Patrick Whelan was hung 150 years ago in what many consider a grave miscarriage of justice.

2019 marks the 150th anniversary of the hanging of  Galway native and Fenian Patrick Whelan in Canada after he was found guilty of the murder of Thomas D'Arcy McGee, a former Fenian from Louth who became a Canadian parliamentarian.

Whelan vehemently denied involvement in the assassination of D'Arcy McGee and many, to this day,  consider his execution a miscarriage of justice.

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From Carlingford to Canada

Thomas D'Arcy McGee (Library and Archives Canada)

Thomas D'Arcy McGee (Library and Archives Canada)

Thomas D'Arcy McGee was born as Thomas D’Arcy Etienne Hughes McGee in Carlingford, Louth in 1825.

D’Arcy McGee's father worked for the coast guard, but the biggest influence in his young life was his mother, a Dublin lady who instilled a love of Irish history into her offspring.

At the age of eight, D'Arcy McGee and his family moved from Louth to Wexford and not long after, his beloved mother died. His father remarried, but D’Arcy McGee found himself at odds with his stepmother and left for America at the age of 17.

D’Arcy McGee landed in Boston and became editor of the Boston Pilot newspaper in 1844. In 1845, just as An Gorta Mor was sweeping his home country, D’Arcy McGee returned to Ireland where he became editor of the Young Irelanders mouthpiece The Nation newspaper. 

In 1848, McGee fled back to the United States disguised as a priest in the aftermath of the failed Young Irelanders rebellion that year.

In the following years,  change came over D’Arcy McGee. He gradually turned away from the ideals of the Young Ireland movement and in 1857 he relocated to Canada, leaving his Fenian politics behind him in the United States.

D’Arcy McGee involved himself heavily in Canadian politics: in 1858 he was elected to the legislative assembly of the province of Canada, and in 1863 he became Minister of agriculture in the Canadian conservative government.

Along the way, he picked up a string of enemies as he freely denounced the Fenians.

In 1867, the man born in Carlingford was elected to the Canadian parliament as a liberal conservative. A year later, he would be assassinated.

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The death of D'Arcy McGee

D’Arcy McGee sported a limp due to a bad leg and walked with the aid of a silver handed bamboo cane. As he left Parliament buildings after a debate that stretched into the early hours of April 7th, 1868, D’Arcy McGee smoked a cigar and hobbled to his lodgings at Mrs. Trotter's boarding house.

Inside the boarding house, Mrs. Mary Ann Trotter was up waiting for her son who worked in Parliament buildings as a page. When she heard someone outside the door, she opened it and BANG! A bullet came from a Smith and Wesson that was pressed against McGee's neck, blowing the cigar and dentures from his mouth.

Mrs. Trotter screamed as D’Arcy McGee fell towards her and the assassin disappeared back into the dark streets of Ottawa. His face was a mess; D'Arcy McGee was only recognizable to the traumatized Mrs. Trotter after she spotted the silver handed bamboo cane.

The next few days would see a roundup of dozens of Irishmen with links to the Fenian movement across Ottawa. D’Arcy McGee, once the darling of the Young Irelanders, had become a target of hate for turning his back on the Fenians. It did not take long before the police made an arrest.

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Patrick Whelan

The Prime Minister of Canada John McDonald had a hired stable hand called Pat McNicol, an Irish immigrant, who passed the name of Patrick Whelan to the authorities in relation to the D’Arcy McGee assassination. 

Patrick James Whelan was born the son of William Whelan and Mary Sullivan in Galway and became an apprentice tailor at the age of 14. His older brother John was involved in an arson attack on a police barracks in Tallaght Dublin and was arrested as a Fenian.

As for Patrick Whelan, he left for England and plied his tailoring trade around the country for a number of years before taking a ship bound for America. 

Whelan traveled around the United States and then went to Canada where he enlisted in the Volunteer Cavalry in 1865. He didn't last long that outfit when his Fenian sympathies were uncovered and he was discharged.

After settling down with Bridget Boyle, a wealthy Co Kerry woman 30 years his senior, the couple moved to Ottawa.

Just a month prior to D'Arcy McGee's assassination, Whelan was the deputy grand marshal of the Ottawa St. Patrick's Day parade.

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A Fenian with a gun

The police tracked Whelan down to Starks Tavern in Ottawa where they found tucked in his pocket a Smith and Wesson with one bullet missing from its chamber.

When the police arrested Whelan, they discovered among his possessions The Irish American newspaper, tickets to the Shamrock Quadrille Club, a card for St Patrick's Literary Society, and a green silk badge of the Toronto Hibernian Benevolent Society. 

Whelan was brought to trial for the assassination of D’Arcy McGee, but he strongly protested his innocence throughout. During the trial, it emerged that two servant girls in the tavern Whelan was lodging had handled his pistol while he was absent and one of them accidentally shot the other one in the arm, thus providing evidence for the missing bullet from the gun's chamber.

Whether he was innocent or not, Whelan was was hang on the 11th of February 1869. Up to 5,000 people gathered at the Carleton County Gaol to witness Canada's last public hanging. Whelan's wife paid him a last visit before he went to the gallows and he told her he knew who the real killer was, but would take the name to the grave.

Whelan's last words on the gallows were "God save Ireland and God save my soul," then the trap door dropped and for seven minutes Whelan struggled until the noose eventually strangled the last breath from his body. Whelan was buried in an unmarked grave in the prison yard.

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D’Arcy McGee was buried on his 43rd birthday with a state funeral in Canada which attracted over 80,000 people. He was interred in a grand mausoleum in Notre Dame des Neiges cemetery in Montreal. 

Whelan's widow relocated to Montreal where she lived out the rest of her life as a recluse. The gun which was considered the murder weapon went missing after the trial and did not resurface again until 1973 when it was sold at auction for 105,000 Canadian dollars. The buyer was the Canadian Museum of Civilization and it is there where you can see the weapon today, but the man who pulled the trigger may still be a mystery.

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Patrick Whelan was hung after being accused of killing Thomas D'Arcy McGee.Montreal Archives