Introduction. An outstanding orator, Daniel O’Connell toured the country, attracting tens of thousands of enthusiastic followers. When the Government moved to suppress the Catholic Association, O’Connell renamed it the New Catholic Association and continued the campaign unabated. The first major success of the organisation came in Waterford by-election of 1826 when the powerful Beresford family were defeated by William Villiers Stuart (1st Baron, 1803–74). There was a by-election in Clare in 1828 when the wealthy landowner, William Vesey Fitzgerald (1783–1843) had been appointed President of the Board of Trade by the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington. Under the terms of the Place Act, he had to seek re-election. A popular landlord and clearly on the side of Emancipation, he had sat without opposition for Clare for nearly ten years. Despite this, the Catholic Association put Daniel O’Connell forward to contest Co. Clare. O’Connell’s victory (2,057 to 982), marked the last stage of the fight for Emancipation—it was granted a year later. The dramatic circumstances of Vesey Fitzgerald’s defeat resulted in O’Connell’s bitterest critic, Robert Peel, and the Duke of Wellington, admitting defeat. They realised that the Government must concede Emancipation sooner rather than later; or else that getting rid of the Irish 40-shilling freeholders was a more important object than continuing to resist Emancipation. The Government found Vesey Fitzgerald another seat (Newport, Cornwall) and he was re-elected for Ennis in 1831. The reference in his letter to ‘the Catholic parliament’ is to the Catholic Association.
Source. Extract from the letter from William Vesey Fitzgerald, Ennis, Co. Clare, to the Lord Lieutenant, the Marquess of Anglesey, 5 July 1828, reporting his defeat by O’Connell in the Clare by-election. Public Record Office, Northern Ireland (D.619/32K/40).
Ennis July 5
The priests have triumphed, and through them and their brethren, the Catholic parliament will dictate the representatives of every county in the south of Ireland. I know that your Excellency has been kept aware of all the circumstances which have occurred during this contest. I need not characterise them, but it is impossible to contemplate them without the deepest anxiety and alarm. I could not have formed a notion of the extent and power of Catholic organisation.
The poll closed tonight. It was hopeless from the first day, and I looked on the contest as desperate from the account of the defection of the first great interest. I have kept it open, however, until I had received the vote of any gentleman in the county who could poll, and now I hardly know how my number has been made [up] for I had incredibly few forty-shilling freeholders. What a convulsion for any man to throw the county into, to satisfy his own vanity and to obtain what he cannot use. …
Gillian M. Doherty