Category Archives: Ireland

Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement

19 January, 2023

Statement by Eamonn McKee

Anglo-Irish Division 1986-89

I joined the Department of Foreign Affairs in October 1986 and was assigned to the Political Section of Anglo-Irish Division. The Division had increased its staff numbers to implement the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, notably:

The establishment of the Secretariat of the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIGC) at Palace Barracks, Belfast. The Secretariat serviced the regular meetings of the Conference and was manned 24-7 by Irish and British officials and staff members.

An expanded team of travelers based out of Iveagh House with specific areas of responsibility derived from the objectives of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Their reports were vital to the briefings and discussions at the Secretariat and the summit meetings of the BIIGC.

  1. The weekly pattern in the Division entailed the dispatch of travelers early in the week to meet with contacts and to report back. Their reports were compiled on Friday morning along with other reports of contacts and meetings from the embassies in London, Washington, and elsewhere into the weekly brief, known as the ‘Box.’ The Box was copied and circulated to the Government and senior officials on Friday afternoon. That day also saw the return of the team from the Secretariat and the departure of the weekend team to Belfast, under high security.
  1. The background of the Ulster Says No campaign led by the DUP, loyalist protests outside the Secretariat, ongoing paramilitary violence, and allegations of security force collusion and human rights abuses created a sense of purpose and consequence in the Division. Writing speeches and briefing notes, responding to a high level of PQs, attending meetings with official counterparts, NGOs, and groups and party representatives from NI, and responding to acts of violence generated a very full work programme. The SDLP, notably John Hume and Seamus Mallon, were frequent visitors to Dublin. SDLP representatives across Northern Ireland were essential sources of advice and guidance.
  2. As a junior officer, I supported the work of the political traveller, Liam Canniffe. Liam and I worked with members of the SDLP, notably Alastair McDonnell, to develop the Disadvantaged Areas Programme to help direct funds from the International Fund for Ireland to areas most affected by the conflict.
  3. The Department of Foreign Affairs conducted a human resource strategy that ensured that officers who were assigned to Anglo-Irish Division were rotated to related postings (Embassy London and Missions in the United States) and back to the Division on return to HQ. This developed a cadre of officers who had in-depth knowledge of, as well as a range of contacts relating to, the key issues in the peace process. This was an important factor in the negotiations of the GFA and the long process of its implementation.
  4. Following the pattern established by the Department, I was posted as Vice-Consul General Boston in August 1989. I was then transferred to the Embassy Washington in January 1990.
  5. I worked directly with the Political Director at the Embassy Washington, Brendan Scannell. Early tasks included countering Ancient Order of Hibernia critiques of the International Fund for Ireland, the establishment of a funding scheme for Irish emigrant groups in the US, and support for the passage of legislation creating the Morrison visa programme which solved the problem at that time of the undocumented Irish. The Embassy’s relationship with Senator Kennedy, the Speakers O’Neill and Foley, the Congressional Friends of Ireland and related staffers was particularly strong and productive on issues related to Northern Ireland but also on all other issues, from visas to agricultural regulations.
  6. Ambassador Dermot Gallagher had opened lines of communication with Bill Clinton and the Clinton-Gore campaign. At the request of Senator Kennedy’s office, which was providing advice to Clinton-Gore on foreign policy and policy in relation to Northern Ireland, I wrote the draft text for the Clinton-Gore letter on Northern Ireland. Clinton’s presidency transformed the role of the White House with regard to the peace process and gave the Embassy unparalleled access. Brendan Scannell played a key role in this, having developed key contacts from his time as Consulate General in Boston. The Saint Patrick’s Day receptions at the White House were invaluable opportunities for networking and validating the significance of the Peace Process.

Anglo-Irish Division 1996-1999

  1. I returned to Anglo-Irish Division at the request of its then Director, Sean Ó hUigínn, to act as the traveller for the Justice and Security Section. Sean had been the key architect, along with Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, of the Downing Street Declaration, one of the breakthrough documents of the peace process leading to the 1994 ceasefires. This breakthrough built on the courageous outreach of John Hume in the Hume-Adams talks. Issues on my desk included parades (the Government’s submission to the North Commission), Bloody Sunday (the Irish Government’s Assessment of the New Material), policing, administration of justice, use of lethal force by the security forces, and allegations of collusion. I worked closely with a number of key contacts, including Alex Attwood of the SDLP, Don Mullan, Martin O’Brien and the Committee on the Administration of Justice, Jane Winter of British Irish Rights Watch, Brendan McAllister of Mediation Northern Ireland, Resident groups in Belfast, Garvaghy Road, Dunloy, journalists, solicitors, and republican contacts. I travelled extensively, more or less weekly, filing reports for the Box and regularly briefing the Secretariat on current issues and participating in meetings there with NIO officials. I acted as the lead official for the proximity talks on Drumcree 1997-1998. My opposite number was Jonathan Powell, Prime Minister Blair’s Chief of Staff.
  2. In the run-up to the negotiations for the GFA, the new Director of Anglo-Irish Division, Dermot Gallagher, formed the Talks Team. I was a member of that team with particular responsibility for policing, justice and security normalisation. Martin Mansergh worked on the new proposed text for Articles 2 and 3 and I sent him a paper recommending the addition of ‘entitlement’ to the ‘birth right.’ By the time I arrived at Castle Complex, draft text had been agreed to on the policing section of the GFA. I invited Seamus Mallon and Alex Attwood to review it, and they confirmed my concerns. Thereafter I was the lead official negotiating new text with the NIO team. The NIO were focused on policing, that which continued to be effective, whereas I was focused on a future policing service that in its composition and ethos reflected society. Both objectives were essential. This creative tension produced hard bargaining, but a very good outcome regarding the terms of reference for what would become the Patten Commission’s recommendations. I extracted some final concessions at our last negotiation session unaware that PM Blair had instructed his officials that all text be finalised with the exception of the language around the North-South bodies.
  3. Overall, the Patten Commission did an excellent job through extensive consultations and a comprehensive set of recommendations that adhered closely to the terms of reference. Patten himself made this clear on the publication of his report when some unionists expressed surprise at the outcome of the Commission’s work. The post-conflict transition in the security sector is one of the most difficult to achieve and sustain in any peace process. In the formation of the Patten Commission, I insisted on the inclusion of Professor Peter Lynch. I understand that he made a significant contribution that helped eliminate the use of plastic baton rounds. The PSNI is an outstanding example of a successful security sector reform process.
  4. I would like to pay tribute to Alex Attwood and Brian Barrington who helped steer the whole implementation of the Patten Recommendations and the establishment of the Policing Board with a forensic focus and determination. For example, Alex played a particularly crucial role in resolving the issue of the Policing Board’s access to sensitive material involving national security on matters relevant to the Authority and its credibility. As with the Finucane case, the SDLP were determined to ensure that allegations of state collusion in the use of lethal force could not and would not be outside the mechanisms for accountability that it endorsed.
  5. Another crucial factor in the success of the policing transformation was the creation of the Oversight Commission led by former New York police officer John Considine and the Office of the Police Ombudsman under Dame Nuala O’Loan. The Oversight Commission ensured that the recommendations of the Patten Commission were fully implemented and operational on the ground. This provided a vital assurance for the acceptance of the PSNI and the eventual decommissioning of paramilitary weapons.

Consulate General New York, 1999-2001
I was assigned as Press Officer to the Consulate General in New York and returned to HQ in December 2001.

Anglo-Irish Division, 2002-2004
I was again assigned to Anglo-Irish, this time as head of the Justice and Security Section.

  1. During the negotiations of the GFA, I learned that it had been agreed that while policing would have a full independent commission, the justice system would be reviewed only. This reflected a strong belief in the NIO and among Unionists that the justice system had continued to operate throughout the conflict and did not require fundamental reform. However, the review process was not without its problems. When I returned in 2002, I learned from contacts that the Criminal Justice Act, which gave effect to the recommendations of the Review, fell short of requirements, notably on judicial appointments. In anticipation of another round of talks to advance the implement of the GFA and secure the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons, I convened talks involving the SDLP, led by Alex Attwood, and Sinn Féin, led by Gerry Kelly, at the Wellington Park hotel to agree a common agenda for amendments to the Act. These proposed changes became part of the negotiations convened at Hillsborough in March 2003. These commitments, including to a new Act, were published in a Joint Declaration by the British and Irish Governments in April 2003.
  2. I was also involved in secret talks at Farmleigh with British security officials on security normalisation. This was the culmination of many years of talks about the pace of normalisation. For example, the Chief Constable regarded the Observation Towers in South Armagh as essential to the safety of his officers where locals detested them as unwarranted intrusions. They had continued in operation for many years after the signing of the GFA. Seamus Mallon with mordant humour regarded them as the bane of his life. The eventual dismantling of the Towers and other military installations were seen as tangible indications of the progress of the peace process.
  3. Arising from the Weston Park Agreement and the SDLP’s endorsement of the new policing arrangements, the British and Irish Governments agreed to appoint a judge of international standing to investigate allegations of collusion in six controversial cases, including the murder of Pat Finucane. The judge was to make a recommendation on whether any or all of these cases merited a public inquiry. There was considerable back and forth between Dublin and London as to the appointee7. I interviewed and recommended Judge Peter Cory of the Supreme Court of Canada. This was endorsed by the British Government. Judge Cory did an outstanding job with speed and great integrity. His recommendation for a public inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane has yet to be implemented.

Irish Aid, UN Director, Director Conflict Resolution Unit, 2004-2009

In 2005 I was asked by the Secretary General Dermot Gallagher, acting at the request of the Minister, Dermot Ahern T.D., to establish a conflict resolution unit to share the lessons of the peace process. We launched a number of initiatives including a National Action Plan on UNSC 1325 Women, Peace and Security, and projects in East Timor, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. In 2009 I was appointed as Ambassador to the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

2013 to the present
In 2013 I was appointed Ambassador to Israel. In 2015 I returned to HQ as Director General for Trade. In 2020 I was appointed as Ambassador to Canada, Jamaica and The Bahamas.

Eamonn McKee
Ambassador of Ireland, Ottawa
15 January 2022


Leave a comment

Filed under Anglo-Irish, Ireland

The Good Friday Agreement Twenty-five years on: The Summer of 1998 and the Long Road to Peace

Travelers were officials working in Anglo-Irish Division who would weekly travel north to meet contacts, learn what was going on, report back and feed into intergovernmental discussions. Memory jog seeing my NI reports surface in the released state papers.[1] The parades issue was my beat as a traveler.  It pitched NI into new levels of heightened social tensions with dire potential.

Flashpoints combusted when Orange Lodges insisted on marching through nationalist areas. Places like the Lower Ormeau Road in south Belfast and the small village of Dunloy in the heart of Orange country in Antrim.  Drumcree in Armagh, the birthplace of Orangism, emerged as the leading battle of wills. 

