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Daniel O'Connell
Dónall Ó Conaill
Daniel O'Connell.png
Daniel O'Connell, in an 1836 watercolour by Bernard Mulrenin
Member of Parliament
for Clare
In office
5 July 1828 – 29 July 1830
Preceded by William Vesey-FitzGerald
Succeeded by William Macnamara
Member of Parliament
for Dublin City
In office
5 August 1837 – 10 July 1841
Preceded by George Hamilton
Succeeded by John West
In office
22 December 1832 – 16 May 1836
Preceded by Sir Frederick Shaw
Succeeded by George Hamilton
Lord Mayor of Dublin
In office
Preceded by Sir John James, 1st Bt
Succeeded by George Roe
Member of Parliament
for Cork County
In office
15 July 1841 – 2 July 1847
Preceded by Garrett Standish Barry
Succeeded by Edmund Burke Roche
Personal details
Born (1776-08-06)6 August 1776
Cahersiveen, County Kerry, Ireland
Died 15 May 1847(1847-05-15) (aged 71)
Genoa, Kingdom of Sardinia
Resting place Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin
Political party
Spouse(s) Mary O'Connell (m. 1802)
  • Maurice
  • Ellen
  • Catherine
  • Timothy
  • Elizabeth
  • John
  • Morgan
  • Daniel
Alma mater Lincoln's Inn
King's Inns
Occupation Barrister, political activist, politician
Military service
Allegiance  Kingdom of Ireland
Branch/service Yeomanry
Years of service 1797
Unit Lawyer's Artillery Corps

Daniel O'Connell (I) (Irish: Dónall Ó Conaill; 6 August 1775 – 15 May 1847), hailed in his time as The Liberator, was the acknowledged political leader of Ireland's Roman Catholic majority in the first half of the 19th century. His mobilization of Catholic Ireland, down to the poorest class of tenant farmers, secured the final installment of Catholic emancipation in 1829 and allowed him to take a seat in the United Kingdom Parliament to which he had been twice elected.

At Westminster, O'Connell championed liberal and reform causes (he was internationally renowned as an abolitionist) but he failed in his declared objective for Ireland—the restoration of a separate Irish Parliament through the repeal of the 1800 Act of Union. Against the backdrop of a growing agrarian crisis and, in his final years, of the Great Famine, O'Connell contended with dissension at home. Criticism of his political compromises and of his system of patronage split the national movement that he had singularly led.

Early and professional life

Kerry and France

O'Connell was born at Carhan near Cahersiveen, County Kerry, to the O'Connells of Derrynane, a wealthy Roman Catholic family that, under the Penal Laws, had been able to retain land only through the medium of Protestant trustees and the forbearance of their Protestant neighbours. His parents were Morgan O'Connell and Catherine O'Mullane. The poet Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill was an aunt; and Daniel Charles, Count O'Connell, an Irish Brigade officer in the service of the King of France (and twelve years a prisoner of Napoleon), an uncle. O'Connell grew up in Derrynane House, the household of his bachelor uncle, Maurice "Hunting Cap" O'Connell (landowner, smuggler and justice of the peace) who made the young O'Connell his heir presumptive

In 1791, under his uncle's patronage, O'Connell and his elder brother Maurice were sent to continue their schooling in France at what is now Downside School. Revolutionary upheaval and their mob denunciation as "young priests" and "little aristocrats", persuaded them in January 1793 to flee their Jesuit college at Douai. They crossed the English Channel with the brothers John and Henry Sheares who displayed a handkerchief soaked, they claimed, in the blood of Louis XVI, the late executed king. The experience is said to have left O'Connell with a lifelong aversion to mob rule and violence.

1798 and Legal Practice

After further legal studies in London, including a pupillage at Lincoln's Inn, O'Connell returned to Ireland in 1795. Henry Grattan's third Catholic Relief Act in 1793, while maintaining the Oath of Supremacy that excluded Catholics from parliament, the judiciary and the higher offices of state, had granted them the vote on the same limited terms as Protestants and removed most of the remaining barriers to their professional advancement. O'Connell, nonetheless, remained of the opinion that in Ireland the whole policy of the Irish Parliament and of the London-appointed Dublin Castle executive, was to repress the people and to maintain the ascendancy of a privileged and corrupt minority.

On 19 May 1798, O'Connell was called to the Irish Bar. Four days later, the United Irishmen staged their ill-fated rebellion. Toward the end of his life, O'Connell claimed to have been a United Irishman. Asked how that could be reconciled with his membership of the government's volunteer Yeomanry (the Lawyers Artillery Corps), he replied that in '98 "the popular party was so completely crushed that the only chance of doing any good for the people was by affecting ultra loyalty."

