BY PAUL GESSELL
D’Arcy McGee’s Irish Pub on Sparks Street was named in honour of the Montreal MP fatally shot, mere steps away, in the early hours of April 7, 1868. Canada was not yet a year old when Thomas D’Arcy McGee was killed by a .32-calibre bullet as he tried to unlock the front door of Toronto House, a Sparks Street rooming house managed by the Widow Trotter.
Patrick James Whelan, an Irish-born tailor and a Fenian sympathizer, was convicted of the assassination and hanged Feb. 11, 1869 at the Carleton County Gaol, now a Nicholas Street youth hostel. The Fenians were American-based, anti-British, Irish nationalists — we’d call them terrorists today — who staged periodic raids on Canada to destabilize the Conservative government of Sir John A. Macdonald. McGee, an Irish-born Catholic, was perceived as a traitor by the Fenians for supporting Macdonald.
Whelan was convicted of McGee’s murder on circumstantial evidence and, to this day, his actual guilt is often questioned. His possible innocence was certainly raised in the one-man play, Blood on the Moon, written and performed by Ottawa actor Pierre Brault, first at the 1999 Ottawa Fringe Festival, later in an expanded nationally touring play, and also in a television drama.
Now Toronto journalist and documentary film-maker Gordon Henderson has written a novel throwing more doubt on Whelan’s guilt. Man in the Shadows is Henderson’s first novel. He will launch it in Ottawa Sept. 30, naturally, at D’Arcy McGee’s Pub on Sparks Street. The ghosts of both McGee and Whelan will undoubtedly be haunting the event.
The central character in Man in the Shadows is a fictional young man of Irish descent named Conor O’Dea, who serves as an aide to McGee. The Catholic Conor is romantically involved with the equally fictional Meg Trotter, the protestant daughter of McGee’s landlady. But most of the characters in the book, such as McGee, Macdonald and Whelan are true historical figures and, under Henderson’s watch, never stray far from the historical record in thought, word, and deed.
And then there is the fictional unnamed man who is the titular Man in the Shadows. He is a Fenian who has come to Canada to wreak havoc — first by assassinating McGee and framing Whelan for the crime, and then by plotting the assassination of Macdonald.
Henderson’s book is a good, fast read that even young readers — especially young readers — will enjoy. The fictional characters, including Conor and Meg, are likable but rather one-dimensional. As well, some of the plot elements, especially the attempt to kill Sir John A. on a toboggan slide at Rideau Hall, are more farcical than serious fictional history. This is definitely literature-lite, but the book does help demonstrate that Canadian history can be as exciting as a CSI crime drama on television.
Gordon Henderson will launch Man in the Shadows Sept. 30 from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at D’Arcy McGee’s Irish Pub at 44 Sparks St. There is no admission charge.