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Jul 4, 2000

Passionate Oratory: A Biography of Daniel O’Connell

Daniel O’Connell was a lawyer, a peerless orator, and Ireland’s prominent political leader in the first half of the 19th century.

In 1695, Britain began enacting a series of Penal Laws on Ireland. They denied Irish people the liberty to own land, attend school, learn a trade, bear arms, hold public office, travel abroad or practice their religion without interference. Moreover, to support the Church of England, the government taxed Irish peasants who shivered in windowless one-room mud huts, slept on straw and subsisted on potatoes and water.

Britain ruled Ireland primarily through a Viceroy appointed by the King, although an Irish Parliament – consisting of Protestant landlords — was summoned from time to time. In 1800, the Irish Parliament, bribed by the promise of favors, voted to abolish itself and embrace the Union which meant Irish affairs would be governed from London by the British Parliament.

Then came Daniel O’Connell who became the great champion of Irish emancipation and Ireland’s major political leader for a half-century. He declared: “My political creed is short and simple. It consists in believing that all men are entitled as of right and justice to religious and civil liberty…I have taken care to require it only on that principle which would emancipate the Catholics in Ireland, would protect the Protestants in France and Italy, and destroy the Inquisition, together with inquisitors, in Spain. Religion is debased and degraded by human interference; and surely the worship of the Deity cannot but be contaminated by the admixture of worldly ambition or human force.”

O’Connell insisted on pursuing liberty with nonviolent methods, and he led the first nonviolent mass movement in European history. He recognized that violence brings out the worst in everyone. He was farsighted enough to see that even if Irish violence fulfilled immediate aims, it would poison future relations. His cherished goals were liberty and peace. “He was the leader of a nation,” wrote four-time Liberal Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, “and this nation, weak, outnumbered, and despised, he led, not always unsuccessfully, in its controversy with another nation, the strongest perhaps and the proudest in Europe.”

O’Connell displayed extraordinary devotion. “For more than twenty years before Emancipation,” he recalled, “the burden of the cause was thrown upon me. I had to arrange the meetings, to prepare the resolutions, to furnish replies to the correspondence, to examine the case of each person complaining of practical grievances, to rouse the torpid, to animate the lukewarm, to control the violent and inflammatory, to avoid the shoals and breakers of the law, to guard against multiplied treachery, and at all times to oppose at every peril the powerful and multitudinous enemies of the cause…there was no day that I did not devote from one to two hours, often much more, to the working out of the Catholic cause, and that without receiving or allowing the offer of any remuneration, even for the personal expenditure incurred in the agitation of the cause itself.” 

Besides specifically helping Ireland, O’Connell supported an expansion of the voting franchise, which became the Reform Bill of 1832. He spoke out for eliminating civil disabilities against Jews. He favored the repeal of usury laws which fixed interest rates. He opposed capital punishment. He advocated free trade. An outspoken foe of slavery, he shared the podium with the American antislavery orator Frederick Douglass. The methods he used to rally Irish multitudes were adapted by Richard Cobden and John Bright when they led their great campaign to abolish trade restrictions which prevented hungry people from buying cheap imported food.

“It was really the example of America, rather than France, that determined his early political outlook,” wrote University College Dublin historian T. Desmond Williams. “He inherited much from the doctrines of the American Revolution…”  Biographer Raymond Moley observed: “There is an amazing parallel between O’Connell and Jefferson. The Irish leader, in his student days in London and Dublin, was reading the same books which had been so influential with Jefferson earlier. Their political and philosophical conclusions were almost identical. Both were children of the French Enlightenment and English liberalism. Both, influenced by the anti-clerical literature of the times, embraced Deism – O’Connell for a very few years, Jefferson permanently.”

