On July 15, Professor David A. Wilson of University of Toronto visited the SALON Team as a special guest in our summer outdoor theatre experience, In Sir John A’s Footsteps. Afterwards, SALON actor, Jesse MacMillan sat down with the Ph.D. to discuss their mutual interest, Irish Father of Confederation, Thomas D’Arcy McGee.
Although not Wilson’s original interest while finishing his graduate studies, the Irish Rebel-turned-Nation-Builder caught his attention during an unexpected Celtic Studies conference. Since that day in the 1970s, David Wilson has become one of the leading experts on McGee, having published two volumes and countless articles. For actor MacMillan, who regularly portrays D’Arcy McGee in SALON productions, the opportunity to pick Wilson’s brain on facts and stories was an invaluable opportunity. In Part 1 of this two-part interview, find out how Wilson became fascinated with D’Arcy McGee, and why.
Check out Part 2 HERE
MacMillan: I had to learn…so that when I was out on the streets as McGee, people would drill me. I always knew that if someone asked me, I was usually able to respond. But as I got to know his story, I thought it was one of the most interesting ones of the Fathers of Confederation.
I wonder why you decided to pick McGee as a figure [to study].
Wilson: I first heard of McGee just before my PhD Comprehensive Exams. I was at Queens, but I wasn’t doing Canadian History, I was doing Anglo-American history, late 18th, early 19th century. I had no knowledge of Canadian History whatsoever. I didn’t know which provinces signed Confederation, you know.
I went down to Toronto just to clear my head before the [Comprehensive] exams and there was a big conference put on by the new Celtic Studies program at the University of Toronto, called Canada and the Celtic Consciousness…This man, McGee kept coming up…He was being used by the conference organizers as the man who single handedly saved Canada from Fenianism, and the man who single handedly brought the Celts, and the French together, and who actually found a common Celtic consciousness for Canada: French, Irish and Scots. It was a very hagiographical romantic image of McGee. But I was very interested in the use of McGee as this mythic symbol. So that was one side: The Myth of McGee.
And then, the Irish politician, who I by now realized, was a latter day version of Thomas D’Arcy McGee—someone who is uncannily similar to D’Arcy McGee in his views, a man by the name of Conor Cruise O’Brien. He gave a speech at that conference, in which he attacked revolutionary Irish Nationalism. He had taken on the provisional IRA in the same way that D’arcy McGee had taken on the Fenians over a century earlier. In the course of a memorable and brilliant speech…he demolished some of the central myths of romantic revolutionary Irish Nationalism. He said at the end of the talk that the greatest Irish Canadian was Thomas D’Arcy McGee. And then, he proposed a toast with water, and said that a scholarly biography of Thomas D’arcy McGee was long overdue. That was 1978, and I thought, File that one away, Wilson. You never know.
Two decades had passed before Wilson turned back to McGee. In the meantime, he continued his focus on American History.
Wilson: In 2000, I finished another book, and I thought…Irish Canadian history should be explored. I remembered Conor Cruise O’Brien’s remarks. But then I found out, a man by the name of Robin Burns, who was at Bishop’s University had written a Ph.D. on McGee…It was a very scholarly, solid, brilliantly researched piece of work. I just didn’t find the character very appealing. It had come out in 1976. He’s been sitting on it for twenty-six years, and I thought, if he’s going to publish this, there’s no room for me to write a biography on McGee. And then I thought…in twenty-four years, he’s not published it by now; he’s probably not going to do it.
In fact, the first biography of McGee that I read, when I was thinking about this project, was by Isabel Skeltonwho was here in Kingston, and it was published in 1925. After reading the biography, I thought I would abandon the project because I didn’t like McGee very much and I didn’t find him particularly interesting. I think that was Isabel Skelton’s D’Arcy McGee.
It was [only] going to be a 200-page book. I got more and more drawn into McGee and his world.
By the time David had completed his first volume on Thomas D’Arcy McGee—a piece of literature exploring McGee’s relationship to Ireland and the Fenians—he had already created a list of other themes that he realized were worth exploration.
Wilson: To my surprise, I found that McGee and Rep by Pop [aka. Representation by Population], and McGee on Separate schools, the separate schools issue was absolutely fascinating. It’s still with us. Separate schools for Muslims, and the debates around that. Do separate schools mean less acculturation and assimilation or more assimilation and acculturation? I learned a lot of the debates had contemporary resonance.
 Isabel (Murphy) Skelton, The Life of Thomas D’Arcy McGee (Gardenvale, N.Y., 1925).
David Wilson had officially been hooked by the enigmatic figure of Thomas D’Arcy McGee. Captivated by the many seeming contradictions of McGee, Wilson turned to the archives in order to unpack the Irish Father of Confederation’s story.
