O'Connell, Daniel (1775–1847), barrister, politician and nationalist leader, was born in Carhen, near Caherciveen, in the Iveragh peninsula of south-west Kerry, on 6 August 1775, the eldest of ten children of Morgan O'Connell (1739–1809) and his wife, Catherine O'Mullane (1752–1817).
Family background and early years
Morgan O'Connell was a modest landowner, grazier, and businessman. Within the peninsula the family were the leading surviving catholic gentry of the old Gaelic stock. By the time of Daniel's birth English was already established as the family vernacular, as it was generally in Ireland among those of their social rank and education; but Irish was the language of the mass of the peasantry in late eighteenth-century Iveragh, and was the usual language of communication between the O'Connells (including Daniel) and the common people of the district. The O'Connells were resourceful survivors, the very remoteness of their residence, their business acumen, and the occasional connivance of protestant neighbouring gentry permitting them to maintain their hold on land and on a modest gentleman status in the difficult era of plantation and penal laws.
Two of Daniel's paternal uncles were especially important in his upbringing and for his future prospects. One, Daniel (qv), was a count of France (with the rank of major general) and was an important ‘society’ connection for the family, not least in military circles (in France and later in England), during Daniel's early years. Far more important, however, was Daniel's uncle Maurice (qv), better known as ‘Hunting Cap’, the eldest and incomparably the wealthiest of his father's brothers, and clearly the patriarch of the family, who resided at Derrynane abbey, some 20 miles south of Carhen. Hunting Cap had amassed considerable wealth as a landowner, grazier, merchant, and smuggler, and, while he harboured a historical sense of grievance at the misfortunes that had befallen Irish catholics, he was a pragmatist who believed in operating, cautiously, within the political status quo.
Daniel's earliest years, until he was four, were spent – in the traditional Gaelic manner – in fosterage to a small herdsman's family, after which he was in effect adopted by his wealthy uncle, Hunting Cap, with whom he went to live, probably from the age of five. Hunting Cap, without a child of his own, was to prove a reliable, if stern, patron and financial support for Daniel for more than thirty years. In 1790 Daniel went to Father Harrington's small school in Cork. In 1791 he and his brother Maurice, younger by one year, were sent, via Liège and Louvain, to the English college at St Omer, despite the anxieties of Count O'Connell that the political and security situation in France (and on its borders) was deteriorating. Within a year the boys moved to the more academically challenging and more austere English college at Douai. Here Daniel's sharp intelligence, eloquence, and ambition were recognised by his superiors, who declared him destined to make his name as a remarkable public man. He was a studious if rather solitary boy, who quickly took to the close study of rhetoric and the classics.
The accelerating descent of revolutionary France into bloodshed finally forced the O'Connell boys to leave for London in early January 1793, where their uncle the count, already ensconced with other outraged émigrés, undertook to supervise their education at Fagan's ‘academy’. The French experience, and the fear engendered by the encounter with the sanguinary excesses of revolution, left O'Connell with an abiding antipathy to bloodshed, mob rule, and the ‘French way’ of political change. While Maurice was recalled by Hunting Cap to an army commission, in 1794 Daniel began terms at Lincoln's Inn to prepare for the bar. The relaxation of the penal laws against catholics had by this time opened a career at the Irish bar (at least to the level of junior counsel) to catholics, and O'Connell was to be a beneficiary of these relief measures.
The London years were formative in O'Connell's intellectual and political development. Through his wide reading, which included Voltaire, Rousseau, Gibbon, Paine, William Godwin, and Adam Smith, and his quickening interest in public affairs, he was drawn towards a liberal, not to say radical, point of view. Civil and religious equality, freedom of conscience, and the extension of individual liberty became the basis of his philosophical and political position. This period also saw O'Connell enter a phase of religious scepticism, which was to last for several years before he eventually returned to an orthodox, indeed devout, catholic observance.
On his return to Dublin in 1796 O'Connell was affected by the high level of political excitement that had gripped the Irish capital in response to the general state of European politics and Anglo–French tensions, and, in particular, the danger of a French invasion of Ireland. He was especially alarmed at the appearance of the French fleet off Bantry Bay in late 1796. Called to the Irish bar in 1798, Daniel, like many others in his profession, was caught up in the Volunteers, inspired by a broadly patriotic impulse and a resolve to defend public order. While mindful of Hunting Cap's continuous exhortations and warnings that he devote his talents and energy to professional advancement rather than to political involvement, O'Connell was drawn to the public sphere, albeit in a most responsible and conventional way for a young ambitious barrister.