O’Connell was unforgettable. According to Moley, “even before he could be called a Liberator – a magnificent presence, a face beneath those curly locks which never lost its charm. Tall, powerfully built, and with the poise of an actor, he had a sharp memory and a mind like a finely articulated mechanism…one account places his height at slightly below six feet. His shoulders were broad and his chest was massive. His posture was erect and commanding. He had dark curly hair and blue eyes…shining eyes and delicate features suggest nothing more appropriate than ‘feminine sweetness”

Biographer Charles Chenevix Trench: “In his forties, O’Connell was still a fine figure of a man. He was chested like a bull, and not without a magisterial protuberance lower down, about which he was very sensitive…His clothes, every stitch of Irish cloth, seemed to make him larger than life – a high, wide-brimmed top hat, or a fur hat in cold weather, a coat with padded shoulders, and over it a long, sweeping cloak. His face was like a Roman Emperor’s – one of the strong Emperors – square, heavy-jowled, with a broad nose and big eyes, rather pale from much work indoors. His hair was blacker, thicker, curlier and glossier than ever, being, in fact, a wig. This, when quizzed, he turned to his advantage, boasting that he had gone bald in the service of his country.”

O’Connell was one of the greatest orators. “Such tenderness, such pathos, such world-embracing love,” recalled Frederick Douglass, “and, on the other hand, such indignation, such fiery and thunderous denunciation, such wit and humor, I never heard surpassed, if equaled, at home or abroad.”   His voice, reported Trench, “was wonderfully flexible, changing from an angry or challenging roar to a confidential near-whisper which in some extraordinary way he projected effortlessly to the most distant man in a crowd.”  Scholar Arthur Houston, too, marveled at O’Connell’s “marvelous voice, powerful…sonorous, melodious, penetrating, capable of expressing every shade of human feeling. But a voice is nothing without a command of words, and words are nothing where ideas are lacking. O’Connell had an abundance of both. Poetic fancy and homely wit, delicate humor and deep pathos, subtle flattery and bitter sarcasm, persuasion and denunciation, each, as the occasion required, flowed in an inexhaustible stream to charm or dismay. Nor was it the masses alone that fell under the spell of his eloquence. Judges and juries bowed to his influence, and this wonder at his eloquence was affirmed later by those who heard him in the House of Commons.”

Daniel O’Connell was born on August 6, 1775, on Carhen, a farm owned by Morgan O’Connell, about a mile east of Caherciveen. His mother was Catherine O’Mullane from County Cork. The family, which included older brother Maurice, lived in a stone house over a general store. Daniel was sent to nurse with a peasant family in the Iveragh Mountains, and he lived there four years.

Young Daniel hardly saw his parents, because soon after he returned from the peasant family, he was sent to live with his uncle Hunting Cap at Derrynane where he remained for a decade. While English Penal Laws suppressed Irish schools, perpetuating widespread illiteracy, “hedge” schools provided underground education, and this is how Daniel gained much of his early education. “The schoolmasters or teachers operated not only outside the law, but in direct violation of the law,” reported biographer Raymond Moley. “Any householder was subject to severe penalties if he harbored one of these schoolmasters – who consequently lived and taught his pupils, when the weather permitted, out of doors. He would select a remote spot on the sunny side of a ledge or hill, use rocks for desks and seats, with pupils scattered on the ground before him. In winter the schoolmaster moved from place to place, sheltered always by peasants in their miserable huts. In bad weather he would usually acquire an abandoned cabin, more often without windows and heated by sods of peat brought by the pupils. Much of the instruction was in Gaelic, but the English language, Latin, and occasionally Greek were taught. Reading, writing, and ‘ciphering’ were also included.” All this shows, Moley added, “the insatiable instinct of even the most illiterate peasants for the schooling of their children.”

After spending time at schools in France, O’Connell decided to train as a lawyer in London. He entered Lincoln’s Inn, a private association where people studied English law – as opposed to Roman law studied at Oxford and Cambridge universities. O’Connell kept a journal which shows that he read Edward Coke’s Commentary on Littleton’s Treatise on Land Tenures (1644) and William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769). O’Connell also absorbed many recent writings on liberty, including Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776), Marquis de Condorcet’s Life of Turgot (1786) and Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason (1794) moved him.

