Fathers of Confederation

[Ed. Reflecting on the advantages the Irish-Canadian community enjoys in Canada with civil and religious liberty, McGee denies the spread of Fenianism in Montreal, and calls upon the community to root it out and resist its spread: “establish at once, for your own sakes – for the country’s sake – a cordon sanitaire around your people; establish a Committee which will purge your ranks of this political leprosy; weed out and cast off those rotten members who without a single governmental grievance to complain of in Canada, would yet weaken and divide us in these days of danger and anxiety.]    

MCGEE said: Ladies and Gentlemen, I deserve no credit for coming here to-night from Quebec, at some personal inconvenience, as my friend, the President, has said, for this is the annual meeting of the St. Patrick’s Society, in aid of its charitable fund: this is your yearly offering to the poor of our own origin – an offering made in the middle of winter, when all the flowing zeal of charity is called for the kindle the hearthstones of those who have, perhaps, at this hour neither food nor fuel, nor any other friends but ourselves.

We are here in the best room in the city – brilliant with lights and fair faces and fine dresses; but we are here to remember those who are debarred by bitter poverty from entering these happy walls, from witnessing these pleasant scenes, for whom we have to think and act, and, so far as we can, for whom we have also to make provision suited to this trying season.  If it were at all within the possibilities, I could not do otherwise than be here; but I frankly own to you I had some additional reasons in desiring to be present this evening.

This society has been always very kind to me, as, indeed, I think I may say every society among us has been in its turn.  Now, I, on my part am ready to do my petit possible for them all; I endeavour not to abuse their confidence, and I ask but one recompense – the privilege of unrestricted freedom of speech, within the bounds of modesty and discretion.  There are one or two subjects on which I desire to exercise that privilege, without which my presence here would be worse than useless both to you and to me; and the first of them is, to say a few words, which I may have no other opportunity of saying, on behalf of an admirable object, for which a reverend gentleman from Ireland is at present canvassing the city – I allude to the Rev. Mr. Beausang, of the Catholic University of Ireland.

Being so long out of old Ireland, fully conscious of the changes that have taken place in myself and in the circle of my own friends during sixteen years, I always speak with great diffidence when I venture to give any public expression to opinion on Irish topics of the day.  Moreover, gentlemen, as you may have observed, I do not belong to the Jefferson Brick school of politicians (Jefferson, you may remember, was of opinion that his leading articles in the “Rowdy journal” made the Czar shake in his shoes at St. Petersburg).  I have rather avoided than sought to parade in public the often-abused name of our glorious “old country.”  I have avoided doing so, because I feel no stirrings of national gratification in presenting my native land in the character of an habitual victim, or a perpetual plaintiff; or an unsatisfied petitioner for the cold world’s pity.  I dislike as much as Moore did that she should

“Yearly kneel before our masters’ doors!

And hawk her wrongs as beggars do their sores!”

I consider it the part of true patriotism not to jeopardise the position of the Irish in these British Provinces – half a million strong or thereabouts – by idle or irritating retrospective controversies; by fighting over again the battle of the Boyne; or disputing about the merits of the illustrious Prince, who was the victor, and the unfortunate King, who was the vanquished in that eventful contest.  The Irish mind has been fed too much on stimulants and too little on solids: and this is one of my strongest motives for desiring the secure establishment of an University of their own, springing from amongst and congenial to the spirit of the Irish Catholics still in Ireland.

On this view, I may say I hope without presumption, that I saw with very great regret, but still greater surprise, Lord Palmerston’s refusal to grant a Parliamentary charter to that University.  There are at present two Universities recognised by law in Ireland – Trinity College, and what are popularly known as “The Godless Colleges.”  I have every disposition and every right to speak with respect of Trinity College, although it is, and always has been, excusively Anglican in all its statutes, tests, and honours.  No Irishman can forget that it was the Alma Mater of almost all our most famous public men, of Anglo-Irish stock, from its first and greatest scholar, James Usher, to its last and not lest ornament, Isaac Butt.  No Catholic Irishman will consent to part with the reputation of William Conyngham Plunkett, of T.C.D., because he was the son of a dissenting minister, and educated at the costs of the congregation; or with our beloved Goldsmith, because he was the son and brother of a parson, nor with Jonathan Swift, because he was a parson himself.

