O'Connell, John (1810–58), politician, was born 24 December 1810 in Dublin, the third of four sons and three daughters of Daniel O'Connell (qv), lawyer and politician, of Dublin and Derrynane, Co. Kerry, and his wife, Mary O'Connell (qv). He received his early education at home under the supervision of his mother, then entered Clongowes Wood College. During John's childhood his father repeatedly expressed the hope that he might become a priest; it is not clear whether this reflected the boy's own inclinations or simply the elder O'Connell's thoughts about the potential spiritual and material benefits of thus disposing of a younger son. By his mid-teens John expressed a strong desire to join the navy and an equally strong dislike of the prospect of becoming a barrister. He was overruled by his father, and reluctantly took up a legal career: he entered TCD in 1828, was admitted to Gray's Inn in 1832, and was called to the bar in 1837, but his political activities kept him from building up a practice.
John O'Connell's election as MP for Youghal in 1832 (to attract whig votes O'Connell ran as a ‘reformer’ rather than explicitly as a repealer) was the result of a wave of political excitement caused by the campaigns of Fergus O'Connor (qv), which spilled over from the county to affect the normally tightly controlled boroughs. O'Connor also campaigned for O'Connell in 1835, causing some embarrassment by denouncing the corn laws (Youghal was heavily involved in the grain trade). O'Connell later defended his father against whig-unionist accusations of taking up the repeal cause after emancipation for purposes of self-aggrandisement, by arguing that popular discontent was so deep and widespread that if the Liberator had stepped aside some reckless demagogue such as O'Connor would have taken up the cause with widespread support. In 1836 O'Connell was prosecuted for assault after striking Henry, the son of Ellen Courtenay (qv), who claimed that Daniel O'Connell was his father and had been harassing him by following him around London.
In 1837 O'Connell was elected MP for Athlone, beginning his campaign by offering ‘revenue-police posts at ten-and-six a week to any two young men the local Liberal Club might select’ (Hoppen, 82–3). In 1841, faced with the recurring demands of the Athlone electorate and the prospect that the patronage which the O'Connells enjoyed under the whigs would be withdrawn by an incoming tory government, he retreated to the safer Kilkenny City seat, which he held until 1847.
While lacking his father's charisma (though copying some of his mannerisms), O'Connell was a conscientious and hard worker who paid attention to detail. As a member of the Repeal Association's parliamentary committee, he was regarded as the financial expert of the association, writing reports such as Various remedies proposed for the evils complained of under the existing system of poor laws in Ireland (1843), Commercial injustices to Ireland (1844), Fiscal relations between Great Britain and Ireland (1844), and Argument for Ireland (1844), the last of which reached a second edition. He was inspector of repeal wardens for Connacht.
Two poems by O'Connell under the signature MP were printed in the Nation and republished in The Spirit of the Nation (1845), and he wrote under the signature Y for Duffy's Fireside Magazine and the Irish Monthly Magazine. O'Connell published his Repeal dictionary (composed while in Richmond prison) in 1845 and edited his father's Life and speeches in 1846. The latter, which only goes up to 1824, is primarily a compilation, though it includes some interesting anecdotes deriving from Daniel O'Connell himself. It is notable for expressing a ‘faith and fatherland’ view of nationalism which argues that Irish freedom must be based on religion, and by equating supporters of the ‘godless colleges’ with supporters of the veto proposals during the agitation for catholic emancipation. In 1854 it was abridged by O'Connell as The select speeches of Daniel O'Connell, M.P., which omits all documents other than the subject's own speeches and statements and otherwise contains only the briefest contextual notes.
In May 1843 O'Connell was one of several prominent repealers removed from the magistracy by Peel's government. In 1844, with his father and other leading repealers, he was found guilty of sedition and imprisoned in Richmond jail. He was sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment and fined £50, but was released with the other prisoners after three months when the house of lords reversed the judgment.
