Courtenay, Ellen (1802–c.1837), accuser of Daniel O'Connell (qv), was born in Co. Cork, daughter of a native of the county. In 1817, at the age of 15, she moved to Dublin, and the catholic bishop of Cork, John Murphy (qv), provided her with a certificate that testified to the ‘excellence of her moral character’. She first came into contact with O'Connell when she visited his house to discuss the mortgage on a leasehold belonging to her father. She later claimed to have become uncomfortable in his presence and resolved to communicate in future by letter. A few months later she received an urgent summons to O'Connell's house where (she later claimed) he seduced her.
She gave birth on 4 November 1818 to an illegitimate child, whom she christened Henry Simpson, allegedly at O'Connell's suggestion. This child was later known as Henry O'Connell. Moving to Paris, and then to London, she pursued a career as a schoolteacher and then on the stage. O'Connell consistently refused to support her or the child, and in February 1831 she appealed for aid to the O'Gorman Mahon (qv), who had nominated O'Connell for the Clare election in 1828. In this letter she made it clear that she wished to avoid scandal; there is also a curious reference to a catholic priest who was ‘deeply involved’. On 25 November 1831 the radical Henry Hunt forwarded a letter from Courtenay to O'Connell that was regarded as a thinly veiled attempt at blackmail. It was ignored, and O'Connell continued to refer sarcastically to Courtenay as ‘my fair friend’. The next year she appealed to the Rev. Charles Boyton (qv), the leading Irish Orange polemicist, and Remigius Sheehan (qv), the editor of the Orange Dublin Evening Mail newspaper, for help in publicising her allegations, but both declined.
In 1832 she was imprisoned for debt in the Fleet prison, London. There she published her pamphlet denouncing O'Connell's character, A narrative of most extraordinary cruelty, perfidy, and depravity, perpetrated against her by Daniel O'Connell. This work was published by Barnard Gregory, editor of the Satirist, and a notorious blackmailer, which led to further doubts about its veracity. While she was in prison her son was placed in a catholic orphanage, apparently at the request of a religious professor who was a friend of O'Connell. After her release, the allegations were brought before the courts in March 1836. It seems her son was assaulted by John O'Connell (qv), MP, Daniel's son, on 13 March after leaving mass; she had been following John and his father regularly. John was fined 20s. at Bow Street court three days later, and the striking resemblance between Henry and Daniel O'Connell provoked much comment. The incident did much to encourage speculation in England about O'Connell's proclivities, and soon this became so pronounced that his wife, Mary O'Connell (qv), felt obliged to join him in attempts to quell the rumours.
Throughout her life Courtenay never wavered from her allegation that O'Connell was ‘the seducer of my innocence’. She disappeared after 1836 and is believed to have died the following year. It will probably never be proved whether she was indeed the victim of a rape, the victim of a seduction by an older man, a cynical blackmailer, or the author of an elaborate fantasy. In the end it was his word against hers, and she was always unlikely to be believed.