Daniel O’Connell: a tribute

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Catholic Emancipation, Features, Features, Issue 4 (Winter 1997), Volume 5

I am very pleased to have been invited to mark here in the Reform Club the 150th anniversary of the death of Daniel O’Connell. It is an institution, after all, that was not only founded at the time of O’Connell’s greatest prominence by men who were colleagues in his endeavours, but which in its name epitomises his work and his goal. Rather than simply pay tribute to him for the contribution identified in the history books, I sense that this is an occasion to try to flesh out the formal tribute by touching on two issues. First, the extraordinary paradoxes and contradictions in the man himself. Second, the extent to which in his thinking and approach he was significantly ahead of his time.

Robust street politician

In essence, Daniel O’Connell, the robust street politician who prided himself on his ability to overturn a constitution by constitutional means, and drive a legal coach and four through legislation, was a man of paradoxes and contradictions. Closer examination shows us a man whose formation and attitudes were very much those of the eighteenth century—but in many of the causes he advocated or the positions he took, he was ahead of the mid nineteenth century—and could even be described, in some areas, as a man of the twentieth century.
One of the most popular biographies of Daniel O’Connell, by Sean Ó Faoláin, is entitled King of the Beggars. This was a label attached to him by his enemies both to diminish him and to evoke the fear of the mob. He did not discourage the image that label projected.
In fact he and his family were gentlefolk, when that term had a very specific meaning and significance. In that respect he was no different from many or most of those with whom he would have associated here in the Reform Club. The crucial difference was that, whereas his English colleagues and friends had enjoyed family backgrounds of security and stability for several generations, the precarious legal, social, economic and constitutional position of the O’Connells, even in the Liberator’s own lifetime and experience, would have been more intelligible to a Nelson Mandela or a Martin Luther King than to Jane Austen’s Mr Bennett, let alone Mr Darcy.

We can see Daniel O’Connell at one level as the archetypal pious Irish Catholic political leader. But this was a man who during the formative years of his young adult life had been a deist, a reader of Tom Paine and the friend and admirer of deists like Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. He was to be granted privileges by the Papacy normally reserved to heads of state but his public challenge to, and defiance of, Papal political authority on such issues as the Veto Controversy cast the relationship of Catholic Church and State in Ireland into a very specific mould totally different to that of traditional Catholic countries. He was also such an out and out utilitarian that Jeremy Bentham was happy to describe him as his favourite disciple.

Great verbal violence

He was a man of great verbal violence, and one who had personally killed another man, albeit reluctantly in a highly publicised duel. And yet, he held together a huge, uneducated and passionate following in non-violence over a long and turbulent period. In doing so he established an effective model of non-violent agitation and political action which was to transform the histories of some of the greatest countries in the English-speaking world. An individualist political personality of Colossian proportions, who dominated the politics of his country for thirty years and yet left no party behind him, he is probably as much as anybody else the pioneer and progenitor of the modern mass-membership political party as we know it.
A man of two celebrated causes, Catholic Emancipation and Repeal, which were very specific and self-contained in his own time, we find that he was also the reasoned and consistent radical supporter of other causes in Britain and all over the world, which in some cases are still unfinished business 150 years after his death. We remember him as a great constitutional and legal reformer, basing his case on fundamental principle and the theory of the Rights of Man. But he was at pains to stress that his benchmark was not abstract theory but the practicalities of ‘good government’, meaning the direct impact of government on the daily lives of ordinary people. It is therefore no surprise to find that many of his last letters are preoccupied not with philosophy but with famine relief, not with the theory or the remote strategy but directly with the minutiae of the purchase of food for his own neighbours who were dying in hundreds in south west Kerry.

