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Born: [Date Unknown], Cork, Ireland

Died: 1840, Pickering, Upper Canada

Author: Laura J. Smith

A Roman Catholic priest, church builder, government sycophant, newspaper editor, and radical reformer, William J. O’Grady covered a lot of ground in the twelve years he spent in Canada. O’Grady’s origins are obscure. He was likely from Cork, where he was vicar at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Mary and St. Anne in Cork city from at least 1818. Later his enemies in Upper Canada suggested he had been run out of the parish after a church fire. Local history confirms that the church was destroyed by arson, sparked by a “controversial” sermon O’Grady preached on Corpus Christi Sunday in 1820. But the truth was a little more mundane than the legend; fiery sermon or not, he remained in the parish until July 1827, when he joined as chaplain, William Cotter’s ill-fated emigration of approximately 2500 Cork men, women, and children to Brazil.

The Irish had expected to be settlers in Brazil, with limited militia responsibilities in exchange for 50 acres of land, but upon arrival found they were expected to join the Imperial Brazilian Army. This betrayal, and the horrific living conditions to which they were subjected, led the Irish, along with a regiment of Germans, to mutiny in several days of violence. The episode concluded when the British embassy intervened, at O’Grady’s insistence, and the Irish were dispersed. Some chose to remain in South America, others returned to Ireland, and about 500 went to New Brunswick. An unknown number of the “Brazilian Irish” went to Upper Canada, including the Rev. O’Grady, his brother Captain John O’Grady, John’s wife Ann and their children, as well as Colonel Connell James Baldwin.

O’Grady came to the attention of Roman Catholic Bishop Alexander Macdonell in the summer of 1828 when he surfaced in York (now Toronto). To Macdonell, whose diocese was cash-strapped, short on priests, and rapidly filling with Irish, O’Grady appeared to be sent directly from heaven. O’Grady settled in quickly at St. Paul’s parish. He was an effective, competent, and enthusiastic pastor. He built a parochial school, steered church building projects throughout the hinterland, and quickly ingratiated himself with the colonial elite who inhabited the provincial capital. The reform proclivities O’Grady displayed in his post-clerical life, were not on display during his tenure as pastor of St. Paul’s. He enjoyed a remarkably close and fruitful relationship with Lieutenant Governor John Colborne. Bishop Macdonell was so delighted with O’Grady’s success at promoting Catholic interests within the elite circles of York, that he promoted him to Vicar General.

O’Grady and the staunchly “Tory “Macdonell appeared firmly in political sync. In the spring of 1832, they collaborated on a public declaration of loyalty to the embattled Colborne. The declaration, written by O’Grady, and signed by 100 York Catholics, expressed gratitude for the blessings of civil and religious liberty, affection for the King, asserted Catholic support for the Lieutenant Governor, and condemned the increasingly popular political agitation of William Lyon Mackenzie and the reform movement.

Not long after a series of disagreements soured the relationship between the bishop his priest. In the summer of 1832, Macdonell ordered him to relocate to Prescott. O’Grady refused and sparked a parish schism that lasted years and caused Macdonell considerable embarrassment. O’Grady’s resistance to Macdonell’s authority was extreme and painfully public. He appealed first to the Lieutenant Governor, then to the King, and eventually travelled to Rome in a futile attempt to appeal to the Pope. Whether Macdonell excommunicated O’Grady is still a matter of debate, but the episode put an end to O’Grady’s clerical career.

While still in dispute with Macdonell, O’Grady took over The Canadian Correspondent newspaper. Whether he had always harboured reform tendencies or was spurred to that camp by his conflict with the bishop, William O’Grady, now known as “Dr.”, was by the mid 1830s, Upper Canada’s most visible Irish reformer, and his newspaper, which merged with Mackenzie’s Colonial Advocate in 1834, was an influential reform broadsheet with a sizeable circulation throughout British North America and the northern United States.

The Correspondent stood for radical reform. It argued that all legitimate power came from the people and that loyalty to the government could only be secured once the rights of the people were secure. It drew on Irish content to connect the concerns of Irish Catholics with the platform of the Canadian reform movement. In the pages of the Correspondent, Irish Catholics saw the colonial government’s funding of their clergy connected to the movement against state-sponsored pensions for the Catholic clergy in Ireland; the alarmingly rapid rise of the Upper Canadian Orange Order linked to sectarian violence in Ireland;and their status as British subjects with particular rights under the Quebec Act linked to Daniel O’Connell’s agitation for Catholic rights throughout the British Empire.

Despite his popularity as a priest, and his success as an editor, success in politics eluded O’Grady. He was first to run on a reform ticket, but lost to the incumbent, in the staunchly Tory constituency of Kingston in the 1834 provincial election.

In 1835, he was a star witness during Mackenzie’s “grievances trials” which sought to expose government corruption and excess and used the public platform to accuse Bishop Macdonell of mishandling government funds meant to support his clergy.

For the next two years, O’Grady was at the forefront of radical reform in Upper Canada. He travelled with Mackenzie to meet their counterparts in Lower Canada, which led to the creation of political unions, and was on the executive of the Constitutional Reform Society. But strangely and rather abruptly, his political activities ceased in November 1837. He sold his newspaper and retired quickly and quietly to Pickering Township. He did not take part in the ill-fated Upper Canadian rebellion the following month and may have supplied the government with information during the raids that followed. His remaining years appear to have been spent quietly, and his death in 1840 was attributed to a “visitation of God.”


Further Reading

Fahey, Curtis “O’Grady, William John,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003. http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/o_grady_william_john_7E.html.

Murray, Edmundo. “William Cotter: Irish Officer in Dom Pedro’s army of Imperial Brazil” Irish Migration Studies in Latin America Vol. 4, No. 3 (July 2006).

Nicolson, Murray W.  “William O’Grady and the Catholic Church in Toronto prior to the Irish Famine.” In Catholics at the Gathering Place: Historical Essays on the Archdiocese of Toronto, 1841-1991, edited by Mark G. McGowan and Brian Clarke, 23-40. Toronto: Canadian Catholic Historical Association, 1993.

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