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Author: Eamonn McKee

During and after Confederation, Canada’s three Governors General (GGs) were Anglo-Irish.  They adroitly navigated their role as representatives of the sovereign Crown, Queen Victoria as the new Dominion was finding its feet, reshaping the office for a new bilateral relationship with the imperial motherland.

The last GG of Provincial Canada and the first one of Confederated Canada was Viscount Charles Monck.  Born in Templemore, County Tipperary, and educated at Trinity College Dublin, he served for a time as MP for Portsmouth.  GG to Provincial Canada from 1861 to 1867, Monck diffused tensions with the US that threatened war.  Of the negotiations for Confederation, his official biography states: “He helped build ‘The Great Coalition’, the consolidation of the Reform and Conservative parties that was key to the colonies’ pursuit of federalism.”  Monck selected 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.  His term over in 1868, Monck returned to Ireland and further public service as Lord Lieutenant of County Dublin. He died in Enniskerry in 1894 aged 75.

Monck was succeeded as GG by John Young, 1st Baron Lisgar, in 1869.  Son of William Young of Bailieborough Castle, Cavan, Lisgar was born in Bombay. The castle was known as Lisgar House, hence John’s title.  Lisgar was MP for Cavan for 24 years, Secretary of the Treasury and Chief Secretary of Ireland from 1852 to 1855 under Prime Minister Peel, and then completed stints in colonial service in Greece and New South Wales. In his time as GG, Canada faced the crises of Fenian raids and Louis Riel’s Red River Rebellion. In both, Lisgar worked closely with PM Macdonald and intervened to prevent executions that would merely sow  bitterness.  Lisgar also helped ease relations with the US, travelling to Washington to meet with President Ulysses S. Grant.  His wife, Lady Adelaide Annabella Dalton Lisgar actively promoted Rideau Hall as centre of social life, hosting the first New Year’s Levee in 1869 there.

The third Anglo-Irish GG was Frederick Temple Blackwood, Lord Dufferin. Frederick’s mother Helen was a granddaughter of the famous Irish playwright, satirist and MP Richard Brinsley Sheridan.  His father was Price Blackwood, 4th Baron of Dufferin and Clandeboye outside Belfast, settled there since the early 1600s. 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 hated Christ Church Oxford and left after two years without a degree.  Not that he needed it: with the early death of his father, he had become 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 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 an enhancing marriage). 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. 

To further Rideau Hall’s capacity to reach the public, they added the opulent Ballroom and the startling marquee-like Tent Room.  Skating and curling rinks were built and opened to the public. 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 watched the young Confederation’s parliamentary business closely and admired first Prime Minister John A. Macdonald.  He felt it was his right to engage on substantive matters with Ministers: “they must not expect me to accept their advice merely because they give it but must approve it to my understanding and conscience.” Like Monck and Lisgar he was a conciliator: he commuted Ambroise Lépine’s death sentence for killing Thomas Scott during the Red River Rebellion, even though Scott was related to a tenant in Ireland and Dufferin considered Lépine a ruffian. He urged London to facilitate 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 was popular too with the Catholic clergy and corresponded with many of the Irish born episcopate. Lady Dufferin published her letters to her mother as My Canadian Journal and considered their time in Canada as the happiest of their lives.  They in turn were immensely popular with the wider public.

Monck, Lisgar and Dufferin were the Confederation chapter of a long and influential Anglo-Irish legacy in colonial Canada stretching back to its colonial formation.  Collectively, they made significant contributions at a critical period of transition from colony to Dominion, 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.


Further Reading

The DCB and the GG’s official website both contained fuller biographies.

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