On the Wiarton Peninsula in Ontario is a definite outpost of the British Empire and the last reminder of a unique link between Ulster and Canada.
Now a parkland, the 17 room stone mansion built by Alexander McNeill in the latter years of the 19th century was once home to a fierce defender of the British Empire.
McNeill was born at the Corran in Larne in May 1842, and was educated at Wimbledon in Surrey and Trinity College in Dublin. His uncle was Duncan McNeill, 1st Baron Colonsay in Scotland.
Alexander McNeill trained as a lawyer and in June 1868 he was called to the bar of the Middle Temple in London. After practicing law for a number of years, he emigrated with his new bride (and second cousin) Hester Law Howard to Canada. Initially settling on a farm near Paisley, Ontario, bought by his grandfather Sir John McNeill of Colonsay, the couple would later move to Wiarton on the North Bruce peninsula and McNeill would develop an interest – and a career – in politics.
Alexander McNeill was one-time Liberal Conservative Member of Parliament for North Bruce, Ontario. He was first elected the House of Commons of Canada for Bruce North in 1882, then 1887, 1891, 1896 and 1900.
In one of his speeches in the House of Commons, reported in February 1896, he said “We want the people of the world to know that, come what may, in whatever part of the Empire they reside, the British people are one people, animated by one spirit, and determined to stand as one man in defence of their common rights and in maintenance of their common interests.”
The following year, on a visit home to his brother Colonel Duncan McNeill, he addressed a public meeting in Larne, where he described himself as “a humble worker in the great cause of Imperial unity.”
“The whole world round British hearts are yearning for some means to draw our great kindred communities closer together. The whole world round jealous eyes are watching and hostile hearts are hoping for the failure of our efforts,” he warned.
McNeill reminded his audience, gathering in the old town hall in Larne, that many empires had failed in the past, but he ventured to suggest that “the world never before saw such an empire as ours.”
The presence of men such as McNeill undoubtedly helped boost morale in Ulster during the Home Rule debates, with Home Rule bills in 1886, 1893 and 1912.
Biographer Allan Bartley (Alexander McNeill: A Political Life, Bruce County, 1990) says “As an ardent Conservative, he was caught up in the strife between the moderate faction of the party led by Sir John A. Macdonald and the extreme Protestant elements supported by the Orange Lodge. The emphasis the latter group placed on ties with Britain, the Mother Country, was consistent with McNeill’s own Imperialist beliefs and personal background,”
McNeill was also a member of the Imperial Federation League, which was established in 1884 in Montreal. In fact he served as Vice President at that time, under the lawyer Dalton McCarthy of Barrie, Ontario.
It is also believed he was a member of the Orange Order, and he did on one occasion receive a medal from the Institution along with 12 other parliamentarians who voted against compensation being given to the Jesuit Order for lands taken over by the Crown in 1800 and transferred to the government of Lower Canada in 1831.
The MP for North Bruce received acclaim from newspapers in his political heyday.
The Toronto News described him as “courteous, scholarly and honourable” while the Mail and Empire said he was “a courteous Irish gentleman, a finished scholar, an ardent patriot, and an orator of no mean order.”
However, in 1900 his election was contested and in the subsequent by-election McNeill lost out “abruptly removed from Dominion politics at the age of 59” as his biographer notes. Although he tried to re-win the seat in 1908, he was decisively defeated and lost by 339 votes to his opponent John Tolmie.
For the rest of his life he seems to have largely concentrated on personal affairs
After the election defeat he retreated to his home on the peninsula – named The Corran after his home in Larne. He was rarely heard of on the national political scene from that point.
There is also little doubt that he paid a heavy personal price for his political involvement.
Family tragedy struck in 1890 when his wife Hester died, leaving him alone to raise their son Malcolm. McNeill’s political engagements and life as an MP meant many separations from his son and the relationship between the son and his father suffered as a result.
In turn, Malcolm would become a disappointment to his father.
He returned from service with the Royal Irish Rifles in the First World War and although the son of quite a rich man, proved incapable of managing the affairs of the farm and estate. Prior to Alexander’s death in 1932, the family fortunes were dwindling away and the trend was to continue.
Malcolm McNeill was unmarried and after he died in 1956 the Corran fell victim to neglect and was finally destroyed by fire. Today this little reminder of Ulster on the Bruce Peninsula is a parkland administered by the Sauble Valley Conservation Authority.
As far as the epitaph of its original owner is concerned, biographer Allan Bartley says “His Protestant, Orange and Imperialist orientations were perfectly suited to his time and place. The representative of constituents only a few years removed from Britain, he was a reassuring symbol of stability.”