On May 15, 1847, an Irish patriot died. He had been born in Kerry on August 6, 1775, the year America made her bid for independence, and he would bring a measure of freedom to Ireland. His name was Daniel O’Connell. Adopted by an uncle, he was forbidden, as a Catholic, to attend college in his own country, so after local preliminary education he went to France to study at the Jesuit College. He completed legal studies in England, and returned to Ireland in 1798 where he was admitted to the Irish Bar.
It was a historic time, when Catholic and Protestant had combined in the United Irishmen to demand Catholic emancipation; a demand which England, on the verge of war with France, deemed it prudent to grant in the Franchise of 1793. It was only a paper victory however, for it only allowed Catholics to vote if they could meet strict property qualifications. Further, though some could vote, none could to hold office. O’Connell despised discrimination against his countrymen, and decided to work for full emancipation through the law. In 1813, a Dublin Presbyterian named Magee wrote an article criticizing the Irish administration, and the government brought charges against him. O’Connell agreed to defend Magee against a stacked jury, knowing that the case was lost, in order to use the courtroom as a public platform to attack government prejudice. With amazing audacity, he condemned the judges, the jury, and the entire British judicial system to their faces. He lost the case but won the country who, amazed by this mortal who dared to attack the lion in his own den, rose to support their new champion. O’Connell formed an association called The Catholic Board and began to organize. In 1821 King George IV visited Ireland, and a humble O’Connell did all that he could to convince the King that his Irish subjects respected his law. O’Connell sincerely believed that the first step toward emancipation was to establish a bond between Irish Catholics and English royalty. He was mistaken, for although the House of Commons passed a Catholic Relief Bill, it was thrown out by the House of Lords, and he had to start all over.
In 1823, he formed The Catholic Association for the purpose of forcing political change by using the limited voting power won by the United Irishmen in 1793. The task was not easy for, although some native Irish held property, their votes were controlled by the district landlord. The Association soon became so strong that the government outlawed it. In consideration of their strength however, The 1825 Emancipation Bill was introduced. Again, the Lords threw it out! O’Connell hastily organized The New Catholic Association for “the purpose of public and private charity and such other purposes that are not forbidden by the statutes of George IV”. Thus, O’Connell kept his organization intact by the simple change of a name. Then in 1828, a Parliamentary vacancy was created in County Clare by the promotion of a Mr. Fitzgerald to a higher post. The seat was set to go to his son, just as he had received it from his father, and an election was set to formalize the event. O’Connell decided to run against the younger Fitzgerald to test the law forbidding Catholics to sit in Parliament – after all, the law did not forbid them from running for the office! The people ran joyously to the polls, ignoring the threats of the landlords for the first time, and defiantly elected an Irish Catholic to Parliament by a margin of two to one. The aristocracy was thrown into a panic, and appealed to England. Parliament, recognizing the threat and the possibility of it degrading into an armed rebellion, ignored the landlords and passed the Emancipation Bill over fierce opposition. County Clare had conquered England.
O’Connell went to the House of Commons to claim his seat on the day that the Bill was passed. He was asked to take the customary oath of allegiance to the King (since he was elected before passage of the Emancipation Bill), and he refused. Told by the Speaker that he could not take his seat without the oath, O’Connell stormed out of the House and returned to Clare where he was re-elected without opposition. After the Bill was put into effect, the oath was modified and O’Connell took his seat. By the following year, civil and military posts, previously prohibited to Catholics, were opened to certain loyal, propertied Irish Catholics. It was a beginning. O’Connell had shown the Irish how to use English law to achieve their ends. In 1830 he started the Anti-Union Association to break the ties with England created by the Act of Union. Unfortunately, many who were anti-Union in the 1790′s were now pro-Union because of the bitterness of the fight for emancipation and the subsequent erosion of their power in the House of Commons as more Irish were elected to minor seats. O’Connell curtailed his activities for repeal to concentrate on Parliamentary reform, believing that only in a reformed Parliament would repeal have a chance. The liberal Party known as the Whigs needed his support and made an alliance with him. He delivered them the Irish vote forgetting a basic lesson of the past – England befriended is Ireland betrayed. O’Connell’s Irish following gave the Whigs a majority and they came to power. O’Connell called on the people to allow a 6-year experiment during which no effort was to be made toward repeal of the Union, in order to give Ireland’s friends – the Whigs – the opportunity to help Ireland. Parliament’s first measure was the infamous Coercion Bill of 1834 which limited public liberty. Thus were the Irish repaid for their misguided trust. Ireland was in deep trouble.