In January 1800 at the Royal Exchange, O’Connell delivered his first political speech, an attack on the Union with Britain. The Union occurred when the British bribed members of the Irish Parliament to abolish it and have minority representation in the British Parliament. The aim was to secure more British control over Ireland.

Uncle Hunting Cap pressured him to marry a Cork woman who anticipated a substantial inheritance, but O’Connell had fallen in love with Mary O’Connell, a distant cousin, and they were secretly married. Although he tried to please his uncle by naming their son Maurice, Hunting Cap cut O’Connell’s inheritance anyway. As an Irishman, O’Connell wasn’t permitted to handle the most important and lucrative cases, but he became Ireland’s foremost lawyer by handling small cases.

O’Connell petitioned Parliament to repeal anti-Catholic laws. In a Dublin speech, 1807, O’Connell championed religious liberty which applied not only to Irish Catholics but also to “Protestants in Spain and Portugal, and the Christian in [Moslem] Constantinople.”  Prime Minister William Pitt, however, refused to present Irish petitions in the House of Commons because of resistance by King George III. Member of Parliament Charles James Fox, who had opposed British efforts to subdue Americans during the Revolutionary War and who had championed the liberation of slaves, agreed to present the petitions in 1806, but they were voted down.

Then in 1812, 24-year-old Tory Robert Peel was named Irish Secretary in the British cabinet. He was determined to stop political agitation among the Irish. He started libel proceedings against Dublin Evening Post editor John Magee for attacking a high-ranking British official in Ireland. O’Connell agreed to defend Magee, and the case came before the King’s Bench on July 20, 1813. The prosecutor was anti-Catholic, and the jury was packed with Protestants, so O’Connell knew he didn’t have a chance of winning the case. He used it as an opportunity for protest. He attacked the prosecutor as “an infamous and profligate liar.”  Then O’Connell declared that “No judge ought to dictate to a jury, no jury ought to allow itself to be dictated to…”  The jury found Magee guilty, and he was sentenced to a L500 fine and two years in prison, but all the Irish newspapers reported O’Connell’s presentation. About 100,000 copies of it were believed to have been sold in Ireland. O’Connell’s presentation was translated into French. Copies were distributed in Spain where liberals were attempting to limit government power.

In early 1823, O’Connell, 48, recruited 32-year-old lawyer Richard Lalor Sheil to help energize the movement. He didn’t look like much, being short and sloppy-looking. But he was devoted to the Irish cause, and he was a spellbinding orator. Sheil reflected, “the monster abuses of the Church Establishment, the frightful evils of political monopoly, the hideous anomaly of the whole structure of our civil institutions, the unnatural ascendancy of a handful of men over an immense and powerful population – all these, and the other just and legitimate cause of public exasperation, were gradually dropping out of the national memory…We sat down like galley slaves in a calm.”

O’Connell envisioned an association which would embrace the entire Irish population – about seven million people — for the peaceful pursuit of liberty. Since Irish society consisted of peasants, priests and a miniscule number of business and professional people, O’Connell thought the officers of this association should be the priests who were in weekly contact with everybody. On May 12, 1823, O’Connell and Sheil established the Catholic Association. They decided to try financing the Association by selling subscription memberships for a penny a month. They toured the country promoting the cause and seeking members.

Home Secretary Robert Peel had prosecuted for his remark that continued British refusal to grant Catholic emancipation would bring forth “another Bolivar” – a reference, of course, to the champion of South American independence from Spain. But a jury refused to indict O’Connell.

O’Connell and Sheil went to London, greeted along the way by big crowds, to testify about Irish grievances in the House of Lords. Someone suggested that the movement would have an even greater impact if the leaders wore distinctive uniforms. O’Connell and Sheil, reported Moley, had “a blue coat with a velvet collar, a yellow waistcoat and white pantaloons. For O’Connell, as a symbol of leadership, there was a gold button on the shoulder.”

