The Liberator: Daniel O'Connell, Irish Political Hero of the Early 1800s (2024)

Daniel O'Connell was an Irish patriot who came to exert enormous influence on the relationship between Ireland and its British rulers during the first half of the 19th century. O'Connell, a gifted orator, and charismatic figure rallied the Irish people and helped secure some degree of civil rights for the long-oppressed Catholic population.

Seeking reform and progress through legal means, O'Connell was not really involved in the periodic Irish rebellions of the 19th century. Yet his arguments provided the inspiration for generations of Irish patriots.

O'Connell's signature political achievement was the securing of Catholic Emancipation. His later Repeal Movement, which sought to repeal the Act of Union between Britain and Ireland, was ultimately unsuccessful. But his management of the campaign, which included "Monster Meetings" which drew hundreds of thousands of people, inspired Irish patriots for generations.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of O'Connell to Irish life in the 19th century. After his death, he became a venerated hero both in Ireland and among the Irish who had emigrated to America. In many Irish-American households of the 19th century, a lithograph of Daniel O'Connell would hang in a prominent location.

Childhood in Kerry

O’Connell was born on August 6, 1775, in County Kerry, in the west of Ireland. His family was somewhat unusual in that while Catholic, they were considered members of the gentry, and they owned land. The family practiced an ancient tradition of “fosterage,” in which a child of wealthy parents would be raised in the household of a peasant family. This was said to make the child deal with hardships, and other advantages would be that the child would learn the Irish language as well as local traditions and folklore practices.

In his later youth, an uncle nicknamed “Hunting Cap” O’Connell doted on young Daniel, and often took him hunting in the rough hills of Kerry. The hunters used hounds, but as the landscape was too rough for horses, the men and boys would have to run after the hounds. The sport was rough and could be dangerous, but young O’Connell loved it.

Studies in Ireland and France

Following classes taught by a local priest in Kerry, O’Connell was sent to a Catholic school in the city of Cork for two years. As a Catholic, he couldn’t enter the universities in England or Ireland at the time, so his family sent him and his younger brother Maurice to France for further studies.

While in France, the French Revolution broke out. In 1793 O’Connell and his brother were forced to flee the violence. They made their way to London safely, but with little more than the clothes on their backs.

The passing of Catholic Relief Acts in Ireland made it possible for O’Connell to study for the bar, and in the mid-1790s he studied at schools in London and Dublin. In 1798 O’Connell was admitted to the Irish bar.

Radical Attitudes

While a student, O’Connell read widely and absorbed current ideas of the Enlightenment, including such authors as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Thomas Paine. He later became friendly with the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, an eccentric character known for advocating a philosophy of “utilitarianism.” While O’Connell remained a Catholic for the rest of his life, he also always thought of himself as a radical and a reformer.

Revolution of 1798

A revolutionary fervor was sweeping Ireland in the late 1790s, and Irish intellectuals such as Wolfe Tone were dealing with the French in hopes that French involvement could lead to Ireland’s liberation from England. O’Connell, however, having escaped from France, was not inclined to align himself with groups seeking French aid.

When the Irish countryside erupted in rebellions of the United Irishmen in the spring and summer of 1798, O’Connell was not directly involved. His allegiance was actually to the side of law and order, so in that sense, he sided with British rule. However, he later said that he wasn’t approving of the British rule of Ireland, but he felt that open revolt would be disastrous.

The 1798 uprising was particularly bloody, and the butchery in Ireland hardened his opposition to violent revolution.

Legal Career of Daniel O'Connell

Marrying a distant cousin in July 1802, O’Connell soon had a young family to support. And though his law practice was successful and constantly growing, he was also always in debt. As O’Connell became one of the most successful lawyers in Ireland, he was known for winning cases with his sharp wit and extensive knowledge of the law.

In the 1820s O’Connell was deeply involved with the Catholic Association, which promoted the political interests of the Catholics in Ireland. The organization was funded by very small donations which any poor farmer could afford. Local priests often urged those in the peasant class to contribute and become involved, and the Catholic Association became a widespread political organization.

Daniel O'Connell Runs for Parliament

In 1828, O'Connell ran for a seat in the British Parliament as the member from County Clare, Ireland. This was controversial as he would be barred from taking his seat if he won, as he was Catholic and Members of Parliament were required to take a Protestant oath.

O'Connell, with the support of poor tenant farmers who often walked miles to vote for him, won the election. As a Catholic Emancipation bill had recently passed, due in large measure to agitation from the Catholic Association, O'Connell was eventually able to take his seat.

As might be expected, O'Connell was a reformer in Parliament, and some called him by the nickname, "The Agitator." His great goal was to repeal the Act of Union, the 1801 law which had dissolved the Irish Parliament and united Ireland with Great Britain. Much to his despair, he was never able to see "Repeal" become a reality.

Monster Meetings

In 1843, O'Connell mounted a great campaign for Repeal of the Act of Union and held enormous gatherings, called "Monster Meetings," across Ireland. Some of the rallies drew crowds of up to 100,000. The British authorities, of course, were greatly alarmed.

In October 1843 O'Connell planned a huge meeting in Dublin, which British troops were ordered to suppress. With his aversion to violence, O'Connell canceled the meeting. Not only did he lose prestige with some followers, but the British arrested and jailed him for conspiracy against the government.

Return to Parliament

O'Connell returned to his seat in Parliament just as the Great Famine ravaged Ireland. He gave a speech in the House of Commons urging aid for Ireland and was mocked by the British.

In poor health, O'Connell traveled to Europe in hopes of recuperating, and while en route to Rome he died in Genoa, Italy on May 15, 1847.

He remained a great hero to the Irish people. A grand statue of O'Connell was placed on the main street of Dublin, which was later renamed O'Connell Street in his honor.

The Liberator: Daniel O'Connell, Irish Political Hero of the Early 1800s (2024)
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