Appalled by the bloodshed and socially subversive challenge of the 1798 rebellion, O'Connell was nevertheless opposed to the proposal for the ending of the Irish parliament and the enactment of the Act of Union. His public statement made in January 1800 in the debates on the union proposal – his first major public intervention in political debate – was significant. It exposed his credo on the historical and legal rights of Ireland as a kingdom, and his refusal to accept that any political group or generation of leaders had the right to abrogate or surrender them. He famously declared that ‘if the alternative were offered him of union, or the re-enactment of the penal code in all its pristine horrors, he would prefer without hesitation the latter, as the lesser and more sufferable evil’ (Life and speeches, i, 8–9). This was to be the sticking point of all his later demands, however embellished with utilitarian or opportunistic arguments, for the restoration of the Irish parliament in College Green or, as it became, the demand for the ‘Repeal of the Union’.
O'Connell's opposition to the union was voiced in the strong patriotic language of the late eighteenth century, and was essentially no different from the position of Henry Grattan (qv), save that O'Connell was speaking as a young catholic barrister, and the catholic hierarchy had committed itself to support of the union, on the grounds that the protestant parliament in Dublin offered less prospect of ‘equal’ citizenship and religious equality for catholics than the parliament at Westminster. The primacy of Ireland's historical rights over immediate confessional advantage was, therefore, the basis of O'Connell's early political declarations. It is worth stressing, in this context, his enduring monarchism. He defended strenuously the rights of the ‘kingdom of Ireland’. In later decades his expressions of loyalty to particular British monarchs (notably George IV during his Dublin visit of 1821 and Victoria, ‘the young queen’, from the moment of her accession in 1837) were extremely – for some embarrassingly – fulsome.
In the immediate post-union years O'Connell's public stature largely derived from his professional work. He was twenty-five years old and had already made a mark. His political views placed him in the patriotic reform camp with regard to the conduct of government and administration, the discharge of the law, and religious and civil liberties, and he had a particular agenda of denouncing privilege and prejudice. From the more ‘quietist’ political perspective of Hunting Cap, he was outspoken to the point of incautious notoriety.
Legal practice and family life
Within a few years of his starting to practise, O'Connell's professional reputation and his earnings at the bar began to grow. By 1806 he was earning £600 net in fees, and, as he became more sought after in the years that followed, his income grew accordingly. Indeed, his fame as an advocate was such that he was popularly known during this phase of his career as ‘the Counsellor’. By 1813 he was earning almost £4,000 per annum. At the height of his legal career, in the mid-1820s, before he turned to politics as a full-time occupation, he was earning more than £6,000 at the bar. This would certainly have placed him in the top bracket of barristers, so far as professional income was concerned. But the continuing legal prohibition on catholics entering the inner bar prevented O'Connell from reaching the very top rung of his profession, an exclusion which he, in common with other leading catholic barristers, understandably resented.
His legal reputation was based on his prowess in both criminal and civil cases. His forte was jury cases, where his ruthless techniques of cross-examination of witnesses, combined with sharp forensic and histrionic talents in addressing juries, frequently carried the day for his clients. His personality and style, wit, and eloquence were the assets that served him best, rather than the close, dry exegesis of technical points of law, though his knowledge of the law was formidable. Clients, including those with whose conduct, actions, or political positions he had no sympathy, trusted him to do his best for them. However, there were exceptional occasions, such as the notorious case of July 1813, in which he defended John Magee (qv), a Dublin newspaper editor charged with libelling the lord lieutenant; accepting that, with both judge and jury implacably ‘packed’ against his client, the verdict was a foregone conclusion, O'Connell decided to throw his defence to one side and use the court as a platform for a corrosive and personally abusive attack on the government officers who presided in Dublin castle and the prejudices that characterised their regime. This exceptional self-indulgence, though it made a predictably strong political impact, was disapproved of by many moderate observers, and it dismayed the cautious Hunting Cap in Derrynane.
O'Connell's personal life was also changing in the immediate post-union years. In July 1802 he secretly married his distant cousin Mary O'Connell (qv) (1778–1836), one of eight children of the long-deceased Thomas O'Connell, a medical doctor in Tralee. The secrecy was due to the fact that Mary was without a dowry and the match was not likely to meet with the approval of his family. Indeed, the marriage remained a secret for some time because the couple feared that Daniel's patron, Hunting Cap, would so dislike the match that he would take retribution to the extent of cutting Daniel off from further financial support. This fear proved only too well founded. When Hunting Cap finally learned of the marriage his show of disapproval was immediate and financially severe: Daniel's brother John (1778–1853) was elevated to the status of favourite in his place by Hunting Cap. The estrangement lasted more than two years and, though a reconciliation was effected during 1805, O'Connell was to find, on Hunting Cap's death in 1825, that his estate was divided almost equally between himself and his two brothers James and John.
