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By Barbara Black
In Canada’s relatively short history, Thomas D’Arcy McGee looms large. A brilliant public figure at a pivotal time, he was assassinated while holding office. That was in 1868, when he was just a week shy of his 43rd birthday.
He was the subject of a talk on April 24 by David Wilson, the author of the first of two volumes of a new McGee biography. The book, subtitled Passion, Reason, and Politics 1825-1857 (McGill Queen’s University Press), chronicles his life up to 1857.
He started his career as a teenager in Ireland, making fiery speeches against alcohol. Then he immigrated to Boston, where he espoused the ultramontane, or ultra-conservative, wing of the Roman Catholic Church, and at only 19 he became a newspaper editor.
He went back to Ireland, where he became a rebel, speaking against the ruling British. All Europe was afire with revolution in 1848, but McGee felt the devastation of the Irish potato famine made armed rebellion impractical. Instead, he came to Canada. Wilson said it was the way the British dominion embraced Catholic French-Canadians as well as Protestant Anglo-Canadians that convinced him this emerging nation could work. It made him a political moderate.
McGee had a compellingly quiet, natural speaking style that was a welcome relief from the bombast favoured by other orators of the day. He was effective, and it infuriated the Irish-American radicals, who saw him as a traitor. He was shot in the back of the head as he returned from Parliament to his rooming house on Ottawa’s Sparks St.
McGee’s family home was in Montreal, on the south side of Ste. Catherine St. near Drummond St., set back from the street. The lintel stones that decorated the front door of his house have been the property of Concordia since 1962, and they are now on the north wall of the EV atrium.
The stones, made of Montreal limestone, are decorated with carved shamrocks. For some years they were covered by an extension to the original building. That building was destroyed by fire in 1962, but the stones were recovered, and donated to Loyola College. Nancy Marrelli, the University Archivist, takes up the story.
“The lintel stones were mounted into a cement frame and placed on the front lawn of the Georges P. Vanier Library. The stones stood quietly at the front of the Vanier Library, between the present entrance and the old Library stairway, on the Loyola Campus, until November 2000.
“By that time, the lintel stones were in poor condition, ravaged by time and the elements. One of the stones had deteriorated badly and was in imminent danger of losing the beautiful shamrock carvings due to erosion.”
Archives contracted with a stone conservator, Trevor Gillingwater, who stabilized the stones. In May 2006 they were installed on the ground floor of the new Engineering, Computer Science and Visual Arts Integrated Complex, just a few blocks west of their original location.
A celebration of the stones’ restoration followed Wilson’s lecture, and was attended by Brian Gallery, chair of the Canadian Irish Studies Foundation, Mary McDaid, president of the St. Patrick's Society of Montreal, and Barry Hill, whose family donated the lintels in 1962.
Kathy Assayag, Vice-President of Advancement and Alumni Relations, thanked Gallery and the St. Patrick’s Society for their financial support of the restoration of the lintel stones. They are a reminder of an important Montreal citizen, a Father of Confederation, a journalist, poet, orator and politician.