In his early years as a repealer, O'Connell showed little sign of the catholic exclusivism that dominated his later career and was known to have disciplined repealers who insulted protestants. However, towards the end of 1844 his attitude began to change, and in the colleges dispute of 1845 he strongly opposed mixed education. This led to a direct clash with Thomas Davis (qv). While Davis's friends regarded this as a cynical manoeuvre, it is quite possible that O'Connell was sincere; in his recollections he praises the dead Davis as a brilliant patriot whose only fault was a failure to recognise how many unjustified ancestral suspicions he retained and how offensive some of his attitudes were to catholics. This, with his tendency to speak too often and at excessive length, antagonised the Young Ireland faction within the association. The Young Irelanders suspected that ‘the Young Liberator’, as O'Connell was described by his adherents, wished to turn the association into a catholic organisation, thereby ensuring that he rather than William Smith O'Brien (qv) would succeed his father as leader. The Young Irelanders also claimed that O'Connell, with the support of the paid officials of the Repeal Association, was behind a whispering campaign which portrayed them as irreligious and that the O'Connells, having secretly and unjustifiably despaired of the prospect of winning repeal through mass agitation, had set their hopes on a renewal of patronage under a whig government and were preparing for this eventuality by driving uncompromising nationalists out of the association. Around this time O'Connell was a founder member of the first Irish conference of the Society of St Vincent de Paul (as was his rival Charles Gavan Duffy (qv)).
When his father was away on business O'Connell acted as head of the association; on such occasions the Young Irelanders increasingly preferred to stay away from meetings. Other clashes concerned O'Connell's repeated denunciations of French political culture and American slavery, which he presented as proof that nations which won their freedom through bloodshed were permanently damaged thereby and that moral-force nationalism was therefore not only more practicable than physical force but morally superior.
The prospect of a whig return to power after Peel's conversion to repeal of the corn laws, and O'Connell's concern that the belligerent rhetoric of the Young Irelanders might render the association liable to prosecution or suppression, brought matters to a head. At the association meeting of 28 July 1846, where Thomas Francis Meagher (qv) delivered his ‘sword speech’, O'Connell broke off the debate by announcing that those who refused to accept the policy of non-violence were opposed to his father's leadership, provoking the Young Irelanders into leaving both the meeting and the association. In May 1847 he entered talks with Smith O'Brien and Irish Confederation delegates, but these broke down when O'Brien demanded the dissolution of the Repeal Association. The Young Irelanders believed that O'Connell had manipulated the senile Liberator against the old man's better judgement into both excluding them and refusing reconciliation. The publication of Daniel O'Connell's correspondence, however, revealed that he had remained compos mentis until the last months of his life, and that it was he who insisted that the Young Irelanders could return to the association only if they renounced physical force (though John's advice may have reinforced this attitude). John was co-executor of his father's will, which bequeathed him £8,000; it is unlikely that he received more than a fraction of this because of the scale of his father's debts.
After his father's death John O'Connell became head of the Repeal Association, which experienced a brief revival. He took advantage of this by delaying his father's funeral to make it coincide with the 1847 general election. This led to an increased number of nominal repeal MPs; he himself, though re-elected for Kilkenny, chose to represent Limerick City, where he could threaten Smith O'Brien's political base in Limerick County. Early in 1848 he introduced a bill into parliament for repeal of the union, but this was ignominiously defeated. Lacking his father's charm and leadership skills, and deprived of the old Liberator's guidance, O'Connell proved as incapable of holding his parliamentary party together as of maintaining a mass following in the countryside. The Whig government, which hoped that, with Daniel O'Connell gone, Irish catholics could eventually be reconciled to the union, had shown favours to the old man only because of his political strength; they had no desire to extend these to his weak successor, whom they regarded with ill-disguised contempt, and the repeal MPs were rapidly bought off or dissolved into squabbling factions.