O'Connell appeared to have had little faith in the United Irish conspiracy or in their hopes of French intervention. He sat out the rebellion in his native Kerry. When in 1803 Robert Emmet faced execution for attempting an insurrection in Dublin he was condemned by O'Connell: as the cause of so much bloodshed Emmett had forfeited any claim to "compassion".

In the decades that followed, O'Connell practised private law and, although invariably in debt, reputedly had the largest income of any Irish barrister. In court, he sought to prevail by refusing deference, showing no compunction in studying and exploiting a judge's personal and intellectual weaknesses. He was long ranked below less accomplished Queen's Counsels, a status not open to Catholics until late in his career. But when offered he refused the senior judicial position of Master of the Rolls.


In 1802, O'Connell married his third cousin, Mary O'Connell. He did so in defiance of his benefactor, his uncle Maurice, who believed his nephew should have sought out an heiress. They had four daughters (three surviving), Ellen (1805-1883), Catherine (1808-1891), Elizabeth (1810-1883), and Rickarda (1815-1817) and four sons. Maurice (1803-1853), Morgan (1804-1885), John (1810-1858), and Daniel (1816-1897), all of whom were all to join their father as Members of Parliament. Despite O'Connell's early infidelities, the marriage was happy and Mary's death in 1837 was a blow from which her husband is said never to have recovered.

Political beliefs

Daniel O'Connell by Sir George Hayter
1834 portrait of Daniel O'Connell by George Hayter

Church and state

O'Connell's personal principles reflected the influences of the Enlightenment and of radical and democratic thinkers some of whom he had encountered in London and in masonic lodges. He was greatly influenced by William Godwin's Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (public opinion the root of all power, civil liberty and equality the bedrock of social stability), and was, for a period, converted to Deism by his reading of Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason. O'Connell from the 1820s has been described as an "English rationalist utilitarian", a "Benthamite". For a time Jeremy Bentham and O'Connell did become personal friends as well as political allies.

At Westminster O'Connell played a major part in passage of the Reform Act of 1832 and in the abolition of Slavery (1833) (a cause in which he continued to campaign). He welcomed the revolutions of 1830 in Belgium and France, and advocated "a complete severance of the Church from the State". Such liberalism made all the more intolerable to O'Connell the charge that as "Papists" he and his co-religionists could not be trusted with the defence of constitutional liberties.

O'Connell protested that, while "sincerely Catholic", he did not "receive" his politics "from Rome". In 1808 "friends of emancipation", Henry Grattan among them, proposed that fears of Popery might be allayed if the Crown were accorded the same right exercised by continental monarchs, a veto on the confirmation of Catholic bishops. Even when, in 1814, the Curia itself (then in a silent alliance with Britain against Napoleon) proposed that bishops be "personally acceptable to the king", O'Connell was unyielding in his opposition. Refusing any instruction from Rome as to "the manner of their emancipation", O'Connell declared that Irish Catholics should be content to "remain for ever without emancipation" rather than allow the king and his ministers "to interfere" with the Pope's appointment of their senior clergy.

Church and nation

In his travels in Ireland in 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville remarked on the "unbelievable unity between the Irish clergy and the Catholic population." The people looked to the clergy, and the clergy "rebuffed" by the "upper classes" ("Protestants and enemies"), had "turned all its attention to the lower classes; it has the same instincts, the same interests and the same passions as the people; [a] state of affairs altogether peculiar to Ireland". This is a unity, O'Connell argued, the bishops would have sacrificed had they agreed to Rome submitting their appointments for Crown approval. Licensed by the government they and their priests would have been as little regarded as the Anglican clergy of the Established Church. For O'Connell this would have represented a strategic loss. In most districts of the country, the priest was the sole figure, with standing independent of the Protestant landlords and magistrates, around whom a national movement could be reliably built. It would also have been to compromise the very conception of the Irish people as a nation.

Against the charge of political dictation from Rome, O'Connell insisted that the Catholic Church in Ireland "is a national Church". At the same time, he openly declared that "if the people rally to me they will have a nation for that Church". For O'Connell Catholicism defined the nation for which he sought both a civil and political emancipation. The "positive and unmistakable" mark of distinction between Irish and English, according to O'Connell's newspaper, the Pilot, was "the distinction created by religion".

In 1837, O'Connell clashed with William Smith O'Brien over the Limerick MP's support for granting state payments to Catholic clergy. The Catholic Bishops came out in support of O'Connell's stance, resolving "most energetically to oppose any such arrangement, and that they look upon those that labour to effect it as the worst enemies of the Catholic religion".

Northern opposition

The Repealer Repulsed
The Repealer Repulsed, Belfast 1841

Conscious of their minority position in Ulster, Catholic support for O'Connell in the north was "muted". William Crolly, Bishop of Down and Connor and later Archbishop of Armagh, was ambivalent, anxious lest clerical support for Repeal disrupt his "carefully nurtured relationship with Belfast's liberal Presbyterians".