The anxieties about money that marked its beginnings were, at least until 1830, to be a regular feature of the married life of Daniel and Mary. Their marriage was otherwise characterised by abiding affection, expressed with particular force in correspondence during their frequent separations when Daniel's professional and political career became especially demanding, and when, in 1822–3, a short-lived (and unavailing) economy drive made it necessary for Mary and their family to reside for a time in France. Even as O'Connell's earnings at the bar, and his later income from funds contributed by the people to support his political career, reached impressive levels, his expenditure, and that of his family, more than kept pace. He was generous in supporting relatives in difficulty, not particularly shrewd in his business dealings, and during his vacations in Kerry (usually at the end of the Munster circuit in September) regularly impulsive and invariably free with his spending and patronage. In short, he did not manage money very well, and neither, it may be said, did Mary. Their first residence in Dublin, at no.1 Westland Row (purchased in mid-1805), was followed within four years by a move to the more spacious and expensive 30 Merrion Square.
Seven children of the marriage survived to adulthood: Maurice (qv) (b. 1803), Morgan (b. 1804), Ellen (b. 1805), Catherine (b. 1808), Elizabeth (b. 1810), John (qv) (b. 1810), and Daniel (qv) (b. 1816). It is clear from his correspondence and other surviving evidence that O'Connell doted on his children when they were young (especially when he was away from the family home, as he frequently was), and that he continued to support them, and to see the merits of whatever they attempted to do, throughout their later lives.
In the first quarter of the nineteenth century, O'Connell lived the life of a barrister, with a Dublin residence and a busy practice on the Munster circuit. From as early as 1808 he was probably the leading figure, and certainly the most outspoken, in catholic political circles in Dublin. No doubt his increasingly dominant position accounts, at least in part, for the explosively vituperative terms in which he denounced the leading figures and the general political complexion of the ‘Orange ascendancy’ in Dublin castle and in the apparatus of law enforcement throughout the country. The abrasive language was intended to shock, and so it did. Its exhilarating defiance may have raised the spirits of many among the general body of ‘aggrieved’ catholics, but for the more cautious and deferential catholics, not to speak of the members of the ascendancy, it went far beyond acceptable polemic. It made O'Connell many enemies, some of whom (notably Sir Robert Peel (qv), appointed chief secretary in 1812) were to prove enduring and formidable adversaries. O'Connell's combative language had more immediate and lethal consequences. His denunciation of Dublin corporation as ‘beggarly’ led to his being challenged to a duel by a Dublin merchant, John d'Esterre, whom O'Connell killed in their encounter on 3 February 1815. He felt remorse for the deed for the rest of his life.
The struggle for emancipation
The movement for the further relief of catholics – notably the removal of the oaths that prevented them from becoming members of parliament, referred to as ‘catholic emancipation’ – was carried forward in these post-union years by the Catholic Committee (later, variously, ‘Association’ or ‘Board’), in which a small group of catholic noblemen and a cohort of professional and commercial middle-class catholics, who met regularly, debated, composed resolutions, and lobbied influential political figures in pursuit of their cause. The support of a group of liberal protestants was vital to this work of political persuasion, especially if the issue was ever to make it to the political agenda at Westminster.
O'Connell was active in the committee, and took a position on the most assertive and uncompromising wing of the movement, with those who demanded that catholic grievances be redressed with no strings attached. In the second decade of the nineteenth century the balance of influence – in political tone as well in the substance of the demands – shifted towards the more assertive, and middle-class element, principally lawyers, and away from the more cautious and politically ‘quietist’ catholic noblemen. The so-called ‘veto controversy’ of the period from 1808 to 1820 both illustrated and accentuated this shift. While Rome, and for a time some of the Irish bishops and leading catholic laymen, felt inclined to concede that some measure of state influence on the nomination or appointment of Irish bishops was not unreasonable, if there was to be a major concession of catholic emancipation within the British state, the more assertive wing of the Catholic Committee in Ireland (apparently with substantial support among the wider leadership of the catholic community) was opposed to any such conditions being attached to the concession, which they considered as no more than their right. Liberal protestants, such as Grattan, who up to his death in 1820 steadfastly continued to bring forward petitions and proposals for catholic emancipation in the commons, found this uncompromising stance perplexing and disappointing. But not even strong papal intervention could shake the resolve of the church ‘autonomy’ party in Ireland, and eventually, after years of argument, the ‘no conditions’ position prevailed. Catholic emancipation, when it came, would have no qualifications attached that in any way gave the government a role in the matter of Irish episcopal appointments or the financial support of priests.
