Singing for an unsung Canadian political icon
Historian brings times of Thomas D’Arcy McGee to life.
Celtic Studies and history professor David Wilson’s recent book tour in support of his two-volume biography of Irish-Canadian politician Thomas D’Arcy McGee was far from the standard academic promotional junket. Eschewing campus bookstores and lecture halls for nightclubs and theatres, the tour was more like something undertaken by a rock band promoting a new album.
Backed by a group of Ottawa and Montreal-area musicians known as The McGee Band, Wilson created a dramatic performance as lively and engaging as the charismatic Father of Canadian Confederation himself.
“I love writing and performance art, and I play traditional music, too,” said Wilson when asked about enlisting a musical act to support the story.
He had been introduced to The McGee Band several years ago after learning of their album inspired by the life of McGee. The band fuses a blend of Irish, Scottish and Québécois music into their original compositions, so it’s as if the project – Irish Rebel, Canadian Icon: The Life and Times of D’Arcy McGee in Words and Music – was just waiting to happen.
“I went to Ottawa to meet with them and within a few days we had a rough outline of a show,” said Wilson. It resulted in a 90-minute program that sees Wilson spin a narrative thread chronicling McGee’s career in politics in Ireland, the United States, and finally Canada. His account is supplemented with readings of some of McGee’s speeches and poetry, and musical selections with Wilson occasionally joining the band on tin whistle.
They’ve presented the literary and musical tribute in venues across Ontario, Quebec and as far afield as St. Louis, meeting with standing ovations at every turn.
Wilson’s fascination with McGee began in 1978 when he attended a Celtic Studies conference at U of T. He heard Irish politician and philosopher Conor Cruise O’Brien describe McGee as the greatest Irish Canadian who ever lived and deserving of a thorough scholarly biography. Wilson made a mental note at the time, but didn’t begin the work until 2000.
What was meant to be a one-volume project turned into a 10-year labour of love as Wilson uncovered more than enough material for a two-volume set. “I worked on it for two to three hours every day for a decade,” he said. “I never got tired of the era. McGee was a household name from the 1840s to the 1860s, and was the most articulate advocate for Confederation.”
Wilson was continuously stirred by the poetry of McGee’s speeches and letters, and his record as an extremely intellectual and prolific writer.
"He laid out a blueprint for Canada as a decent, tolerant society where individuals of differing beliefs and customs could coexist harmoniously," he said.