Portadown Orange Lodge No. 1 held a traditional church service at Drumcree on the Sunday before the Twelfth of July, the annual celebration of King William of Orange’s victory over King James at the Battle of the Boyne in 1691.  The traditional route took them along the Garvaghy Road, a nationalist housing estate on the edge of the predominantly loyalist Portadown. For the Twelfth, Portadown centre would be festooned with red, white and blue bunting, curb stones similarly painted, and triumphal arches erected across the street depicting King Billy astride a white horse.

Why now, with the ceasefires in place? As my contact and friend Brendan McAllister of Mediation Northern Ireland explained to me, the parades issue emerged after the paramilitary ceasefires as the new vehicle for the cross-community divisions that lay at the heart of the conflict.  The struggle between the paramilitaries and the security forces had acted as a default, a kind of lethal Punch and Judy show between ‘professionals’ on both sides, paramilitaries and the security forces.[2] 

The Orange Lodges insisted that they had the right to march ‘the Queen’s highways.’  Resident groups resisted this, saying they should not be locked in their homes with the security forces aiding a sectarian and triumphal demonstration. Each side saw in this a contest about their place in society, their rights, and the esteem of their identity.

The British Government appointed the North Commission to review parades and marches.  It reported that “The dispute in the summer of 1996 between the Loyal Orders and Nationalist residents groups, which required major intervention by the police under the public order legislation, brought Northern Ireland close to anarchy.”[3] Since the issue was on my desk, I drafted the Government’s response to the North Review.  It appeared from my research that while the right to assembly was a well-established one in many jurisdictions, there was no right to decide the route to that assembly.  Our submission argued that each parade dispute be subjected to arbitration based on the rule of law to adjudicate between those who insisted on marching and those who resisted such marches. The Director General, Sean Ó hUigínn, reviewed, honed and approved the draft. We traveled to meet the North Review to discuss the submission, Sean leading the delegation and responding to their questions with his eloquence and deep intellect. He left satisfied with the outcome. The North Review recommended the establishment of a Parades Commission operating under a new Public Processions (NI) Act 1998.[4] 

Tensions spilled over again in July 1997 as the Garvaghy Residents were cleared off their streets by the RUC on the night before the Orange parade. Riots broke out across the North.  The Minister, Ray Burke, called me to his office and instructed me to meet the residents. From the rise above Newry town, an eerie sight of plumes of black smoke rose across the North.

With the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998, the Drumcree march in July became a test case.  The newly established Parades Commission had ruled against the parade going via the Garvaghy Road. Loyalists and Orangemen gathered outside the church at Drumcree.  Nationalist supporters flooded into the Garvaghy Road.  The British Army dug a ditch and put up barbed wire in between both groups. There was something primal about the carnival of menace, jeering, fireworks and hatred from Drumcree hill. Everything seemed to be on the line: rights, law and order, the authority of the Parades Commission, the future.

In an attempt to head off the confrontation, ‘proximity talks’ were convened.  The Orange Order refused to meet directly with the Garvaghy Residents, seeing in this an admission that the Residents had a say in public order.  I was with them as the Government’s representative.  Their legal advisor was Rosemary Nelson from nearby Lurgan. I knew Rosemary from previous cases that we had raised through the Secretariat of the Intergovernmental Conference.  We talked a lot about the North in the longueurs of the proximity talks, about the tensions of living there, of the relief she felt whenever she crossed the border south. There wasn’t much for me to do but observe, check with contacts, make sure no untoward or unacceptable initiatives made matters worse, and keep Dublin closely informed. Under the leadership of the new DG of Anglo-Irish, Dermot Gallagher, senior officials in Dublin, Belfast and London were actively engaged and monitoring developments, advising the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern as developments unfolded. I’m sure the lines between Ahern and Blair were busy. Up north, as a mediator trusted by all sides including leading churchmen on both sides, Brendan McAllister was trying his best to cajole a solution. My opposite number was Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s chief of staff.  Jonathan too tried his best to negotiate a solution as he shuttled between Portadown Orange Lodge No 1 and the Garvaghy Road Residents. 

Then a horrific incident changed the atmosphere. Jason, Mark and Richard Quinn, three young boys, died in a UVF firebomb attack on their home in Ballymoney on July 12th. Widespread condemnation was immediate, including from some very courageous Protestant clergymen who spoke out from the pulpits.  A new consensus coalesced, enough was enough. Tensions eased, the Parades Commission’s decision was upheld. Garvaghy Road did not see an Orange Parade.

The Good Friday Agreement faced another dreadful test a month later.  On August 15th the Real IRA exploded a bomb in Omagh, killing 29 and including more than 200.  It was the worst incident of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, surpassed in lethality only by the Dublin Monaghan bombings in 1974 that killed 33 and injured more than 300. The consensus hardened that such murderous violence had to be consigned to the past, that the GFA was the future. 

In that summer of 1998, it was as if the Agreement, the shield of good intentions and high ambitions, made of words and ink, blessed by the people’s endorsement North and South, was being tested by the swords and dragons of Northern Ireland.  

Though Northern Ireland’s swordsmen and dragons died hard, the shield stood.  There would be other killings, for sure. In March 1999, Rosemary Nelson was killed when a bomb exploded under her car.  It was claimed by a loyalist group.  Yet peace had the upper hand and the inclination to use of violence ebbed.  Even the means to carry it out were tackled, led by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning.  Canada’s General John de Chastelain played a key role in this along with its other members.  I had never been sure that decommissioning had been feasible.  In the wake of the GFA, a republican contact in Derry had thrown a live round across a table at me, said take it to Dublin and “tell them that’s the only f—king decommissioning they’re going to see.” It was a stubborn issue that took years to unlock but that too was achieved. As the new policing represented by the PSNI took hold, the prize of decommissioning all paramilitary weapons was finally won. The monopoly on the use of violence was returned to the state.

Twenty-five years on, the signing of the Good Friday Agreement reminds us of what we left behind: killing and hatred, a decent future frustrated by the claims of the past. Finding peace in Northern Ireland had been a long road: the Sunningdale Agreement 1973-74, the Haughey-Thatcher summits in the early 1980s, the Anglo-Irish Agreement 1985, the Hume-Adams talks, the paramilitary ceases fires in 1994 and 1997, the GFA in 1998 and the twenty-nine subsequent agreements to implement it.  Through infinite hours of talks, meetings and negotiations, peace came dropping slow.

Great leaders emerged who took courageous decisions: Hume, Mallon, Haughey, Thatcher, FitzGerald, Spring, Major, Reynolds, Adams, McGuinness, Trimble, Robinson, Bruton, McAleese, Paisely (eventually) and Blair.  Countless others included the women of the Peace Movement like Mairead Corrigan and later leaders of the Women’s Coalition like Monica McWilliams and Pearl Sagar.  People working in NGOs and community groups at interfaces, risking vilification and physical violence to inch forward toleration.

Now the black swan of Brexit calls again for leadership of a very high order, provided on the Irish side by a new political generation. Like generations of peace makers of all kinds, as officials we were sustained by a ‘duty of hope’, committed to the process, always working toward a better future.  Here’s to more progress in 2023.



1 January 2023


[2] Security forces as a term covers many organizations, including RUC, its Special Branch which was regarded as a force within a force, the British Army and a host of covert intelligence agencies, including MI5 and the British Army’s Force Research Unit.



Leave a comment

Filed under Anglo-Irish, Ireland

Bloody Sunday: When and Why Apologies Work

Interesting to read about British discussions in 1997 about an apology for Bloody Sunday.  Northern Ireland Secretary of State Mo Mowlam wanted a review but only one such that “no soldier or other crown servant should be placed in jeopardy of legal action by whatever the reviewer might find or by what might flow from his findings”.  

As the Irish Times reports, “the restricted files released in Belfast show there was considerable debate within the UK government during 1997 over whether a fresh inquiry was necessary, or if a more limited review and apology might suffice.”[1]  The Defence Secretary, George Robertson, was concerned either that a review without legal consequence could not be guaranteed since a decision to prosecute lay with the AG, or that such a review would be of little interest to the Bloody Sunday relatives.  “A heartfelt apology should, in my view, be the Government’s last word on the subject.”

Here’s why an apology would not have worked in 1997 but was appropriate and fitting in 2010.

An apology in 1997 would have been an attempt to head off the pressure for a new inquiry into the 1972 killing of 14 people in Derry by the British Army (the Paras).  Pressure to revisit the killings increased dramatically with Don Mullan’s Eyewitness Bloody Sunday. With forensic skill and detective work, Don worked through the contemporaneous statements ignored by Widgery.  Over 500 statements had been collected by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association and the National Council for Civil Liberties.[2] His account directly challenged the official British version contained in the report of the Widgery Inquiry.

Widgery, the Lord Chief Justice of Britain, had conducted a public inquiry under the gold-standard Tribunal of Inquiries Act 1921.  With undue haste, it took him only a month.  Yet his conclusions echoed through the years.  In exonerating the soldiers and blaming the victims with false accusations that they were armed, Widgery became synonymous in Ireland with a white wash. The Widgery Report was dismissed, including by the Irish Government.

The events of Bloody Sunday and the Widgery Report exacerbated the conflict, strengthened the Provisional IRA, cast the British Army into the role of aggressor, and robbed nationalists of any belief that the rule of law or justice was available to them under British rule. 

Yet however much nationalists would denigrate the Widgery Report, it was the official British version of events by the Lord Chief Justice, the officer at the very apex of the British legal system.  This is what the long campaign of the Bloody Sunday Justice Campaign was up against. If there was ever to be a new inquiry, the Widgery Report would have to be set aside. By 1997 the case against Widgery was reaching a climax.

The publication of Mullan’s Eyewitness Bloody Sunday prompted renewed calls for another inquiry and the campaign of the Bloody Sunday Justice Campaign got a fresh impetus. In addition to Don’s work, others like Professor Dermot Walsh of the University of Limerick had analysed the statements by soldiers to the Military Police and Treasury Solicitors, detailing their many discrepancies and alterations.  New ballistic evidence emerged, reinforcing the questions raised back in 1972 by Samuel Dash. Channel Four News broadcast new interviews with soldiers on duty that day that challenged the Widgery version of events. We discovered 101 statements by eyewitnesses collected by Irish Government officials.  Investigative reporting by the Sunday Business Post added to the growing body of evidence that the Widgery was indeed a white wash, at the very least an incomplete and distorted account of events. 

Parliamentary Questions were tabled in the Dáil.  In drafting responses, I suggested and the Department of the Taoiseach (Paul McGarry) agreed, that the ‘new material’ presented by Don Mullan would be assessed.  Initially I had no idea how to do this.  A colleague and friend, Gerry Corr, was intrigued.  “You are summoning beasts from the deep” he said, “What will you do if they come?” (Gerry became a life-long friend with a highly distinguished diplomatic career and one of the Department’s great speech writers. He had worked as a traveler in Anglo-Irish Division during some of the worst years of the conflict.)

