Fr Kevin Hegarty
Recently I made a pilgrimage, with some friends, to the home of one of my heroes. Daniel O’Connell, the father of modern Irish democracy, spent much of his childhood, at Derrynane House, on the Iveragh peninsula in Kerry.
It remained his spiritual home. He escaped from the turmoil of politics to visit there regularly. He once wrote:
“This is the wildest and most stupendous scenery of nature and I enjoy my residence here with the most exquisite relish. I am in truth fascinated with this spot and did not my duty call me elsewhere I should bury myself alive here.”
For most of the first half of the 19th century O’Connell was a central figure in Irish, British and European politics. He led the campaign that achieved Catholic Emancipation. A new book by Antonia Frazer, ‘The Kings Catholics’, testifies to his importance. 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 and restore a parliament to Dublin.
Enoch Powell once claimed that all political careers end in failure. Judged by that stark 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.
One of his biographers, Seán O’Faoláin made this perspective assessment:
“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 follow him.”
He did not limit himself to Irish concerns. He was active in promoting parliamentary reform, Jewish emancipation and the abolition of slavery.
O’Connell’s roots were in the Gaelic soil of Kerry. Born in 1775 in Carhen, near Cahirciveen, the eldest of ten children, his family were Catholic gentry who had managed to survive the worst ravages of the Penal Laws. When aged four, his uncle Maurice, who had no children, adopted him, brought him to Derrynane House and made him his heir.
After an early education in Cork, Daniel was sent to complete his studies in France. He was an able student, 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 a hatred of political violence for the rest of his life. As France descended into vicious anarchy, O’Connell fled 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.
Soon after he began his legal career, he married a distant cousin, Mary O’Connell, with whom he had seven children. Until her death in 1836 she was a close political advisor. He was successful at the bar combining forensic ability, memorable oratory and mischievous wit. Further legal advancement 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 light. Through the institutions of the Catholic rent by which subscribers paid what they could afford, he made it a popular movement. When O’Connell was elected to the House of Commons in 1829 at the Clare bye-election the British government reluctantly granted emancipation. It feared major disorder in Ireland if O’Connell was not allowed to take his seat. He had less success with his campaign for repeal of the Union in the 1840s, though it did remain a live issue in Irish and British politics.
Daniel O’Connell died in 1847. His final years were darkened by ill health, opposition from nationalists prepared to use political violence in pursuit of their aims and the horror of the Great Famine, which engulfed Ireland from 1845 to 1849. His final speech in the House of Commons in 1847 was a passionate plea from a broken man for a beleaguered country. Many years later WE Gladstone, another great political stalwart of the 19th century, paid him a fitting tribute:
“He was the greatest popular leader the world has ever seen, who never for a moment changed his ends and never hesitated to change his means.”