O'Connell "treasured his few Protestant Repealers". But to many of his contemporaries he appeared "ignorant" of the Protestant (largely Presbyterian) then-majority society of the north-east, Ulster, counties. Here there was already premonition of future Partition. While protesting that its readers wished only to preserve the Union, in 1843 Belfast's leading paper, the Northern Whig, proposed that if differences in "race" and "interests" argue for Ireland's separation from Great Britain then "the Northern 'aliens', holders of 'foreign heresies' (as O'Connell says they are)" should have their own "distinct kingdom", Belfast as its capital.

O'Connell seemed implicitly to concede the separateness of the Protestant North. He spoke "invading" Ulster to rescue "our Persecuted Brethren in the North". In the event, and in the face of the hostile crowds that disrupted his one foray to Belfast in 1841 ("the Repealer repulsed!"), he "tended to leave Ulster strictly alone". The northern Dissenters were not redeemed, in his view, by their record as United Irishmen. "The Presbyterians", he remarked, "fought badly at Ballynahinch ... and as soon as the fellows were checked they became furious Orangemen".

Perhaps persuaded by their presence through much of the south as but a thin layer of officials, landowners and their agents, O'Connell proposed that Protestants did not the staying power of true "religionists". Their ecclesiastical dissent (and not alone their unionism) was a function, he argued, of political privilege.

(O'Connell's view of the link between nation and faith is one that a number of Protestant Irish nationalists in converting to Catholicism may have embraced: Repealer and O'Connell's mayoral secretary William O'Neill Daunt, Home Ruler Joseph Biggar, Gaelic Leaguer William Gibson, Sinn Féiner William Stockley, and, on the day of his execution, Roger Casement).

Abandonment of the Irish language

Irish was O'Connell's mother tongue and that of the vast majority of the rural population. Yet he insisted on addressing his (typically open-air) meetings in English, sending interpreters out among the crowd to translate his words.

O'Connell's "indifference to the fate of the language", a decade before the Famine, was consistent with the policies of the Catholic Church (which under Cullen was to develop a mission to the English-speaking world) and of the government-funded National Schools. Together, these were to combine in the course of the century to accelerate the near complete conversion to English.

There is no evidence to suggest that O'Connell saw "the preservation or revival or any other aspect of 'native culture' (in the widest sense of the term) as essential to his political demands".

Emancipation and the agrarian crisis

The "Liberator"

Catholic Emancipation
Catholic Emancipation as a world upside down: held aloft, Daniel O'Connell promises Whigs – symbol of Ascendancy rank and property – for "ye all." (Isaac Cruikshank 1789–1856)

To broaden and intensify the campaign for emancipation, in 1823, O'Connell established Catholic Association. For a "Catholic rent" of a penny a month (typically paid through the local priest), this, for the first time, drew the labouring poor into a national movement. Their investment enabled O'Connell to mount "monster" rallies (crowds of over 100,000) that stayed the hands of authorities, and emboldened larger enfranchised tenants to vote for pro-Emancipation candidates in defiance of their landlords.

The government moved to suppress the Association by a series of prosecutions, but with limited success. Already in 1822 O'Connell had manoeuvred his principal foe, the Attorney General, William Saurin, into actions sufficiently intemperate to ensure his removal by the Lord Lieutenant. His confrontation with Dublin Corporation, equally unbending in its defence of the "Protestant Constitution", took a more tragic turn.

Outraged at O'Connell's refusal to retract his description of the corporation as "beggarly", one of their number challenged O'Connell to a duel. John D'Esterre (who happened to be a distant cousin of Mary O'Connell) had thought O'Connell might back down, for he had earlier refused a challenge from an opposing lawyer. The former royal marine was in any case confident of his aim. Recognising that his reputation would never be safe if he again demurred, O'Connell accepted. The duel took place on 2 February 1815 at Bishopscourt, Kildare. Both men fired. O'Connell, unharmed, mortally wounded D'Esterre. Distressed by the killing, O'Connell offered D'Esterre's widow a pension. She consented to an allowance for her daughter and this O'Connell paid regularly for more than thirty years until his death.

Some months later, O'Connell was engaged to fight a second duel with the Chief Secretary for Ireland, Robert Peel, O'Connell's repeated references to him as "Orange Peel" ("a man good for nothing except to be a champion for Orangeism") being the occasion. Only O'Connell's arrest in London en route to their rendezvous in Ostend prevented the encounter, and the affair went no further. But in 1816, following his return to faithful Catholic observance, O'Connell made "a vow in heaven" never again to put himself in a position where he might shed blood. In "expiation for the death D'Esterre", he is said thereafter to have accepted the insults of men whom he refused to fight "with pride". (Thomas Moore privately proposed that "removing, by his example, that restraint which the responsibility of one to another under the law of duelling imposed", was "one of the worst things, perhaps, O'Connell had done for Ireland", and had given his penchant for personal abuse free rein).