So I went back to the source and read the Widgery Report.  It was a rich repository of material about the events of that infamous day.  It was plain to see where Widgery had to distort the narrative to validate pre-determined conclusions.  The rationale for ignoring eyewitness statements that conflicted with Widgery’s mission to exculpate of the soldiers was clear. The new material from all its various sources did not need to be proven factually or legally correct. Rather it could be collated and aimed directly at Widgery’s claims, paragraph by paragraph.  The Widgery Report could be hoist on its own petard. The draft Assessment was finished with great editorial and research support from colleagues in Anglo-Irish Division, and Gerry Cribben and Wally Kirwan in the Department of the Taoiseach.

However to my mind, the real test of the Assessment’s merit was the judgement of the Director General of Anglo-Irish Division at the time, Sean Ó hUigínn.  Sean played a pivotal role in the peace process, a supreme intellect at work navigating the way forward in the crucial transition from conflict to ceasefires.  He had been the architect of the Downing Street Declaration of 1993, working closely with the Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, another driving force in the peace process. After Sean had read the draft, I was summoned to his office.  He was leafing through the document and lay it on the coffee table as I sat down. As long as there were no glaring errors in it, he approved text.  Relief. In his view, the new material fatally undermined and discredited the Widgery Report. More than that, Sean subsequently added concluding paragraphs that resounded with the high principles of justice at stake.  His indictment was eloquent and excoriating: 

“There have been many atrocities in Northern Ireland since Bloody Sunday.  Other innocent victims have suffered grievously at various hands. The victims of Bloody Sunday met their fate at the hands of those whose duty it was to respect as well as to uphold the rule of law.  However, what sets this case apart from other tragedies which might rival it in bloodshed, is not the identity of those killing and killed, or even the horrendous circumstances of the day.  It is rather that the victims of Bloody Sunday suffered a second injustice, this time at the hands of Lord Widgery, the pivotal trustee of the rule of law, who  sought to taint them with responsibility for their own deaths in order to exonerate, even at great moral cost, those he found it inexpedient to blame.”[3]

Under Sean’s seal of approval, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern conveyed the Assessment to the newly elected British Prime Minister, Tony Blair.  I understand that he underlined in the strongest possible terms the import of how Blair would respond and of the significance of overturning the historic wrong of Bloody Sunday.  Blair could have little doubt that such a powerful gesture would reinforce the momentum toward peace and reconciliation.

The intention was to publish the Assessment eventually so that even if the British Government refused a new inquiry, the Irish Government would table in effect an alternative narrative. It was a great example of the collective talent and teamwork that the Irish system was able to bring to the peace process.

Legend has it that Blair gave the Assessment to his wife Cherie to read with her legal eye.  She had just taken silk, become a Queen’s Counsel.  I like to think that that might be true. Imagine the scene as, possibly armed with a legal pad of her notes, she tells Tony that he can’t stand over Widgery.

It was quite a moment then in January 1998 as, across the floor of the House of Commons, Blair faced Ted Heath, the Prime Minister who had established the Widgery Inquiry over twenty-five years earlier.  Blair announced a new inquiry: “I have been strongly advised that there are indeed grounds for such a further Inquiry. We believe that the weight of material now available is such that these events require re-examination.”

The Inquiry would take twelve years and cost £200 million. Yet in that brave decision Blair sent a profound message that he meant business about a new form of engagement in Northern Ireland. 

Prime Minister David Cameron’s apology in 2010 was meaningful precisely because it was based on the conclusions of the Saville Inquiry. “What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong……Some members of our armed forces acted wrongly. The government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the armed forces and for that, on behalf of the government, indeed, on behalf of our country, I am deeply sorry.”

An apology in 1997 would have done little to substantively correct the double injustice of the victims, murdered and then blamed for their own deaths.  Thanks to the Saville Inquiry, the victims of Bloody Sunday had their innocence not just declared but proven.  The wrongs of Bloody Sunday were laid at the door of the British Army. And through the long years of the Saville Inquiry, there was much truth recovery that in future years will be invaluable for future assessments of what happened that day and why.



31 December 2022


[2] Eyewitness Bloody Sunday, 25th Anniversary edition, p 23.

[3] Bloody Sunday and the Report of the Widgery Tribunal, The Irish Government’s Assessment of the New Material, p

1 Comment

Filed under Anglo-Irish, Ireland

Death of a Peace Maker and Friend: Brendan McAllister RIP

As we approach the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, there is naturally a focus on the negotiations of that historic agreement and its implementation.  That is right and proper.  However, peace in Northern Ireland was the achievement of courageous people who reached across the sectarian divide in myriad gestures of reconciliation.  Peacemakers worked for years, decades even, through the haze of violence, riots and blood, reaching for a better future, for the better part of our natures, for peace.

One of those people was Brendan McAllister.  He died unexpectedly, suddenly, too young, this week.  His name will not be familiar to most.  To those who knew him, and loved him, his name is in our hearts.

Brendan worked with Mediation Northern Ireland in the years before and after the paramilitary ceasefires of 1994.  Alex Attwood, member of the SDLP and a former Assembly member and Minister, was one of his closest friends.  Reflecting on Brendan’s life and work, Alex said Brendan went to the hardest places.  There were no harder places in mid-1990s than the confrontations between the Loyal Orders and nationalist residents.

In 1996, parades in contentious areas like the Lower Ormeau Road in Belfast and the Garvaghy Road in Portadown exposed sectarian emotions at their rawest.  Peace in Northern Ireland felt like it was on the line.  As a mediator, Brendan went there armed with his humanism, his abiding Christianity, his determination to make Northern Ireland a better place, a place where people weren’t murdered for their beliefs. Brendan explained the parades issue.  Before the ceasefires, the Northern Ireland conflict was fought between ‘professionals’ on both sides: the PIRA versus the security forces.  In a way, they were the Punch and Judy show, avatars and mediums of the deeper divisions within society. 

Brendan worked hard as a mediator to win trust on all sides, to bridge the sectarian divide, to find common humanity.  Drumcree emerged as the titular confrontation of the parades issue. As a traveller with Anglo-Irish Division, we found each other in the no-man’s land between the Garvaghy residents and the Orange Order.  He was working to mediate, to connect the key stakeholders and find an agreed solution.  Jonathan Powell, PM Tony Blair’s chief of staff, was lead for the British Government.  I was point for the Irish Government. Daily, I would talk to Brendan, analyze, assess, and report back to Dublin. 

The annual Drumcree crisis washed over us, nationalist residents beaten off their own road by the RUC in daylight in 1996.  Then beaten off their own road again at night by the RUC in 1997.  Still Brendan worked to connect, and not just in Portadown about across innumerable interfaces in Northern Ireland, firefighting for peace, for that better future.

The Good Friday Agreement changed the equation.  Lines were held in 1998.  Courageous people spoke for toleration.  As the Parades Commission adjudicated each confrontation, the energy drained slowly from the parades issue. Again Brendan was at the coalface, injecting into the arbitration the philosophy and practice of mediation, reason, and compromise.

Brendan was also truly influential on the policing project.  His experience of the parade confrontations the critical role of policing in avoiding escalation and calm tensions.  Security sector reform is one of the most difficult challenges of any peace process.  In Northern Ireland, it was not only critical but successful.  Thanks to his input and influence before the Patten Commission and during the implementation of its recommendations, policing change in Northern Ireland was profound and successful.  It remains an enduring success of the peace process precisely because it is no longer on the radar screen. 

Years later, Brendan served as a Victims Commissioner and the Department of Foreign Affairs nominated Brendan for the UN’s panel of standby mediators.  I am sure that his wisdom, compassion and experience of conflict were invaluable in the places where he worked. 

I met Brendan and his wonderful wife Elizabeth a few years ago at a dinner hosted by the Irish Joint Secretary in Belfast.  It was a wonderful evening, a joy to spend time with Brendan and other old contacts.  When we parted, we hugged.  Brendan was a hugger.  And a smiler too with a ready infectious laugh that said ‘sure what’s it all about?’  By then the shadow on Brexit had fallen over the North.  There would be more work for Brendan, endless work of reconciliation.  Reflective as ever, his thoughts turned back to his faith and earlier this year he was ordained a Deacon.  When Brendan died last Tuesday, Northern Ireland lost a true friend and a gentle guide on its journey to a better future.

Eamonn McKee

Ambassador of Ireland to Canada

Ottawa, 14 December 2022


Filed under Anglo-Irish, Ireland

Thomas Ahearn, the ‘King of Electricity’ and the Man who Made Ottawa

The Bytown-Ottawa Irish Heritage Trail: the Fabulous Ahearns, cont’d.

Coincidentally, the man who would create modern Ottawa was born the year that the city changed its name from Bytown. In hindsight, this was auspicious.  If Bytown owed its existence to the Duke of Wellington, Ottawa owed its entry to the modern era to Thomas Ahearn.   

We do not know much of Thomas Franklin Ahearn’s early life but considering the energetic, confident and brilliant son they had raised, John and Norah must have been loving and supportive parents.  Young Tom would have seen up close the magic worked by his blacksmith father, heating cold black iron until it glowed orange and soft enough to be shaped.  Satisfied, his father plunged it hissing into cold water.  A kind and patient father would have answered his son’s questions, turning the young lad’s wonder into curiosity about the infinite variety and utility of the things that could be made.  Likely too that Tom’s close friend Warren Soper visited the forge.  The boys supported each other in their exploration of the new scientific breakthroughs reshaping the world.  If metallurgy had fashioned civilization for millennia, and steam the age of industrialisation, harnessing electricity birthed the modern technological age.

It must have been a well-read household for Thomas was exposed enough to new developments to develop a passion for electricity.  He grew up as telegraphy came of age, spreading around the world, its binary signal spreading information in hours where before it would have taken weeks. That flow of information was transformative: for markets, armies, technology, and daily life. By the time Tom was eleven, the New York businessman Cyrus Field was hailed a hero for successfully laying the transatlantic cable, finally uniting the world’s telecommunications and putting the last piece in place for a truly globalized world. It is hard not to think that Field was an inspiration to young Tom.

