A “Grand Trunk of Thought”: D’Arcy McGee as Canadian Cultural Nationalist, by Linda Leith

The effect of a judicious system,” Thomas D'Arcy McGee wrote, “would be, not to make them dear, but to make them here.”
– David A. Wilson, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, Volume 2: The Extreme Moderate


In his stimulating biography Thomas D’Arcy McGee, Volume 2: The Extreme Moderate, historian David A. Wilson shows how McGee saw Canadian debates through the lens of his background in political, cultural and social movement known as Young Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century. “Orange and Green, French and English, settler and native could all unite on the basis of a common Canadian heritage; the Young Ireland influence is clear.”

Adapting ideas forged out of an Irish nationalist movement to Canadian circumstances, McGee argued in favour of selective protectionism that would encourage domestic industry, create a common sense of purpose, and foster a distinct sense of identity. Tariffs should be imposed only on goods that Canadians could produce as cheaply as Americans; in this way, both producers and consumers would benefit. “The effect of a judicious system,” he wrote in New Era in 1858, “would be, not to make them dear, but to make them here.”

As a poet and writer as well as a nationalist, McGee had a keen sense of the role of a national literature. If economic measures and a railway could establish the material foundations for national unity, it was literature that would provide the country with its spirit. “Without that all-pervading, indefinite, exquisite element, national life – public life – must perish and rot. No literature – no national life – this is an irreversible law.”

McGee “was projecting Young Ireland’s cultural nationalism onto Canada,” Wilson writes. McGee’s views came straight out of Thomas Davis’s Spirit of the Nation, James Duffy’s Library of Ireland series, and the entire range of Young Ireland’s literary endeavours,” in which McGee had himself played a prominent role.

Davis had aimed to create a popular literature that spoke to the condition of the people and would be “racy of the soil.” Within weeks of his arrival in Montreal in 1957, McGee was calling for the same kind of effort in Canada: “Come! Let us construct a national literature for Canada, neither British nor French, nor Yankeeish, but the offspring and heir of the soil, borrowing lessons from all lands, but asserting its title throughout all!”

McGee was especially concerned about the dominance of American publishers in the Canadian market. People who lacked the means to tell their own stories, he wrote, would “soon disappear from the face of the earth, or become merged in some more numerous or more powerful neighbour.” He therefore thought it essential to protect the Canadian publishing industry. The result would be “a Grand Trunk of thought.”

David A. Wilson, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, Volume 2: The Extreme Moderate.
Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.


© Linda Leith 2012

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