In 1828, O'Connell defeated a member of the British cabinet in a parliamentary by-election in County Clare. His triumph, as the first Catholic to be returned in a parliamentary election since 1688, made a clear issue of the Oath of Supremacy—the requirement that MPs acknowledge the King as "Supreme Governor" of the Church and thus forswear the Roman communion. Fearful of the widespread disturbances that might follow from continuing to insist on the letter of the oath, the government finally relented. With the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, invoking the spectre of civil war, the Catholic Relief Act became law in 1829. The act was not made retroactive so that O'Connell had to stand again for election. He was returned unopposed in July 1829.

Such was O'Connell's prestige as "the Liberator" that George IV reportedly complained that while "Wellington is the King of England", O'Connell was "King of Ireland", and he, himself, merely "the dean of Windsor." Some of O'Connell's younger lieutenants in the new struggle for Repeal—the "Young Irelanders"—were critical of the leader's acclaim. Michael Doheny noted that the 1829 act had only been the latest in a succession of "relief" measures dating back to the Papists Act 1778. Honour was due rather to those who had "wrung from the reluctant spirit of a far darker time the right of living, of worship, of enjoying property, and exercising the franchise".

Tenant Disenfranchisement and the Tithe War

Entry to parliament had not come without a price. With Jeremy Bentham, O'Connell had considered allowing George Ensor, a protestant member of the Catholic Association, to stand as his running mate in the Clare election. But Ensor had objected to what he identified as the "disenfranchisement project" in the relief bill. Bringing the Irish franchise into line with England's, the 1829 Act raised the property threshold for voting in county seats five-fold to ten pounds, eliminating the middling tenantry (the Irish "forty-shilling freeholders") who had risked much in defying their landlords on O'Connell's behalf in the Clare election. The measure reduced the Irish Catholic electorate from 216,000 voters to just 37,000.

Perhaps trying to rationalise the sacrifice of his freeholders, O'Connell wrote privately in March 1829 that the new ten-pound franchise might actually "give more power to Catholics by concentrating it in more reliable and less democratically dangerous hands". The Young Irelander John Mitchel believed that this was the intent: to detach propertied Catholics from the increasingly agitated rural masses.

In a pattern that had been intensifying from the 1820s as landlords cleared land to meet the growing livestock demand from England, tenants had been banding together to oppose evictions, and to attack tithe and process servers.

In 1830, discounting evidence that "unfeeling men had given in favour of cultivating sheep and cattle instead of human beings", O'Connell had sought repeal of the Sub-Letting Act which facilitated the clearings. In a Letter to the People of Ireland (1833) he also proposed a 20 percent tax on absentee landlords for poor relief, and the abolition of tithes levied atop rents by the Anglican establishment—"the landlords' Church".

An initially peaceful campaign of non-payment of tithes turned violent in 1831 when the newly founded Irish Constabulary in lieu of payment began to seize property and conduct evictions. Although opposed to the use of force, O'Connell defended those detained in the so-called Tithe War. For all eleven accused in the death of fourteen constables in the Carrickshock incident, O'Connell helped secure acquittals. Yet fearful of embarrassing his Whig allies (who had brutally suppressed tithe and poor law protests in England), in 1838 he rejected the call of the Protestant tenant-righter William Sharman Crawford for the complete elimination of the Church of Ireland levy. In its stead, O’Connell accepted the Tithe Commutation Act. This did effectively exempt the majority of cultivators—those who held land at will or from year to year—from the charge, while offering those still liable a 25 percent reduction and a forgiveness of arrears, and did not, as feared, lead to a general compensating increase in rents.

Campaign for repeal of the Union

The meaning of Repeal

O'Connell's call for a repeal of the Act of Union, and for a restoration of the Kingdom of Ireland under the Constitution of 1782, which he linked (as he had with emancipation) to a multitude of popular grievances, may have been less a considered constitutional proposal than "an invitation to treat".

The legislative independence won by Grattan's "Patriot Parliament" in 1782 had left executive power in the hands of London-appointed Dublin Castle administration. In declining to stand as a Repeal candidate, Thomas Moore (Ireland's national bard) objected that with a Catholic Parliament in Dublin, "which they would be sure to have out and out", this would be an arrangement impossible to sustain. Separation from Great Britain was its "certain consequence", so that Repeal was a practical policy only if (in the spirit of the United Irishmen) Catholics were again "joined by the dissenters"—the Presbyterians of the North.

