McGee grows up a Catholic Irishman who hates the British rule of Ireland and works for a peasant revolution to overthrow British rule and secure Irish independence. He escapes arrest and flees to the United States in 1848, where he reverses his political beliefs. He becomes disgusted with American republicanism and democracy, and becomes intensely conservative in his politics and in his religious support for the Pope.
McGee moves to Canada in 1857 and works hard to convince the Irish Catholics to cooperate with the Protestant British in forming a Confederation that will make for a strong Canada in close alliance with Britain. His fervor for Confederation garners him the title “Canada’s first nationalist.” He fights the Fenians in Canada, who are Irish Catholics who hate the British and resemble his younger self politically. McGee succeeds in helping create the Canadian Confederation in 1867.
On April 7, 1868, McGee, having participated in a parliamentary debate that goes on past midnight, walks back to the boarding house where he is staying. McGee is opening the door to Trotter’s Boarding House in Ottawa when he is shot by someone waiting for him on the inside. Several people run to the scene, however there is no sign of the assassin. It is later determined that McGee is assassinated with a shot from a handgun by Patrick J. Whelan. He is to date the only Canadian victim of political assassination at the federal level.
McGee is given a state funeral in Ottawa and interred in a crypt at the Cimetière Notre Dame des Neiges in Montreal. His funeral procession in Montreal draws an estimated crowd of 80,000 out of a total city population of 105,000.
Patrick J. Whelan, a Fenian sympathiser and a Catholic, is accused, tried, convicted, and hanged for the crime on February 11, 1869, in Ottawa. The jury is decisively swayed by the forensic evidence that Whelan’s gun had been fired shortly before the killing, together with the circumstantial evidence that he had threatened and stalked McGee. Historian David Wilson points out that forensic tests conducted in 1972 show that the fatal bullet is compatible with both the gun and the bullets that Whelan owned. Wilson concludes, “The balance of probabilities suggests that Whelan either shot McGee, or was part of a hit-squad, but there is still room for reasonable doubt as to whether he was the man who actually pulled the trigger.”
The government of Canada’s Thomas D’Arcy McGee Building stands near the site of the assassination. The case is dramatised in the Canadian play Blood on the Moon by Ottawa actor/playwright Pierre F. Brault. The assassination of McGee is also a major component of Away, a novel about Irish immigration to Canada by Canadian novelist Jane Urquhart.