Until the mid-1820s the modest role of the Catholic Committee in maintaining interest in the catholic claim seemed unlikely to achieve any major breakthrough, whatever the shifts in personal attitudes among the various leading politicians of the day. What transformed the political situation, and the prospects for emancipation, was the decision to broaden the base of support for, and popular involvement in, the catholic campaign in Ireland. It proved difficult to maintain a popularly based political movement in Ireland on any broadly representational basis: governments feared ‘representative bodies’ and their pretensions, and legislation regularly sought to stymie any efforts to establish such a body or movement. Thus, from 1811 onwards all attempts to establish a representative catholic body (with, for example, county delegates) was met by laws banning such bodies from sitting. In the cat and mouse game that followed in the later 1820s, O'Connell's legal expertise and political astuteness were deployed in devising various stratagems for circumventing government prohibitions.
In May 1823 the Catholic Association was formed, to renew efforts to secure catholic emancipation. O'Connell was its leading figure from the outset. Extending the range of catholic grievances for public denunciation and cultivating a supportive press were key objectives of the new departure. O'Connell's suggestion in early 1824 that ‘every Catholic in Ireland should be called upon to contribute a monthly sum from one penny up to two shillings’ in order to achieve a broad popular membership of the Catholic Association proved especially important. This ‘catholic rent’ created the momentum and mass involvement that transformed the catholic emancipation campaign. The tactic of bringing pressure to bear on candidates at elections to declare in favour of catholic emancipation so as to secure the support of catholic voters had been employed on several occasions since 1818. In 1826 O'Connell himself played an active role in the Waterford election of the liberal protestant Henry Villiers Stuart (1803–74), who defeated Lord George Beresford (qv), a pillar of the Castle ascendancy establishment, for which O'Connell reserved his special contempt and resentment. However, O'Connell was not invariably sure-footed in his judgement or tactics. In 1825, while in London leading a delegation to protest against Goulburn's bill prohibiting political ‘societies’ in Ireland of longer duration than fourteen days (which, when passed, saw the Catholic Association temporarily dissolved), O'Connell declared support for Sir Francis Burdett's catholic relief bill, which had attached to it provisions for the state payment of catholic priests and the disfranchisement of the 40s. freeholders. The bill failed. But the outrage expressed by radicals in Ireland and Britain at O'Connell's acceptance of the ‘wings’ to the bill, reminded him that he was not immune from criticism. His defence of the state payment of priests was that it would not compromise their independence.
Whatever flexibility was present in Westminster politics from the mid-1820s (when some senior political actors were sympathetic to a measure of catholic emancipation) seemed to have dissolved by early 1828, when a hard-line Wellington–Peel government took office, under a monarch known to be an unyielding opponent of catholic emancipation. O'Connell and the revived Catholic Association seemed to be faced with an impossible task, despite the fact that by 1826 majority opinion in the house of commons was probably inclined towards catholic relief. But, by chance almost, an opportunity arose to force the issue. By convention those taking office in a new ministry had to seek re-election in their constituencies: usually a mere formality. But the Catholic Association had decided that any appointee of the Wellington–Peel ministry seeking re-election in an Irish constituency should be opposed. One such potential minister was William Vesey Fitzgerald (qv), the member for Clare and a respected pro-emancipation protestant and popular landlord in the county. Indeed, such was the regard in which he was held that finding a Clare candidate to stand against him proved more than difficult. Eventually O'Connell was prevailed upon to stand, though it was understood by all that, if elected, he would not be able to take his seat, because the oaths required of an MP were repugnant to a conscientious catholic. After a remarkable election campaign, during which popular excitement and demonstrations, by non-electors as well as by the electors, remained remarkably disciplined and orderly, and in which the catholic priests were very active, O'Connell in July 1828 won a decisive victory, securing 2,057 votes to Vesey Fitzgerald's 982.
The result precipitated a crisis. The government, fearing that further resistance to the verdict would provoke serious disorder in Ireland, reluctantly, and to a chorus of recrimination from their diehards, persuaded the dismayed monarch that the controversial oaths would have to be changed and that catholic emancipation would have to be conceded. The ‘sting’ in the act included a provision for the disenfranchisement of the Irish 40s. freeholders. Nevertheless, O'Connell, having initially been refused entry, finally took his seat in the house of commons on 4 February 1830, the first Irish catholic to benefit from the ‘emancipation’ which he, more than any other political figure, had helped to accomplish. He was to remain an MP for the next seventeen years, being returned for various Irish constituencies at successive general elections: Waterford County (1830), Kerry (1831), Dublin City (1832–6), Kilkenny City (1836), Dublin City (1837–41), and Cork County (1842–7).