Long – I say in all sincerity – long may old Trinity flourish and be found famous; however tenaciously she may cling to her Elizabethan statutes, tests, and distinctions.  None of us men in the Emancipation era, should ever forget that her present venerable Provost, Dr. Macdonnell (father of the present Lieut.-Governor of Nova Scotia and uncle of my friend Dr. Macdonnell, of this city), was one of the first signers, in1828, of the Dublin Protestant petition on behalf of Catholic emancipation; nor, to descend from bold deeds, as that was in those days, to gentle courtesies, none of us, I trust, have forgotten the marked attentions paid to Cardinal Wiseman by that thorough scholar and thorough Irishman, Dr. Todd, when some years ago the learned Cardinal visited the College.

Irish zealots on all sides, there and then, were quietly rebuked, when the scholarship of Trinity rendered its due but dignified recognition to the requirements and genius of a prince of scholars and a prince of the Roman Church.  But while we can and do respect Old Trinity, with all its dogmas and distinctions, we look – I hope every right minded Irishman, Protestant or Catholic, looks with distrust amounting to hostility on all godless colleges.  Never once for her thirteen hundred years of Christian annals have religion and science been considered irreconcilable in Ireland – never have they been other than helpmates to each other – never has the decree of their utter divorce been pronounced until our own days, and never, I trust, either now or hereafter, can that unnatural divorce be carried into effect.

Speaking as a layman – as a politician, if you choose – I  repeat, with all deference, that it seems to be a most calamitous mistake for the Imperial authorities to make war upon the laudable ambition of the Irish mind, to found for Catholics a Catholic University, and to have its status fixed by legislative enactment.  But I will not dwell upon this subject farther than to commend to my countrymen and co-religionists who are here the cause which brings the present delegate of that University, the Rev. Mr. Beausang, among us.

There is another subject which more immediately concerns ourselves, in Montreal and in Canada, which has lately occupied a good deal of the attention of the press – I allude to the alleged spread of a seditious Irish society, originating at New York, whose founders have chosen to go behind the long Christian record of their ancestors, to find in day of Pagan darkness and blindness an appropriate name of themselves.  A statement having been made the other day in the Toronto Globe, on the authority of its Montreal Correspondent, that there were 1500 of these contemporary pagans in Montreal – a statement made I am sure without intentional malice on the Correspondent’s part – I felt bound, as I suppose you may have seen, to deny absolutely that statement.  The denial was not given in my own words, the alleged fact was denied, and that was the main point.

I now, in your presence, repeat that denial on behalf of the Irish Catholics of this city; I say there could not be 15 such scamps associated and meeting together, not to say 1500, without your knowledge and mine; and I repeat absolutely that there is no such body amongst us, and that the contrary statements are deplorably untrue and unjust, and impolitic as well as unjust.  I regret that papers of great circulation should lend themselves to the propagation of such statements, which have a direct tendency to foster and enhance the very evil they intend to combat.

See what the result has been in some parts of Upper Canada.  Any two or more nervous or mischievous magistrates – and with 11,000 men in the commission of the peace there must be some of both these sorts – any two or more of these may subject a neighbourhood to all the rigours of martial law.  Already indecent and unauthorised searches have been made for concealed arms in Catholic churches; already, as in some of the towns of Bruce, the magistrates are very improperly, in my opinion, arming one class of the people against the other.  What consequences of evil may flow from this step, should make any responsible man shudder.  And what is it all owing to?  Why to these often invented, and always exaggerated, newspaper reports.