Tom wanted to be a part of this but he was expelled from the College of Ottawa for misbehaviour.[1]  The lack of a formal education mattered little to him.  He joined the Montreal Telegraph office at Chaudière, as a messenger really intent on learning about the application of electricity. After a stint in New York, Tom returned as the company’s chief operator, then hired some years later aged twenty-five by Bell Telephone.  Bruce Deachman writes about this in an anecdote that tells us much about Tom:  “This latter development was not without some irony: In 1878, Ahearn, perhaps unaware of the misdeed he was committing, infringed on Alexander Graham Bell’s patent when, after reading an article in Scientific American, made the first successful long-distance telephone call from Ottawa using handmade sets he’d built from cigar boxes to place a call to Pembroke. Ahearn later sold the boxes for $16 to settle an outstanding hotel bill.”[2]

Tom knew the practical end of electricity but when he realised he was undercharging for his installation work he knew he needed a business partner.  He turned to his childhood friend Warren Soper and in 1881 they formed Ahearn & Soper Telegraphy and Electric Light Contractors.  IN 1882, their Ottawa Electric Light Company installed sixty-five street lights, Thomas working him with two Irish laborers draping the lines as they went along. The lights were powered by Canada’s first hydro-electric power from a wheel and generator at Chaudiere Falls. They won a contract with the Canadian Pacific Railway to install telegraph lines and began building a local business empire. “The following year the young men were awarded a contract to introduce electric lights into the House of Commons. The lights were switched on in January 1884, a full year earlier than at the Capitol in Washington, DC.” [3]   It would prove to be a life-long partnership that created modern Ottawa and earned them the title the Edisons of Canada. 

Ahearn is most famous for the invention of the electric oven and stove. “On 17 January, 1884, he cooked the first dinner with teh appliance in Ottawa’s Windsor Hotel before a collection of VIP journalists. The oven was over 6 feet [2 metres] in height and width and in the words of the Ottawa Citizen, ‘It was hot enough to roast an ox.’ The dinner consisted of Saginaw trout, potato croquettes, sugar-crusted ham, lamb cutlets, stuffed loin of veal, strawberry puffs chocolate cake, and apple pie.” [Sweeny, pp 351-2]

The year 1884 was also significant for Thomas personally. On 25 June, he married Lilias MacKey Fleck. In May 1886, Lilias gave birth to their son, Frank. Two years later, she gave birth their daughter but tragedy truck and Lilias died in childbirth. Grief-stricken, Thomas named his daughter Lilias. Lilias’s fate in childbirth was one of the great dangers that women had faced and continue to face. She would not see her children grow, nor her daughter Lilias marry the publisher Harry Stevenson Southam, one of the resident elite families of old Ottawa. Frank would call his daughter after her, an Irish tradition.

Ahearn and Soper literally electrified the city and brought lighting and phones to the Parliament, factory floors, the streets and homes.  In 1887 they used thousands of light bulbs to decorate Parliament in celebration of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. In 1891, Thomas Keefer transferred the rail charter to Ahearn and Soper. Keefer was the son-in-law of the builder of the Rideau Canal and founder of Bytown, Thomas Mackay. Keefer had developed the Rockcliffe neighbourhood and used horse-draw railcars to connect it to the town centre. With the charter in hand, Ahearn and Soper introduced electric trams, the new lines literally generating Ottawa’s suburbs as houses sprung up along them.  Ever inventive, Ahearn installed electric heaters in them. The tramline went first from Bank Street to Landowne, spawning the Glebe neighbourhood as the local farmer sold lots for housing.  Ahearn and Sopper bought the land adjacent to planned lines the next time. To ensure his streetcars did a good business at the weekend, Ahearn built amusement parks at Rockcliffe with, of course, electric merry-go-rounds.  He helped encourage the first skiing in the region on the scenic slopes there overlooking the Ottawa River.

Ahearn combined many traits, from creativity and constant tinkering with new devices, building networks of people to advance his projects, and thinking big about how to develop Ottawa. “However, it was his ability to find solutions to particular technological obstacles impeding the progress of large systems that gave his companies an edge over the competition. He was always innovating, interconnecting his machinery in new ways, and adapting inventions to his needs. He was also a master of promotion. On 29 Aug. 1892 he invited members of the Ottawa elite to an “electric” banquet. An entire meal was cooked in a powerhouse on electrical appliances that he had designed and constructed. The food was delivered to the dining room of the Windsor hotel by streetcar.”[4]

Thanks to Ahearn and Soper, Ottawa was first in all these things, ahead of Montreal and Toronto. “By 1900, it was reported there were 100,000 incandescent light bulbs burning in the city, more per capita than anywhere else in the world.” [5]  Ahearn drove the first car in Ottawa, notably an electric one using batteries.  He was forever inventing and held almost thirty patents in Canada and the US.  He applied his technical genius to make ovens[6], fridges, water bottle warmers, streetcar heating systems, insulators, battery jars, arc-light carbons, motor brushes, recording machines for music, telephones and telegraphs systems.

Ahearn was a close supporter of both Wilfred Laurier and Mackenzie King, the latter appointing him to the new Federal District Commission tasked with the development of the city’s parks and roads in 1927. Thanks to Ahearn we have the Queen Elizabeth Driveway and the Champlain Bridge. A year later, the Prime Minister appointed Ahearn to the Privy Council. 

Tom Ahearn died in 1938.  Anna Adamek sums up his life in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography thus:

“Thomas Ahearn’s career was truly remarkable. Although he was born in a poor working-class family, he became one of Ottawa’s richest and most influential entrepreneurs. His outstanding technical expertise, but also his intuition, allowed him to compete successfully with members of the city’s business elites and build powerful political alliances. Through the companies he founded and the institutions he led, Ahearn realized his vision of Ottawa as a modern, industrialized capital and greatly contributed to its transformation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.”

Deachman again: “Tom, as he was known his entire life, grew up in lockstep with the new city, and it’s impossible to imagine what Ottawa might look like today without his influence. Along with his business partner, Warren Young Soper, Ahearn touched the lives of everyone in Ottawa, through transportation, electricity, beautification and leisure and entertainment. The pair’s interconnected business enterprises very much shaped how and where the city grew, as its population soared from just over 10,000 when Ahearn took in his first breath, to about 150,000 when he exhaled his last.”

We can look forward to a full treatment of Ahearn’s life when a new biography of Ahearn and Soper is published by Laura Ott.  Ott has said that Ahearn and Soper are “among the most unrecognized people for the type of impact they had on the city.”

Tom’s son Frank built a memorial to his father and you can see it now in the Glebe, at the corner of Bank and Holmwood.  As well as an image of his father, the memorial was combined with a drinking fountain, a wonderful symbol of the utility that Tom brought to the life of his beloved city of Ottawa.

So we are lost for choice when it comes to putting places on the Bytown-Ottawa Irish Heritage trail marking Tom Ahearn’s impact on the city.

Up next, we look at the remarkable life of his son Frank in the continuing saga of the fabulous Ahearns.

Eamonn McKee


5 December 2022

[1] Dictionary of Canadian Biography (DCB), entry by Anna Adamnek.

[2] Capital Builders: Thomas Ahearn and Warren Soper, the ‘Edisons of Canada’,  Ottawa Citizen, 4 April 2019.

[3] DCB.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Canada Post issued a commemorative stamp in 2011 featuring Ahearn’s electric oven.  The oven had won him the gold medal at the Central Canada Exhibition in 1892 and featured in the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. Ibid, Ottawa Citizen.

Leave a comment

Filed under Canada, Ireland, Irish Heritage of Canada

John Ahearn, founder of an Irish Canadian Dynasty

The Bytown-Ottawa Irish Heritage Trail: the Fabulous Ahearns

In three generations, the Ahearns progressed from an Irish-born blacksmith to the Privy Council and to a leading role in the Governor General’s Office, along the way creating and shaping the modern city of Ottawa. Each generation more than deserves tribute and whether individually or collectively, the Ahearns were indeed fabulous. Here is the story of the fabulous Ahearns, John, Thomas, Frank and Lilias. Each were a leader of their generation. They will be great additions to our heritage trail. First up, John Ahearn.

We do not know much about John Ahearn other than that he was born in Ireland in 1806. He married Honorah (Norah) Power, date and location unknown. He or they immigrated to Canada and he worked his trade as a blacksmith in what was then Bytown. The home of John and Norah was on Duke Street in the working class neighbourhood of Lebreton Flats, not far from Chaudiere Falls on the Ottawa River.

We can guess what brought him to the Ottawa Valley. By then the long struggle between Britain and France for global dominance was over and thanks to the Duke of Wellington, the construction of the Rideau Canal had begun, a strategic communication between Kingston and Montreal away from the St Lawrence, the likely point of attack of the United States. There was already a thriving lumber industry, dating back to the Napoleon blockade that had cut off Baltic timber. The Irish could find cheap passage as living ballast on the lumber ships on the ships’ return leg from England and the naval shipyards there.

In the Ottawa and Gatineau Valleys, there were jobs in the lumber industry, though the work was dangerous and rough. There was cheap land to buy when the trees were cleared, though clearing giant tree stumps and rocks was backbreaking. However, the canal and plans to build almost one hundred locks and dams meant that there was plenty of good work for skilled craftsmen like carpenters, stone masons and blacksmiths. All of these opportunities drew in the Irish at a time when the Irish economy was in recession after the boom times of the Napoleonic wars.

John packed up his belongings, probably too the tools of his trade, and began the long sea passage across the great North Atlantic, up the St Lawrence to Montreal and then the Ottawa River to its confluence with the Gatineau and Rideau Rivers. He married Honorah Power, but we do not know whether they met in Ireland or in Canada. Her life would have been one of hard labour, giving birth and running a household without any modern conveniences. The brutal winters added to her chores, as did the muddy spring time and mosquito infested summers. Cut off from home and the support of relatives, loneliness must have been a factor too. Prevalent illnesses would have added distress as well as the ever fear of death. Throughout all of this, Norah was wife, mother, cook, cleaner, nurse, moral conscience and educator. Raising a family in these conditions was nothing short of heroic.

The construction of the Rideau Canal had stimulated a new settlement dubbed Bytown after Colonial John By, the engineer in overall charge of the canal’s construction. Officers and gentlemen worked and lived around Barracks Hill while the Irish and French workers settled in the swampy area of Lowertown. The market, taverns and shanties there became known as Byward. Perhaps indicating his status as a craftsman and perhaps too intent on avoiding the violent quarrels between the Irish and French in Lowertown as they competed for jobs and dominance, Ahearn settled in Lebron Flats, at Duke Street.

By any stretch, John’s life was fabulous, moving from an island scarred by British colonialism and savage sectarianism, across the incalculable expanse of the North Atlantic, perhaps guided by some old letters that had promised opportunity. For somebody from Ireland, the vast scale of the St Lawrence must have been awe-inspiring. He probably stopped at Quebec and then Montreal, bustling cities cacophonous with French speakers and up close with Indigenous residents, visitors and fur traders. As he travelled up the Ottawa River, he would have seen the giant rafts of squared logs, topped with cabins and guided downriver to Montreal by strong and hardy lumbermen. He would too have seen Indigenous travelers in their birch bark canoes, including warriors, hunters, and families.