Events came to a head when, in September 1828, O’Connell campaigned to represent Clare, Ireland in Parliament. He was elected by a substantial majority. He told a crowd in County Tipperary: “We will plant in our Native Land the Constitutional Tree of Liberty. That noble tree will prosper and flourish in our Green and Fertile Country. It will extend its protecting branches all over this lovely island. Beneath its sweet and sacred shade, the universal People of Ireland, Catholics and Protestants, and Presbyterians, and Dissenters of every Class, will sit in peace and unison and tranquility. Commerce and Trade will flourish; Industry will be rewarded; and the People, contented and happy, will see Old Ireland what she ought to be, Great, Glorious and FREE, First Flower of the Earth, first gem of the Sea.”

Amidst the seething anger and likely violence in Ireland, Parliament approved the Emancipation bill by April 10, 1829, and King George IV gave his assent three days later. Tories got even by citing a technicality which forced O’Connell to stand for election again, and they upheld laws which continued to exclude him from the Inner Bar and the biggest law cases. “In these two petty acts of spite against the man who had defeated them,” wrote Raymond Moley, “the Tory party, the King, and undoubtedly Peel himself, lost any moral credit for Emancipation…the government admitted that it yielded, not because of considerations of justice, but only because of fear and under coercion.”

O’Connell remained Ireland’s best lawyer. In one of his most dramatic cases, October 1829, he was called to save men convicted and sentenced to death after the prosecutor resorted to devious methods. Biographer Moley wrote that O’Connell “made the first stage of the journey on horseback since there was no road for the first twenty miles of the way from Derrynane to Cork. After that he was able to travel in a carriage in which he studied the briefs. He continued at a furious pace through the night, and arrived in Cork in the morning to find the court already in session. With no rest or refreshment but a sandwich and a bowl of milk, which he consumed in court while the state prosecutor was summing up, O’Connell plunged into the proceedings. By means of a brilliant cross-examination he succeeded in exposing the witnesses as perjurers, and obtained an acquittal for all his clients. The government then commuted the death sentences passed on the first batch of prisoners.”

O’Connell challenged municipal corporations which, run by appointed Protestants, controlled governments in the towns and cities throughout Ireland. They influenced the selection of juries and pocketed tax revenue without providing much in return. Parliament enacted a bill which abolished most of the municipal corporations. The remaining municipal corporations were to be elected, their powers limited. After this bill took effect, O’Connell was elected Lord Mayor of Dublin.

O’Connell generated pressure for repealing the Union. He helped recruit political candidates, raised money for them, generated publicity and spoke in their behalf. He had as many as 30 candidates in Parliament at one time. His efforts to build an Irish political organization provoked bitter criticism from British newspapers – the London Times alone published over 300 editorials attacking him.

He launched the Repeal Association to make repeal of the Union a top priority, but it was tough going. The Irish members of Parliament were generally unwilling to risk their gains by pushing a policy which faced certain defeat. Protestant landlords, who had supported O’Connell during his campaign for religious liberty, wanted nothing to do with repealing the Union. Irish people who had emigrated to America sent contributions for the Repeal Association, but O’Connell made clear his opposition to slavery, and those contributions dried up – many Irish immigrants had become slave owners.

O’Connell began a series of “Monster Meetings.”  At Kilkenny, for instance, he addressed an audience estimated around 300,000. He reportedly drew about that many people at Mallow. The crowd was believed to be much bigger at Tara, outside Dublin. Robert Peel, who had become Prime Minister, took steps to stop his old rival. Peel ordered the cancelation of what was to have been the biggest “Monster Meeting” at Clontarf, and Peel had artillery aimed at the meeting ground. O’Connell was arrested and charged with conspiracy. The result was a sentence of a year in prison and a L2,000 fine. O’Connell’s lawyers appealed, and after he had been in prison three months, Law Lords voted three (Whigs) to two (Tories) that he should be released because of irregularities in the proceedings against him. He mounted a huge chariot which was drawn through cheering crowds. “The chariot was halted when it reached College Green,” reported biographer Moley, “and O’Connell, always ready to seize the dramatic moment, stood upright and pointed in silence to the Bank of Ireland, until 1800 the seat of the Irish Parliament.”  O’Connell resumed his Monster Meetings, attracting as many as several hundred thousand people in Cork, Dublin, Dundalk, Navan and Tara.