Background of insecurity

In order to understand Daniel O’Connell, we must understand his background. The O’Connells were not one of the great families of Irish history, nor were they poor in a material sense. They were recognised and described by their Protestant gentry neighbours as ‘gentlemen’. They controlled a considerable acreage of land and were in their own way entrepreneurs. But precisely because they had property and had their heads above the social parapet they were more, not less, at risk. In effect, that property had no constitutional protection. Twice in the previous century their lands had been confiscated and leading members of the family had been killed in action or died in exile. Twice they had painstakingly reconstructed their ancestral holdings, not freehold in their own right but through devious and precarious arrangements with friendly members of the established church. They existed under a system of penal and disabling laws which were designed explicitly either to deny their existence or, if that fiction of non-existence could not be sustained, to punish them for existing and to disable them from citizenship. To invite attention was to invite investigation and to invite investigation was to invite expropriation, for example, through the commonly used device of ‘discovering’ a Protestant heir.
What O’Connell’s Whig colleagues, friends and fellow members of the Reform Club could never have understood in the same gut, visceral manner as O’Connell knew in the depths of his very being, was that no legal security existed for the people among whom he had grown up. This experience was not a matter of myth or ancient family legend. In 1783, when Daniel O’Connell would have been about eight years old, an episode occurred in the environs of Derrynane itself, and for all we know, O’Connell may have been a witness. One source of income for the O’Connells was an ad hoc import/export trade which was not entirely in phase with the customs legislation of the time. Despite the best efforts of the Excise, and due to a felicitous conjunction of the complex maritime topography of the area and their own not inconsiderable ingenuity, they were seldom if ever apprehended in flagrante delicto. This particular occasion was the exception which proved the rule. Apprehended with the fruits of their labours on the beach in Derrynane Harbour by the local Justice of the Peace, the O’Connells accepted the reality of the situation with as much good grace as they could muster, invited the JP to lunch and provided him with their semi-tribal safe-conduct for his return journey.
The local peasantry, who were accustomed to a dividend of the proceeds, did not acquiesce in this civilised and prudent compromise. They set upon Mr Butler, the JP, as he was proceeding across the mountains with the confiscated contraband, and he was lucky to escape—if only barely—with his life. He swore out a summons for conspiracy against the O’Connells, in particular Daniel’s eldest uncle Maurice Huntingcap O’Connell and Daniel’s father, Morgan O’Connell. The O’Connells, then and since, protested their complete innocence. However, no effort was spared to have them arraigned and tried in Dublin—where as Papist nonentities they would have faced hanging. In fact, the case was dealt with summarily by the local Protestant Kerry Grand Jury, who had too many connections of one kind or another with the O’Connells to allow any unfortunate mistake to be made.
Even if, at the age of eight, the young O’Connell had not understood the legal niceties of the situation facing his father and his uncle, could he have been immune from the fear, not just of their death but of social and economic ruin for the entire family? Nor are we talking here about an illiterate peasant boy who knew no better. The O’Connells were as comfortable materially and as well educated, subject to the restrictions of the Penal Laws, as their Protestant peers. But they were not equal in the eyes of the law. It is a vital clue to O’Connell’s make up that he grew up in a social and political environment where the detail of law and its implementation were designed not to be safe or just—and where his entire people were explicitly excluded from the protection of the constitution.
If we look at Daniel O’Connell as an individual and study what he wrote and said, particularly his correspondence, we find that justice was not for him simply a matter of deep emotion. Justice, particularly in so far as it concerned civil rights, was for him a matter of iron and irrevocable logic. Growing up in an environment which never ceased to remind him that everything which he had could be jeopardised by a single false move, educated intellectually in the logic, reason and political philosophy of the eighteenth century, trained as a lawyer in English law with its emphasis on the rights of the subject, confronted on a daily basis with the illogicality that his co-religionists were subjects of the Crown without any of the rights of such subjects—is it any wonder that the energy and dynamism of this remarkable man should have become focused on a single objective: the liberation of his people? Or is it indeed strange that this man should have seen no border or monopoly to injustice and tyranny—and extended his concern to African slaves in America, to the citizens of Spain and Italy, to Indian peasants?