But for O'Connell, the historian R.F. Foster suggests that "the trick was never to define what the Repeal meant—or did not mean". It was "emotional claim", an "ideal", with which "to force the British into offering something".

"Testing" the Union

O'Connell did prepare the ground for the "Home Rule" compromise negotiated between Irish-nationalists and British Liberals from the 1880s. He declared that while he would "never ask for or work" for anything less than an independent legislature, he would accept a "subordinate parliament" as "an instalment". But for the predecessors to Gladstone's Liberals, Lord Melbourne's Whigs, with whom O'Connell sought an accommodation in the 1830s, even an Irish legislature devolved within the United Kingdom was a step too far.

Having assisted Melbourne, through an informal understanding (the Lichfield House Compact), to a government majority, in 1835 O'Connell suggested he might be willing to give up the project of an Irish parliament altogether. Underscoring the qualifying clause—"if not we are Irishmen again"—historian J.C. Beckett proposes that the change was less than it may have appeared. Under the pressure of a choice between "effectual union or no union", O'Connell was seeking to maximise the scope of shorter-term, interim, reforms.

O'Connell failed to stall the application to Ireland of the new English Poor Law system of Workhouses in 1837, the prospect of which, as de Tocqueville found, was broadly dreaded in Ireland. As an alternative to outdoor relief, the Workhouses made it easier for landlords to clear their estates in favour of larger English-export oriented farms. O'Connell's objection was that the poor-law charge would ruin a great proportion of landowners, further reducing the wage fund and increasing the poverty of the country. That poverty was due not to exorbitant rents (which O'Connell compared to those in England without reference to Irish practice of sub-letting), but to laws—the Penal Laws of the previous century—that had prohibited the Catholic majority from acquiring education and property. The responsibility for its relief was therefore the government's. To defray the cost O'Connell urged, in vain, a tax on absentee rents.

But as regards the general conduct of the Dublin Castle administration under the Whigs, Beckett concludes that "O'Connell had reason to be satisfied, and "the more so as his influence carried great weight in the making of appointments". Reforms opened the police and judiciary to greater Catholic recruitment, and measures were taken to reduce the provocations and influence of the pro-Ascendancy Orange Order.

In 1840 municipal government was reconstructed on the basis of a rate-payer franchise. In 1841, O'Connell became the first Roman Catholic Lord Mayor of Dublin since Terence MacDermott in the reign of James II. In breaking the Protestant monopoly of corporate rights, he was confident that town councils would become a "school for teaching the science of peaceful political agitation". But the measure was less liberal than municipal reform in England, and left the majority of the population to continue under the landlord-controlled Grand Jury system of county government. In view of Thomas Francis Meagher, in return for damping down Repeal agitation, a "corrupt gang of politicians who fawned on O'Connell" were being allowed an extensive system of political patronage. The Irish people were being "purchased back into factious vassalage."

Conflict with the Chartists and trade unions

In 1842, all eighteen of O'Connell's parliamentary "tail" at Westminster voted in favour of the Chartist petition which, along with its radical democratic demands, included Repeal. But the Chartists in England, and in their much smaller number in Ireland, were also to accuse O'Connell of being unreliable and opportunistic in his drive to secure Whig favour.

When in 1831 workers in the Dublin trades created their own political association, O'Connell moved to pack it. The Trades Political Union (TPU) was swamped by 5,000 mostly middle-class repealers who by acclaim carried O'Connell's resolution calling for the suppression of all secret and illegal combinations, particularly those "manifested among the labouring classes". When in 1841 the Chartists held the first meeting of the Irish Universal Suffrage Association (IUSA), a TPU mob broke it up, and O'Connell denounced the association's secretary, Peter Brophy as an Orangeman. From England, where the Irish-born leader of Chartism Fergus O'Connor had joined the IUSA in solidarity, Brophy denounced O'Connell in turn as the "enemy of the unrepresented classes".

Ostensibly, O'Connell's objection to labour and Chartist agitation was the resort to intimidation and violence. But his flexibility with regard to principle alienated not only working-class militants but also middle-class reformers. There was also consternation when, in 1836 O'Connell voted for an amending bill that would have excluded 12-year olds from the protection of shorter hours under the Factories Regulation Act. While it is clear that O'Connell's only purpose was to delay the return of a Tory ministry (in 1832 and 1833 he had intervened four times to raise the age, and was to do so again in 1839), his reputation suffered.

Karl Marx was of the view that O’ConnelL "always incited the Irish against the Chartists", and did so "because they too had inscribed Repeal on their banner". To O'Connell he ascribed the fear that, drawing together national and democratic demands, the Chartist influence might induce his following to break "the established habit of electing place-hunting lawyers" and of seeking "to impress English Liberals".