Then he returned home to Derrynane for some rest, and probably in September 1845 he heard news of the potato blight – Phytophthora infestans. Throughout Ireland, this blight turned potatoes soft, black and smelly. The potato crop failed the following year, the first time anybody could remember two Irish crop failures in a row. Desperate Irish peasants pawned their clothes or fishing gear. Many fell behind in their rent — which meant eviction and beggary. Some peasants ate weeds like sorrel and nettles which had a few nutrients but hardly any calories. Many peasants developed scurvy – their gums became swollen, their teeth fell out, their skin developed black sores, and in many cases they died from gangrene. Altogether, about a million people died during the famine. There was a coffin shortage, and coffins with a hinged bottom came into use, so a body could slide into the grave, making it possible to use the coffin again. About the only good that came out of the famine was the June 25, 1846 repeal of the corn laws (grain tariffs) which enabled hungry people import cheaper food. 

Meanwhile, radicals who called themselves the Young Irelanders became O’Connell’s adversaries. They demanded political independence, whereas O’Connell had sought legislative independence. He denounced slavery, while one of his harshest critics, John Mitchel, emigrated to America and supported slavery. Young Irelanders talked about violence, and he was utterly opposed to violence.

O’Connell’s colossal energy faded away. Biographer Charles Chenevix Trench speculated that he seems to have suffered from a brain tumor. Doctors suggested that a trip abroad might help revive O’Connell’s spirits. Accordingly, on March 22, 1847, he sailed from Folkstone, Ireland to Boulogne, France, accompanied by one Father Miley. They traveled south, hoping for warmer weather. They got as far as Genoa when O’Connell took a turn for the worse. He died there on May 17th. He was 71. As he had requested, his heart was buried in Rome, at the Irish College. His body was buried in Glasnevin Cemetary, Dublin.

William Ewart Gladstone, who served four times as Britain’s Prime Minister, was a great admirer of O’Connell. In an 1889 article for Nineteenth Century, he wrote: “As an advocate, it may, I apprehend, be asked, without creating surprise, whether the entire century has produced any one more eminent…As an orator of the platform, he may challenge all the world; for who ever in the same degree as O’Connell trained and disciplined, stirred and soothed, a people?…[he had energy] for whatever tended, within the political sphere, to advance human happiness and freedom.”

Violent nationalism gathered momentum during the 20th century, and O’Connell’s reputation declined. University College Dublin historian Donal McCartney reported, “supporters of the Gaelic Revival, Sinn Feiners, Socialists and Republicans were inclined to accept the…view that it were better for Ireland had O’Connell never been born. The men of the Gaelic Revival argued that because O’Connell was a political giant he had done more than any other man to kill the language.”

By the 1960s, though, more sympathetic biographies of O’Connell began to appear, the most important being Angus Macintyre’s The Liberator: Daniel O’Connell and the Irish Party 1830-1847 (1965), Lawrence J. McCaffrey’s Daniel O’Connell and the Repeal Year (1965), Raymond Moley’s Daniel O’Connell, Nationalism Without Violence (1974) and Charles Chenevix Trench’s The Great Dan, A Biography of Daniel O’Connell (1984). Although Trench provided a sober portrait of O’Connell as a practical political leader, he was lyrical: “the reputation of this greatest of Irishmen deserves to rest not on what he might have done, not on what he failed to do, but on his wonderful achievement in 1828 which raised his people’s heads and straightened their backs after generations of subjection and failure.” Amen!

Reprinted from The Triumph of Liberty by Jim Powell.