O'Connell, Maurice Rickard (1922–2005), historian, was born at Kilheffernan House, Clonmel, Co. Tipperary on 13 December 1922, third son (he had one sister) of Captain Maurice C. O'Connell, a first world war British army veteran who subsequently made his career in the Irish army, and his wife Emily (née O'Connell). He was a great-grandson of Maurice O'Connell (qv), eldest son of Daniel O'Connell (qv), the Liberator. In 1920 his father inherited Derrynane House and some 13,000 acres of mountain and bog from a childless uncle.
O'Connell was educated at Belvedere College, Dublin, where he was taunted by some persons (including a teacher) who held the hostile view of Daniel O'Connell widespread among physical-force nationalists. He himself recalled being brought up to identify with the constitutional nationalist tradition, and later recalled with characteristic integrity how a 1970s conversation with the historian F. S. L. Lyons (qv) brought home to him the disturbing realisation that for most of the union period constitutional nationalism had not been a self-conscious tradition in the same way as physical-force separatism. At his father's request O'Connell studied medicine at Trinity College Dublin (1939–40), despite personal distaste for the subject. (Both his brothers became doctors.) After failing his pre-medical examination he joined the Bank of Ireland and spent twelve boring years as a clerk in various provincial towns, including Listowel.
In 1946–9 he served on the Save Derrynane Committee, which organised an appeal to purchase Derrynane for the nation when the O'Connells could no longer maintain it. He experienced some tension with Sceilig, J. J. O'Kelly (qv), who, despite his strong republican views admired Daniel O'Connell from a position of Kerry local patriotism and also served on the committee. In the early 1950s O'Connell sold to the National Library of Ireland (for a nominal sum) a large body of documentary material relating to the Liberator and his family which he had salvaged at Derrynane; he donated some additional material to University College, Dublin. The O'Connells retained a gatehouse, Western Lodge, which later became O'Connell's summer residence and his writings reflect a deep knowledge and love of Iveragh and of the complex O'Connell family genealogy.
After studying history at evening classes in UCD, O'Connell graduated BA in 1952 and MA in 1954. A scholarship enabled him to complete a Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania (1962), after which he lectured in history at the University of Portland, Oregon. From 1964 until 1988 he taught modern Irish and British history at Fordham University, New York, becoming a full professor in 1973. In 1963 he married Betty McCann, a niece of Pierce McCann and an employee of the National Bank, whom he met on a visit to Dublin. They were an especially close and affectionate couple. As Maurice was deeply unworldly and had many characteristics of the stereotypical absent-minded professor (he regularly invited guests for dinner and forgot he had done so, and on one occasion he absent-mindedly remained in the NLI after closing time and had to be rescued by the fire brigade), Betty tended to handle the practical side of their life together, 'collaborated actively in his researches, managed his finances, partnered him regularly at bridge and proved the mainstay of his life' (Lyne). The marriage was childless.
O'Connell's first major publication was Irish politics and social conflict in the age of the American revolution (1965), a survey of Irish politics drawing on a wide range of published sources (including contemporary newspapers) and manuscripts. It argues that the Volunteer movement involved large-scale politicisation of the hitherto quiescent middle class, that the later fragmentation of the Patriot movement was not merely due to official bribery (as assumed by W. E. H. Lecky (qv)) but to aristocratic disquiet at this middle-class politicisation, and that the achievements of the Patriots should be judged in the context of their own day rather than by the standards of nineteenth-century reformers.
O'Connell's magnum opus, however, was the edition of Daniel O'Connell's correspondence, published in eight volumes by the Irish Manuscripts Commission between 1972 and 1980. Shortly after completing his doctorate, O'Connell began to devote his summer holidays in Ireland (three months each year) to tracking down surviving letters to and from the Liberator in public and private collections, transcribing them, and preparing typescripts with a view to eventual publication. In its later stages he was assisted by a team of research assistants, who elucidated references in the letters and prepared biographical notes. The great edition was supplemented by a series of incisively written essays on aspects of Daniel O'Connell's career. A collection of these, Daniel O'Connell: the man and his politics (1990), was dedicated to John Hume (leader of the SDLP, the Northern Ireland constitutional nationalist party) as 'heir to O'Connell'. Although Maurice O'Connell himself never produced a full-scale biography of the Liberator, the biography by Oliver MacDonagh (qv) draws heavily on the edited correspondence and in its emphasis on the Liberator as family man and European Catholic liberal can be seen as reflecting Maurice O'Connell's own perspective on his ancestor.
