Daniel O'Connell

Daniel O'Connell

Daniel O'Connellwas born in Cahirciveen, County Kerry, on 6th August 1775. The O'Connell family were members of the Irish Catholic aristocracy in Ireland. Although Daniel's family were fairly wealthy, discriminatory legislation denied the O'Connell family status, opportunity and influence.

In 1791 Maurice O'Connell, the head of the O'Connell clan, adopted Daniel and paid for him to attend the best Catholic colleges in Europe. This included periods at St. Omer and Douai.

In 1794 O'Connell enrolled in Lincoln's Inn, London and two years later transferred to the King's Inn, Dublin. While in London O'Connell became interested in politics. He read a great deal and was influenced by the ideas of radicals such as Tom Paine, Jeremy Bentham and William Godwin. By the time he qualified as a lawyer in 1798 O'Connell was fully committed to religious tolerance, freedom of conscience, democracy and the separation of Church and State.

In Ireland O'Connell developed a reputation for his radical political views. He became involved with the United Irishmen, a group that had been inspired by the French Revolution. During the 1798 insurrection, O'Connell feared he would be arrested by the English authorities and went into hiding in Kerry. Despite his radical views, O'Connell opposed the insurrection. He argued that the Irish people "were not sufficiently enlightened to hear the sun of freedom" and that the insurrection had decreased rather than increased the desire for Irish liberation. Instead of rebellion, O'Connell advocated using the machinery of Parliament to obtain political and religious equality.

For the next ten years O'Connell ceased to be active in politics and concentrated on developing his law practice. It was not long before O'Connell was the most successful and famous barrister in Ireland. Gradually he returned to politics and by 1815 he was acknowledged as the leader of the Catholic Emancipation movement.

In 1823 O'Connell, Richard Lalor Sheil and Thomas Wyse formed the Catholic Association. O'Connell turned it into a mass organisation by inviting the poor to become associate members for a shilling a year. Catholic priests were encouraged to advertise the Catholic Association and were employed as recruiting agents.

The Catholic Association campaigned for the repeal of the Act of Union, the end of the Irish tithe system, universal suffrage and a secret ballot for parliamentary elections. Although O'Connell rejected the use of violence he constantly warned the British government that if reform did not take place, the Irish masses would start listening to the "counsels of violent men".

By 1826 the Catholic Association began supporting candidates in parliamentary elections. They had some spectacular victories, including O'Connell defeating C. E. Vesty Fitzgerald, President of the Board of Trade, in a County Clare by-election. However, as a Catholic, O'Connell was not allowed to take his seat in the House of Commons.

Radical MPs such as Sir Francis Burdett and Joseph Hume, had been arguing for some years that Parliament should bring an end to anti-Catholic legislation. After O'Connell's victory, even Tories such as Sir Robert Peel and the Duke of Wellington began arguing for reform. They warned their Conservative colleagues that here would be civil war in Ireland unless the law was changed. In 1829 the British Parliament passed the Roman Catholic Relief Act, which granted Catholic Emancipation and enabled O'Connell to be elected as representative for Kerry in 1830. However, the government also outlawed the Catholic Association and eliminated the traditional forty-shilling freehold suffrage in Ireland.

In the 1830s Daniel O'Connell became a major figure in the House of Commons. He was active in the campaigns for prison and law reform, free trade, the abolition of slavery and Jewish emancipation. He was also a prominent figure in the campaign for universal suffrage. After the disappointment of the 1832 Reform Act, British Radicals adopted the tactics that had been used by O'Connell successfully in Ireland. Organizations such as the Chartists used O'Connell's methods of organizing and applying the pressure of public opinion while implying that if this was not successful, the movement might resort to violence.

O'Connell had a major influence on MPs. Of the105 Irish MPs, 45 loyally supported O'Connell, including Feargus O'Connor, who was later to become one of the main leaders of the Chartist movement. O'Connell's control over this group enabled him to exert considerable pressure on the government. In 1835 O'Connell and fellow Catholic MPs agreed to support Lord Melbourne and his Whig government in return for significant Irish reforms. Although the Whig government passed the Tithe Commutation Bill and the Irish Municipal Reform Act, O'Connell thought this was inadequate. He was also totally opposed to the passing of the Irish Poor Law and when the Whigs refused to change it, O'Connell withdrew his group's support for the government.

In 1841 O'Connell became the first Catholic Lord Mayor of Dublin. After completing his year in office, O'Connell announced he now intended to concentrate of achieving the repeal of the Act of Union. On the 1st January 1843, O'Connell pledged that he would achieve repeal before the end of the year. Once again O'Connell suggested that if Parliament did not take action it faced the possibility of civil war. However, very few MPs in the House of Commons supported the repeal of the Union, and therefore O'Connell was not in a strong negotiating position.

Cartoon showing problems for Irish voters in elections.
Cartoon showing problems for Irish voters in elections.

Sir Robert Peel, the Prime Minister, decided to go on the offensive. He outlawed a proposed large meeting to discuss repeal at Clontarf. Despite the fact that O'Connell suggested that his followers should accept this decision and obey the law, he was arrested and charged with sedition. O'Connell was found guilty and sentenced to a year in jail. On appeal, the Law Lords reversed the decision, and O'Connell left prison as a hero in the fight for freedom of speech. However, over the next few years O'Connell was unable to make much progress in his fight to have the Act of Union repealed.

In 1845 O'Connell was unable to persuade Parliament to take quick action to deal with the Irish Famine. O'Connell now came under attack from the Young Ireland movement and leading members began describing his tactics as ineffective.

In 1846 the Young Ireland group broke away from O'Connell's Repeal Association. O'Connell was now a sick man and in March 1847 he decided on a pilgrimage to Rome. When he reached Paris he was greeted by a large crowd of radicals who wished to pay tribute to the man they described as the "most successful champion of liberty and democracy in Europe". Daniel O'Connell never completed his journey and died while in Genoa on 15th May, 1847. As requested, O'Connell's heart was buried in Rome and his body in Dublin.

© , September 1997 - April 2014