Daniel O’Connell: forgotten king of Ireland

Published in Issue 6 (November/December 2019), Reviews, Volume 27

RTÉ1, 22 & 29 August 2019

By John Gibney

Above: O’Connell at the bar of the House of Commons, refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy following his victory in the Clare by-election of 1828.

The title of this handsome two-part hagiography of Daniel O’Connell implies that he has been consigned to the ever-increasing ranks of those assumed to have been written (even ‘airbrushed’) out of Irish history. There is, of course, a kernel of truth in the assertion that such sanitising does happen, and recent generations of Irish historians have indeed begun to rectify many omissions by investigating the histories of the marginalised, the dispossessed and those who were traditionally excluded from both official and polemical accounts of Irish history. But it is hard to justify how such a label can be attached to O’Connell, especially if one crosses Dublin’s O’Connell Bridge, to be confronted with a large Victorian statue of O’Connell at the beginning of a large boulevard named O’Connell Street. And that is even before considering the column dedicated to him that towers over Ennis. Forgotten how, and by whom?

O’Connell came from a prominent and wealthy Catholic family in Kerry. Educated in France (where he was repelled by the excesses of the French Revolution) and later in England, he was libertarian in outlook but socially conservative. Entering the legal profession, he became an enormously successful (if financially profligate) lawyer. In political terms, he is obviously best known for his two campaigns for, respectively, Catholic Emancipation (the ending of the last legal restrictions on Catholic participation in political life) and the repeal of the Act of Union (which speaks for itself). He did so in what remain distinctively modern terms, at the head of mass movements that eschewed revolutionary violence; in that sense he was, and was recognised as such by contemporaries, one of the first great democratic leaders in European history. The former campaign succeeded and the latter did not, but his methods, and his empowerment of a historically dispossessed and defeated Catholic population, are the enduring legacies of one of the most important political leaders in modern Irish history.

Above: Writer and presenter Olivia O’Leary in Douai, France, where O’Connell was educated in the the early 1790s. (RTÉ)

This stately, handsome and somewhat pedestrian documentary was written and presented by the usually sure-footed Olivia O’Leary. Its purpose seemed not necessarily to recover from obscurity a figure who until 2002 adorned the old £20 note in ubiquitous style, but rather to select a single theme from his life in the service of an argument: that O’Connell represents a ‘constitutional’ tradition of Irish nationalism that stands in contrast to the tradition of armed insurrection exemplified, we are told, by the men and women of 1916 and their descendants.

This line of argument is by no means novel, and its reiteration gave a curiously old-fashioned feel to the content of the two episodes. O’Connell has, since the late 1980s, been the subject of multi-volume biographies by Oliver MacDonagh and Patrick Geogheghan (one of a number of commentators here), along with a minor masterpiece of incisive compression by Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh in the Dictionary of Irish Biography. Besides modern accounts of O’Connell’s life and career, there is also now a rich literature on the pre-Famine Ireland of his time, very little of which seemed to be present in this documentary. As an overview of O’Connell, it added nothing new and was strikingly narrow in focus. There were occasional flashes of social history (notably from Kevin Whelan and Cormac Ó Grada), but a political focus gave little sense of the world in which O’Connell operated. Sweeping shots of the Hill of Tara as the venue for one of his famous ‘monster meetings’ are all well and good, but Tara was also the scene of a bloody engagement in the 1798 rebellion, and one should remember that context is all. O’Connell operated in a violent and deeply sectarian time—facts that make his opposition to violence the more remarkable but which surely offer clues as to why some contemporaries chose different paths.

The single point that this documentary sought to hammer home was exemplified in the second episode, where mention of the Young Irelanders, of whom we learnt little, prompted a lurch into an exposition of O’Leary’s family history, followed by a confrontational encounter with Sinn Féin’s Éoin Ó Bróin on the pros and cons of armed insurrection, akin to Liam Cunningham and Michael Fassbender’s face-off in Hunger. The violence of the State, real and threatened, received no such interrogation.

Above: An 1823 engraving of Daniel O’Connell: ‘Hereditary Bondsmen know you not / Who would be free— / Themselves must strike the blow’.

After a while one got the message. One cannot be blasé about the use of political violence (O’Leary’s perspective, by her own admission, was shaped by her experience of covering the Troubles). Yes, O’Connell laudably disavowed violence, and that makes him distinctive among Ireland’s political leaders (alongside John Hume, who was mentioned from the outset). The catch is that, to quote Seán Lemass in a later era, the ‘constitutional’ politics of which he was claimed to be the progenitor were very often only ‘slightly’ so. Parnell dallied with Captain Moonlight, the Irish Parliamentary Party of the Redmondite era contained a generous helping of former Fenians whose revolutionary activities it did not disavow, and John Redmond himself had supported amnesty campaigns for Fenian prisoners in his youth and later supported the British war effort in the First World War. These are not the stances of doctrinaire pacifists. And, whether one likes it or not, amongst those who inherited the tradition of parliamentary nationalism in Ireland were veterans of the Easter Rising: W.T. Cosgrave, Éamon de Valera and Seán Lemass. O’Connell’s campaign to repeal the union failed; Irish independence was secured by the twentieth-century independence movement, and it used force as it did so. But leaders such as Cosgrave then recognised that the time for revolution had passed, and de Valera, in particular, closed the circle in the 1930s, on the grounds that the securing of Irish sovereignty in 26 counties negated the legitimacy of groups such as the IRA, which he sought to integrate and assimilate into political life, before banning their rump and eventually presiding over the executions of their members. De Valera is noted here for having admitted to underestimating O’Connell in later life, but when O’Leary ends by suggesting that we might learn from O’Connell’s life, it is hard not to think that others had already learnt the lesson.

The stark and horrific consequences of political violence are all around us and can be recognised and condemned without recourse to skewed versions of the past. This was a useful if limited overview of its subject, a polite polemic that revealed more about the assumptions underpinning the use of history in political argument in modern Ireland than history itself.

John Gibney is Assistant Editor with the Royal Irish Academy’s Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series.

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