‘Liberator’ and MP
O'Connell's achievement in forcing the government to concede catholic emancipation in 1829 was immense. It earned him the title ‘the Liberator’, among his fellow catholics in Ireland. Its reverberations were also felt further afield. The fact that he could remain a devoted and conforming catholic, while supporting the separation of church and state, the ending of privileges and discrimination based on religious affiliation, and the extension of individual liberties, including those in the sphere of politics, made him a hero and inspiration to catholic liberals in many European countries. Moreover, the fact that his political movement was based upon popular support and the mobilisation of the mass of the people, while yet being non-violent and orderly, gave proof that ‘excited’ popular politics did not necessarily have to be anti-clerical or sanguinary. The attention his movement and opinions received in the continental European press was remarkable, as were the number and distinction of European writers and political figures who visited Ireland with the express purpose of securing an audience with O'Connell. It is probably fair to say that no other Irish political figure of the nineteenth or early twentieth century (indeed no other Irish figure in any sphere of life) enjoyed such an international reputation as did O'Connell throughout his later public career. The public acknowledgement of his influence, and the tributes he received during his lifetime and immediately after his death (from such figures as the French liberal catholic Charles de Montalembert, the Dominican Henri Dominique Lacordaire, and Abbé Félicité Robert de Lamennais) are eloquent testimony to his international stature.
So far as his particular achievement as ‘the creator of Irish democracy’ is concerned, the larger claims made for him by admirers such as Sean O'Faolain (qv), that he ‘embodied’ or ‘created’ a people, must be tempered by acknowledgement that many of the techniques and tactics employed by O'Connell in mobilising popular support for the catholic emancipation campaign, and later for the repeal campaign, were not entirely new: petitions, public meetings, dedicated newspapers, a network of articulate lawyers and local branches, the encouragement of popular ‘ownership’ of a movement through accepting small but regular subscriptions to a campaign fund – all of these techniques had featured in different popular campaigns at one time or another in Britain from the later eighteenth century. Among his contemporaries, Thomas Wyse (qv) of Waterford was consistently innovative in devising political tactics, which O'Connell exploited to good effect. Furthermore, recent scholars of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Ireland have stressed the high degree of socialisation (a prerequisite for political mobilisation) that had already been attained in Ireland in the decades before 1820, through fairs and markets, and through soldiering during the long periods of war from the 1770s to Waterloo. Some have gone so far as to suggest that, in a number of important respects, O'Connell was more the beneficiary than the creator of a peasantry capable of disciplined collective action.
Yet the sheer force of his leadership in the emancipation struggle of the late 1820s, the various registers of Irish identity that he embodied and combined, together with the discipline he achieved and the momentum for change that he succeeded in generating within the boundaries of non-violent political agitation must surely rank as an achievement without precedent in Ireland. When he called on the ‘hereditary bondsmen’, the Irish catholics, to get off their knees and demand their rights, his instinctive playing on a historical memory of grievance was masterly, as was his skill in channelling this historic sense into new forms of constitutional, mass politics. His most distinguished modern biographer, Oliver MacDonagh (qv), is surely right in concluding that ‘he was perhaps the greatest innovator in modern democratic politics, as well as the originator of almost all the basic strategies of modern Anglo–Irish constitutional relations’.
O'Connell's entry into parliament following the passing of catholic emancipation marks a milestone in his career. Up to 1829 he was, in a certain sense, an ‘outsider’, a formidable agitator, with a career at law and a political mission to secure the full measure of catholic relief. From 1829 until his death in 1847 he was a full-time politician and parliamentarian. Remarkably, his income now came chiefly from the people of Ireland, in the form of an annual collection or ‘tribute’, to enable him to devote his time and energy exclusively to championing the cause of Ireland. Throughout this long period as (literally) the public servant of the Irish people, O'Connell never spared himself. His personal life was, more than ever before, subordinated to the public cause. His detractors might sneer at ‘the king of the beggars’, but for O'Connell there was neither shame nor loss of stature in being supported in his labours by the subscriptions of the people to whose welfare and interests he had dedicated his life.
Given the endless crises in his family finances, the charge that he needed to keep his popular agitations in a state of excitement in order to ensure a satisfactory income cannot be dismissed out of hand. Yet O'Connell was a landowner and businessman of substance in these years of public service. On his father's death in 1809 he inherited an estate with a rental value of about £1,500 in the post-Waterloo era. When Hunting Cap died in 1825 he was left a sizeable lump sum as well as his share of the estate. From 1825 onwards his annual income from land amounted to about £4,000 in total. He also had financial interests in newspapers (the Dublin Review), banking (he was founder-director of the National Bank), and brewing (he was a chief investor in an ultimately unsuccessful brewery). In 1835 he was appointed a magistrate for Kerry (he was removed from the commission of the peace in 1843 during the repeal agitation). Despite the prejudices with which he had to contend, he was a member of several clubs: Brooks's, the Clarence, and the Reform.