Commentators influenced by Young Ireland have attacked O'Connell for passivity in the face of the famine, particular opprobrium being attached to his alleged remark (reported by Michael Davitt (qv)) that he thanked God the tenants were continuing to pay their rents under these circumstances. The historian Maurice O'Connell (1925–2005) has shown that this is a distortion of his opposition to Young Ireland proposals for a rent strike, which he argued would have no chance of success and would simply lead to unnecessary bloodshed. In fact O'Connell adopted the whig view that the landlords rather than the government were responsible for the horrors of the famine; since the Repeal Association was largely recruited from tenant farmers and their commercial, clerical, and professional associates, it would have been politically suicidal to take a pro-landlord stance. He argued that the famine showed the need for repeal – which he assumed would automatically make Ireland self-supporting – because a government could not supply food permanently or even frequently without disrupting ‘the enterprises and efforts of private capital and industry’ (Life and speeches, ii, 362–4).
O'Connell's residual – and mainly clerical – support further diminished as a result of the French Revolution of 1848, which increased hopes that a successful Irish revolution might actually be possible, and because of the repressive measures taken by the government against the increasingly belligerent Young Irelanders. After the successful prosecution and transportation of John Mitchel (qv), O'Connell entered into renewed talks with the Young Irelanders in May–June 1848 about their return to the Repeal Association, in which the latters’ principal motive was hope that the remaining machinery of the association might be used for revolutionary organisation and that the name of O'Connell might help to mobilise an insurgency. This division of opinion (O'Connell continued to insist on his loyalty to the crown and adherence to moral force), reinforced by the death of the archbishop of Paris during a radical republican uprising in June 1848, led O'Connell to break off negotiations, announce his withdrawal from Irish politics (though he retained his parliamentary seat), and retire to France. There he wrote Recollections and experiences during a parliamentary career from 1833 to 1848 (1849). These ‘loose, disjointed memoranda of political matters in and out of parliament’ contain much valuable though disorganised material on his parliamentary experiences, electioneering, the workings of the repeal organisation, and O'Connellite demonstrations. Despite its title, the book ends with the suppression of the Clontarf meeting in 1843 – possibly because the author did not care to relive the decline and divisions of the years that followed.
After returning to Ireland in 1849 O'Connell reopened Conciliation Hall and carried on agitation on a small scale. (He also became a captain in the Kerry militia; Duffy's Nation commented that this was quite consistent with his moral-force principles, as he would never shed a drop of blood in this role.) In 1850 he opposed the proposal for a Tenant League, predicting that it would fall foul of legislation against representative assemblies and that its proposal to organise what would later be called boycotts of evicted farms was also illegal. The following year he resigned his Limerick seat, having been censured by Limerick corporation for refusing to vote against Lord John Russell's government after the introduction of the Ecclesiastical Titles Bill. He justified himself on the grounds that a protectionist government (the likely alternative) would be even more anti-catholic.
O'Connell's re-election for Clonmel with clerical support (despite the opposition of Duffy, who later claimed that O'Connell had pledged himself to the principle of independent opposition, though in his acceptance speech O'Connell expressly stated that he retained full freedom to act as he thought best) was his political last hurrah. In 1857 he retired from political life, accepting the office of clerk of the hanaper, an appointment denounced by opponents as characteristic political jobbery but partly explicable by reduced finances and the needs of his family. On 28 March 1838 he had married Elizabeth, the daughter of a Dr Ryan, of Dublin; they had eight children.
O'Connell died suddenly 24 May 1858 at his home, 8 Tivoli Terrace, Gowran Hill, Kingstown, leaving his family in financially straitened circumstances; a public collection raised £5,000 for them. The Whig Dublin Evening Post claimed his funeral was the largest seen in Dublin since that of his father. His papers are in the NLI.
O'Connell's reputation has suffered from the historiographical influence of Young Ireland (especially after Duffy's first memoir appeared in 1880) and from the fact that he served as a suitable whipping-boy for commentators unwilling to heap too much blame on his father. It remains the case, however, that ‘the Young Liberator’ proved unequal to the responsibilities which he had actively sought at a time when the country sorely needed effective political leadership.