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DONLEVY, CHARLES, newspaperman and office holder; b. in 1812 or 1813 in Ballymote (Republic of Ireland), probably the son of Dr Patrick Donlevy; m. 26 Oct. 1846 Mary Walsh in Brockville, Upper Canada, and they had at least one child, a son; d. 22 July 1858 in Toronto.

Nothing is known of Charles Donlevy’s whereabouts from the time of his immigration to British North America in 1831 until he settled in Toronto in the mid 1830s. After serving as an apprentice to John and Michael Reynolds, printers and newspaper publishers, he quickly became a prominent member of the city’s Irish Catholic community. Besides publishing the Toronto Mirror, a journal that in the pre-confederation period was one of the most important voices of Irish Catholic reformers in Upper Canada, Donlevy was a leading figure in the St Patrick’s Benevolent Society, the Total Abstinence Society, and the Catholic Institute, as well as the Catholic Colonization Society, which had as its object the settlement of the province’s urban Irish, a group suffering from “the miseries and wretchedness of city life,” on the “unshaken soil.” During the administration of Governor Sir Charles Theophilus Metcalfe*, he was on the general board of the Reform Association of Canada, a province-wide organization pledged to the defence of the principle of responsible government. In 1843 he was a driving force behind the creation of the Loyal Irish Repeal Association of Toronto, which, as its name suggests, called for the dissolution of the union of 1800 between Great Britain and Ireland; in the late 1840s he was a member of the general board of a relief organization established to alleviate the suffering caused by the Irish famine; and in 1853 he was elected as a separate school trustee for St James’s Ward and served as chairman of the Toronto separate school board.

Without question, the most historically significant feature of Donlevy’s life was his long association with the Mirror. This weekly journal was founded by Donlevy and Patrick McTavey in 1837 and was the sole reform paper to survive the rebellion without folding at least temporarily. A few years later, in 1843, McTavey launched a newspaper of his own, the Constitution, and Donlevy became the Mirror’s sole publisher. Despite a fire that destroyed its office in 1849, the Mirror prospered under Donlevy’s direction, gaining a large readership not only in Toronto but in every section of the province. However, by the time of his death in July 1858 the Mirror was evidently in financial difficulty, for the following month his widow, acting as the executrix of his estate, announced in the paper that “the receipts of late have gone very much below the actual expenses; and unless a prompt remittance from defaulters take place, the value of the paper must sensibly diminish.” The Mirror was able to survive this crisis and continued publication under Patrick A. O’Neill until about 1866. As for Donlevy himself, there is reason to believe that his personal income in the 1850s was seriously reduced as a result of the Mirror’s financial problems. When he died he left debts, and at a special high mass the officiating priest noted that his financial contributions to the cause of religion were all the more praiseworthy in light of his “late limited means.”

It is difficult to say whether Donlevy wrote the Mirror’s editorials: in 1838 A. K. Mackenzie, writing to William Lyon Mackenzie*, described one McSweeney as “the late editor of the Mirror,” and for a brief period in 1843 C. P. O’Dwyer was listed in the Mirror as the paper’s editor. Even so, Donlevy was the Mirror’s publisher, and he undoubtedly made sure that his views were accurately reflected in its pages. Thus, for example, Donlevy’s concern over the state of Ireland under British rule was also a main preoccupation of the Mirror from the time of its foundation. In countless editorials, all revealing a spirit of fervent Irish patriotism, the Mirror denounced Britain’s oppression of the Irish people and emphasized the need for immediate dissolution of the union of 1800, a tangible symbol of “the galling chain of proud England’s despotism.” Most of these editorials categorically rejected the notion of armed resistance against British persecution and instead urged Irishmen to give their whole-hearted support to the peaceful, constitutional agitation of Ireland’s “liberator,” Daniel O’Connell. However, after the outbreak of the Irish famine, the Mirror adopted a more belligerent stance. In October 1846 it described Ireland’s absentee landlords as “ruthless, beastly, incorrigible” and expressed the hope that these “tyrants” would be crushed into “non-entity” by the “starving multitudes.” Some years later, in 1851, another Mirror editorial praised those Young Ireland rebels of 1848 who, “maddened to desperation by the groans and tears of their starving fellow countrymen, flung their banner to the breeze and summoned an expiring race to fight for their lives, for their liberty, for their country.”