No gap between chieftain and people

Again, unlike many of his Whig reforming friends, material deprivation, poverty and a subsistence economy were not something that he had first seen from a carriage window. O’Connell was brought up in his earliest years under the old Gaelic system of fosterage by which the children of the chieftain were reared in the family of an ordinary farmer. This does not mean that he suffered the extremes of poverty, but the rationale of the custom was to ensure that there would be no gap between chieftain and people. O’Connell’s huge success later as a courtroom barrister was due in part to the fact that linguistically, emotionally and psychologically there was no gap between him and the Gaelic-speaking peasant who stood in front of him. He had shared and continued to share their memories, their thought-modes, their fears and joys, their aspirations. Later still, this closeness to them enabled him to become their political leader, master and guide. He knew their lives, not from the outside but from the inside.
And in this context, let us not forget the material surroundings of that life. Failures of the potato crop, attendant famines and outbreaks of mass diseases like cholera were endemic in Ireland. The famine we now commemorate was merely the worst. O’Connell grew up with the potato—and with the population explosion which occurred throughout the Britain and Ireland during his lifetime but which had a special, fatal significance in Ireland. He was no agrarian or socio-economic reformer and had no solution to the terrible potato-population equation. His economics were those of a man of his time and class and he would not have understood or tolerated any radical questioning of the social order. But he knew the reality at least of rural poverty.
Another paradox in O’Connell is that this great champion of the religious rights of Catholics, a man both pious and devout in religious practice, at least in later life, should have been most vocal and consistent in disagreeing with the Papacy on the issue of the temporal powers of the Church both in Italy and more directly in Ireland. A detailed examination of how this came about demands more time than is allocated to us here, but the most important matter at issue at an early stage in O’Connell’s political career was whether in a situation of Catholic emancipation, where Catholics were granted full civil rights, the State, being of course the British government, should have the right of veto over the appointment of Catholic bishops. Conceding this presented no problem to Rome, which was accustomed to such a right being exercised by Catholic monarchs in most countries on the European mainland.
O’Connell was the first political leader in any major Christian denomination in Europe to espouse at one and the same time the principles of both religious freedom and separation of Church and State. His most famous utterance in this area was in response to a call by Isaac Lyon Goldsmid to aid the cause of Jewish emancipation:

I entirely agree with you on the principle of freedom of conscience, and no man can admit that sacred principle without extending it equally to the Jew as to the Christian.

In March 1831, O’Connell attended a banquet in honour of Polish independence and made a speech, reported in The Times:
He [O’Connell] trusted that the period was not far distant when the Church would be separated from the State, for in every country that appeared to him an adulterous connection.

This stance did not endear O’Connell to the Holy See and it required some diplomacy and blurring of language to effect an entente. For obvious services rendered to Catholics and Catholicism, O’Connell was granted certain privileges in relation to the practice of his religion normally only granted to high nobility and even heads of state. However, one has the impression that Rome was never quite sure what to expect from him. Indeed, his very explicit and frequently expressed views on the separation of Church and State were all the more powerful coming as they did from somebody who otherwise could not have been more Catholic.

‘Sobered and desperate enthusiasm’

But, without doubt, it was O’Connell’s capacity to harness what he called the ‘moral force’ of mass non-violent action which became his lasting legacy and contribution to the emerging Ireland. It was a moral force which generated high apprehension and impact on the political establishment of his time. Robert Peel wrote to Sir Walter Scott in 1829:

I wish you had been present at the Clare election, for no pen but yours could have done justice to that fearful exhibition of sobered and desperate enthusiasm. We were watching the movements of tens of thousands of disciplined fanatics, abstaining from every excess and every indulgence, and concentrating every passion and feeling on one single object.

George J. Shaw-Lefevre, a Gladstonian Liberal MP, wrote in his book, Peel and O’Connell (London 1887):

O’Connell was hated by the governing classes of England. His policy and his success crossed their religious prejudice, their imperial instincts, their amour propre, at every turn. There was no man more universally attacked and abused. He had humiliated their government. The English sense of law and order was revolted by the repeated outbreaks of crime and outrage in Ireland, which they attributed to his agitation. The process of political agitation was then new to Englishmen. Later, they adopted the method without acknowledgement, and without changing their opinion of its great professor. The Reform agitation, and that for the repeal of the Corn Laws, were conducted on the lines invented by O’Connell, and were successful; yet the English people would not forgive him for his Catholic agitation, still less for that in favour of repeal.

