Book review: Daniel O’Connell: A Graphic Life

DANIEL O’CONNELL developed a distinct aversion to revolutionary violence after witnessing some of the excesses of the French Revolution. 

Jody Moylan

Illustrated by Mateusz Nowakowski

Collins Press, €9.99

He and his younger brother fled France with only the clothes they were wearing.

He duly had deep reservations about the 1798 Rebellion in this country. 

“The altar of liberty totters when it is cemented only with blood,” O’Connell wrote at the time. 

He did not believe the Irish people were “sufficiently enlightened” to enjoy national freedom.

He was understandably horrified by the massacre of a hundred Protestant women and children at Scullabogue in Co Wexford. 

“May every virtuous revolutionist remember the horrors of Wexford!” he insisted. How many readers ever even heard about that bloody outrage in school?

O’Connell was best remembered for his role in securing Catholic Emancipation. His coup de grace was winning a Westminster by-election in Clare in 1828. 

The British government promptly had parliament enact Catholic emancipation even before O’Connell could take his seat.

Those who were surprised by suggestions that Michael Healy-Rae recently showed no interest in the possible offer of a cabinet post, should be aware that O’Connell, who was undoubtedly the most famous Kerry politician of all time, actually turned down offers a number of different government posts. 

He believed his best chance of getting what he wanted for the Irish people was by refusing to co-operate with the Government and thus remaining a threat: “If I went into office,” he wrote, “I should be their servant — that is their slave.”

The Liberator was not content with Catholic emancipation; he was opposed to slavery in all its forms. 

He helped to have the trade and ownership of slaves abolished within the British Empire in 1833, and he was a vocal critic of slavery in the United States.

“Wherever slavery shows its head, I am an enemy of the system, or the institution,” he proclaimed. 

When a visiting American extended his hand in greeting one day, O’Connell asked if he owned slaves.

“Certainly, sir, “ the man replied. 

“Then I have no hand for you,” O’Connell snapped back.

“I will say shame on every man in America who is not an anti-slavery man!” O’Connell declared. 

“I pronounce every man a faithless miscreant who does not take a part for the abolition of slavery.”

In later years, he campaigned strongly for repeal of the Act of Union, which he had vociferously denounced even before it was enacted. 

He brought his attacks on the Union to a crescendo in 1843, which he proclaimed “Repeal Year”.

He set out to enroll three million people in the National Association of Ireland by August 1843. 

He went on a grand tour of the country, holding 31 monster meetings, Some 500,000 gathered at Tara, which was O’Connell’s “crowning day”, according to his son John.

With the advent of the Great Famine, O’Connell favoured postponing the repeal movement, which led to difficulties with Young Ireland. 

In this balanced book, which is an easy read, Jody Moylan provides a broad perspective with valuable insights into O’Connell’s life and his extraordinary career.


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