Counsellor, Agitator, Liberator, King Daniel O’Connell led the Irish people with charisma, righteousness and a devout belief in the need for freedom for all people. The Europeans would hail him as the equal of Napoleon and others the forerunner of great emancipators such as Gandhi and Luther King. He united Ireland and inspired them to fight for their rights against English oppression when all seemed lost. He gave them hope for the future that others would build upon. He got Ireland standing on her own two feet and prepared them to meet the enemy no matter what.
O’Connell was sent to France to train in Law. By 1793 the Revolution was causing chaos, anarchy and leading to uncontrolled violence. On his escape, he witnessed this and vowed not to resort to violence in his quest for justice in Ireland. On qualifying as a lawyer, Dan quickly made a name for himself in Irish courtrooms. He was witty, sarcastic, abusive, aggressive and vulgar, but he knew the law and he knew when and where to use his skills. He used them for the main aim, which was winning. Winning justice for the client and secondarily a name for himself.
He was a very tall and large framed man, he had a loud voice and oratorical skill that was unmatched. He practiced his delivery religiously when young and it was this use of emotion and theatrical skills that used to win the day in court. His speeches were not that great in content, but the force of his personality would often carry the court. His skills at seeing through a hostile witness were uncanny. Once an accused man said he found a body which still had life in it. The man repeated this a few times until Dan saw through him. The victim was dead, but the accused had put a live fly in his mouth to prove he had life in him. He was known as the counsellor and was the saviour of many a man and woman who would be disadvantaged by an English system and a predominantly hostile Protestant legal establishment. He upset many opponent, but they rarely got the better of him. He was challenged to a duel on a number of occasions. Once he actually killed a man who was predicted to beat him and he even travelled to Calais to duel with the up and coming Robert Peel, who was one of his greatest adversaries. Fortunately for both the authorities intervened to prevent the nonsense.
His early life was reported to be wild and his debts kept mounting. Later in life he would refuse lucrative offers from the English Government to work in the system and remove him from politics. But ultimately it was for old Ireland he fought harder and harder as he grew older. Ireland had achieved its own parliament in 1782, but this had been replaced by when the Union was imposed in 1801. Without representation by Catholics, as this was prohibited, the Irish lacked a voice.
He settled down when he married Mary and had kids. He returned to the Catholic faith which he took up with renewed vigour and joined the Catholic Association. Their main aim was to petition Westminster for emancipation for Catholic’s allowing them to vote. There was much political horse-trading, with the various characters in the House of Commons, but one of the largest problems was the monarch. The Georgians very place was given to them due to the rejection of Catholicism by the state, they were not interested in giving power back to papists. Deals were struck and reneged on, until Dan got the chance to stand for election himself.
By now he was a big celebrity in Ireland. He was the most famous lawyer and much sought after, by those accused. When in his native Kerry, he insisted that his tenants should not go to law, but he would settle the matter himself. This was another example of him choosing justice over money, to his own expense. He was always very popular among the people, not just for his seeking justice, but also because of his dynamic, charismatic and fully emotional character. When a seat for Clare came up for election he took the chance. Catholics were allowed to vote if they owned enough property, worth 40 shillings. But the landed gentry would punish people who voted for Catholic candidates and evicted them. Undeterred the people united to support each other and the priests support proved vital. A well organised machine canvassed in Clare and amid great drama and debate. His opponent, V.Fitzgerald, was clearly a popular gentleman and stated he was a friend of Catholics and supported them in emancipation. O’Connell knew that moderation was not the best policy and attacked with all possible weapons. He won the day and was elected. At the time he was cheered wherever he went as the people’s hero, standing up for their rights.
Emancipation was now inevitable as Ireland was rising behind O’Connell and the momentum could not be stopped. The King had to concede, but Dan still had to take the oaths. The problem in going to Westminster was that to sit in the House of Commons, he was required to take oaths that were blood curdling in their condemnation of the Catholic faith. He opposed these dramatically and had to be re-elected later when they were soon changed.