Wilson: The McGee I discovered when I went to the primary sources was really… fascinating—and vibrant and alive, and also full of contradictions. [Reading] newspapers from 1840s and 1850s and 1860s, you find three or four different McGees.
You find McGee, the revolutionary, the man who proudly proclaimed himself to be a traitor to the British crown. You find the McGee who was a moral force Reformer, who rejected revolution. You find the McGee who believed that Canada…could, should, and would be, annexed to the United States. You find the McGee who was a fervent Catholic, who rejected secular politics and believed that the Catholic religion should define—not just shape, but define—politics. And you find McGee, the liberal who compromised, who found accommodation, and who…struggled towards the middle way.
At the same time, even as he struggled to maintain the middle way, there were still extreme elements in his personality; and they came out paradoxically in the service of moderation. To describe him, as I do in Volume II, as an extreme moderate is clearly a paradox—an oxymoron really: an extreme moderate.
Wilson: What I mean by [extreme moderate] is that when he was confronted with the Fenians, and indeed the Orange Order…he took an extreme position against the Orange Order, and extreme position against the Fenians… [McGee] believed [both factions] could, together, tear this country apart and turn it into a North American version of Ireland, with wide and deep ethno and religious tensions—fissures if you like…[McGee did this] all this in the service of moderation and nation building. And [he did it in the service of] building a society in which Moderates and accommodation and kindly feelings would prevail. He believed strongly actually in kindly feelings, personal goodwill, [as well as in] the importance of it in politics and in social interactions.[McGee] realized after a few years in Canada that the Orange Order wasn’t monolithic, that there were moderate elements, that there were “nominal” Orange Men. John A. Macdonald is a classic example of a nominal Orange Man. But there were also extreme, bigoted Orange Men. He was prepared to compromise and accommodate with moderate Orange Men.
When it came to the Fenians, he felt that there was, by definition, no moderate component to them. They were revolutionary republicans who, in his view, had adopted a new kind of religion, and one which in its sense of moral absolutism, or if you like, absolute certainty, was intolerant of anything that challenged it, and extremely dangerous. And so he never compromised with Fenianism.
Wilson: The more I read on McGee and Confederation, particularly when I started reading the anti-confederation arguments, [the more] I found them very persuasive. I don’t know what position I would have taken at the time, but there were some very good arguments against confederation. [It was interesting] to see how McGee’s Canadian Nationalism fitted (because it does fit) with his intense hostility toward Fenianism…It drew on earlier form of Nationalism he’d expressed in Ireland in his teens.
I kept saying, there’s actually some consistency here, because the kind of nationalism that he embraced for Ireland in his teens has been transposed to Canada and transmuted…through [his] experiences in America, his experiences in Ireland, his experiences with Catholicism, and his experiences with reality on the ground in Canada. But the basic principles were constant.
MacMillan: You said in the bios [of McGee] that his character didn’t pop out. How did you go about pulling out the character that you knew was there?
Wilson: It’s a very good question because there are hardly any personal papers; and that tells its own story as well. We know next to nothing about his relationship with his wife except for one very harrowing letter she writes about her husband’s drinking, and then she breaks off the letter because he’s just come in now and he’s worse than ever. You get glimpses of that.
MacMillan: Wasn’t she quoted as saying he was an ugly man, or something?
Wilson: I know the story, but there are two well known made up stories about McGee, and that’s one. The other is that there’s only room for one drunkard in this cabinet and I’m not acquitting. Which is a lovely story, and it may be true, but there’s no evidence that Macdonald ever said that, and there’s no evidence that Mary McGee ever said that either, so I don’t know. With absent evidence, skepticism rules here. Although, if you want a good story, they fit well.
Wilson: I think he was not only the youngest, most intellectually gifted Father of Confederation, he wrote a dozen books, he wrote hundreds of poems, which aren’t very good by contemporary standards, probably, but which were very popular in his day.
He was a brilliant orator and regarded as one of the greatest orators in the English-speaking world, and he has a compelling personality. One person wrote that you always knew where McGee was in the room because that’s where people where laughing.
But as Wilson notes, D’Arcy McGee was not a seamlessly perfect figure. In addition to being a heavy drinker, which Wilson suspects was difficult on his wife, Mary and his children, he was also a passionate man, for better or worse.
Wilson: I do think he struggled between his passions and his reason. There are stories of him staying late into the night of houses where he was put up, having a heated political arguments with his hosts, and thumping his fists on the table and going at it until seven or eight in the morning, grabbing a couple of hours of sleep and then moving on to the next day’s work.
Check out PART 2 to learn where Dr. Wilson drew from to piece together Thomas D’Arcy McGee’s personality. In Part 2 you will also find out what Wilson thinks about SALON Theatre and the collision of history and art.
Check out Part 2 HERE
Interview by Jesse MacMillan
Transcribed by Allison Ferry
Blog written by Allison Ferry