When he arrived, John would have found Bytown to be boisterous and half-built, with muddy streets, shanties and some grand stone buildings, yet a city ambitious for its future. He could admire the success of fellow Irishman John Egan who had risen to be the leading lumber baron in the Valley and an influential politician. Ahearn would have noticed that the immediate region was stripped of trees. He must have gazed in wonder at the Gatineau hills and beyond the wilderness of bear and wolf stretching infinitively west and north. Imagine his first winter in Canada as all of this fell under a crystalline spell of snow and ice. At least he would not have been short of company in the large Irish community, the cadences of the Irish language common among his fellow immigrants. John and Norah’s son Thomas Franklin was born in 1855 at their home in Duke Street, Lebron Flats.

Next up, we look at Thomas’ life and his role as the founding father of modern Ottawa.


Filed under Canada, Ireland, Irish Heritage of Canada

Irish Night on the Hill, 23 November 2022, Remarks

Failte romhat, a chairde, welcome everyone. Tá an-athas mór orm, I’m delighted to see you all here. Good evening ladies and gentle, friends of Ireland. What a thrill to have you all here this evening.

This is our third Night on the Hill. The first two were organized by Jamie and my dear colleagues Jim Kelly and Michael Hurley. Tragically, both passed away in their prime. Earlier this year, I was shocked to get a phone call saying that Jim had died suddenly last St Patrick’s Day. It is impossible to reconcile his wife Anne and their two daughters, Orla and Ciara, to their loss. That is permanent, eased only by loving memories.

However, it was some comfort to recall to Anne how many people Jim had touched in Canada with his humanity, his warmth and his professional integrity as a diplomat so proud to represent his country. Knowing Jim’s love for Canada and the Irish in Canada, he would be well chuffed about our gathering this evening. We remember him this evening.

There is no better place for a Parliament than on a Hill. I love this Hill. At the confluence of the Ottawa, Rideau and Gatineau Rivers, this Hill was always a meeting place. We acknowledge that we gather on the traditional territory of the Anishinabek and the Algonquin.

We recall too that it was John Egan from Galway who played the instrumental role in securing the land at Maniwaki for the reserve at Kitigan Zibi in 1853. Egan arrived here in 1830, penniless. He became the Ottawa Valley’s leading lumber baron. He helped to develop Bytown through lumber, stream boats and rail connections, and as a leading politician. Egan entertained Governor General Lord Elgin during his visit to Bytown as part of the campaign to make it the capital city of Canada.
Egan sold land at half price to the Irish. That is why we had such strong Irish settlement in the Ottawa and Gatineau Valleys. I’d like to recognize our Irish friends here from Brennan’s Hill, Martindale and Venosta in Gatineau and from Douglas.

The Duke of Wellington was born in Dublin and raised in Trim. Most of his soldiers were Irish. Without Wellington, there would have been no Rideau Canal. No canal, no Ottawa. 

Michael McBane is here, a great local historian. Thank you Michael for all your research on this region’s Irish Heritage. It is thanks to Michael that we know that Famine Irish emigrants died of fever on this hill, men, women and children, in 1847. Thanks to Michael too, we know that some 300 hundred of their remains lie in Macdonalds Gardens Park. We are working to commemorate that site.

Thanks to Canadian compassion, like that of Sister Bruyère of the Grey Nuns, most of the Famine Irish survived in Bytown as well as all along the St Lawrence River, from Quebec and Montreal to Kingston, Toronto and Hamilton. Through such Canadian compassion, the Irish found hope here. Through the opportunities in Canada, the Irish found success here.

The Irish gave much to Canada too. Irish and French workmen built the Parliament complex. In the halls of Parliament, Thomas D’Arcy McGee could marvel at the outcome of the negotiations for Confederation in 1867. His friend, Lord Monck from Tipperary, was the Governor General who played a key role in steering those negotiations to success.

Indeed, the first three Governor Generals after Confederation were Irish; Monck, Lisgar and Lord Dufferin. Monck bought Rideau Hall. Lord and Lady Dufferin added the Ballroom, the Tent Room and skating rinks there, making it the centre of social life in Ottawa. They were part of a long line of Anglo-Irish Governor Generals, Lieutenant Governors, officials and soldiers who shaped Canada, from Guy Carlton to the Duke of Wellington.

Thomas Ahearn, son of an Irish born blacksmith, brought electric lighting to Parliament. With his genius for invention and his command of the science of electricity, he brought electric power to Ottawa, electric trams, an electric car and even invented the electric oven. His son Frank Ahearn owned the Ottawa Senators when they won the Stanley Cup in 1923, 1924 and 1927.
Frank and his daughter Lilias lived at 7 Rideau Gate. She became vice regal consort to her father-in –law, Governor General Vincent Massey, and accompanied him to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Today their home is the Government’s official guest house. In three generation, the fabulous Ahearns went from blacksmith, to business empire, to Rideau Hall itself. That says something about them. And it says something great about Canada too.

So we are working on a Bytown-Ottawa Irish Heritage Trail. Call it reverse colonization. By the time we’re finished, Ottawa will be Canada’s leading Irish town. I’d like to welcome newly elected Mayor of Ottawa, Mark Sutcliffe. Great to see him here and have to chance to brief him on our plans to promote the city’s Irish heritage.

I’d also like to recognize Robert Kearns and William Peat from the Canada Ireland Foundation. They have been working for years to promote the Irish Story in Canada and have fantastic plans for the future. We deeply value our collaboration with you.

Grant Vogl of the Bytown Museum is here too. Grant and his team at the Bytown Museum do such great work promoting Ottawa’s great heritage. We’re looking forward to taking our work with them forward. Celebrating the Irish story in Canada is an exciting journey of discovery.

This night is also about friendship. Saying thanks to all our friends and supporters. And working together to build the relationship between Ireland and Canada.

Canada has been a great ally to Ireland. Next year, we celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. Canadians played a key role in our peace process. Canada was a founder member of the International Fund for Ireland in 1986. Canadians supported the talks process. Judge Peter Cory became a legend for tackling the issue of collusion in Northern Ireland, a wonderful man of compassion and impeccable integrity. General John de Chastelain played a key role on the Decommissioning Commission in taking the gun out of Irish politics. Al Hutchinson helped consolidate the new policing as Police Ombudsman.

Our Peace Process is a work in progress. We are working to restore power-sharing, to remit the damage caused by Brexit. Our future faces challenges that are daunting but exciting, the prospect of unification. That is journey where Canadian support will be vital. Because in Canada we learn that divergent loyalties can happily the same space in peace and stability.

I would like to say a special thank you to my wife and our small team at the Embassy for all that they do promoting Ireland in Canada. They have worked really hard to make this event happen. The team was led by Second Secretary Sally Bourne and she did a terrific job pulling all this together. A warm round of applause and thanks to them.

We have to say goodbye to John Boylan, our Deputy Head of Mission and I know a friend to many of you here. We will sorely miss you John, thanks for your outstanding contribution and best of luck for the future to you, Deirdre and your family.

I would like to acknowledge the Sue Healy school of Irish dancing, and dancers Nora and Nessa Healy, Joely Henderson, Rosalie Boisselle, Hannah Clegg, Ainsley Smith, Lauren Mortimer, Anna Jackson and Adele Stanton-Bursey. Thank you!
Piper Ross Davison, thank you! That’s a genuine set of pipes he’s got there, Uilleann pipes! None of this blowing in a tube stuff!

I would like to pay a particular tribute to my friend James Maloney, Member for Etobicoke. It has been my honour and pleasure getting to know him and to count him as my friend. Thanks to his leadership and support of the Parliamentary Friendship Group, March is officially Irish Heritage Month. And we have great plans for the future. James, the floor is yours.

I am honoured to introduce Senator Robert Black. If his devotion to farming and agriculture is anything to go by, he definitively has Irish genes!

I am now honoured to call on his honour, Kevin Waugh MP. Kevin distinguished himself in his great speech on the Second Reading of the Motion to Irish Heritage Month. In fact, he proved his Irish credentials by breaking into song!

Eamonn McKee



1 Comment

Filed under Anglo-Irish, Canada, Ireland

I’m adding Rideau Hall to the Bytown-Ottawa Irish Heritage Trail

On the hunt for the Irish heritage of Ottawa, or as I like to call it the Bytown-Ottawa Irish Heritage Trail, the more I look the more I find.  Like the fact that the first three Governor Generals after Canadian Confederation were Anglo-Irish. I am proposing to add Rideau Hall, the official residence of the Governor General, as a candidate for inclusion on the Irish Heritage Trail in Canada’s capital city.

And from my latest discoveries, I’m going to propose 7 Rideau Gate, the Canadian Government’s official guest house, as well as the actual wrought iron gates to Rideau Hall, both with strong claims to deserve inclusion. More on those anon, but here’s Rideau Hall’s claim to Irish heritage (we’re not just handing them out to anyone!)

We know that Thomas D’Arcy McGee was a founding father of Canadian Confederation in 1867.  Indeed, Canada’s Confederation and the political settlement underpinning it were the result of the influence of Britain, Ireland and the United States, the latter two as warnings on how not to run a country.  D’Arcy McGee’s knowledge of Irish history, British politics, and his aversion to the United States were the source of much of this influence.[1] 

What appears to have been forgotten is that after Confederation, the first three Governor Generals in the premiere Dominion of the Commonwealth were Irish, more precisely Anglo-Irish.  They all played a role in developing the function of that office, the representative of the British sovereign monarch in Canada.

The last Governor General of Provincial Canada and the first Governor General (GG) of the Canadian Confederation was Charles Monck, 4th Viscount Monck.  Born in Templemore, County Tipperary, and educated at Trinity College Dublin, he served for a time as MP for Portsmouth.  As GG to Provincial Canada from 1861 to 1867, Monck diffused tensions with the US that threatened war and strongly supported Confederation throughout its negotiation at the Quebec, Charlottetown and London Conferences, working hard to ensure consensus.   

As his biography says on the GG’s official website: “Lord Monck’s skill as a diplomat in Canadian-American relations was matched by his ability in promoting Confederation.  He helped build ‘The Great Coalition’, the consolidation of the Reform and Conservative parties that was key to the colonies’ pursuit of federalism.  In Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, he was a tireless promoter of unity and played a leading role in the preparations for a federal union.”  “I like him amazingly”, wrote John A. MacDonald of Monck, “and shall be very sorry when he leaves, as he has been a very prudent and efficient administrator of public affairs.”[2]

Monck lived in Quebec during this time.  When he became GG of the Confederation he travelled to Bytown and chose Rideau Hall as the GG’s official residence, purchased for $82,000 in 1868.  As a keen horticulturalist, he did much to develop the gardens and grounds.  After his duties in the new Confederation ended, he returned to Ireland to serve as Lord Lieutenant of County Dublin from 1874 to 1892 (not to be confused with Lord Lieutenant of Ireland; the Dublin position was abolished in 1922).  He died two years later in Enniskerry, aged 75.