Charles Greville, Clerk of the Privy Council and at the centre of British politics for forty years wrote in his famous diary:

History will speak of him as one of the most remarkable men who ever existed;…there never was a man, who without altering his social position in the slightest degree, without obtaining any office or station whatsoever, raised himself to a height of political power which gave him an enormous capacity for good and evil, and made him the most important and most conspicuous man of his time and country. It would not be an easy matter to do him justice.

A weapon of political action of the magnitude of that developed by O’Connell did not spring into effective operation overnight. It required organisation, education, discipline, control and flexibility. O’Connell knew he was walking a tightrope. No political philosopher and with no pretensions to be one, O’Connell became, however, the great pioneer of political empowerment of deprived peoples.

Dev on O’Connell

His commitment to non-violence as a moral force lost favour subsequently with many nationalists and was sidelined in the popular consciousness by events such as the Easter Rising of 1916. It was significant, therefore, that speaking at the official re-opening of Derrynane Abbey on 20 August 1967, Éamon de Valera, then President of Ireland, made a compelling reassessment of O’Connell’s role in the creation of modern Ireland. President de Valera said that his generation of Irish nationalists had not understood O’Connell or the problems he had faced. O’Connell had been criticised for eschewing violence, and had been accused of cowardice when he had called off the monster meeting at Clontarf in October 1843 when that meeting was proclaimed by the authorities. In particular, said de Valera, what his generation had not understood was that ‘Daniel O’Connell had to take people who were degraded and give them confidence in themselves. He had to let these people know that those who pretended they were superior were not superior in any way except that they had superior forces’.
The man we commemorate here tonight was a man of his own age who addressed a specific problem of the human condition as it was in his day. He enabled a people who appeared to have no future to give themselves a future by showing them the power they had in themselves, in their solidarity, in their capacity to be a people.

Archetypal ‘great leader’

At one level, O’Connell was not a democrat. He was no non-directive chairman of committees but the archetypal ‘great leader’ engaged in a constant megaphone courtship with the crowd. He was terrifying to his contemporaries because he seemed to be a puppet master on a colossal scale, manipulating tens of thousands of what Peel described as ‘fanatics’. But this is to misunderstand the nature of his political machine which was based upon open, rule-bound, democratic local units—the forerunner of the modern democratic political party.
But he was also an innovator in another important sense. The very word ‘democracy’ was still, at the end of the eighteenth century, highly suspect, and inextricably linked in most educated minds with the Greek word for a mob. Many of those who led the French Revolution believed in mass democracy but hardly in a democracy based upon a parliament and the rule of law. The franchise in England was slow to be extended even to adult male suffrage, and did not reach women till the second decade of the twentieth century. O’Connell, on the other hand, supported most of the demands of the Chartists including the extension of the suffrage and annual parliaments.
Emerging from a particular experience of deprivation and the suppression and denial of civil rights, and addressing himself to the very specific task of righting that wrong, the accident of his own particular emotional and intellectual formation made it impossible for him to set a border to the righting of injustice. Certainly Daniel O’Connell was the ultimate pragmatic parliamentary politician who never lost the opportunity to put together an alliance or a coalition or to create an obligation which could one day be cashed in the division lobby. Nevertheless the iron logic of his conviction that there was no border to the universality of justice and right meant for him that he had no choice but to stand up and be counted whether it was for Jews in Britain, African slaves in America or the rent-racked peasants of the villages of India.
O’Connell was a Gaelic-speaking Irish Roman Catholic who spent most of his life in conflict with British governments. He was a citizen of Europe which for many of his people and his own family was an alternative to absorption into English polity and culture. In many ways, he was alien to all that for which the British Establishment stood—there is no question that he was a figure of fear and even hatred for the Tory elite. Yet, in that typically Irish paradoxical way, he seized upon the theory of something fundamental to the British way of life and historical tradition, the specifically English concept of the citizen and his rights, and, turning it against the Establishment of his day for a specific ‘local’ purpose, assisted in enriching and enhancing it. He then returned it, refreshed and reinvigorated to the stream from whence it had come. So, as I thank you, on behalf of the Irish people, for your warm recognition of Daniel O’Connell, may I also confirm, on behalf of the Irish people, that in the gallery of your own political and constitutional history, you may continue to have an icon of him on semi-permanent loan.


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