As a landlord, O'Connell was generally attentive to the welfare of his tenants, and, while expecting obligations and undertakings to be discharged, showed sympathy and consideration when exceptional circumstances caused tenants to experience particular distress and difficulty. This benign reputation is, however, balanced by his having employed a kinsman, John Primrose, who had a reputation as a strict agent, to manage his property for him from 1822 to 1845. In his personal life, the death in 1836 of his wife, Mary, left O'Connell heartbroken. He was sixty years of age, and his major campaign for repeal lay yet in the future – a future that he had to face without his most loving and supportive companion.
O'Connell's introduction to the parliamentary world of Westminster coincided with the excitement of the reform crisis, as Lord Grey's government proposed, and in 1832 enacted, a substantial measure of parliamentary reform, which included both franchise extension and redistribution of seats. O'Connell was an ardent supporter of the whig reform proposal, actively involved in speaking on its behalf in parliament and on platforms in Ireland and in Britain. Aligned frequently with such English radicals as Francis Burdett, Henry Hunt, and Joseph Hume, O'Connell in the 1830s supported manhood suffrage, triennial parliaments and vote by ballot, free trade, reform of the electoral system (including trenchant criticism of the house of lords), representative local government, and reform of the tithe system in Ireland. A strong advocate of the abolition of slavery, he supported the liberation movement of Simón Bolívar and favoured Jewish emancipation. His radical credentials were impressive.
The repeal campaign
In the early 1830s O'Connell had an agenda of his own, however, centred on the political objective that had first introduced him to political activism – the repeal of the union. With the passing of the Reform Act in 1832, O'Connell put repeal at the head of his political demands; in the general election of 1832 some thirty-nine Irish MPs were elected on the pledge, in some form, to support repeal and to follow O'Connell's lead in parliament. These were slightingly referred to as ‘O'Connell's tail’. Unlike the earlier campaign for emancipation, repeal was utterly opposed by all major strands of political opinion in parliament and in all the influential organs of British political opinion. Furthermore, in the early 1830s an agitation against the payment of tithes, together with a rise in violent crimes in the Irish countryside, seemed to portend unrest of a kind not seen in the 1820s. While the respectable farmers and middle-class professionals, who opposed having to pay tithes for the upkeep of an established church to which only a minority of the population belonged, stuck to legal methods in the anti-tithe campaign, there were a number of serious incidents of violence, resulting in fatalities, between tithe process-servers and protesting peasants.
The recital of popular grievances, through which O'Connell had created momentum for the emancipation campaign in the 1820s and through which he now proposed to sustain an active popular support base for his new purpose, was perceived by his ascendancy opponents in Ireland, and by many on the government side as well, as calculated to keep the people (especially the poorer peasantry) in a state of permanent excitement, and primed to threaten social order. The tithe agitation did indeed threaten, at times, to shade into the more direct methods of the agrarian secret societies, to which O'Connell remained implacably opposed, seeking, as always, to obtain redress for grievances through peaceful, constitutional means in parliament and in the administration of justice. O'Connell's attempts to sustain a popular movement for repeal foundered in 1834. The impact of strong coercion laws created difficulties for him (and for those newspaper editors and others who publicly supported him). The strains of office were telling on some of the whig ministers, and O'Connell observed matters closely to see if a change of personnel would improve the prospects for more favourable treatment – in terms of both men and measures – in the government of Ireland. Eventually, in 1834, a motion calling for an enquiry into the case for the demand for repeal was finally debated in the house of commons and was overwhelmingly rejected.
The unequivocal refusal of all main parties to allow a debate on repeal moved O'Connell to change tack. Moreover, the short minority government of Robert Peel, his implacable adversary, was a further spur to O'Connell to explore all possibilities for working with the whigs, under Lord Melbourne (qv), in the hope of extracting practical reforms for Ireland. O'Connell would never disavow repeal, but when the direct route was blocked he actively pursued ‘justice for Ireland’ by instalments. He immediately entered into a formal understanding with the whig government, the ‘Lichfield House compact’, through which he pledged his support (and that of his parliamentary following) to the government in return for a reform programme for Ireland that included both administrative and legislative concessions. The unmeasured terms in which the compact was denounced, not only by conservatives but also by various organs of public opinion, testify to the odium in which O'Connell was still held in influential quarters of the British press and political establishment.