Although a reassessment of the Liberator's historical reputation had commenced with the biography by Sean O'Faolain (qv), King of the beggars (1938), popular perceptions of him were still dominated by the twin images of the catholic champion who secured emancipation and the pusillanimous and senile leader portrayed by his Young Ireland rivals of the 1840s. O'Connell emphasised his ancestor's achievements as a European liberal influenced by the Enlightenment, as a mobiliser of popular protest, and as a family man. (The Liberator's relationship with his wife is a major theme of O'Connell's work, and the material he made available was fruitfully developed by later historians.) Although Maurice O'Connell admitted that his ancestor had significant faults (he was the first to disclose the extent of the Liberator's financial recklessness, and he produced a nuanced analysis of the management of the Derrynane estate that disproved both hostile claims that the Liberator had been a harsh landlord and local traditions which exaggerated his generosity), he argued that claims that he had been a promiscuous adulterer were unfounded. His argument that the O'Connell of the 1840s had been much more politically shrewd and morally aware of the possible consequences of encouraging popular violence, and that Young Ireland accusations of senility and corruption rested on self-serving distortions and on a morally irresponsible form of political romanticism, became the dominant interpretation of the period, which Maurice continued to defend in occasional publications drawing on his unrivalled knowledge of the sources. He remained sensitive to perceived slights on his ancestor, though he was prepared to revise his views on points of detail in response to criticism (e.g. he came to believe O'Connell had not really expected to obtain Repeal in 1843, but raised the issue to obtain reforms).
O'Connell's view of his ancestor was strongly influenced by his revulsion at Irish political violence – an attitude reinforced by the Northern Ireland Troubles after 1969; he told acquaintances that his view that Ulster unionists had legitimate rights and could not simply be coerced into a united Ireland led to forceful confrontations with some of his Fordham students, and his relative and research assistant Gerard Lyne acquired the impression that he privately believed Ireland would have been better off under home rule within the United Kingdom rather than as an independent state. Also influencing his view were his observations of the American civil rights movement (O'Connell liked to compare Daniel O'Connell and Martin Luther King as attaining civil rights through peaceful mass agitation, and was proud of the Liberator's outspoken opposition to slavery and support for American abolitionism in contrast to the equivocal or pro-slavery stance of his Young Ireland critics) and a mid-century version of liberal Catholicism which combined a strong distrust of clerical authoritarianism and dissent from certain church teachings (he disagreed with the papal prohibition of contraception, though he would not have endorsed Conor Cruise O'Brien's claim, in a preface to a collection of O'Connell's essays on his ancestor, that the Liberator's views on the separation of church and state necessarily entailed present-day support for legalised abortion) with a devout personal faith. O'Connell presented his ancestor, by his repudiation of the view that catholicism necessarily required an alliance of 'throne and altar' and his insistence on a universal right to religious liberty, as prefiguring the declaration on religious liberty of the second Vatican council (1962–5).
On his retirement from Fordham, he and his wife returned to Ireland, where they lived in Blackrock, Co. Dublin, while maintaining a holiday residence in the former gate lodge at Derrynane. They were socially active in south Kerry, where they spent two months each year and were well-loved and familiar figures locally; Maurice's talents as a raconteur were widely appreciated. He organised a number of 'O'Connell workshops', held annually at Derrynane on the October bank holiday weekend, and edited two collections of talks delivered at them. He remained a familiar figure at the NLI, where he loved to engage younger scholars in conversation; his mild and courteous manners made him widely loved. His absent-mindedness was increased by a severe brain haemorrhage in 1994 and he never recovered from Betty's death in 1999. He died at Gallen Priory nursing home, Ferbane, Co. Offaly, on 27 September 2005 and was buried in Derrynane Abbey.
After he ceased to write his interpretation of his ancestor's career came to be challenged in detail. A more secularised Ireland might attach less importance to Daniel O'Connell's combination of liberalism with catholicism; the first decade of the twenty-first century saw signs of revived scholarly interest in the Young Irelanders which, by leading to greater emphasis on their viewpoint, might eventually downplay O'Connell's; some writers expressed scepticism about Maurice O'Connell's belief in the Liberator's marital fidelity, though the evidence is inconclusive and his interpretation remains defensible. Study of the Liberator's public utterances may lead to more emphasis on his verbal violence, and more emphasis might be placed on his movement rather than on the hero in isolation. Nevertheless, Maurice O'Connell's scholarly labours brought about a comprehensive rediscovery of the Liberator's role as European liberal, pioneer of democracy, and family man rooted in Uibh Laoire, that is unlikely to be overthrown however it is reassessed; and as the greatest interpreter of the career of Daniel O'Connell, he made a lasting contribution to Irish scholarship and national self-understanding.