dead men don't talk

historical poem by  
  keith  o'connor

the untold story of the assassination
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Historical / Reference Notes:

This poem came about because of two genealogical hobbyists Brian Jones and Al Lewis having found my genealogy page contacted me.

My poem is based upon family folk lore - family names have been omitted - the drunken fools who conspired to assassinate mc gee it is said belonged to a branch of my family - there is no tangible evidence to prove this - and people will be upset at halving their family name dragged into what they refer to as the mud - only my memories of stories told by people now dead walk the corridors of my mind.
For myself there is the belief that all families are all composed of dark, light and gray sides - to deny this reality is to deny being human.

Much has been written concerning the fairness of Whelan's trial. The fact that the prime minister sat beside the presiding judge and that Whelan continued to proclaim his innocence refusing to name others who may have assisted him contributed to this historical sense that there is more to the story.

The irish fenian plan - an idea more than a plan - was to capture the government thus taking control of Canada and holding it as ransom to be exchanged for ireland.

On with the story. Both sides of my family came from ireland and settled in bytown before confederation. I was born in 1939 and raised in lower town. Family members talked of the fenian conspiracy and of those who were active and those who were sympathizers. They talked of a local family of whom it was said to be burdened with the McGee curse for allowing Whelan to die for their actions.

Yes it was rumored that Whelan had been imported from montreal by local fenians to kill McGee but it was also rumored that he failed the task . Whelan never implicated others - three factors may influenced this - his family would pay the price of his disclosure - secondly as a catholic he would have believed the harboring of sinful thoughts was is the same as acting on them - even if he did not actually kill mc gee he was guilty in the eyes of god because he thought of killing him - a third factor enters the equation : he could have been told that his death at the hands of the hated british would spark the revolution that would save ireland .

The irish were as some modern analysts term "bog irish" - extremely superstitious - in this superstition is born the Mc Gee Curse upon that particular family which it is said flows down the generations into my blood - my ancestors were definitely unsophisticated in the thinking department.

Naturally as a young man I studied the rules of the curse and decided it was superstition and therefor did not apply to me - on with the story.

They filled the local taverns with drunken words churned in hatred and megalomania morphing themselves into heros and rulers of their beloved ireland. What their drunken minds imagined became reality and reality became fiction.

When one of these fools assassinated McGee on April 7, 1868 the government immediately responded as though a full fledged insurrection had begun.

All of the drunken fenian planning was based upon the idea that in reality an enormouse army of organized committed patriotic irish americian fenians were waiting for the call to invade canada.

These irish fenians never entertained the idea that if an organized dedicated army of irish americian fenians did exist and were successful in conquering Canada the United States army would take control and immediately annex Canada to become part of Contenental United States. They would never win their objective of trading Canada for Ireland no matter what happened. They were simpleton pawns to americian imperialism desiring to extend itself over all of north america.

After McGee's assassination and once macdonald realized the emotional mood of the irish leaders was the opposite of what he had expected - and he may have figured out that the americian army was not going to officially invade - and there were no irish americian fenians moving accross the border - and he may have further realized the problem could be contained - thus he sprung into action - got his sacrificial lamb - ended it all quietly

Macdonald did not want to open an inquiry into a conspiracy - that would be messy and involve thousands of irish in an activated conflict between irish catholic and Protestant communities - many irish did not want a self revealing inquiry which would lead to a religious conflict - so he sat beside the presiding judge to make certain nothing would be said that would aggrivate the two groups into action - his sacrificial lamb would end it all.

Whelan was a product of his time and culture - the old saying is that you are judged by the company you keep - Whelan may not have actually done the deed but he was in the wrong place at the right time and sometimes that's all that matters.

History has named Macdonald a father of our nation - but what of Whelan? Would anyone have fit the role of sacrificial lamb? The assassin was gone (according to my family folk lore and never returned to Canada) - to bring closure someone had to hang - Whelan was as I said before in the wrong place at the right time. Is it not said that some men have greatness thrust upon them? Did he not in his own way unknowlingly save the nation from a civil war? Has Macdonald made Whelan an unwitting father of our nation? Would Macdonald's sacrifice of Whelan to the gods of peace order and good government set the stage for another sacrifical lamb by the name of Riel to those very same gods ?

