Daniel O’Connell

Contributors: DÓC, TOR.

The ‘Liberator’, lawyer, and politician. Daniel O’Connell was born on 6 August 1775, in Carhan near Cahirciveen, Co. Kerry. The O’Connells were a wealthy landed family. O’Connell spent much of his early life with his uncle, Maurice, at Derrynane House near Waterville, Co. Kerry. He was educated at a small boarding school near Cork and later he attended Saint-Omer (1791–2) and Douai (1792–3), two of the best Catholic schools in France. There he witnessed the turmoil of the French Revolution which left him with a lifelong abhorrence of violence for political ends. In 1794 O’Connell enrolled in Lincoln’s Inn, London, and two years later transferred to the King’s Inns, Dublin, to study law. While in London, O’Connell read the writings of the philosophes Voltaire and Rousseau, and the works of Godwin, Smith, and Bentham. These moulded his political and economic thinking, and made him a life-long democrat and radical.

O’Connell was called to the Irish Bar in 1798. He got a reputation for his radical political views. He supported the liberal policies of the United Irishmen but the 1798 rebellion and the ensuing slaughter filled him with revulsion. His first political act was his public opposition to the Act of Union. From 1805 he championed the movement for Catholic Emancipation, which aimed at repealing the laws that limited the voting rights and educational opportunities of Catholics. He strongly opposed the proposed Government Veto on the appointment of Catholic bishops. In 1811 he was elected chairman of Catholic Committee. He mocked the ‘beggarly Corporation’ of Dublin and was challenged to a duel in 1815 by a member, John Norcot d’Esterre. O’Connell fatally wounded d’Esterre but was extremely remorseful. His wife refused O’Connell’s offer of a pension, but he later arranged for an annuity for her daughter.

He set up many organisations to raise money for the cause of Emancipation, including the Catholic Association in 1823. This Association also campaigned for the repeal of the Act of Union, the end of the Irish tithe system, universal suffrage, and a secret ballot for parliamentary elections. He wholly rejected the use of violence in the pursuit of political objectives.

In 1828, he was elected to represent Co. Clare. There was wild popular excitement. However, because he was Catholic, he was not allowed take his seat. The British Government, fearing a civil war or at least serious disorder in Ireland because of intense opposition to the existing anti-Catholic legislation, passed the Roman Catholic Relief Act (1829) which granted Catholic Emancipation. This enabled O’Connell to be elected as representative for Kerry in 1830. The Government, however, outlawed the Catholic Association and greatly reduced the electorate. It eliminated the forty-shilling freehold suffrage in Ireland by raising the suffrage to £10.

As ‘Liberator’ O’Connell was now Ireland’s peerless political leader. He became a major figure in the House of Commons. He gave up his lucrative law practice to devote all his time to politics. On a wide range of issues he was a reformer and defender of liberty. He was active in the campaigns for parliamentary, legal, and prison reform, electoral reform and the secret ballot, free trade, the abolition of slavery and Jewish emancipation. Towards the end of 1829 he declared to Isaac Goldsmid, the leader of the Jews in England:

‘You will find in me the constant and active friend to every measure which tends to give the Jews an equality of civil rights with all other the king’s subjects, a perfect unconditional equality’.
Speaking in the House of Commons in 1830, he said that
‘by conceding the claims of the Jews, we should prove ourselves still more Christian by doing as we would be done by, and carrying into effect the principle of perfect freedom of conscience’.
He was a passionate opponent of racism and slavery. For him, slavery made the American Declaration of Independence a lie before God and he would never visit the United States because it was a slave-holding country. However, his overarching political objective was the Repeal of the Act of Union and the restoration of the Irish Parliament.

O’Connell and 39 of the Irish MPs returned in the general election of 1832 formed a pressure group in the House of Commons and O’Connell was able to make demands on the Government. In 1835 he and his fellow Catholic MPs agreed to support Lord Melbourne and his Whig Government in return for significant Irish reforms. Although the Whigs passed a Tithe Commutation Act (1838) and the Irish Municipal Reform Act (1840), O’Connell thought this inadequate. He was also totally opposed to the passing of the Irish Poor Law Act and when the Whigs refused to change it, he withdrew his support for the Government. In 1841 O’Connell represented Dublin City in parliament and also became the first Catholic Lord Mayor of Dublin since the seventeenth century.