On the domestic front, the Mirror’s political position cannot be fully understood unless viewed in relation to the Irish Catholic experience in Upper Canada. Unlike Ireland, where the indigenous population was oppressed and exploited, Upper Canada offered full civil and religious equality to the Catholic Irish. As a result, the radical tradition of Irish politics – a radicalism that frequently boiled over into open rebellion – was entirely absent in Upper Canada. This is not to say that all was well for the colony’s Irish; most Irishmen in Upper Canada, at least those in urban centres, were mired in poverty and for many years their penchant for violence, drunkenness, and crime of all sorts created severe social problems. Nevertheless, it is striking that the turbulence of the Irish never translated itself into a direct assault on the social and political order. It is also significant that leaders of the Irish Catholic community, with the exception of such renegades as William John O’Grady*, rejected radicalism in favour of the politics of moderate reform. To them, defending the basic fabric of Upper Canadian society was primarily a matter of common sense: however difficult the Irishman’s lot in Upper Canada, conditions in Ireland were far worse. At the same time, their fundamental conservatism reflected an intuitive grasp of the realities of Upper Canadian life. As they saw it, if Irish Catholics were to make a place for themselves in their new home, they would have to be scrupulously careful not to arouse suspicions about their political loyalties.

In this context, the politics of the Mirror reveal much about Donlevy himself and the Irish Catholic community generally. When rebellion broke out in December 1837, the Mirror denounced the “deluded men” responsible, reminded Catholics of their obligations to show “a respectful obedience to the laws of the land,” and asserted unequivocally that the severance of the imperial tie would result in the “eternal annihilation” of the Canadas. The last note rang oddly for a paper that was so bitterly hostile towards British rule in Ireland, but the fact remains that for most of its life the Mirror’s loyalty to the British connection was beyond reproach. During the 1840s the Mirror adhered to a moderately reformist political position, standing side by side with the reform party led by Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine* in the struggle for responsible government. The Mirror argued that responsible government, by giving the Province of Canada complete control over its internal affairs, would reinforce the emotional ties that linked the colony with the parent state. With the winning of responsible government in 1849, the Mirror was exultant and it singled out for praise Governor Lord Elgin [Bruce*] who, “by his unswerving adherence to constitutional principles,” had “done more to strengthen the bond of connexion between this Colony and the mother country than all his predecessors.” After the publication of the Annexation Manifesto in Montreal in 1849, the Mirror’s loyalty showed signs of wavering, but even then the paper was remarkable for its cautious, moderate tone. In an editorial in October the Mirror claimed that annexationism should be resisted with calm reason, not hysterical tirades, while adding its opinion that an “interminable prolongation” of the British tie was neither likely nor desirable. The following month it retreated slightly, asserting that annexation “savours somewhat of the spirit of vassalage.”

In the early 1850s Donlevy’s Mirror devoted itself to defending the brand of moderate reformism epitomized in Upper Canada by Baldwin and Francis Hincks*. Although it too supported the extension of the elective principle, especially with regard to the Legislative Council, the Mirror argued that the impatience of the Clear Grits [see George Brown*] to see radical changes implemented might destroy the reform party. The Mirror frequently lashed out against the racial and religious intolerance both of the Clear Grits and of George Brown, a man it described as “a nuisance to society and a traitor to his party.” Demands for representation by population and a repeal of the union, in the Mirror’s view, were inspired by irrational francophobia and threatened to engulf the Canadas in a civil war. As for the “no-popery” agitation, the Mirror angrily announced that this kind of religious bigotry was an unbearable affront to all Catholics, the very people who had always been the bedrock of the reform party in Upper Canada. As it gradually became apparent that the Brownites and Clear Grits were gaining control of Upper Canadian reformism, the Mirror went so far as to indicate that the Catholic community might be forced to change its political allegiance. Catholics were “insulted day after day by the press of that very party for which they had done so much,” the Mirror lamented in October 1851, “their religion and their religious pastors . . . reviled and calumniated. . . . Better, a thousand times better, support Tories or Orangemen or any other political class, than continue to be kicked and spat upon by such infamous vagabonds.”