The ethnic and religous conflicts of europe bubbled in the cauldron of early Canadian history - no place for a squeamish leader - Macdonald was no squeamish leader.

Unfortunately our history sanitizes the ugly decisions of our historical leaders to the point of unrealistic purity which removes from them everything they can teach us about real life decisions - we have been robbed of our historical leaders and their history - we have if I may use a modern term - soccer mom history filled with soccer mom leaders - boring and sanitized to the point of tasteless mush - we have no real history - thus we can never learn from history for we deny its true existence.

keith o'connor

ottawa (bytown) mar , 2005


dead men don't talk

key in hand
tired eyes search
the doorway shadows


sudden death
his empty body drops
splashing its deathly message
in rapidly creeping tenticals
of warm red blood
cutting through the fresh dusting
of white snow
muffled running
diminishing into silence
behind the ghostly curtain
of acrid gunsmoke
the front door opens
eyes fall upon
that graffiti of blood and brains
scarred with slashes
of sickly grey acrid gun smoke
shrills of horror
screech through the witching hour
news spread quickly
prime minister
'prime minister'

mc gee
macdonald froze into silence
in his ears rang
over and over
the same yelling thought
'the insurrection has begun'
'the insurrection has begun'
'the insurrection has begun'
for years
mc gee's golden tongue
had kept
the irish fenians at bay
'gone - mc gee - gone'


i did it
i got dat bastard mc gee
whelan dat coward
i followed ‘im i did
just as you sa'd
‘e couldn't go through with it
lucky i was there
snuck up on 'im i did
silent as a ghost i was
pointed the gun
right at the back of ‘is 'ead
‘e didn't ‘ear me
putting ‘is key in the lock 'e was
i pulled the trigger
ran like 'ell i did
straight back ‘ere
'well done'
we were right

not to trust that whelan
you must contact
our friends in new york
bring back an army
we'll capture the government
we'll make the trade as planned
they'll give us ireland
we'll give them back canada
get ready to go
on the morning coach
we must seize the moment
we're going to win
we're going to save ireland
you'll be a hero
we'll all be heros
'go ... go'

by morning
macdonald had begun
his forces
a torrent of voices
beat against the drums in his ears
irish judges, priests, politicians
protestant judges, priests, politicans
common folk all
all demanding
the killer
be found and hung
his mind stopped
he sensed time standing still
like sitting in the theatre
he watched and listened in disbelief
the irish fenian sympathizers
changing sides
for half the population were displaced irish
unwilling immigrants
awash in anti-british
and irish nationalist feelings
exiled they felt
from a conquered ireland
an ireland

for which they mourned their return
macdonald realized
quick action
would could cut off
popular irish support
for an invasion from the south

from deep inside macdonald's head
the gods of destiny
spoke with one voice

" a death is needed
to mask their sins
the sacraficial lamb

a nobody
a tailor by trade
has a small family
came up from montreal
a self proclaimed fenian
will plead his innocence
before the judge
all will agree
he is guilty
and should be hung
for dead men don't talk
to unmask our sins

let the trial begin
sat beside the presiding judge
to insure
the gods of destiny
would have their way
affirmed only his innocence
to be hung by the neck
until dead silent
our nation is spared
a civil war
that pits neighbour against neighbour
brother against brother
father against son

our pact had been made
to be sealed by death
at the end of the rope
to be witnessed
by five thousand watchers
few tears marked the loss
none betrayed
their secret thoughts
"better he than me
at the end of that rope"


from the life of the innocent
judged guilty
from the life of the guilty
judged innocent
forever forged
in the birth of us all
in the birth of our nation
that rope
from which hangs
the silent

saves us from
our civil war


keith o'connor

march 2005

ottawa ontario canada



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