New College of the Humanities

Daniel O'Connell, Irish Nationalist, Dies in Genoa

Richard Cavendish remembers the events of May 15th, 1847.

The death at she age of seventy-one of the veteran politician, Daniel O'Connell, while on his way to Rome on pilgrimage, deprived mid-Victorian Britain of one of its most intriguing and maverick figures. For the best part of two decades, O'Connell had been the wild card in Westminster politics and the first key figure of Irish national awareness thrown up since the debacle of the 1798 uprising against English rule.

O'Connell was in fact called to the Irish bar in the same year as the Revolt and dedicated his political activity from the start to the Repeal of the 1801 Act of Union that had been its aftermath, as well as to 'Catholic Emancipation', removing the bar on Roman Catholics being able to stand for election -- the inevitable by-product of which would be the end of the Protestant 'Ascendancy' that had dominated Irish life, socially, culturally and politically, throughout the eighteenth century.

O'Connell used his lawyer's skills of oratory and organisation to work first of all on challenging the law that forbade meetings of delegates. In 1823 he founded the Catholic Association, a mass movement agitating for reform, with a subscription of a penny a month from poor Catholics in Ireland, and into whose organisation O'Connell brought the influence of the Roman Catholic clergy. In the 1826 elections O'Connell mobilised Irish forty-shilling freeholds, with some success, against the power of the Protestant landlords, and in 1828, in what became a test case, he stood for election and won a parliamentary seat in County Clare.

The British establishment, headed by the Duke of Wellington, who was then prime minister, had to decide whether to stand firm on the status quo, barring O'Connell from taking his seat and possibly provoking mass unrest, or to give way to demands for Catholic Emancipation, even though Wellington himself had repeatedly resisted it and George IV had declared that it would be in violation of his Coronation Oath.

Eventually Wellington gave way, and with his colleague, Robert Peel, passed the Catholic Relief Act in 1829, with the support of the opposition Whigs and in the teeth of resistance in both Houses from his own Tory diehard supporters. Wellington attempted to claw back O'Connell's triumph by setting the franchise in Ireland as a property qualification at £10 a year and forcing O'Connell to fight (and win) the Clare election all over again, by refusing to apply the Act to him retrospectively.

Nevertheless O'Connell was now a Parliamentary force to be reckoned with, and the arrival of forty of his supporters in the Reform Parliament of 1832 signalled that he would pursue his campaign via Westminster as well as in the Irish countryside. O'Connell continued his agitation for repeal of the Act of Union by a 'tithes war' against landlords while similarly trying to reach an accommodation with the new Whig premier, Lord Melbourne. Making little progress on that front O'Connell launched another countrywide organisation, the Repeal Association, which stoked up the temperature in Ireland with a series of mass meetings in the hope of repeating the pressure tactics on the new Tory Prime Minister Peel that had worked a decade before over Emancipation.

Ultimately however O'Connell remained an advocate of non-violent, constitutional change and when Peel called his bluff by banning a mass meeting that O'Connell had planned to address at Clontarf in October 1843, the lawyer's instinct in him overruled the activist. This marked a turning-point in his influence - which was already under threat on the left from the new and more radical 'Young Ireland' movement, which was impatient with the pace of change.

O'Connell remained in the public eye with his trial for sedition the following year, but though the sentence was quashed, he began to dissipate his waning influence in various activities, including opposing the foundation of the Queen's colleges in 1845. Other events, Peel's careful concessions to Irish religious opinion such as the Maynooth grant and the onset of economic and demographic disaster in the run-up to the outbreak of the Famine, dominated the agenda: these and old age sidelined O'Connell. By the time of his death he might have been rendered irrelevant to the immediate political process but this should not obscure the key role he played in the emergence of Irish self-consciousness and nationalism that was to dominate British politics for the next eighty years.

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week

The world's finest history magazine 3 for £5