The years of the whig alliance were not without reward, though O'Connell constantly protested his disappointment at the inadequacy of the concessions made, and regularly threatened to return to a more independent course. What was striking was that, despite widespread hostility to him in such organs of opinion as The Times and among sections of the political elite in Britain, he succeeded in making the transition from a popular agitator to an accomplished parliamentary performer. He was acknowledged as a powerful radical voice on a range of issues, not all relating to the condition of Ireland. He proclaimed himself a Benthamite, and in general terms he was indeed a strong utilitarian. But in examining O'Connell's views and proposals on economic and social matters, it would be a mistake to look for theoretical coherence or indeed consistency. His instincts were unerringly opposed to all versions of monopoly or the oppression of the liberty of the individual, but this did not mean that he was invariably opposed to an interventionist or regulatory role for the state. He favoured free trade, including the abolition of the corn laws (a form of sectional privilege), and likewise opposed the new poor law and its Irish transplant of 1838. He was not opposed in principle to trade unions but, as his disagreements with the Dublin trades demonstrated, he was against the coercion of workers into joining ‘combinations’, against restrictive practices (such as control of apprentices), and against the use of force or violent methods by workers; and he considered that the fixing of tradesmen's wages was likely to lead to uncompetitive costs and, inevitably, the loss of jobs.
On the specific issue of Ireland's economic problems O'Connell held a simple view of the regenerative potential of a restored national parliament. He did not envisage or propose that such a parliament would resort to protectionist or tariff-based measures to encourage Irish industry. The return of a parliament, combined with a reduction in income tax would, he naively contended, result in a boost in demand for Irish manufactured goods and a general improvement in investment and consumption in Ireland. On the thorny issue of Irish landlord–tenant relations, O'Connell, by 1845, had come to favour a tax on absentee landlords, compulsory conacre on holdings larger than 200 acres (a concession to labourers and cottiers), and greater security of tenure for tenants. In the desperate conditions that enveloped Irish rural society, and in particular the rural poor, with the onset of the potato famine in late 1845, O'Connell strongly urged the government to adopt emergency measures (importing food) to meet the crisis.
By the late 1830s O'Connell, seeing the authority and energy of Melbourne's government rapidly draining away, began to contemplate his next move. By 1838 he had already established the rather pointedly titled Precursor Society. In July 1840 the Loyal National Repeal Association was founded, and with the fall of the Melbourne government and the return to office, with a good commons majority, of Peel, O'Connell geared up for a major campaign for repeal. After a slow start, he soon gathered momentum, his own profile boosted by his being elected lord mayor of Dublin in 1841. The repertoire of political tactics was generally along familiar O'Connellite lines, albeit with some new titles: speeches from the leader's headquarters rehearsing a long agenda of popular grievances, repeal reading-rooms acting as focuses for local activists, discipline kept by repeal wardens and ‘pacificators’. Electoral readiness was essential. At a local level the support (and organisational skill) of priests was vital, despite numerous injunctions throughout the 1830s from Rome and from many bishops warning against direct clerical involvement in politics.
There were new elements to the repeal campaign, however, which had not been employed in the struggle for emancipation. In particular, a small group of writers and intellectuals, based at TCD, founded in 1842 a newspaper, The Nation, which became immensely popular and influential in disseminating not only news of the repeal movement's activities, but nationalist ideas and propaganda across a wide range of interests: poetry, prose, history and antiquities, economic and social issues. The ‘spirit of The Nation’ was passionately nationalist, in a recognisably European sense. The young nationalists, chief among whom were Thomas Davis (qv), John Blake Dillon (qv), Charles Gavan Duffy (qv), and, later, John Mitchel (qv), were idealistic and gifted thinkers and propagandists, and were initially a significant addition to O'Connell's resources.
More directly dependent on his force of personality and oratory were the ‘monster meetings’ that O'Connell called at historic locations throughout the country in order to promulgate the repeal message. Mindful of the need to keep his mass following at the ready and focused, O'Connell called for one great effort to make 1843 ‘the year of repeal’. He proposed the convening of a ‘Council of Three Hundred’, a virtual parliament of district ‘delegates’. It was a risky strategy. Peel was determined to face down O'Connell and the repeal campaign. Strong repressive legislation was accompanied by unflinchingly firm implementation. When O'Connell called a monster meeting at Clontarf for 8 October the government proclaimed the meeting at the last minute and called up a large force of military to prevent its taking place. In order to avoid the risk of bloodshed O'Connell backed down and cancelled the meeting. Shortly thereafter he was arrested, tried, and convicted of sedition. In 1844 he spent several months in Richmond jail, though in considerable comfort, before being released in early September 1844.
Decline and last days
While it may not have been immediately apparent, the cancellation of the Clontarf meeting marked the point at which the repeal momentum was halted. The brinkmanship of raising public excitement and expectations, in order to force the government of the day to concede, had not worked on this occasion. The decision to cancel soon led to expressions of disappointment by some of the younger nationalists. But, more importantly, it seriously damaged O'Connell's aura of invincibility. When Peel's government followed up this decisive show of resistance to repeal with a programme of measures aimed at ‘appeasing’ the catholic bishops and some of the leading moderate lay catholics, further differences of opinion emerged between O'Connell and the younger idealists.