Monck was succeeded by John Young, 1st Baron Lisgar.  He was Anglo-Irish, born in Bombay.  His father was William Young of Bailieborough Castle, Country Cavan.  The castle was known as Lisgar House, hence John’s title.  William had bought the castle in 1814 and laid out the plans for the town of Bailieborough. His son John was MP for Cavan for twenty-four years, rising to Secretary of the Treasury and Chief Secretary of Ireland from 1852 to 1855 (essentially running the country on behalf of the British Government) under Prime Minister Robert Peel. After stints in colonial service in Greece and New South Wales, Young was appointed as the second GG for Confederated Canada, serving until 1872.

In his time as GG, Young was raised to Baron or Lord Lisgar in 1870.  He faced crises provoked by Fenian raids into Canada and the Red River Rebellion led by Louis Riel. In both cases, he strongly counselled against executions to avoid creating bitterness and division.  He worked closely with PM Macdonald to ease tensions.   The Red River Rebellion had been sparked by the transfer of Prince Rupert’s Land (the incomprehensively large territory that drained into Hudson Bay, ranging from Alberta to Nunavut) from the Crown to the Confederation.  Riel demanded land rights on their holdings and autonomy for the Métis.  In 1870 Manitoba was created after negotiations with Riel but Métis demands failed to materialize and Riel was exiled to the US in 1875[3].

Lisgar helped ease long standing tensions with the US that had their roots in the American War of Independence, had flared up in the War of 1812 and had festered ever since.  He travelled to Washington to meet with President Ulysses S. Grant.[4]

According to his official GG biography:   “In both conflicts, Lord Lisgar was a wise mediator who helped lessen some of the potential bitterness. He also prevented the execution of the captured Fenian invaders by sending a sternly worded telegram to those who were ready to apply quick justice.”  It goes on to say that “Lord Lisgar and his wife, Lady Adelaide Annabella Dalton Lisgar, added many important traditions to Rideau Hall. They held the first recorded New Year’s Levee in 1869, while he was Administrator, and organized Christmas and Garden Parties. And in 1872, the noon gun firing on Parliament Hill was established, and the Governor General’s Foot Guards army regiment was created. The first duty of the new regiment was to provide a guard of honour for Lord Lisgar on his departure from office in June of the same year.”[5]

The third Anglo-Irish GG was Lord Dufferin.  Because of the pandemic, I only recently met the Governor General, Her Excellency Mary May Simon, at Rideau Hall.  After our meeting, in which we discussed the Irish contribution to Canada of course, we were given a tour of Rideau Hall, including the opulent Ballroom with its massive Waterford crystal chandelier (1200 pieces), and the Tent Room with its startling marquee-like interior of alternating vertical white and pink stripes.  These magnificent additions to Rideau Hall were the work of the Lord and Lady from Ireland, one of the more consequential occupants of the Governor General’s Residence.

Frederick Temple Blackwood, the future Lord Dufferin, was the only son of Price Blackwood, 4th Baron of Dufferin and Clandeboye in what is now Northern Ireland.  The Scottish Blackwood family had settled in the area to the east of Belfast city on the southern shores of Belfast Lough in the early 1600s. 

Frederick’s mother Helen was a granddaughter of the famous Irish playwright, satirist and MP Richard Brinsley Sheridan.  He was a very devoted son and built Helen’s Tower to celebrate her, a wonderful folly in the Clandeboye demesne based on the traditional Scottish tower.[6] 

As a young student, Frederick visited Clonakilty in West Cork to see the wretched conditions of the Great Famine and raised money for relief of the poor and starving.  He was a student at Eton College which he hated, and left after two years without a degree.  Not that he needed it: with the early death of his father, he became Baron of Dufferin and Clandeboye in 1841.

Frederick cut a dash as a young aristocrat with his good looks, kind heart, and charm.  By 1850 he was a member of the House of Lords.  Some years later he sailed in the North Atlantic and his humorous travelogue, the popular Letters from High Latitudes, demonstrated his fine writing skills.  He turned to diplomacy where he was involved in the negotiations at the end of the Crimean War.  He had a distinguished and influential series of postings in Lebanon, Syria and India.

In the meantime, Frederick had married a distance cousin, Hariot Rowan-Hamilton of nearby Killyleagh Castle (the Blackwoods had a keen eye for a good marriage that enhanced their position). They would be blessed with twelve children in all.  She would prove to be an adept diplomat herself, and they were the quintessential power-couple.  In 1872, Frederick now Lord Dufferin, travelled with his wife to Rideau Hall to take up his appointment as Governor General. 

The Dufferins remodelled Rideau Hall adding both the Ballroom and the Tent Room. He also built rinks for skating and curling for public use.  They hosted balls, theatre, and concerts, making Rideau Hall the centre of social life in the young capital city.  He created the GG’s Academic medals to reward scholarly achievement.

Dufferin was keenly political and an admirer of Canada’s first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald.  He watched the young Confederation’s parliamentary business closely and solicitously.  Within the Privy Council he felt it was his right to engage on substantive matters with Ministers.  As he put it, “Within the walls of the Privy Council I have as much right to contend for my opinion as any of my Ministers, and in matters of the moment, they must not expect me to accept their advice merely because they give it but must approve it to my understanding and conscience.” 

Dufferin commuted Ambroise Lépine’s death sentence for killing Thomas Scott during the Red River Rebellion.  Though Scott was the son of one of his tenants back in Ireland, Dufferin considered him a ruffian. Like his fellow Anglo-Irishman, the Duke of Wellington, Dufferin kept a wary eye of US’s interests in Canada, and urged facilitating Canadian self-government as much as possible to ward off the US, noting that Quebec “has in great measure saved the English population from Yankification.”

The Dufferins were very taken with Quebec, no doubt its Francophone ambience appealing to both of them.  They were horrified when the City started to demolish its old walls, campaigned to stop it, and raised funds to preserve them.  They created a promenade, Dufferin Terrace with views of the St Lawrence, an enduring landmark in the city.  Thanks to their invention, Quebec was in a good position almost a century later to become a UNESCO world heritage site.

Dufferin and his wife visited every Province, including Indigenous communities from whom they received gifts of native craft and art. He strongly endorsed the Prime Minister’s plan for a cross-Canada railway.  They went out of their way to attend events where they had a chance to meet all walks of life and not just the social elite. Lady Dufferin published her letters to her mother as My Canadian Journal and considered their time in Canada as the happiest of their lives. This was reciprocated by the Canadians.  The popularity of this Irish couple in Canada is shown in the number of streets, schools and places named Dufferin.

Monck, Lisgar and Dufferin were the Confederation chapter of a long and influential Anglo-Irish legacy in colonial Canada stretching back to its most formative period during and after the American War of Independence.  Figures like Guy Carleton Baron Dorchester (born in Strabane), in Quebec and then GG of Canada, his brother Thomas (also Strabane) as a military leader and first Lt Governor of New Brunswick, Richard Bulkeley the founding father of Nova Scotia and John Parr, Lt Governor of Nova Scotia (both from Dublin), and Walter Prendergast (Foxhall, Donegal), first Lt Governor of St John’s Island (PEI).[7]  Perhaps most consequential of them all, as I have written elsewhere, was the Duke of Wellington (born in Dublin, family from Trim) without whom there would have been no Ottawa at all.

Collectively, the first three Anglo-Irish GG’s made significant contributions at a critical period of the new Confederation, bringing experience, confidence and an abiding sense of affection for Canada to their roles and the office itself. They literally left a physical mark in Rideau Hall but left too a legacy in the functioning and public perception of the office of Governor General.



11 November 2022

[1] The prolific D’Arcy McGee was admitted to the Royal Irish Academy on the strength of his 1863 A popular history of Ireland.   See Michele Holmgren’s treatment of D’Arcy McGee’s literary influence in her Canada to Ireland, Poetry, Politics, and the Shaping of Canadian Nationalism 1788-1900.


[3] Riel returned to lead the Northwest Rebellion in 1885, was caught and executed.  His execution generated the deep and long lasting bitterness that Lisgar had striven to avoid in the aftermath of the Red River Rebellion.

[4] Lisgar welcome the first British royal to the Confederation in 1869, Victoria’s son Prince Arthur.  Prince Arthur would return as GG and commission Wilhelmina Geddes to create the magnificent WWI memorial stained glass window in St Bartholomew’s, the chapel of the GG and the GG’s Foot Guards, installed in 1919.


[6] Since the 36th Ulster Division trained there, the tower served as the model for the Ulster Tower in Thiepval to commemorate Ulster’s fallen in World War I. Helen’s Tower is available to rent for a holiday.

[7] The second Lt Gov of PEI was Edmund Fanning, born on Long Island but apparently of Irish parents.


Filed under Anglo-Irish, Canada, Ireland, Irish Heritage of Canada

Memorial Service and Rededication of the Restored Geddes Window

Remarks at St Bartholomew’s Church, Ottawa, 6 November 2022

Eamonn McKee, Ambassador of Ireland

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go leir. I am honoured and delighted to a part of this service today as we rededicate this wonderful stained glass window by Irish artist Wilhelmina Geddes.

I want to pay particular thanks to Reverend Father David Clunie for inviting me to be a part of this restoration project. I thought at first he was just looking for money but I quickly realized that what he really wanted was my endorsement as the Irish Ambassador. He rightly intuited that this was a really important dimension to this endeavor.

Since our first meeting at the home of our neighbors Rob and Joanne Nelson, this has been great, a certain highlight of my time here. I have to say as a civil servant you do not often start a project and get to see it finished! But here it is less than two years later and how wonderful. The detail and clarity is amazing.

We should acknowledge too the restoration team who must have a special feeling for this window and they cleaned and restored it piece by piece. They have done a wonderful job.

Thank you then to David, his fundraising committee and all the supporters of this wonderful piece of Irish art, newly restored and good for another one hundred years.

The Geddes Window was commissioned in early 1916 when so much was in flux in Irish society and in art. Geddes was an artist working in the medium of stained glass, at the Túr Gloine studio in Dublin, part of a revival of artisanal craft and the medieval world. As Reverend Clunie noted, the medieval motif makes this work ageless.

When I approached my colleagues back at Headquarters, they immediately recognized the significance of this project and gathered funding to support it.

We hosted a reception last Thursday at Residence to mark the completion of the restoration. We premiered David’s wonderful documentary on the history of the Geddes Window. Beautifully done and soon to be online and available to the public. Well done David and all the volunteers who shared in its making.

As a result of the restoration, St Bartholomew’s and this Geddes Window will be a gem in the Bytown-Ottawa Heritage Trail on which we are working. We hope this will help make more people aware of this treasure, both here in Canada and in Ireland.

We will also put Rideau Hall and Rideau Gate on our Irish Heritage Trail. Call it reverse colonization!