The renewal of the campaign

In April 1840, when it became clear that the Whigs would lose office, O'Connell relaunched the Repeal Association, and published a series of addresses criticising government policy and attacking the Union.

The "people", the great numbers of tenant farmers, small-town traders and journeymen, whom O'Connell had rallied to the cause of Emancipation, did not similarly respond to his lead on the more abstract proposition of Repeal; neither did the Catholic gentry or middle classes. Many appeared content to explore the avenues for advancement emancipation had opened. The suspicion, in any case, was that O'Connell's purpose in returning to the constitutional question was merely to disconcert the incoming Conservatives (under his old enemy Sir Robert Peel) and to hasten the Whigs return (entirely the view of Friedrich Engels: the only purpose of Repeal for the "old fox" was to "to embarrass the Tory Ministers and to put back into office his juste-milieu friends").

Meanwhile, as a body, Protestants remained opposed to a restoration of a parliament the prerogatives of which they had once championed. The Presbyterians in the north were persuaded that the Union was both the occasion for their relative prosperity and a guarantee of their liberty.

In the June–July 1841 Westminster elections, Repeal candidates lost half their seats. In a contest marked by the boycott of Guinness as "Protestant porter", O'Connell's son John, a brewer of O'Connell's Ale, failed to hold his father's Dublin seat.

The "Repeal election" 1841 (Source: 1841 United Kingdom general election--Ireland)

Party Candidates Unopposed Seats Seats change Votes  %  % change
style="width: 10px" bgcolor=#FF7F00| Whig 55 30 42 17,128 35.1
style="width: 10px" bgcolor=Template:Irish Conservative Party/meta/color| [[Irish Conservative Party|Template:Irish Conservative Party/meta/shortname]] 59 27 41 19,664 40.1
style="width: 10px" bgcolor=Template:Repeal Association/meta/color| [[Repeal Association|Template:Repeal Association/meta/shortname]] 22 12 20 12,537 24.8
Total 136 69 103 49,329 100

Population of Ireland, 1841 Census: 8.18 million.

Against a background of growing economic distress, O'Connell was nonetheless buoyed by Archbishop John McHale's endorsement of legislative independence. Opinion among all classes was also influenced from October 1842 by Gavan Duffy's new weekly The Nation. Read in Repeal Reading Rooms and passed from hand to hand, its mix of vigorous editorials, historical articles and verse, may have reached as many as a quarter of a million readers.

Breaking out of the very narrow basis for electoral politics (the vote was not restored to the forty-shilling freeholder until 1885), O'Connell initiated a new series of "monster meetings". These were damaging to the prestige of the government, not only at home, but abroad. O'Connell was becoming a figure of international renown, with large and sympathetic audiences in the United States and in France. The Conservative government of Robert Peel considered repression, but hesitated, unwilling to tackle the Anti-Corn Law League which was copying O'Connell's methods in England. Assuring his supporters that Britain must soon surrender, O'Connell declared 1843 "the repeal year."

Tara and Clontarf 1843

O'Connell crowned at Tara, 1843
Punch, August. 26, 1843. Irish peasants pay homage to their "King" on the Hill of Tara. O'Connell enthroned upon the devil, with his foot on the British Constitution.

At the Hill of Tara (by tradition the inaugural seat of the High Kings of Ireland), on the feast-day of the Assumption, 15 August 1843, O'Connell gathered a crowd estimated in the hostile reporting of The Times as close to one million. It took O'Connell's carriage two hours to proceed through the throng, accompanied by a harpist playing Thomas Moore's "The Harp that once through Tara's Halls".

O'Connell planned to close the campaign on 8 October 1843 with an even larger demonstration at Clontarf, on the outskirts of Dublin. As the site of Brian Boru's famous victory over the Danes in 1014, it resonated with O'Connell's increasingly militant rhetoric: "the time is coming", he had been telling his supporters, when "you may have the alternative to live as slaves or to die as freemen". Beckett suggests "O'Connell mistook the temper of the government", never expecting that "his defiance would be put to the test". When it was—when troops occupied Clontarf—O'Connell submitted at once. He cancelled the rally and sent out messengers to turn back the approaching crowds.

O'Connell was applauded by the Church, his more moderate supporters and English sympathisers. But many of the movement rank and file who had been fired by his defiant rhetoric were disillusioned. His loss of prestige might have been greater had the government not, in turn, overplayed their own hand. They sentenced O'Connell and his son John to twelve months for conspiracy.

When released after three months, the charges quashed on appeal to the House of Lords, O'Connell was paraded in triumph through Dublin on a gilded throne. But, approaching seventy years of age, O'Connell never fully recovered his former stature or confidence. Having deprived himself of his most potent weapon, the monster meeting, and with his health failing, O'Connell had no plan and ranks of the Repeal Association began to divide.

