pulpit Aisle.” He was in that pew for an Easter service on the day before he left Montreal to attend the session of the House of Commons in Ottawa.

In the early morning of April 7, 1868, he made his last speech in Parliament. He walked in the moonlight to his boardinghouse on Sparks Street. His landlady, Mrs. M.A. Trotter, heard someone putting a key into the lock. She opened the door slightly. A flash bu0rst across her face, a smell of gunpowder. She thought it might be a firecracker.

She shut the door, then cautiously opened it again. In the dark she saw the figure of man leaning against the right-hand side of the doorway. She went back to the dining room for a lamp. When she next looked out into the street, the lamplight shone on the same man leaning against the door-jam. He was a little more stooped than before. Then he collapsed and fell back across the wooden sidewalk, straight from the door.

Mrs. Trotter had just witnessed the death of her boarder, Thomas D’Arcy McGee. Someone had silently stolen up behind him as he bent at the lock. A bullet from a pistol tore through the back of his neck, fired so near that it singed the hair. Only a few days before McGee had said to his friend, Brown Chamberlin, editor of the Montreal Gazette: “If ever I were murdered it would be by some wretch who would shoot me from behind.”

McGee’s body was brought back to Montreal-to his stone house in the Montmorenci Terrace on St. Catherine Street. For three days it lay in state in the dining room. “By the especial request of the community and the considerate permission of his widow,” says a contemporary account, “his house was open to all who desired to see him in that fatal sleep…” A funeral service was held in St. Patrick’s Church on Easter Monday, April 13, the forty-third anniversary of his birth. The sermon was preached by Father Michael O’Farrell, the young priest who had been McGee’s professor. Father O’Farrell spoke of the great achievements of McGee as a statesman, as orator, as author, all within that brief life of fewer than forty-three years.

At the close of the sermon Father O’Farrell spoke of another achievement, perhaps the greatest of them all. “He had his faults, every one knows,” said Father O’Farrell. But toward the end had come a change: “This change might…be seen in the resolution which he kept so inviolably until the day of his death, to abstain from those social excesses which would mar so considerably the effect of his talents. Let those who are tempted as he was, appreciate the amount of self-sacrifice which such a resolution involved.”

Whatever influence  young Father Michael O’Farrell, as confessor, may have had on D’Arcy McGee’s last months, the real influence had come from a more distant past-from Father Theobald Mathew, the Apostle of Temperance far back in McGee’s Irish youth. At the close of his last article in the Montreal magazine (which had appeared in print only three months before the assassination in Ottawa) D’Arcy McGee had quoted words from John Francis Maguire’s biography of Father Mathew — significant words to express exactly what McGee himself wished most to say:

“Father Mathew taught his generation a great lesson… that….there is no possible safety for those liable to excesses, and unable to resist temptation, save in total abstinence…there is no fear that the lesson will not be applied, or that Providence will not inspire, or even raise up, those who will put it into practice as Father Mathew did, for the sake of religion, humanity, and country.”