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David A. Wilson
University of St. Michael's College, University of Toronto, Ontario
When Patrick James Whelan was arrested in Ottawa in 1868 for the murder of Thomas D'Arcy McGee, the two principal detectives and the police magistrate who handled the case were Irish Catholics. The crown counsel was James O'Reilly, an Irish Catholic from Kingston; ironically, Whelan was defended by the Grand Master of the Orange Order, John Hillyard Cameron.
The Whelan trial takes us into the murky world of Irish-Canadian revolutionary nationalism, and the government's counter-intelligence strategies. Although we are accustomed to view the Fenians primarily in terms of an external threat, there was a significant minority Fenian presence inside Irish-Catholic Canada. Within that minority, a hard core of Fenians planned to coordinate external invasion with internal subversion.
Among other things, the Fenians intended to suborn Irish soldiers in British regiments, to infiltrate the militia, to disrupt railway and telegraph communications, and to burn down public buildings; the idea was to create the maximum amount of chaos within Canada while Irish-American Fenians crossed the border. In response, the government developed its own secret police force, some forty percent of whose operatives were Irish, and drew on information from British Consuls in the United States, the Dublin Metropolitan Police, freelance informants and local spy networks run by individual politicians.
Then, as now, Canadian politicians tried to find the right balance between the demands of civil liberty and the requirements of security; then, as now, they sought to identify and isolate a revolutionary fragment within an ethnic group, without alienating the ethnic group in general. At crisis points, such as the Fenian invasion of 1866 and the assassination of McGee two years later, the government put security first and suspended habeas corpus; nevertheless, Prime Minister Macdonald was anxious to avoid a general anti-Irish Catholic backlash, and urged local magistrates to act with caution and restraint.
In examining these issues, sources at Library and Archives Canada and in the National Archives of Ireland are of great value. Because the Fenian movement was a transatlantic one, it needs to be studied in a transatlantic context. The Macdonald Papers at Library and Archives Canada are an invaluable source on the Fenian movement in Canada, but they cannot be properly understood unless they are read in the context of the Fenian A Files, the Fenian Briefs, the Fenian Papers and the Fenian Police Reports at the National Archives of Ireland. In this sense, joint research in Ottawa and Dublin can throw considerable light on issues that have a critically important modern aspect.
David A. Wilson is a Professor of Celtic Studies and History at the University of Toronto. He has written and edited six books, including United Irishmen, United States and Ulster Presbyterians in the Atlantic World, and is currently in the middle of a mega-biography of Thomas D'Arcy McGee.