Daniel O'Connell

The Irish statesman Daniel O'Connell (1775-1847) created modern Irish nationalism and served as the most successful champion of democracy in the Europe of his day.

Daniel O'Connell was born on Aug. 6, 1775, at Cahirciveen, County Kerry, a member of the Munster Catholic aristocracy. Following the Celtic traditions of their class, his parents had him brought up as a foster child in a peasant cottage. There he learned the language, values, fears, and frustrations of the Catholic masses. Adopted by his childless uncle, Maurice, head of the clan, O'Connell was sent to the Continent for secondary schooling, attending Saint-Omer and then Douai. In 1793 the spread of the French Revolution forced him to transfer to a London school. The next year, after deciding on a legal career, he enrolled at Lincoln's Inn, moving in 1796 to the King's Inn, Dublin. In 1798 O'Connell was admitted to the Irish bar.

Student reading converted O'Connell to the liberal views of the Enlightenment, including religious skepticism. He admired the ideas of William Godwin, Thomas Paine, and Adam Smith. Later he became a fervent disciple and friend of Jeremy Bentham. O'Connell eventually returned to Catholicism but never ceased to consider himself a radical. In 1798 he was a fringe member of the United Irishmen. At the same time he joined a lawyers' yeoman corps organized to discourage revolution. When revolution came in 1798, O'Connell condemned physical force. He argued that violence would inflame the passions of illiterate peasants, causing them to damage life and property, and lead to their slaughter by trained soldiers. When it was all over, Ireland and Irishmen would be less free than before. O'Connell remained a permanent foe of revolution for Ireland.

In 1800 O'Connell opposed the union with Britain but at the time concentrated his energies on building a successful law practice rather than patriotic causes. In 1802, against the wishes of his uncle, he married a distant cousin, Mary O'Connell, and began to raise a large family. Three years later O'Connell joined the Catholic Committee, quickly becoming its dominant personality. British politicians in 1815 offered Catholic emancipation in exchange for the right of the government to veto papal appointments to the Catholic hierarchy in the United Kingdom. O'Connell opposed the veto, splitting Catholic forces and delaying emancipation but preserving the Church as a vehicle for Irish nationalism.


Catholic Association

In 1823 O'Connell, Richard Lalor Sheil, and Sir Thomas Wyse organized the Catholic Association. Two years later O'Connell initiated the strategy that made it the most powerful political force in the United Kingdom. Catholic peasants accepted O'Connell's invitation to join the civil-rights movement as associate members paying a shilling a year. Catholic priests, acting as recruiting agents, urged them on. With Catholic Ireland united behind him, O'Connell promised that organized and disciplined public opinion would free the Irish people. Democracy was the wave of the future. After he won an 1828 Clare by-election, Sir Robert Peel and the Duke of Wellington were forced to concede emancipation as a better alternative than possible revolution.


Irish Nationalism

During the early 1830s O'Connell led an Irish nationalist party in the House of Commons. He also spoke for United Kingdom Benthamism. His efforts made possible the 1832 Reform Bill. In 1835 O'Connell entered the Lichfield House Compact with the Whigs: he agreed to stop agitating for repeal of the union in exchange for a promise of significant reform in the administration of Irish affairs. By the end of the decade the Irish leader was disappointed with the meager reform fruits of the Whig alliance. When his old enemy Sir Robert Peel became Tory prime minister in 1841, O'Connell organized the Loyal National Repeal Association. But he took a virtual sabbatical from agitation to concentrate on his duties as first Catholic lord mayor of Dublin.

In 1843 O'Connell exploited the mistakes of British politicians, Irish grievances (mainly the poor law and the existence of a large and well-organized temperance movement initiated by Father Mathew), and the journalistic talent of Young Ireland and its paper, the Nation, to build an agitation equal to the Catholic movement of the 1820s. Again the priests rallied the people, and shillings flowed to Dublin. In a series of monster meetings O'Connell promised freedom before the year was out.

The situation was unlike that in 1828: Peel now had a Parliament united against repeal. He refused to budge, and O'Connell, opposed to violence, had to retreat. In early October 1843 the government banned a monster meeting scheduled for Clontarf. O'Connell obeyed the proclamation. A week later the government arrested him and some of his lieutenants. They were convicted of sedition, fined £2,000, and sentenced to a year in prison. Early in 1844 the Law Lords reversed the verdict of the packed Dublin jury. O'Connell was free, celebrated as a hero and martyr, but he lacked the energy and will to exploit his victory by resuming agitation.


Later Years

The last years of the "Liberator" were a contradiction to former glories. O'Connell's inclination to resume contact with the Whigs, jealousies, bad advice (mainly from his son, John), and a liberal patriot distrust of the narrowness of cultural nationalism led to conflict with Young Ireland and, finally, a split in the repeal movement. O'Connell's health deteriorated, but he lived to witness the onslaught of famine and the refusal of the British Parliament to respond to his final plea for mercy and justice to starving Ireland. He died at Genoa on May 15, 1847, on his way to Rome.

Many 20th-century nationalists condemn O'Connell for his opposition to revolutionary tactics and for his compromise style of politics. But he made possible the final victory of Irish nationalism. He lifted the Irish masses from their knees and began to remove the mental blocks of serfdom. He gave the Irish people dignity, pride, hope, and discipline. O'Connell's tactic of using the pressure of public opinion, backed by the implied threat of reform or revolution, was used by subsequent Irish nationalists and British Radicals in marches toward freedom, social reform, and democracy.


Further Reading on Daniel O'Connell

Sean O'Faolain, King of the Beggars: A Life of Daniel O'Connell, the Irish Liberator (1938), and William Edward Hartpole Lecky, "Daniel O'Connell," in The Leaders of Public Opinion in Ireland (1912), are the two best studies of O'Connell's total career. James A. Reynolds, The Catholic Emancipation Crisis in Ireland, 1823-1829 (1954), is a valuable investigation of O'Connell's Catholic emancipation victory. Angus Maclntyre, The Liberator: Daniel O'Connell and the Party, 1830-1847 (1965), discusses O'Connell's important role as parliamentary politician. Keven B. Nowlan, The Politics of Repeal: A Study in the Relations between Great Britain and Ireland, 1841-50 (1965), and Lawrence J. McCaffrey, Daniel O'Connell and the Repeal Year (1966), are concerned with the repeal agitation of the 1840s and the contests between O'Connell and Young Ireland and O'Connell and Peel.


Additional Biography Sources

Chenevix Trench, Charles, The Great Dan: a biography of Daniel O'Connell, London: J. Cape, 1984.

Daniel O'Connell, portrait of a radical, Belfast: Appletree Press, 1984.

Edwards, R. Dudley (Robert Dudley), Daniel O'Connell and his world, London: Thames and Hudson, 1975.

MacDonagh, Oliver, The emancipist: Daniel O'Connell, 1830-47, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989.

MacDonagh, Oliver, The hereditary bondsman: Daniel O'Connell, 1775-1829, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988, 1987.

O'Connell, Maurice R., Daniel O'Connell: the man and his politics, Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1990.

King of the beggars: a life of Daniel O'Connell, the Irish liberator, in a study of the rise of the modern Irish democracy (1775-1847), Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1975, 1938.

O'Ferrall, Fergus, Daniel O'Connell, Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1981.