Now, when the Royal Irish Constabulary and the Dublin Metropolitan Police, which attempted to strangle Irish democracy at birth, are commemorated and honoured by Irish ministers and the garda commissioner, it is heartening that a professor of the National University of Ireland, and former luminary of Seanad Eireann, has a good word to say for democracy.
But it is distressing to learn that the professor imagines that O’Connell, who was a great man, first raised the banner of democracy in Ireland.
Born in 1775, and but 13 years old when the Bastille was stormed in Paris, O’Connell, who was studying at St Omer, was not exactly enthused.
The revolution in France inspired many people in Ireland to declare themselves democrats and even to celebrate Jul 14, in Belfast, with fireworks.
Those democrats, some of whom had embraced the emancipation of black slaves before O’Connell was politically active, united in the hope of establishing democracy in Ireland through a reform of parliament, and, eventually, through a revolution in which many of them lost their lives, but not as many lives as were lost in the wake of the failure of O’Connell’s career in the 1840s.
O’Connell was not even the first to campaign for Catholic relief from political and social restrictions that arose from the Penal Code.
Theobald Wolfe Tone was partially successful in his work for the Catholic Committee in the early 1790s.
It’s a pity that most public holidays in Ireland honour the banks and that the historic Parliament House in College Green, an icon of Irish democracy for over a century, remains in the hands of a bank, which was given it for half its construction price when its members ‘sold their country’.
By all means, have a public holiday to honour all who campaigned for democracy in Ireland, from Tone and Emmet, Davis, Lalor, O’Connell and Mitchel, down to our own day.
All of them aspired to be ‘Liberators’, but it is too early to proclaim “free at last, thank God almighty, we are free at last,” for Emmet’s epitaph is yet to be written.
Those who cherish Ireland’s contribution to Europe’s heritage might look to the European nations whose public holidays are, in the main, Christian ones, while, until very recently in Ireland, most workers had to slip away with a nod and a wink to their employers for a half an hour to attend Mass.
The only universally acknowledged Christian festival that is a public holiday in Ireland is Christmas Day.
All this, 184 years after O’Connell won Catholic Emancipation, for us, and 76 years after the electorate enacted a Constitution drafted by the allegedly sectarian Éamon de Valera.