These Church walls bear the names of Governor Generals. The first three after Confederation in 1867 were Anglo-Irish: Viscount Monck, born in Tipperary and educated at Trinity College Dublin; Lord Lisgar whose father was from Bailieborough in Country Cavan; and of course Lord and Lady Dufferin, Frederick and Hariot Blackwood, probably the most consequential couple to live at Rideau Hall as they transformed the function of that office.

The last private family living at No 7 Rideau Gate, now the Government of Canada’s official guest house, were the Ahearns. Lilias Ahearn Massey grew up there and became vice regal consort, attending the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. From her Irish-born blacksmith great-grandfather, her grandfather Thomas and father Frank Ahearn, to that august role was but three generations

The Geddes Window represents a time in Ireland’s history when local loyalties and aspirations, hopes and fears collided with global events and the outbreak of World War I. The struggles in Ireland were projected onto the wider screen of European hostilities.

Ulster loyalists resisting Home Rule joined the Ulster Volunteer Force and then the 36th Ulster Division to fight for King, country and little Belgium.

Irish nationalists insisting on Home Rule joined the National Volunteers and then the British Army to fight for home rule for Ireland and little Belgium.

Irish Catholic Canadians joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force King, country, and home rule for Ireland.

They all fought and died for what they believed were noble causes.

The noble cause of Irish freedom also called to Irish patriots who fought for Ireland in the streets of Dublin in 1916 and paid the ultimate price for their beliefs.

We honour our patriot dead at our Garden of Remembrance. There in 2011, Queen Elizabeth II paid her respects. It was an historic peacemaking gesture in reconciling Ireland and Britain. In this year of her passing, we remember her too.

So this window is part of the mosaic of our shared history. Irish, British, and Canadian. Nationalist, unionist, and Commonwealth.

We remember today the 200,000 Irish men and women from all traditions who enlisted in the Great War and the 35,000 who fell.

To what degree they were betrayed by the great powers that led them to such horror and sacrifice remains a live historical debate. That debate enhances our memorial of them. It serves to remind us that war is a solemn and grim business.

That as all soldiers know who must put their lives on the line, the greatest honour is reserved for the peace makers.

We are honoured today to have with us a soldier and a peace maker, John de Chastelain. He and his fellow members of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning helped take the gun out of Irish politics.

It is the peace makers who strive to avoid conflict until all other options are exhausted.

And when that fatal price is paid in the fight for our beliefs, we honour the fallen, we remember them.

Thank you.

1 Comment

Filed under Anglo-Irish, Canada, Ireland, Irish Heritage of Canada, Uncategorized

Wellington and Ottawa: How an Irishman and a Pot of Spanish Silver Transformed Canada

It is hard to imagine the development of modern Canada without the decisive intervention of Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, and one of the most influential Anglo-Irish figures of the 19th century.  Without his vision of Canada as a strategic bulwark protecting Britain’s global hegemony, there would have been no Lachine, Rideau or Welland Canals, no Bytown hence no Ottawa, and no modern Halifax. The names of Wellington’s men, sent to build up Canada and administer British North America are now common place names of streets and universities across the country. Their job was to protect Canada from US invasion and annexation. Wellington himself had the authority, the manpower and, critically, a huge pot of Spanish silver to realize his vision of Canada as Britain’s indispensable ally. Without Wellington, British North America could well have been absorbed into the United States as many American political leaders expected and demanded for most of the century.

Famously, the Duke of Wellington was said to have retorted about his Irish origins that ‘being born in a stable did not make you a horse.’ [1]   Nonetheless, it remained a fact that not only was he born on Merrion Street in Dublin and raised in Ireland, but his family also had deep roots there going back at least six generations.  His Cowley (later Colley[2]) forebears arrived from England around 1500 and successive Irish patriarchs were members of the Irish House of Commons.  Their lands were near Trim and Wellington was raised there and in Dublin, leaving when he was twelve to go to Eton (where he was deeply unhappy).  Whatever about his alleged distain, Wellington led many Irish into battle wherever he fought and as Prime Minister delivered Catholic Emancipation in the face of ferocious opposition from his own Tory party and the king. As as Freemason, Wellington was a life-long member of his Lodge in Trim.

As I have written elsewhere[3], generations of Anglo-Irish imperial soldiers and administrators made their careers in North America and had formative influence on the development of British North America as the French departed in 1763 and the American War of Independence ended in 1783. 

Like many of them, Wellington joined the British Army when an elder brother inherited the family estate.  Yet without ever serving in British North America, it was Wellington who exerted such decisive influence on the colony’s development.[4] 

Wellington’s vision for Canada was triggered by outrage at the events of 1812.  The titanic struggle between Britain and France for global supremacy had been going on for a century, with episodes fought in North America, Ireland, the Atlantic, the West Indies, the East Indies, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East.  Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and Syria in 1798, for example, had been an attempt to access Asia and take control of India, thereby directly threatening British hegemony in Asia and the world.  Nelson’s naval victory at The Battle of the Nile quickly put paid to that ambition.[5] 

“The Napoleonic Wars of 1800-1815 were a global, not just a European struggle,” writes Dominic Lieven in Russia Against Napoleon.  The battles were fought in Europe during the climactic phase of this global contest because successive British naval victories had confined Napoleon there.  The stakes could not have been higher.  “It was in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras that Britain consolidated its hugely powerful global empire, both territorial and commercial…. Napoleon’s attempt to create a European empire was simply a last, heroic effort to balance British imperialism and avoid defeat in France’s century-long conflict with Britain.  The odds were very much against Napoleon, though by 1812 he had come seemingly very close to success.”[6]  In June 1812, Napoleon’s Grande Armée of almost 700,000 men invaded Russia. 

That same month, with the British Empire’s future on a knife edge, the United States declared war on the UK and invaded its territory in British North America. As Sweeny notes, that the American Ambassador in Paris was on the campaign trail with the Grande Armée helped cement the impression that the US was taking advantage of Britain’s peril (the Ambassador froze to death in Poland and the return leg). In reality, the war party in Washington were infuriated by Britain’s seizure of US ships and crews and general interference in its trade. To Wellington, the US attack was a grievous stab in the back.  Britain had to divert some of its best troops to defend Canada, as well as part of the Navy to ward off the US-backed privateers plundering British merchant ships in the North Atlantic.

After the disaster of Napoleon’s Russian invasion and then Waterloo, writes Sweeny, “Wellington’s problem was no longer France, it was the United States.  Everything had to be done, from diplomacy to money power to fortifications, to prevent the Americans from capturing British North America.”[7]

Thanks to the Napoleonic blockade, Canada was already substituting for the loss of Baltic lumber to build and repair Britain’s navy.  Hemp for ropes and sails were vital to the British Navy: a frigate required fifty tons every two years.  Most of that came from Russia, a supply line that had been threatened by Napoleon.[8] Canada’s supply of hemp was limited but could be encouraged longer term. As an imperial strategist, Wellington became convinced that the key to Britain’s global military security was British North America.  He decided to fortify Canada, ensure that it had secure transportation links along the St Lawrence linking Kingston, Montreal and Quebec, was capable of defending the coast and trade routes across the North Atlantic from a base at Halifax, and had a strong settled population of loyalists along the St Lawrence in the vulnerable Ontario region. 

Wellington was uniquely placed to carry out his plan.  As Master General of the Ordnance in 1818, Commander-in-Chief in 1827 and Prime Minister from 1828-1830, he had the authority to order British Army engineers and sappers to help build vital infrastructure. [9]   To finance his endeavours, and by a bizarre twist of history, the Admiralty had a treasure of Spanish silver beyond Parliamentary control.  Thanks to Sweeny’s indomitable sleuthing we now know that in 1808 Napoleon’s banker proposed, and the British accepted, a deal to split a vast consignment of Spanish silver, minted in Mexico, and transported by a fleet of twenty-six ships of the Royal Navy.  The Admiralty’s share of the silver was kept offshore to avoid destabilizing the British financial system; or at least that was their argument.[10]  By 1818, Wellington was free to spend it in Canada. 

Without the need for Parliamentary approval or oversight, spend it he did.  In return for free transportation for the military on the proposed canals, Wellington subsidized the building of the Lachine Canal at Montreal, which opened trade along the upper St Lawrence and the Ottawa Rivers.  The canal was built with mainly Irish labour under the direction of Scottish master stone mason and building contractor Thomas Mackay (from Perth, Scotland).

Wellington also sanctioned the building of the Rideau Canal to link the Ottawa River to the St Lawrence at Kingston and thereby protect supply lines between Montreal and the Great Lakes in the event of an American attack across the St Lawrence. While mainly for military reasons, it made commercial sense too.  The US plan to build the Erie Canal, linking the Hudson to the Great Lakes and the St Lawrence, threatened to snuffle out Montreal’s export trade with Europe by providing easy access to New York. 

Thanks to the superb quality of his work and management of large projects, Mackay won the contract for the Rideau Canal.  Irish labourers again featured strongly in his workforce.  Mackay built the first stone building in Ottawa, the canal site’s commissary, today the Bytown Museum.[11]  Both he and his partner, John Redpath, were handsomely paid, literally with barrels of Spanish silver coin.  Redpath invested his in Montreal, but Mackay decided to put down roots in Bytown and develop it: building fine homes at Rideau Hall and Earnscliffe, an industrial complex and housing in what he called New Edinburgh, and laying out Rockcliffe Park for prized housing development.  Soon he and other figures like Governor Dalhousie were intent on making Bytown the capital of a new and vital partner in Britain’s global imperial system.

The same logic informed the decision to build the Welland Canal, to which Wellington lent his support, his own money, and his name.[12]  The Welland was planned to link Lake Ontario to Lake Erie, across the Niagara peninsula. Without Wellington’s backing and his Spanish silver, not to mention British Army engineers and sappers, the building of the Lachine and Welland canals would almost certainly have taken longer, and the Rideau Canal would never have been proposed. No canal, no Ottawa. While built for military reasons, their value as vital arteries for trade and the development of the economy were clearly understood at the time. They indeed proved vital to Canada’s economic development in the 19th century.  Even today the Welland Canal is a key part of the St Lawrence Seaway, which handles upwards of fifty million tons of cargo each year between the Great Lakes, domestic markets and overseas ones in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

To protect these transportation routes, fortifications were built at key points, including sixteen Martello towers: five at Halifax, four at Quebec, six at Kingston, and one at St John. Militia units were established to protect the canal locks and dams, as well as to be ready to repulse any American incursions across the St Lawrence or up the Richelieu River from Lake Champlain.[13]  Halifax boomed with the decision to make it a strategic harbour for the defence of its North Atlantic waters and the coast of British North America against US intentions.[14] (Had he lived to see it, Wellington’s fellow Dublin man and the founding father of Nova Scotia, Richard Bulkley, would have been well-pleased to see this development!)