Another issue – that of separate schools – was just as troublesome and eventually left the Mirror without any clear sense of political direction. In the early 1850s it joined forces with Bishop Armand-François-Marie de Charbonnel* and the rest of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in campaigning for an improved system of separate schools. At first, the paper was generally supportive of the reform party’s efforts to deal with this question, but by mid decade it had grown restive and was urging Catholics to withhold their electoral support from all candidates, reformers or tories, who were opposed to more generous separate school legislation. When the liberal-conservative ministry of Sir Allan Napier MacNab* and Augustin-Norbert Morin* took office in late 1854, the Mirror’s commitment to separate schools – as well as its unhappiness over the “no-popery” crusade – prompted it to come out in support of the new government. As it happened, however, this situation was only temporary. In 1856 a separate school bill introduced by John George Bowes* was shelved by the government of John A. Macdonald* and Étienne-Paschal Taché* at the urging of the superintendent of education in Upper Canada, Egerton Ryerson*. Denouncing this “treacherous” action, the Mirror asserted that “it is high time that the existing demoralizing political alliance in which we find ourselves betrayed and disgraced should begin to have an end.”

Yet, if it was obvious that a new sort of political alliance was necessary, it was by no means clear who the Irish Catholics were supposed to ally with. The Baldwin–Hincks variety of liberal reformism was now a rare commodity in Upper Canada and, in any case, most moderate reformers and conservatives were supporters of the MacNab–Morin ministry. At the other end of the political spectrum, Brown and the Grits were certainly a powerful force, but their ultra-Protestantism made them anathema to Irish Catholics. The Mirror attempted to solve the dilemma by calling on all opponents of the government to bury their differences and establish a new reform party. When this union of reformers did not materialize, the Mirror swallowed its pride and resumed its support of the Macdonald–Taché ministry. Declaring its loyalty to something it called the true “Liberal” party of Upper Canada, the Mirror stated in April 1858 that the government, now under the leadership of Macdonald and George-Étienne Cartier*, was not “absolutely the best” but was nevertheless “the best that we can obtain under present circumtances.”

      Mirror editorials thus make it clear that by the late 1850s Donlevy was a man without a political home. His political wanderings from the time of the rebellion reveal the confusion of one Irish Catholic in the changing conditions of the 1850s. They also reflect broader currents in the Irish Catholic community. Although it would be going too far to equate Donlevy’s views with the views of all Irish Catholics, it does seem safe to say that the Mirror’s editorials expressed the chief concerns of its readership. From this perspective, the paper’s doubts about party allegiance may well indicate that the Irish Catholic community, because of rampant religious bigotry and the difficulties posed by the separate schools issue, was no longer certain either about its political loyalties or about its place in Upper Canadian society.

Donlevy’s death in 1858 – he was then only in his mid 40s – came suddenly. A report published in the Toronto Leader stated that Donlevy, who had “for some time been subject to fits,” was eating dinner with his wife on 22 July when he “fell back in his seat and immediately expired.” His funeral was held in St Michael’s Cathedral on 31 July, and on 2 August he was buried in its crypt. As an indication of his prominent position in Toronto’s Irish Catholic community, his name is included on a plaque in the cathedral honouring that church’s leading “benefactors.”

Curtis Fahey

AAT, St Paul’s Church (Toronto), reg. of baptisms, 27 July 1849. AO, MS 516, 11 May 1838; RG 21, York County, Toronto assessment rolls, 1834–40, St David’s Ward, Richmond St., south side; RG 22, ser.155, administration of Charles Donlevy estate. Herald (Toronto), 16 Nov. 1846. Leader, 23 July 1858. Toronto Mirror, 28 Oct. 1837–13 Aug. 1858. True Witness and Catholic Chronicle (Montreal), 30 July 1858. Dict. of Toronto printers (Hulse), 85, 177. Early Toronto newspapers (Firth), 13. Middleton, Municipality of Toronto, 1: 418, 421. Wallace, Macmillan dict. J. M. S. Careless, Brown of “The Globe” (2v., Toronto, 1959–63; repr. 1972), 1. J. J. Lepine, “The Irish press in Upper Canada and the reform movement, 1828–1848” (ma thesis, Univ. of Toronto, 1946). F. A. Walker, Catholic education and politics in Upper Canada: a study of the documentation relative to the origin of Catholic elementary schools in the Ontario school system (Toronto and Vancouver, 1955; repub. Toronto, 1976). P. F. Cronin, “Early Catholic journalism in Canada,” CCHA Report, 3 (1935–36): 31–42. F. A. Walker, “The political opinion of Upper Canadian Catholics,” CCHA Report, 22 (1955): 75–86.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Curtis Fahey, “DONLEVY, CHARLES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 17, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/donlevy_charles_8E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/donlevy_charles_8E.html
Author of Article:   Curtis Fahey
Title of Article:   DONLEVY, CHARLES
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1985
Year of revision:   1985
Access Date:   June 17, 2024