By Ryle Dwyer
Ahead of a two-part RTÉ series on Daniel O’Connell, who was known as The Liberator after emancipation in 1829, historian Ryle Dwyer looks at the life of our forgotten ‘king’.
Daniel O’Connell was a rare Irishman whose influence extended beyond this island. During the last 10 years of his life, he was referred to in 1,400 books published in Germany.
“I cannot think of any other Irish political figure who enjoyed the kind of international reputation that O’Connell did during his lifetime,” Daniel Mulhall told a gathering at O’Connell’s old home in Derrynane, Co Kerry, in 2012.
Mr Mulhall, the current Irish ambassador to the United States, was Irish ambassador to Germany at the time. O’Connell was born near Caherciveen, Co Kerry, on August 6, 1775. As the Penal Laws were in vogue, he received his early education from a hedge-school master.
In 1790, Daniel, aged 15, and his younger brother Maurice were sent by a wealthy uncle to continue their education in France. This was during the early days of the French Revolution.
The two boys fled France on January 21, 1793, the day that King Louis XVI was beheaded in Paris. What they witnessed in France left Daniel with an abhorrence of mob violence.
Events in France scared the British into relaxing the Penal Laws that year. O’Connell took advantage by studying law in Dublin. He was called to the Irish Bar on May 19, 1798. Four days later, the United Irishmen staged their rebellion, which was put down by the British with great bloodshed.
O’Connell, who did not support the rebellion, was appalled by the violence. He said:
Catholics were encouraged to believe that emancipation would follow the Act of Union in 1801. The British first demanded a veto over the appointment of individual Catholic bishops. Many of the hierarchy were amenable, and the Pope indicated a willingness to accept the veto, but O’Connell was unalterably opposed. Although many later sought to depict him as a narrow-minded Catholic, he was a broadminded advocate of the separation of Church and State. He adamantly refused to accept that the Pope had “any temporal authority, directly or indirectly, in Ireland”.
While Catholics argued over the veto for a decade, O’Connell concentrated on emancipation, demanding the liberation of the Catholic population. He did not believe in killing or dying for Irish freedom, but he was not averse to rousing people to the brink of rebellion to use the threat of civil war to extract British concessions.
Limiting the voting franchise to those who owned land, or who had a lifetime lease on property, meant that only 300,000 of the 7m Irish Catholics were eligible to vote. They played a significant role for the first time in the general election of 1826, when O’Connell called on them to vote for Protestant candidates pledged to support emancipation.
Catholics were not barred from sitting in parliament, but they had to take an oath, acknowledging that “the sacrifice of the mass, and the invocation of the blessed Virgin Mary, and other saints, as now practiced in the Church of Rome, are impious and idolatrous”. This amounted to renouncing their Catholicism.
Standing for election in Clare in 1828, O’Connell said he would not take the parliamentary oath. Duely elected, he honoured his promise.
“I decline, Mr Clerk, to take this oath,” he declared, before the House of Commons.
He then bowed and walked out. Of course, he stood again and was promptly re-elected, and went on to win Catholic emancipation, thereby acquiring international acclaim as “The Liberator”.
He moved for repeal of the Act of Union by setting up the Repeal Association and by campaigning to re-establish an independent kingdom of Ireland, with Victoria as its queen.
To boost his campaign, in 1843 O’Connell held 30 monster meetings, altogether attracting between 3m and 4m people around the country. There was an estimated crowd of 300,000 in Charleville on May 18, 1843, and 500,000 in Cork City three days later. Such meetings were part of a huge bluff, rousing people to the point of rebellion, in the hope of frightening the British into conceding Home Rule to avoid conflict.
One million people were estimated to have attended the meeting in Tara, on August 15, 1843. Only a fraction of those had any hope of hearing him, because there was no amplification, but there were 42 bands to provide entertainment.
An even larger crowd was expected for a gathering planned for Clontarf on October 8, 1843, but the British banned it. Many repeal supporters wished to defy the ban, but O’Connell — mindful of the horrors of 1798 — called off the meeting and all further monster meetings.
His influence extended to the United States, where he became a model for the urban political bosses. He had a profound influence on Frederick Douglass, the former slave. After listening to O’Connell speak, Douglass wrote to William Lloyd Garrison, the famous American journalist campaigning for the abolition of slavery.
“It was a great speech, skilfully delivered, powerful in its logic, majestic in its rhetoric, biting in its sarcasm, and burning in its rebukes,” Douglass wrote. “I have never heard one by whom I was more completely captivated than by Mr O’Connell.”
Douglass was preaching to the converted. Garrison had already heard O’Connell speak and was equally impressed. “Upon the subject of slavery in general and American slavery in particular, Mr O’Connell grew warm and energetic, defending his course on this subject with an earnestness which I shall never forget,” Garrison wrote.
“I have been assailed for attacking the American institution, as it is called: Negro slavery,” O’Connell proclaimed.
“I am not ashamed of that attack. I do not shrink from it. I am the advocate of civil and religious liberty, all over the globe, and wherever tyranny exists, I am the foe of the tyrant; wherever oppression shows itself, I am the foe of the oppressor; wherever slavery rears its head, I am the enemy of the system, or the institution, call it by what name you will.”
O’Connell died on May 1847, during the Great Famine. He had already called on parliament to ban the export of food from Ireland during the crisis. The British failure to confront the crisis demonstrated this country’s need for self-government. It was a great pity we did not follow O’Connell’s example and achieve that independence without killing.
Ryle Dwyer is an historian and author