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Ireland’s great emancipator

Second Reading
Ireland’s great emancipator


Fr Kevin Hegarty


Recently there was controversy in the newspapers about a forthcoming RTÉ series on the greatest Irish people of recent centuries. Part of the controversy concerned the omission of Daniel O’Connell from the proposed list. The debate on his exclusion coincided with the 235th anniversary of his birth.
I believe he should have been included. He and Charles Stewart Parnell were the most significant Irish politicians of the 19th century.
O’Connell led the campaign that achieved Catholic emancipation. He created the first mass political movement in Europe. He devoted the last two decades of his life to an attempt to repeal the Act of Union.
Enoch Powell once held that all political careers end in failure. Judged by that dictum O’Connell failed as he did not achieve repeal. Yet the power of his advocacy ensured that the issue dominated Irish politics until the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922.
In the words of one of his biographers, Seán Ó Faoláin: “He taught simple men to have pride and he taught them how to fight. He gave them the elements of life, cleverness and the seed of civilisation. He did define and he did create. He thought a democracy and it rose. He defined himself, and his people became him. He imagined a future and the road appeared. He left his successors nothing to do but to follow him.”
He did not limit himself to Irish concerns. He was active in promoting parliamentary reform, Jewish emancipation, the abolition of slavery and other progressive causes.
O’Connell’s roots were in the Gaelic soil of Kerry. He was born on August 6, 1775 in Carhen, near Cahirciveen, the eldest of ten children of Morgan and Catherine O’Connell. His family were Catholic gentry who had managed to survive the worst ravages of the Penal Laws.
One of his uncles, Daniel, served as a Major-General in the French Army. His wealthiest uncle, Maurice, known as ‘Hunting Cap’, who had no children of his own, effectively adopted Daniel on the conclusion of his fosterage with a small herdsman’s family. Fosterage was an old Gaelic custom that the O’Connell’s continued to preserve.
After early education in Cork, Daniel was sent to complete his studies in France, first at St Omer and later at Douai. He was a studious boy, who excelled in the Classics, and, fittingly for one who was to become a brilliant orator, in the study of rhetoric.
In France he witnessed the excesses of the revolution. It gave him an abhorrence of political violence for the rest of his life. As France descended into vicious anarchy, O’Connell left the country and completed his studies in London where he qualified as a barrister.
These studies led him to radical political positions. Civil and religious equality, freedom of conscience and the extension of individual liberty became the basis of his political position.
He opposed the 1798 Rising and the Act of Union which followed it. In the first decade of the 19th century he began his legal career and marred a distant cousin, Mary O’Connell, with whom he had seven children. Popularly known as ‘The Counsellor’ he was successful at the bar, combining forensic ability, memorable oratory and mischievous wit. By the 1920s he was earning over £6,000 a year. Further advancement to the inner bar was denied to him as he was a Catholic.
Up to the 1820s there was a genteel campaign for Catholic Emancipation that made little progress. This changed in 1823 with the formation of the Catholic Association in which O’Connell was the leading figure. Through the institution of the Catholic Rent by which subscribers paid what they could afford, he made it a hugely popular agitation. When O’Connell was elected to the House of Commons at the Clare by-election the British Government reluctantly granted emancipation. It feared major disorder in Ireland if O’Connell was not allowed to take his seat.
In the 1830s he led a group of Irish MPs in the House of Commons who argued the case for the repeal of the Union and establishment of a parliament in Dublin. They made little progress. However O’Connell did manage to achieve some parliamentary reform and the alleviation of the system of titles.
In the 1840s O’Connell escalated the campaign for the repeal by forming the Repeal Association on the lines of the Catholic Association which had been so successful. He declared that 1843 would be ‘the year of repeal’ as he arranged a series of ‘Monster Meetings’ throughout Ireland. The government, however, called his bluff in October by banning a meeting planned for Clontarf.
O’Connell’s last years were darkened by ill health, opposition from radical nationalists who were prepared to contemplate political violence in pursuit of their aims and the famine which engulfed Ireland. He died, broken-hearted, in 1847 in Genoa, on his way to Rome.
Another great political figure of the 19th century, WE Gladstone, paid him the ultimate tribute many years later.
“He was the greatest popular leader the world has ever seen . . . who never for a moment changed his end and never hesitated to change his means.”