The break with Young Ireland

Whigs and the Famine

Grouped around The Nation, which had proposed as its "first great object" a "nationality" that would embrace as easily "the stranger who is within our gates" as "the Irishman of a hundred generations," the dissidents suspected that in opposing the Colleges Bill O'Connell was also playing Westminster politics. O'Connell opposed the colleges bill to inflict a defeat on the Peel ministry and to hasten the Whigs' return to office.

The Young Irelanders' dismay only increased when at the end of June 1846 O'Connell appeared to succeed in this design. The new ministry of Lord John Russell deployed the Whigs' new laissez-faire ("political economy") doctrines to dismantle the previous government's limited efforts to address the distress of the emerging, and catastrophic, Irish Famine.

In February 1847 O'Connell stood for the last time before the House of Commons in London and pleaded for his country: "She is in your hands—in your power. If you do not save her, she cannot save herself. One-fourth of her population will perish unless Parliament comes to their relief". As "temporary relief for destitute persons", the government opened soup kitchens. They were closed a few months later in August of the same year. The starving were directed to abandon the land and apply to the workhouses.

The Peace Resolutions

After Thomas Davis's death in 1845, Gavan Duffy offered the post of assistant-editor on The Nation to John Mitchel. Mitchel brought a more militant tone. When the conservative Standard observed that the new Irish railways could be used to transport troops to quickly curb agrarian unrest, Mitchel replied combatively that railway tracks could be turned into pikes and that trains could be easily ambushed. O'Connell publicly distanced himself from The Nation setting Duffy up as editor for the prosecution that followed. When the courts absolved him, O'Connell pressed the issue.

In 1847 the Repeal Association tabled resolutions declaring that under no circumstances was a nation justified in asserting its liberties by force of arms. The Young Irelanders had not advocated physical force, but in response to the "Peace Resolutions" Meagher argued that if Repeal could not be carried by moral persuasion and peaceful means, a resort to arms would be a no less honourable course. O'Connell's son John forced the decision: the resolution was carried on the threat of the O'Connells themselves quitting the Association.

Meagher, Davis and other prominent dissidents, among them Gavan Duffy; Jane Wilde; Margaret Callan; William Smith O'Brien; and John Blake Dillon, withdrew and formed themselves as the Irish Confederation.

In the desperate circumstances of the Famine and in the face of martial-law measures that a number of Repeal Association MPs had approved in Westminster, Meagher and some Confederates did take what he had described as the "honourable" course. Their rural rising broke up after a single skirmish, the Battle of Ballingarry.

Some of the "Men of 1848" carried the commitment to physical force forward into the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB)--Fenianism. Others followed Gavan Duffy, the only principal Young Irelander to avoid exile, in focussing on what they believed was a basis for a non-sectarian national movement: tenant rights.

In what Duffy hailed as a "League of North and South" in 1852 tenant protection societies helped return 50 MPs. The seeming triumph over "O'Connelism", however, was short-lived. In the South Archbishop Cullen approved the Catholic MPs breaking their pledge of independent opposition and accepting government positions. In the North William Sharman Crawford and other League candidates had their meetings broken up by Orange "bludgeon men".

Opposition to slavery in the United States

Frederick Douglas, 1840s
Frederick Douglass, 1840s

O'Connell championed the rights and liberties of people throughout the world including those of Jews in Europe, peasants in India, Maoris in New Zealand and Aborigines in Australia. It was, however, his unbending abolitionism, and in particular, his opposition to slavery in the United States, that demonstrated commitments that transcended Catholic and national interests in Ireland.

For his Repeal campaign O'Connell relied heavily on money from the United States, but he insisted that none should be accepted from those engaged in slavery (a ban extended from 1843 to all those emigrants to the American South who in daring to "countenance the system of slavery" he could "recognise as Irish no longer"). In 1829 he had told a large abolitionist meeting in London that "of all men living, an American citizen, who is the owner of slaves, is the most despicable". In the same Emancipation year, addressing the Cork Anti-Slavery Society, he declared that, much as he longed to go to America, so long as it was "tarnished by slavery", he would never "pollute" his foot "by treading on its shores".

In 1838, in a call for a new crusade against "the vile union" in the United States "of republicanism and slavery", O'Connell denounced the hypocrisy of George Washington and characterised the American ambassador, the Virginian Andrew Stevenson, as a "slave-breeder". When Stevenson vainly challenged O'Connell to a duel, a sensation was created in the United States. On the floor of the House of Representatives the former U.S. president, John Quincy Adams spoke of a "conspiracy against the life of Daniel O'Connell".