Observe the absurd figure Upper Canada is made to cut in all this business – the Protestant million are made to tremble before a fraction of a fraction: for if there are Fenians in that quarter of the world, I venture to say they are as wholly insignificant in numbers as in every other respect.  At the risk, however, of sharing the fate of all unasked advisers I would say to the Catholics of Upper Canada, in each locality, if there is any, the least proof that this foreign disease has seized on any, the least among you, establish at once, for your own sakes – for the country’s sake – a cordon sanitaire around your people; establish a Committee which will purge your ranks of this political leprosy; weed out and cast off those rotten members who without a single governmental grievance to complain of in Canada, would yet weaken and divide us in these days of danger and anxiety.

Instead of sympathy for the punishment they are drawing upon themselves, there ought to be general indignation at the perils such wretches would, if permitted to exist among us, draw upon the whole community, socially, politically and religiously.  How would any Catholic who hears me like to see the parish church a stable, and St. Patrick’s a barrack?  How would our working men like to see our docks desolate, our canals closed, our 1100 new buildings arrested, ruin in our streets, and famine shivering among the ruins?  And this is what these wretched conspirators, if they had the power, would bring to pass as surely as fire produces ashes from wood or cold produces ice from water.

I repeat hear, deliberately, that I do not believe in the existence of any such organization in Lower Canada – certainly not in Montreal; but that there are or have been emissaries from the United States among us, for the purpose of establishing it, has been so often and so confidently stated, that what I have said on the general subject will, I hope, not be considered untimely or uncalled for.  By the law of Lower Canada the administration of an oath of membership in any secret, seditious society is a penitentiary offence, punishable by twenty years’ imprisonment; and the taking of such an oath is punishable by seven years’ imprisonment.  By the law of the Church, membership in any such society, if persevered in, entails, ipso facto, the penalty of excommunication.

I will just refer to an excellent recent work, the Lectures on Modern History, by Professor Robertson, of the Catholic University of Ireland, where the chief decrees on this subject, collated by Professor Murray of Maynooth College, show that Pope Clement XII, Pope Benedict XIV, Pope Leo XI, Pope Pius VII and the present Pope Pius IX, have all strongly condemned these societies.  (Mr. McGee here cited the titles of the several decrees by which this description of societies had been condemned).  By all those solemn Acts of ecclesiastical legislation, secret seditious societies are expressly and in the most emphatic terms condemned; and as we, in this Society, are all Catholics, I feel that I am justified in strengthening my own position by a circumstantial reference to those august authorities.  Causa finita est!

Mr. President, – I have been led to speak at greater length than is usual with me on these occasions, because I may not again for some months have an opportunity of meeting you all, face to face.  We, the Irish inhabitants of Montreal, are doing very well as we are.  We are, young and old, some 30,000; our mechanics compare favourably with those of any other origin; our young professional men are putting forth the promise of great talents; our civil and religious rights are respected by all our fellow-citizens, whose equal rights we, in turn, equally respect.  I dare assert – and I speak from some degree of knowledge – that there is not, take them for all in all, a more respectable community of Irishmen and their descendants to be found anywhere throughout the New World.

I say this with pride – for it is a proud thing to be able to say.  When I contemplate this community, rejoicing, as I well may, in their joy, and sharing in their trials, – when I contemplate their peaceful, steady, onward career, exacting respect and confidence on all sides, I cannot but feel keenly that any newspaper, here or elsewhere, should attempt to asperse them as a band of conspirators, or that any one should dare associate them, as a body, with lawless and anti-social designs.

Mr. President, any good cause you know, and I trust every one who knows me knows, can at any time command my slender services; but you will continue to grant me, as I am sure our fellow citizens at large will grant me, the cherished right of unrestricted free speech whenever I am called out to address either a special society or the general body of the citizens of Montreal.  I have exercised that right to the full to-night; forgive me if I have gone beyond my limits; it was my zeal for your welfare, believe me, that prompted what I have mentioned to you.  But this I think I may say, that wherever the flag above us is at stake – wherever our community is in question – we will be found by word and deed to shed the last of our Irish blood in defence of the inestimable liberties we enjoy, in common with all classes of Her Majesty’s Canadian subjects.