In sitting in the Commons, the English expected him to be diminished by what was regarded as the graveyard of orators. He would not be intimidated, but he was generally ignored for the first few years. Having achieved emancipation, his main goal was to repeal the Act of Union. By 1835, he was getting the better of the House and was aligning with the Whigs to improve the Irish lot. He was expecting to be a Minister for Ireland, but he had to concede Repeal for the moment. But he did not become a minister, but was offered the Master of the Rolls in Ireland. This would make him richer, but would take him out of politics. But he could not take the office while Ireland was in turmoil. The Whigs clearly did not trust him. With the hopes of an alliance fading he returned to the issue of Repeal.
Dan was going into decline. His beloved wife had died leaving him bereft. His parliamentary adventures had not been as successful as there did not appear to be many in England that he could rely on. The movement for repeal was not going well and his age was beginning to tell. But he got elected as Lord Mayor of Dublin and started promoting repeal from that position. Encouraging debate, working hard at his post and fighting off Orange attacks his career started to be reborn. By 1843 he started on his greatest agitation. Throughout the year he held 31 Monster meetings all over Ireland. Some were claimed to be 1 million strong, while they could well have been up to ½ million. He travelled the country and preached for repeal. He demanded abstinence from alcohol during the meetings and no violent behaviour. In this he was generally obeyed. He continually challenged the Peel Government and demonstrated how united Ireland was in desiring repeal of Union. He stated repeatedly that Ireland would not use violence, but that they would stand and fight if the English attacked. The meetings were a massive success and Ireland was ablaze with Dan fever and open rebellion. The country had rediscovered hope in the face of despair. But the last meeting was planned for Clontarf and Peel had decided to challenge it. It looked to him that O’Connell was effectively declaring independence and he decided to act. The meeting was banned by proclamation, it saying that the British Constitution was being challenged. The army was positioned to fire on the people if crowds gathered. Heavy artillery and gunships were in place. It was only declared the night before, so O’Connell felt he had to cancel the meeting to avoid bloodshed. Many were disappointed at his decision. He had been out-manoeuvred. He was soon arrested for sedition. He was sentenced to 12 months in prison with some of his colleagues. After six months the prosecution was quashed and he was released to great celebration.
But the darkest days for Ireland were approaching. The potato famine that was to take about a million lives and see another million emigrate was starting. O’Connell recognised the danger and started making provision for his tenants and suggesting schemes to employ and feed people. But the reaction was too slow. Peel did agree for a change and repeal the Corn Laws, allowing cheap foreign grain to be imported without tariff, but in doing so he destroyed his government and the Liberals who assumed office were criminally negligent in their treatment of the starving Irish. Through all this O’Connell was failing in health and voice, and despite his efforts he could not prevent the terror that was affecting his people. All talk of repeal had gone and survival was all that mattered.
His health failing as with his country, Dan took a trip to Rome knowing he would never return. He did not make it, dying in Genoa. He was brought back home, hailed as one of monarchical status. He had achieved emancipation, but not repeal. He could not save Ireland when he was most needed an as it was too late for him. But his inspiration to future leaders of Ireland showed what could be done. He proved that Ireland could stand tall against the English and challenge their supremacy. He was also much admired throughout the world as a great leader and inspiration to many who would tread the path of Nationalism and freedom from colonialism.
He was a larger than life character whose vanity at times bordered on arrogance. His great skills at seducing an audience, led the people to believe and follow his leadership. Ultimately he discovered that there could be no compromise with the English Establishment. Their empty promises would be used for political manoeuvring. Outright opposition through non-violence proved the way forward. But within that he used all forms of language to pressurise, embarrass and threaten those who sought to restrict freedom. That was greatest desire for all people, to know freedom to achieve their potential and be governed fairly as their leaders had often promised, but rarely delivered.