Daniel O’Connell was born August 6. 1775 at Carhen near Cahirciveen , County Kerry. Though his family could trace their roots back to the famous chieftains of the 14th century, 18th century Ireland was dominated politically, economically and socially by the minority Protestant ascendancy. It was still an era of the Penal Laws; a world where many of the doors of opportunity were closed and locked for Ireland’s Catholics and non-conforming Protestants such as the Presbyterians. While his own family had maintained some of their wealth, O’Connell was raised amongst the Irish peasantry, learning the Irish language, their songs and stories and seeing first-hand the hardships they experienced. It would give him a unique insight into the perspectives of the common Irish people which would serve him well in years to come.
O’Connell was adopted while still a boy by a propertied but childless uncle. This provided the opportunity for the young O’Connell to have access to an excellent education. He would be sent to some of the finest Catholic boarding schools in France, where during his studies he saw the atrocities of the French Revolution and developed a lifelong revulsion of violence as a means to political ends. He studied law at the Inns of Court in London and was called to the bar in 1798. While recognized for his considerable gifts as an advocate, he was also continually reminded that no matter how great his talents there were limits on how far an Irish Catholic could rise in Britain and British controlled Ireland.
O’Connell practiced law for the next ten years as one of Ireland’s most noted barristers (but perpetually in debt due to a growing family and natural extravagance). In 1811, he turned to politics founding the Catholic Board which later became the Catholic Association which campaigned for Catholic emancipation and the opportunity for Irish Catholics to become members of parliament in addition to electoral reform, tenants’ rights, and economic development. The Association was funded by membership dues of one penny per month, a minimal amount designed to be accessible to the common people of Ireland. The subscription was highly successful and raised large sums of money used to campaign for Catholic emancipation, specifically funding candidates for parliament, who though themselves Protestant, were pro-emancipation.
O’Connell himself stood for election in 1828 for County Clare. Winning the elections, he was unable to take his seat as members of parliament due to the requirement to take the Oath of Supremacy, which would require renouncing his Catholic faith. The Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, and Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel, even though they opposed Catholic participation in Parliament, saw that denying O’Connell his seat would cause outrage and could lead to another rebellion or uprising in Ireland. They secured the passage of the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829; but the act was not retroactive meaning that O’Connell would need to be elected again which he was on 30 July 1829 and took his seat in February 1830. King George IV lamented “Wellington is the King of England, O’Connell is King of Ireland, and I am only the dean of Windsor.” O’Connell was at the pinnacle of his success.
However, his success came with a price. In a separate move the British Government raised the property requirement to vote from 40 schillings to £10, disenfranchising many of O’Connell’s supporters. O’Connell rationalized this by believing that many of the 40 schilling property holders could not vote independently of their landlords Having achieved Catholic Emancipation, O’Connell turned his energies and flare for marketing to the repeal of the 1801 Act of Union which abolished the Irish Parliament. O’Connell was quoted as saying “I would walk from here to Drogheda and back to see the man who is blockhead enough to expect anything except injustice from an English Parliament.” However, O’Connell was no republican; his goal was the creation of an independent Kingdom of Ireland with the British Monarch at its head.
To achieve his vision, O’Connell formed the Repeal Association which organized a series of “Monster Meetings” throughout Ireland. O’Connell, with an appreciation for the value of symbolism in marketing ahead of his time, shrewdly capitalized on sites that reaffirmed Ireland’s ancient history of sovereignty. They drew crowds in Ireland unprecedented for their day ranging from 100,000 to an estimated 700,000 at the meeting held at Tara, the historic seat of Ireland’s ancient High Kings. Despite their size and the enthusiasm of the crowd, the meetings were noted for their orderliness.
An even larger monster meeting, estimated to draw a crowd of over a million, was planned for Clontarf, the site of Brian Boru’s victory over the Vikings in 1014. However, O’Connell underestimated the apprehension he was causing in the British government and the means they would go to thwart any movement toward Ireland’s independence. Seizing on a reference made in notices announcing the meeting at Clontarf to “Repeal Cavalry” (mounted wardens who maintained crowd control); the British Government disingenuously spun the meeting into a planned rebellion. They ordered the meeting canceled and to back up their claims assembled three Army regiments and two Navy warships. Despite appeals from his supporters to defy the government, O’Connell was unwilling to risk the bloodshed of innocents and called off the meeting. Despite complying with the order, a vindictive British Government arrested O’Connell, charged him with conspiracy and sentenced him to a year’s imprisonment and a fine of £2,000. The injustice of this was so blatant that he was ordered released by the House of Lords who severely criticized the unfairness of his trial. However, the government had successfully deprived O’Connell of his most powerful weapon, the “Monster Meeting”.
With advancing age and declining health O’Connell’s days as a force for Ireland had passed. He was still a voice for freedom, successfully advocating a repeal of laws that persecuted Britain’s Jewish community and speaking out against African slavery. O’Connell met and was a tremendous influence on young Frederick Douglas. Douglas stated “I feel grateful to (O’Connell), for his voice has made American slavery shake to its center. I am determined wherever I go, and whatever position I may fill, to speak with grateful emotions of Mr. O’Connell’s labors.”
O’Connell died in 1847 in Genoa, Italy, while on a pilgrimage to Rome at the age of 71; his lifetime of exertions in Ireland’s cause and his time in prison having taken its toll. His dying wish was “My body to Ireland, My heart to Rome, My Soul to Heaven”. His heart was taken to the Irish College of Rome while his body to the resting place of Ireland’s heroes at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin where it lies in a crypt beneath a round tower.
As with most great men, O’Connell’s legacy is complicated. William Makepeace Thackeray told O’Connell “you have done more for your nation than any man since Washington ever did.” William Gladstone described him as “the greatest popular leader the world has ever seen.” The French novelist de Balzac wrote that “Napoleon and O’Connell were the only great men the 19th century had ever seen.” Besides Frederick Douglas, he was cited as an influence by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. However, while he won emancipation for his people, he in the process disenfranchised many of his supporters; widening the gap between absentee landlords and the common Irish people with unanticipated disastrous consequence during the Great Hunger. When deprived of the “Monster Meeting” he did not have an alternative plan. While nobly and idealistically abhorring physical force in politics he underestimated that his opponents did not and for that O’Connell had no counter or means to advance his cause. O’Connell’s undisputed legacy is that he helped Ireland find its voice and reestablished her identity; a voice and an identity that men such as Davis, Meagher, Pearse and Connolly would use to advance the work to truly “Liberate” the Irish people