Women and O’Connellite politics, 1824–45

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, Featured-Archive-Post, Features, Issue 5 (September/October), Volume 22

Joseph Haverty’s 1843 painting of O’Connell’s ‘monster meeting’ at Clifden, Co. Galway. (NGI)

Joseph Haverty’s 1843 painting of O’Connell’s ‘monster meeting’ at Clifden, Co. Galway. (NGI)

In 1843 Irish artist Joseph Patrick Haverty painted a scene from a ‘monster meeting’ at Clifden, Co. Galway. The meeting had been organised by the Loyal National Repeal Association and the painting consisted of a collection of mini-portraits of the leading members of the Association as they listened to Daniel O’Connell delivering a speech. Although the leadership was exclusively male, Haverty included a number of women in his painting. In the key to the painting in the National Gallery, three women behind the men are identified as O’Connell’s female relatives. They are most likely O’Connell’s three daughters, Ellen, Catherine and Elizabeth. More intriguing is the depiction of a shawled woman standing alongside the men and listening attentively to O’Connell. Another kneeling woman leans in to listen to the speech, while others look away from O’Connell at events around them.

Two years later, an engraving of the painting was printed in London. The portrayal of the women in the engraving differed from that in the painting. While the female relatives of O’Connell are still included, the woman standing alongside the men has disappeared. The engraving incorporates more of the activities of the surrounding crowd, among whom are a number of women. Although the women on their knees in the corners of the engraving are listening to the orator, others appear distracted by the excitement of what is happening in the crowd. The portrayal of women in the engraving is also more symbolic. One of the kneeling women suckles her child while she listens to O’Connell, while another prays with rosary beads with a child beside her. Others sit on horseback behind their husbands.

Relatively poor women donors

An 1845 engraving of Haverty’s painting. The portrayal of women in the engraving is more symbolic. (NLI)

An 1845 engraving of Haverty’s painting. The portrayal of women in the engraving is more symbolic. (NLI)

In addition to contributing to group collections, women also regularly made donations to the Catholic Rent as individuals. A clever method of encouraging subscriptions was to print the names of those who made the largest donations (usually 10s. or over) in the newspapers. A striking aspect of the donor names is the number of women from relatively poor economic backgrounds who contributed. Among the donors in Waterford, for example, were women with small businesses, such as milliners, mantua-makers, confectioners and earthenware dealers, as well as domestic servants.

Women also attended the meetings of the Catholic Association in large numbers. Provincial and parish meetings were often held in local Catholic chapels, a public space that had always been open to women. Like their fund-raising activities, the attendance of women at meetings was warmly welcomed by the leadership at both the national and the local level. The gallery in the chapels and halls where meetings were held was designated a female space.
The absence of criticism of women participating in such a visible fashion in public affairs is striking but it reflects O’Connell’s vision for the Catholic Association, which was always wider than simply a political grouping. O’Connell aimed to make manifest the moral force of the Irish people in their demand for Catholic Emancipation. He valued the presence of women in the movement, not just as fund-raisers but also as evidence of the universal support for Catholic Emancipation in Ireland. A mass movement that excluded women would not have had the same moral impact as one that was gender-inclusive.

Precursor Society, first to formally admit women
The importance attached to female support by O’Connell is particularly evident in the late 1830s, when he attempted to revive popular support for a campaign to repeal the Act of Union. In 1838 he established the Precursor Society, founded to encourage reforms that would be a prelude to the repeal of the Union. In his announcement of plans for the society, O’Connell actively encouraged women to join as members and clearly perceived women as a means of drawing more men into the movement. Although O’Connell presented the Precursor Society as following the tactics of the Catholic Association, the formal issuing of women with membership cards was a new development. Women had been welcomed as fund-raisers for the Catholic Association but were not permitted to become members. The Precursor Society is, therefore, the first Irish political association that formally admitted women.

Despite the support from women, the Precursor Society was not successful as a political organisation and it was dissolved after less than a year in existence. The tactic of enrolling women as members was, however, clearly deemed a success and was incorporated into the new organisation founded by O’Connell in 1840, the Loyal National Repeal Association (LNRA). As before, the names of larger subscribers and collectors of the Repeal Rent were published in the newspapers.

Women also crowded into the meetings of the LNRA. In August 1840, for example, the Freeman’s Journal noted that most of the seats in the gallery of Conciliation Hall, the building in Corn Exchange, Dublin, where the national meetings of the Association took place, were occupied by women almost an hour before the meeting was scheduled to begin. Gradually, the overflow from the gallery was accommodated downstairs and women began to sit in the main chamber. On one occasion, in November 1840, O’Connell gave up his seat to a woman who had been brought downstairs to be placed near his chair. An engraving of a meeting of the Association that appeared in the Illustrated London News in 1843 also shows women scattered throughout the hall.