A Poor Enquiry of 1835 stated that 2,385,000 Irish were in a state of semi-starvation; that 3/4 of the Irish laborers existed without employment of any kind except at harvest; and that unless a laborer could get a patch of land and grow potatoes to feed himself and his family, they starved. In 1838, Parliament passed the Poor Law which assessed the landlords, who immediately raised rents to recover the cost. Tenants began subletting their meager holdings and in short order, as many as ten families were living on land which could normally have produced food for only one. O’Connell, whose popularity had been in decline because of his association with the Whigs, recognized their betrayal. Thoroughly discouraged, he left public life, and wrote to a friend, “It mortifies me, but it does not surprise me to find that I have exhausted the bounty of the Irish people; God help me! What shall I do?”
In his retreat, his depression turned to indignation and in 1840 he burst forth from retirement with the battle cry “Repeal of the Union”. Taking up the cause he had dropped in 1831, he was catapulted to a new high in popularity as he founded the National Association of Ireland to work for repeal. In 1841, for the first time in history, a Nationalist majority was elected to the Dublin Corporation – a stronghold of Orange power. Further, to the delight of the Irish, O’Connell was elected Dublin’s Lord Mayor – the first Catholic to hold that office. He launched a repeal debate in the Corporation which resulted in a repeal petition to Parliament. His organization grew in strength. By 1842, there were two million men, better organized than they’d been in 40 years, ready for anything – peace or war – that O’Connell decided. Although he remained dedicated to peaceful reform, younger men with hotter passions, were fired by his eloquence. Among these was Thomas Davis, who along with Charles Gavan Duffy and John Blake Dillon, founded The Nation – a nationalist newspaper which supported repeal and developed a nationalist sentiment throughout the country.
At a series of rallies O’Connell declared 1843 the Year of Repeal and publicly demanded repeal of the Union from Queen Victoria, going over the head of Parliament. British Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, replied that the Queen opposed repeal and that, if O’Connell were threatening `repeal or war’, England would choose war. O’Connell’s speeches continued to inflame his listeners though he always cautioned obedience to the law. The Nation saw otherwise and gave fresh fuel to the fire of thought inspired by O’Connell, insisting that a nation’s freedom was very much worth fighting and dying for. O’Connell branded them The Young Irelanders and their policy spread. O’Connell planned a rally on the battle plain of Clontarf where Brian Boru had driven the Danes into the sea in 1014, but the British, alarmed at growing attendances, banned the meeting and sent five regiments to ring the field. The gauntlet was thrown down to O’Connell, who said that not one drop of Irish blood was to be spilled and cancelled the meeting. Having won the advantage, the British quickly arrested the repeal leaders, among them: O’Connell, his son John, and the editors of the Nation. They were charged with conspiring to change the constitution by illegal means. The country stood ready for O’Connell’s order to rise but the leader ordered peace and the people obeyed. The repeal leaders were convicted by a packed jury and sentenced to 12 months in prison. In 1844, after serving four months of his sentence, a sick O’Connell was released on appeal and went home to recuperate. His imprisonment was the turning point in his career; his health began to deteriorate. He returned to public life calling for support of Federalism – a cause which a later generation would call Home Rule.
The Young Irelanders, disappointed by O’Connell’s passive attitude, and his new alliance with the Whigs who had betrayed Ireland before, opposed the leader publicly and swayed popular opinion against Federalism until O’Connell dropped the idea. Then, in 1845, the potato crop failed. The Irish looked to O’Connell who begged Parliament to repeal the Corn Laws which forbid the import of grain to Ireland – even relief grain – because it would compete with the landlord’s crops, but Parliament refused. By 1846, 6 months after the blight had struck, people began to starve and fever from eating diseased potatoes began to spread. In order to contain the frustrated Irish, the House of Lords passed a Coercion Bill which included Martial Law with exceptional powers of punishment given to local magistrates.
Under the promise of reform for Ireland, the Whigs enlisted O’Connell’s support again, and were successful. In June, Lord John Russell became the Prime Minister. A sick and worn Daniel O’Connell journeyed to Parliament to plead, in the name of God and common humanity, for his perishing people, but Parliament ignored him. Ordered by his doctor to rest under sunny skies, he set out for Rome. En route, on May 15, 1847, he died. By his last request, his heart was enshrined in a silver urn and taken to Rome while his body was returned to Ireland. After the largest funeral ever seen in Dublin, Daniel O’Connell’s body was laid to rest at Glasnevin.Ì O’Connell had many causes, some were not as popular as others, but all were on behalf of the Irish people. His efforts finally abolished the infamous Penal Laws, and remain his greatest accomplishment. History gave him the title of Ireland’s Great Emancipator, which was confirmed by a later British Prime Minister, William Gladstone, who described O’Connell as the greatest popular leader the world has ever seen. He was a splendid orator, a creative radical, and an uncompromising believer in peaceful agitation. In that role he pioneered the way for such leaders as Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King, yet in his day he was known as the Cyclone from the West.