In both Ireland and America, the furore exasperated supporters. Young Irelanders took issue. Gavan Duffy believed the time was not right "for gratuitous interference in American affairs". This was a common view. Attacks on slavery in the United States were considered "wanton and intolerable provocation". In 1845 John Blake Dillon reported to Thomas Davis "everybody was indignant at O'Connell meddling in the business": "Such talk" was "supremely disgusting to the Americans, and to every man of honour and spirit". Joining O'Connell's British critic Thomas Carlyle, John Mitchel took this dissent a step further: to Duffy's disgust, Mitchel positively applauded black slavery. In the United States Bishop John Hughes of New York urged Irish Americans not to sign O'Connell's abolitionist petition ("An Address of the People of Ireland to their Countrymen and Countrywomen in America") lest they further inflame anti-Irish nativist sentiment.

O'Connell was entirely undaunted: crowds gathered to hear him on Repeal were regularly treated to excursions on the evils of human traffic and bondage.

The black abolitionist, Charles Lenox Remond said that it was only on hearing O'Connell speak in London (the first international Anti-Slavery Convention, 1840) that he realised what being an abolitionist really meant: "every fibre of my heart contracted [when I] listened to the scorching rebukes of the fearless O'Connell". In the United States William Lloyd Garrison published a selection of O'Connell's anti-slavery speeches, no man having "spoken so strongly against the soul-drivers of this land as O'Connell". In the 1846 The Liberty Bell, an abolitionist gift book published annually by the Friends of Freedom, Margaret Fuller celebrates "Dan. O'Connell, of the Order of Liberators," comparing him to the biblical Daniel, who was able "to brave the fiery furnace, and the lion's den, and the silken lures of a court, and speak always with a poet's power." It was as an abolitionist that O'Connell was honoured by his favourite author, Charles Dickens. In Martin Chuzzlewit, O'Connell is the "certain Public Man", revealed as an abolitionist, whom otherwise enthusiastic friends of Ireland (the "Sons of Freedom") in the United States decide they would have in some way killed.

Death and commemoration

Following his last appearance in parliament, and describing himself "oppressed with grief", his "physical power departed", O'Connell travelled on pilgrimage to Rome. He died, age 71, in May 1847 in Genoa, Italy of a softening of the brain (Encephalomalacia). In accord with his last wishes, O'Connell's heart was buried in Rome (at Sant'Agata dei Goti, then the chapel of the Irish College), and the remainder of his body in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin, beneath a round tower. His sons are buried in his crypt.

Lack of a successor

In leading the charge against the Young Irelanders within the Repeal Association John O'Connell had vied for the succession. But Gavan Duffy records that the Liberator's death left no one with "acknowledged weight of character, or solidity of judgement" to lead the diminished movement out beyond the Famine: such, he suggests, was the "inevitable penalty of the statesman or leader who prefers courtiers and lackeys to counsellors and peers".

John O'Connell opposed Duffy's Tenant Right League, and eventually accepted, in 1853, a sinecure position as "Clerk of the Crown and Hanaper" at Dublin Castle.


Daniel O'Connell 1929 issue set3
Set of O'Connell commemorative postage stamps, 1929

After the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922, Sackville Street, Dublin's principal thoroughfare, was renamed in his honour. His statue (the work of John Henry Foley) stands at one end of the street, the figure of Charles Stewart Parnell at the other.

O'Connell Streets also exist in Athlone, Clonmel, Dungarvan, Ennis, Kilkee, Limerick, Sligo, and Waterford. A Daniel O'Connell Bridge, opened in 1880, spans the Manuherikia River at Ophir in New Zealand.

A set of Irish postage stamps depicting O'Connell were issued in 1929 to commemorate the centenary of Catholic emancipation.

There is a statue of O'Connell outside St Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne, Australia. Derrynane House, O'Connell's home in Kerry, has been converted into a museum honouring the Liberator.


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  • O'Connell, Maurice R. (1972–1980). The Correspondence of Daniel O'Connell. Dublin: Irish Manuscripts Commission. 8 vols: Vol. I. 1792–1814 Vol. II. 1815–1823 Vol. III. 1824–1828 Vol. IV. 1829–1832 Vol. V. 1833–1836 Vol. VI. 1837–1840 Vol. VII. 1841–1845 Vol. VIII. 1846–1847
  • Ó Faoláin, Seán (1938), King of the Beggars: A Life of Daniel O'Connell, London: Thomas Nelson & Sons.
  • O'Ferrall, Fergus (1991). Daniel O'Connell (Gill's Irish Lives Series), Dublin: Gill & MacMillan.
  • Trench, Charles Chenevix (1984), The Great Dan, London: Jonathan Cape Ltd.
  • Tierney, Michael, ed. (1949), Daniel O'Connell: Nine Centenary Essays, Dublin: Browne and Nolan

See also

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