Women who collected funds of more than £1 were entitled to become members of the Repeal Association, and once again women were enthusiastic fund-raisers. On 29 September 1840, for example, the Dublin meeting of the Association admitted Mrs Anne White from Kingstown as a member, noting that ‘she herself had collected 26 subscribers, though she had handed over six of them to another lady, who wished also to make up a sufficient number to entitle her to become a member (laughter and cheers)’. By 1844 the notices for the Dublin meetings carefully distinguished between the different types of seating that were allocated, on the basis not just of gender but also of the size of the subscription paid or collected by members. Seats in the main chamber were reserved for ‘ladies who are Members, having paid One Pound’.

As the Haverty painting and engraving make clear, women also attended the outdoor ‘monster meetings’ organised in the 1840s. At some meetings separate platforms were constructed for ‘ladies’, while at others women listened to the speeches from their carriages, which were drawn close to the platform. At the dinners held after the meetings in the local town, the organisers often created a separate female space, usually in the form of a gallery from which the women could see and listen to the proceedings.

O’Connell’s attitude to women’s involvement
If Irish women were politicised through engagement with O’Connellite politics, to what extent was this achieved with the active support of O’Connell? O’Connell’s own views on women’s public engagement remained—like the painting and engraving of Patrick Joseph Haverty—ambivalent. Initially, when women began to subscribe in large numbers to the Catholic Association, O’Connell reminded the Dublin meeting that women could only be considered as subscribers but not as members. Clearly, however, he had changed his mind by 1838, when he sanctioned female membership of the Precursor Society. By that time O’Connell appreciated that the enthusiastic support of women was a valuable political asset. Nevertheless, he continued throughout his political career to be uncertain about the nature of the support that women could offer to the public world of politics. In December 1840 he thought it necessary to impose new limitations, asserting that, while women were welcome to attend meetings of the LNRA, it was a breach of rules to address them directly from the platform—‘although we are most happy in being cheered and honoured by their presence amongst us, still they are not considered to be present’. This rule seemed to contradict the practice at the Catholic Association meetings, when women were addressed from the platform and had, on occasion, sat on it.
By December 1840, O’Connell would have been familiar with the involvement of women in England in the campaign for the abolition of slavery. In the summer of that year, he wrote in favour of the presence of American female delegates to the World Anti-Slavery Convention. O’Connell had, however, initially hesitated to acknowledge the women’s rights as delegates and hedged his support for them with reservations. In defending the American women’s claims, O’Connell was careful to guard against establishing any more general rights for women that might be applied in England or in his own organisations in Ireland. He pointed out that the customs concerning the status of women at public meetings in England and North America were different, and that in England women did not sit on the platform.

O’Connell recognised the value of female support but he also identified the political liability of encouraging women to go beyond what was socially acceptable. The debate on the American delegation to the World Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840 had revealed the level of opposition to women’s engagement with public agitation. Even the public gallery as a female space was still in contention in England. In 1837 the House of Commons had reaffirmed the ban on women visitors to its gallery. While public opinion in Ireland (including the Catholic clergy) praised female demonstrations of patriotism, it might have been less comfortable with any further widening of women’s political activities.

Nothing like it elsewhere
As the Haverty illustrations suggest, there were limitations to female involvement in O’Connellite politics. Women, for example, did not serve on local or national committees, nor did they speak at national meetings. Despite the restrictions, however, the political organisations established by O’Connell facilitated the politicisation of women from a variety of economic backgrounds. When thousands of Irish women became involved in the Catholic Association in the 1820s, there was no equivalent large-scale politicisation of women in England or elsewhere in western Europe. The General Association and the Precursor Society may well lay claim to being the first general political organisation in Ireland or Britain to admit women as members. It was not until 1839–40 that women in England began to engage in politics in large numbers, fifteen years after the process had started in Ireland. From the late 1830s, the Chartist movement and the Anti-Corn Law League encouraged participation by women in ways that not only had many similarities with the O’Connellite campaigns but also suggest that the English organisations were following the precedent established in Ireland. The Anti-Corn Law League, for example, held meetings in dissenter chapels, which women attended in large numbers, as well as utilising women as fund-raisers and creating separate female spaces at their larger meetings and banquets. Daniel O’Connell’s contribution to the development of democratic politics has been recognised by historians. Less well known is his role in bringing women of all social classes into Irish politics.

Mary O’Dowd is Professor of Gender History at Queen’s University, Belfast.

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Further reading

M. O’Dowd, ‘O’Connell and the lady patriots: women and O’Connellite politics, 1824–1845’, in A. Blackstock & E. Magennis (eds), Politics and political culture in Britain and Ireland, 1750–1850: essays in tribute to Peter Jupp (Belfast, 2007).


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