Daunt (Moriarty), William Joseph O'Neill (‘Denis Ignatius’) (1807–94), politician and writer, was born 28 April 1807 at Tullamore, King's County, the eldest of three sons and two daughters of Joseph Daunt (1779–1826), captain of the Louth militia quartered there, and his first wife, Jane, daughter of the Rev. Thomas Wilson, FTCD and rector of Ardstraw, Co. Tyrone. He was brought up on his father's estate, Kilcascan, Ballineen, west Co. Cork, where he was to live all his life. An important influence on him was that of a neighbouring gentry family, the Conners or O'Connors of Connerville, in particular Feargus O'Connor (qv), a fearless but reckless opponent of tithes and advocate of repeal.
After his father's death – in a duel – Daunt, brought up a protestant, was formally received into the catholic church by Theobald Mathew (qv) and threw himself into local politics as a partisan of Daniel O'Connell (qv). Next to repeal, the question concerning him most was the payment of tithes (by protestants and catholics alike) to the established church. He was elected MP for Mallow by ten votes over his tory rival, Sir Denham Norreys (17 December 1832), but was unseated on petition (24 April 1833), suffering much pecuniary loss in consequence. When O'Connell was elected lord mayor of Dublin he appointed Daunt his secretary (1841). Daunt played a prominent part in the repeal agitation of the 1840s – as one of the fifteen founder members of the Loyal National Repeal Association and as repeal director for Leinster and head repeal warden of Scotland (1843). In the 1850s and 1860s, for long a severe critic of the protestant church, he agitated for disestablishment and disendowment. The campaign for these twin objectives is said to have begun with the public meeting organised by Daunt at Clonakilty near his home (15 August 1856). He was prominent in the National Association of Ireland (formed in December 1864 to promote land reform and catholic education as well as disestablishment), doing more than any other member to obtain support from English liberals and corresponding until his death with the Liberation Society, which sought ‘voluntaryism’ in church matters. Although the protestant church was disestablished by an act passed in 1869, disendowment was only partial.
In the 1870s Daunt played a prominent part in the home rule movement. He proposed the inaugural meeting of the Home Government Association, held at the Rotunda, Dublin (1 September 1870), and served as secretary (January to December 1873). Daunt was a great publicist but did not pretend to be an organiser; his importance was that he symbolised the earlier repeal movement and had some success in persuading catholic ecclesiastics to join the new movement. From his retreat in west Cork (which he seldom left after the mid-1870s) he praised the obstruction tactics of home rule MPs like Joseph Gillis Biggar (qv) and Charles Stewart Parnell (qv) while continuing to respect the leadership of Isaac Butt (qv). For the agrarian reform agitation that began in the late 1870s Daunt had little real sympathy and his attitude was one of disappointment when it deteriorated into bitterness and violence. But on 17 June 1887 he wrote to the pope about ‘the extreme danger to the Catholic religion in Ireland of allowing the English government any voice or influence in the appointment of Irish bishops’ (Daunt, Life) – a policy contemplated by Gladstone and Salisbury as a means of preventing diocesan priests from taking part in agitation. Another question that for long exercised Daunt's mind was that of the financial relations between Ireland and Great Britain, in which he considered Ireland had been unfairly treated.
Daunt produced ‘a steady flow of propagandist historical writing’ (McCartney), most notably Catechism of the history of Ireland (1844), Ireland and her agitators (1845; new ed., 1868), and Eighty-five years of Irish history (1886). His Personal recollections of the late Daniel O'Connell (1848) is still useful. Under the nom-de-plume Denis Ignatius Moriarty, he wrote five novels (of a tendentious nature), beginning with The wife hunter (1838). He was an inveterate letter-writer, but is best remembered for the diary he kept from 12 September 1842 until 15 March 1888; extracts were published after his death as A life spent for Ireland (1896). Though excessively gossipy, the diary reveals much of the life of an Irish country gentleman and of Irish politics viewed from Co. Cork.
Daunt married (July 1839) Ellen (d. 1897), daughter of Daniel Hickey. She was said by Archibald Stark, who visited west Cork in 1850, to have been ‘the daughter of one of his labourers, whose charms captivated his fancy’. They had a son, Achilles Thomas, who inherited Kilcascan, and a daughter, Alice (1847?–1914), who edited Daunt's diary and wrote novels. W. J. O'Neill Daunt died on 29 June 1894 at Kilcascan castle. He was described by Charles Gavan Duffy (qv) as ‘tall and good-looking with the bearing of a courteous gentleman’ but ‘too cold to be popular’. His diary and other papers are in NLI.