The National Association of Ireland, commonly called the Repeal Association, was launched on 15 April 1840. O’Connell’s chief lieutenant was his favourite son, John O’Connell (1810–58). The Association included many Young Irelanders who, unlike him, believed that independence could be won only by use of force. Publicity was gained in papers like the Nation and the Pilot. O’Connell announced that 1843 would be the Year of Repeal and he began organising what the London Times called ‘monster meetings’ throughout the country. The first was at of Trim, Co. Meath which attracted a crowd of over 100,000. It was estimated that three-quarters of a million, assembled on the Hill of Tara to hear the ‘Liberator’ speak. Although O’Connell ensured that the huge crowds were orderly and peaceful, the government grew worried that trouble might break out. Sir Robert Peel, the British Prime Minister, decided to go on the offensive. He outlawed the subsequent proposed monster meeting, which was to be held at Clontarf on 8 October 1843. Although O’Connell called off the rally, he was arrested and charged with conspiracy, and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment and a fine of £2,000. He was also ordered to give securities of £5,000 for seven years’ good behaviour. Before entering Richmond prison on 30 May 1844, O’Connell went to the House of Commons and made a brief speech to uproarious cheers from the opposition. His conditions in prison were comfortable: he occupied a suite of rooms in the governor’s house and his visitors could come and go as they pleased.

Three months later, on appeal, the House of Lords reversed the decision, and O’Connell left prison a hero in the fight for freedom of speech. His health had deteriorated while in prison and he was suffering from cardio-vascular disease. On his release O’Connell continued his Repeal activities although a clear turning point had been reached. In 1845 he was unable to persuade Parliament to take more decisive steps in dealing with the Irish Famine. He provided what assistance he could on his own estate. In his last speech in the House of Commons on 8 February 1847, he predicted that unless more aid was forthcoming from the British Government for Ireland ‘one quarter of her population will perish’.

O’Connell came under attack from leading members of the Young Ireland movement who thought his tactics ineffective. Weakened physically by overwork, disappointed by the failure of Repeal, worried over the disagreements with the Young Irelanders, and suffering increasingly from ill-health, O’Connell decided to go on a pilgrimage to Rome. When he reached Paris he was greeted by a large crowd of radicals who regarded him as the ‘most successful champion of liberty and democracy in Europe’. He did not complete his journey to Rome; he died in Genoa on 15 May 1847. As he had requested, O’Connell’s heart was buried in the Irish College in Rome (in a monument arranged by Charles Bianconi) and his body was interred in Glasnevin cemetery on 5 August 1847. Sackville Street, Dublin’s main thoroughfare, was renamed O’Connell Street, and at the southern end near the Liffey the great statue of the Liberator by J. H. Foley was erected.

Writings, Biography, & Studies. John O’Connell, The Life and speeches of Daniel O’Connell (2 vols, Dublin 1846). T. C. Luby, The life, opinions, conversations and eloquence of Daniel O’Connell (New York 1872). Michael MacDonagh, The life of Daniel O’Connell (London 1903). Maurice R. O’Connell, The correspondence of Daniel O’Connell (8 vols, Dublin 1972–80). Domhnall Ó Súilleabháin, Beatha Dhomhnaill Uí Chonaill (Dublin 1936). Seán Ó Faoláin, King of the beggars: a life of Daniel O’Connell (London 1938); Denis Gwynn, Daniel O’Connell (Oxford 1947). Michael Tierney (ed), Daniel O’Connell: nine centenary essays (Dublin 1949). A. MacIntyre, The Liberator: Daniel O’Connell and the Irish party (London 1965). K. B. Nowlan, The politics of repeal: a study in the relations between Great Britain and Ireland, 1841–50 (London & Toronto, 1965). National Library of Ireland, Daniel O’Connell: historical documents (Dublin 1978) [documents in facsimile with commentary]. D. MacCartney (ed), The world of Daniel O’Connell (Dublin 1980). K. B. Nowlan & Maurice R. O’Connell (ed), Daniel O’Connell: portrait of a radical (Belfast & New York 1984). C. C. Trench, The great Dan: a biography of Daniel O’Connell (London 1984). Oliver MacDonagh, The hereditary bondsman: Daniel O’Connell, 1775–1829 (London 1988). Oliver MacDonagh, The emancipist: Daniel O’Connell, 1830–47 (London 1989). Maurice R. O’Connell (ed), Daniel O’Connell : political pioneer (Dublin 1991).

Tomás O’Riordan