As Wellington downsized the British Army after Waterloo in 1815, soldiers were offered land, supplies and tools “to form a loyal and war-like population on the banks of the Rideau and Ottawa.”[15]  Indeed, the British Army and its Royal Staff Corps played a vital role in surveying and building roads to connect the population centres along the St Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers, and establishing fortifications and logistical depots. 

As Sweeny writes in his fascinating book on Mackay and the founding of Ottawa, the names of the men Wellington dispatched to Canada to realise his vision “resonate today in the names of hundreds of Canadian towns, cities, counties, streets, schools, and universities”: Charles Lennox the Duke of Richmond, George Ramsay the Earl of Dalhousie, Sherbrooke, Aylmer, Kempt, Murray, Colborne, Bagot, Maitland, Lennox, Drummond, Cathcart, and Arthur.  “They were all Wellington’s men.  Along with them came hundreds of his staff officers, including Colonel John By of the Royal Engineers.”[16] 

Under Wellington’s stewardship and with the active support of the British Army and Navy, Canada was a hive of activity.  Canals were being built.  New towns were being established, linked by new road networks.  Land was being allotted and settled by demobilized soldiers, subsidized as settlers.  The lumber industry thrived, and with it the provisioning business so vital to the livelihoods of merchants and farmers.  Immigrants flooded to British North America thanks to cheap passage on the ships heading there for cargoes of lumber.

All of this economic activity drew Irish immigrants to Central Canada, about twice as many Protestants as Catholics in the first two decades of the 19th century, mainly to farm.  Catholic immigrants came to build the canals in the 1820s and 1830s, and then settle the land.  They also arrived in numbers to British North America as soldiers, journalists, administrators, priests, businessmen and merchants, lawyers and politicians. The Irish lumber baron John Egan boosted the Irish presence in the Ottawa and Gatineau Valleys.  He not only gave them employment in the lumber industry but offered them land to farm at half price.[17]

One has to remember too that most of Wellington’s army in the Peninsular War in Spain had been Irish, most of Nelson’s navy were Irish sailors, and Irish soldiers had been a sizeable presence on the field at Waterloo, upwards of 40% in some estimates.  Indeed, for most of the 19th century, one third of the British Army were Irish, and Irish Catholic at that.[18]  Many of them found their way to British North America either as part of their units or as settlers.[19]

Wellington’s strategic vision of Canada’s value to Britain’s global security was ultimately correct.  Britain had beaten Spain as its chief global competitor in the 15th century.  It had ultimately beaten France, its chief rival in the 18th and 19th centuries, first in North America on the Plains of Abraham outside Quebec and then decisively in Europe at Waterloo.  Once the United States gave up its predatory intentions toward Canada, it was a key diplomatic and trading partner with the UK, part of an Anglophone Atlantic sphere of influence.  The support of North America as a whole proved decisive in the defeat of Britain’s chief 20th century rival, Germany, in two world wars.  What Wellington could not have anticipated was that his own chief rival in America, the United States, would by the mid-twentieth century eclipse the British Empire.

Wellington’s strategic vision of Canada as Britain’s ultimate guarantor was validated by none other than Winston Churchill. By May 1940, Britain’s situation was so dire that the British Government debated whether to seek a negotiated settlement with Nazi Germany. Over three days, Foreign Secretary Halifax argued in favour. Prime Minister Churchill argued against and eventually had his way. Britain would fight on. When Churchill met the US Ambassador, Joseph Kennedy, he argued for more American support. Kennedy believed Britain was doomed to lose the war and that the US should stay out. He told Churchill that the American public was against involvement, his own position in fact. Churchill was convinced that the American public would come on side. Britain would fight on. “I’ll fight them from Canada. I’ll never give up the fleet.” [Fredrik Logevall, JFK, Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956, p. 260]

Before Wellington’s strategic decision to bolster Canada with the Rideau Canal and Bytown, the area was Algonquin territory.  The confluence of the Rideau, Ottawa, and Gatineau Rivers had been a gathering point for Indigenous people where they met seasonally to exchange news, trade, pray and feast.  ‘Ottawa’ comes from the Algonquin adawa meaning to trade and Odawa is the name of an Anishnabe people.  Where the Rideau River cascaded into the Ottawa in two great waterfalls, they made offerings.  Samuel de Champlain too admired the plumes of mist but prosaically called them curtains, hence ‘Rideau’. Pioneer lumber baron Philemon Wright had established a small settlement on the northern bank of the Ottawa at the confluence with the Gatineau River.  The Algonquin came to trade with the strange new settlers led by Wright, lacking the information to understand that they were the tip of a vast imperial machine that would take their land and crush their civilization.[20]

Ottawa exists today because of Wellington’s order to build the Rideau Canal, which in turn created the means to settle the whole area.  In Colonel John By, Thomas Mackay and John Redpath, he had the men capable of doing it.  Occasionally, British Army engineers and sappers were needed to tackle tricky problems, and the mainly Irish workforce provided the muscle and skills to build the 47 locks and 52 dams.[21] A Celtic cross stands today at the head of the Canal to honour all those who died through disease and injury, including Irish, Scottish, French, and Indigenous workers. Everyone risked malaria but it took a devastating toll on the most exposed Irish: “The lock sites on the Cataraqui River were hit hard by the malaria epidemics, which killed almost five hundred men, mostly Irish immigrants.”[22] 

By 1832, the Rideau Canal was completed, at a cost of $800,000: about as much, Sweeny reckons, as the value of the silver cargo of one ship.[23] 

Wellington certainly deserves to have Ottawa’s main thoroughfare named after him in the capital city of a country he did so much to defend against America’s territorial ambitions, bolster its administration, sponsor its settlement, and boost its economic development.  His intervention also created the conditions which encouraged the Irish to immigrate to British North America, establishing Irish settlement patterns up to the last great wave of Irish emigration during the most disastrous year of the Great Irish Famine in 1847.[24]  Thereafter, large scale Irish emigration to Canada ends.  The US was the new destination for waves of mainly Catholic Irish who saw themselves as political exiles, not mere economic emigrants.[25]   By then, Irish settlement patterns in Canada were well established and the Irish themselves had already made a deeply felt, if somewhat occluded, impact on the development of Canada.  Like Canada itself, the chief architect of this legacy was Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, and his pot of Spanish silver.

Like Canada, Ireland was shaped by British imperial interests.  Fears that it would be swept up in French Revolutionary fervour convinced London to abolish the Irish Parliament 1800 and to bind Ireland to Britain in the Act of Union 1800. Yet the same drive to bind Canada as an ally led it to succor the relationship, granting it responsible government in the 1840s and Confederation as the first Dominion of the Commonwealth in 1867. Had Britain taken a similar tact with Ireland, our history would have been very different. 

Irish revolutionaries who believed that only force would deliver Ireland’s freedom also so the value of Canada to Britain. The Fenian Brother conspired to provoke an Anglo-America war by invading Canada. Mobilizing Irish and Irish American veterans of the Civil War, the launched several cross border raids between 1866 and 1871. It is a story captured brilliantly in David Wilson’s recently published Canadian Spy Story, Irish Revolutionaries and the Secret Police.

Prime Minister Churchill, when faced with the prospect of a successful invasion by Nazi Germany, opined that he would take the fleet to Halifax, declaring privately ‘I’ll fight them from Canada!’

Canada’s role as imperial bulwark threatened by a perfidious revolutionary America has faded in memory as the sun set on the British Empire and risen on American global hegemony. Yet this story has led me hear in Canada’s national anthem the echoes of its colonial history:  “True patriot love in all of us command, With glowing hearts we see thee rise, The True North strong and free!  From far and wide, O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.”

Eamonn McKee


26 October 2022

[1] Born Wesley but later taking his mother’s name Wellesley.

[2] Wellington’s grandfather, Richard, changed his surname from Colley to Wesley after he inherited the estate of his cousin Garret Wesley in 1728 (Wikipedia).


[4] Wellington earned his spurs with long service in India.  He won fame fighting Napoleon’s forces in Spain in the savage war there.  More than 70% of his Peninsular Army were Irish.

[5] For a very lively account, see Juan Cole’s Napoleon’s Egypt, Invading the Middle East.

[6] Lieven, Russia against Napoleon, The True Story of the Campaigns of War and Peace, (Viking, 2009), pp 16-17.  Lieven’s book is a declared attempt to correct western accounts that underestimate the significance of Russia’s victory and the logistical achievement of chasing Napoleon all the way to Paris. The logic behind Napoleon’s invasion of Russia was shared by Hitler: only by being truly unchallenged in Europe could either hope to defeat Britain.  See Timothy Snyder’s incomparable Bloodlands, Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.

[7] Sweeny, p 49.

[8] Sweeny slightly overstates cutting off the British Navy’s supply of hemp as being the predominant reason for Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.

[9] Wikipedia.

[10] Ibid, pp 134-5.

[11] Bytown got its name from Col. John By, the British Army engineer overseeing the canal’s construction.  It was changed to Ottawa in 1855.

[12] Ibid, p. 54.

[13] As had happened in the French and Indian Wars; see Fintan O’Toole’s William Johnson, White Savage.

[14] Thomas Raddall, Halifax, Warden of the North, p 167.  In an ironic twist, the plans of the new fortification there were drawn up by Colonel James Arnold, son of Benedict Arnold, the arch US traitor.

[15] Sweeny, quoted p 49.

[16] Sweeny, p. 48.

[17] Michael McBane, John Egan, Pine and Politics (Ottawa, 2018).  Egan was also instrumental in the land grant for the Algonquin reserve at Kitigan Zibi in the Gatineau Valley at Maniwaki.

[18] Thomas Bartlett, Ireland during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, 1791-1815, pp 74-75, in the Cambridge History of Ireland, vol. III.

[19] Historian Michael McBane tells me that one of his forebears on this mother’s side perfectly illustrates this pattern: John Kearns (Catholic, b. Enniskillen, Ireland, 1777; d. Plantagenent, Upper Canada, 1863).  As a young soldier, Kearns, saw action during the Irish rebellion of 1798. He served in the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars in the West Indies, Spain and the Netherlands. He joined the Duke of Wellington’s Army in 1811 and was present at many battles during the Peninsula Wars. He immigrated to Upper Canada in 1818.  He held the rank of Colonel in the Prescott Militia and participated in the Battle of Saint-Eustache during the Lower Canada Rebellion in 1837.  He represented Prescott in the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada at York (Toronto) from 1836 to 1841 as a Conservative.

[20] Sweeny, pp 12-14.

[21] Ibid, p 144.

[22] Ibid, p 141.

[23] Ibid, p 136.

[24] Mark McGowan, Death or Canada, The Irish Famine Migration to Toronto, 1847 (Novalis, 2009). Donald H Akenson, The Irish in Ontario (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1984), 28-34.

[25] See Kirby Miller’s classic study Emigrants and Exiles.


Filed under Anglo-Irish, Canada, Ireland, Irish Heritage of Canada