A particularly contentious issue was the Queen's Colleges proposal of 1845, to which O'Connell and the bishops were bitterly opposed but which some of the young idealists saw as having the merit of providing a non-sectarian, mixed environment in which young catholics and protestants could receive a university education together. The underlying problem was that, with repeal stopped in its tracks for the moment, O'Connell reverted, as he had ever done, to exploring alternative possibilities of renewed cooperation with the whigs, and indeed expressed interest in canvassing federalist ideas as an alternative to repeal. The young intellectuals found this compromising disposition and dilution of the demand for repeal on O'Connell's part unworthy and unacceptable. The old leader, used to being followed rather than corrected, found the self-righteous and incorruptible stance of his young critics naive and, in a sense, impertinent.
The final break with the Young Irelanders (as O'Connell's young critics were styled) came with the peace resolutions of July 1846. O'Connell, though he frequently resorted to inflammatory language and was not averse to suggesting that if his reasonable demands, expressed peacefully, were refused, popular anger might well go beyond mere words, insisted that the cause of repeal – and of Ireland's rights – could be advanced only by exclusively non-violent means. Although they had no intention of using or recommending the use of force in the prevailing circumstances, a number of O'Connell's young critics, led by Thomas Francis Meagher (qv), would not accept that force was never justified, and, at a meeting to debate the matter in July 1846, refused to yield to O'Connell, or to his son and political heir, John, and walked out of the Repeal Association. The repeal movement had split, and O'Connell would not be able to unite it again.
In fact by late 1846 O'Connell's powers and health were failing. Ireland was gripped in the crisis of the famine, and O'Connell was desperate to exercise his influence in persuading the whig ministers to take emergency steps for the relief of distress in Ireland. He was also prepared to explore the wider possibilities of cooperation between his parliamentary following and the whig government, in the hope of securing a further reform package for Ireland, much as he had done a decade earlier. The condition of his finances and the state of his tenantry in Kerry caused him deep distress. But time was not on his side, and his critics among the younger nationalists were scathing in their denunciation of what they saw as his shameful retreat from repeal and his pitiful overtures for a new dose of patronage and ‘reforms’. A broken man, O'Connell set out from Folkestone for Rome in late March 1847. He died in Genoa on 15 May, and, while his body was brought back to Dublin for burial on 5 August, his heart, at his request, was left in Rome.
Reputation and legacy
Any assessment of O'Connell's achievement, historical reputation, and legacy must contend with certain contradictions and paradoxes. He was a champion of civil and religious liberty and equality, who always insisted that he had no wish to substitute a catholic for a protestant ‘ascendancy’ in Ireland; but his intense struggle to establish the equal rights of Irish catholics, and the ferocity of his attacks on protestant ascendancy in post-union Ireland, undoubtedly raised the spectre of catholic ascendancy for many Irish protestants. The historical memory of victimhood, which he invoked in mobilising the long-demoralised Catholics, encouraged the development of a strong sense of ‘catholic nationalism’, and protestant Ulster firmly rejected his repeal claims, as it was to resist the claims of later Irish nationalist movements.
But O'Connell was also criticised by various strands of Irish nationalist opinion. The prolific writings of his Young Ireland critics (notably Charles Gavan Duffy and John Mitchel) set the tone: they denounced his flexibility as lack of principle, his determination to see qualified catholics (including his relatives, friends, and professional colleagues) penetrate the apparatus of government and administration in Ireland as simple place-hunting, and his absolute disavowal of the use of force as a form of cowardice. His autocratic style of political leadership (whatever its older Gaelic tribal antecedents) was seen as the prototype of a kind of ‘boss’ politics, which later flourished among the Irish of the diaspora in urban America. Separatists who espoused physical force rejected his political creed out of hand, while republicans found his monarchist enthusiasms and incrementalist reformism utterly unpalatable. Cultural nationalists, notably language revivalists, found his indifference to the fate of the ancestral language – his own first language – unforgivable.
Of course, mainstream catholic historiography, and the leaders of the catholic church in Ireland, never ceased to honour O'Connell's memory or salute his achievement. But from the middle decades of the twentieth century a more dispassionate and contextual approach to his career, by professional historians and biographers, resulted in a more measured and positive assessment of O'Connell's achievements. Few would now dissent from the verdict of another popular tribune on O'Connell. Writing in 1889, Gladstone described O'Connell as ‘the greatest popular leader whom the world has ever seen . . . who never for a moment changed his end [and] never hesitated to change his means’ (Nineteenth Century, Jan. 1889).