1902 Encyclopedia > Daniel O'Connell

Daniel O'Connell
19th century Irish political leader

DANIEL O'CONNELL (1775-1847), born on 6th August, 1775, near Cahirciveen, a small town in Kerry, Ireland, was sprung from a race the heads of which had been Celtic chiefs, had lost their lands in the wars of Ireland, and had felt the full weight of the harsh penal code which long held the Catholic Irish down. His ancestors in the 18th century had sent recruits to the famous brigade of Irish exiles in the service of France, and those who remained at home either lived as tenants on the possessions of which they had once been lords, or gradually made money by smug-gling, a very general calling in that wild region. Thus he inherited from his earliest years, with certain traditions- of birth and high station, a strong dislike of British rule in Ireland and of the dominant owners of the soil, a firm attachment to his proscribed faith, and habitual skill in evading the law; and these influences may be traced in his subsequent career. O'Connell learned the rudiments at a school in Cork, one of the first which the state in those evil days allowed to be opened for Catholic teach-ing ; and a few years afterwards he became a student, as was customary with Irish youths of his class, in the colleges of St Omer and Douai. His great abilities, it is said, were there perceived by the principals, and their peculiar training undoubtedly left a permanent mark on his mind and nature, for the casuistry and the diction of the Bomish priesthood distinctly appear in his speeches and writings, and he had much of the ecclesiastic in his manners and bearing. These years, too, in France had, in another way, a decided effect in forming his judgment on political questions of high moment. He was an eye-witness on more than one occasion of the folly and excesses of the French Bevolution; and these scenes not only increased his love for his church, but strongly impressed him with that dread of anarchy, of popular movements ending in blood-shed, and of communistic and socialistic viewrs which characterized him in after life. To these experiences, too, we may partly ascribe the reverence for law, for the rights of property, and for the monarchical form of government which he appears to have sincerely felt; and, demagogue as he became in a certain sense, they gave his mind a deep Conservative tinge. In 1798 he was called to the bar of Ireland, and though, as professing a still degraded creed, he was shut out from the chance of promotion, though he could not even obtain a silk gown, and though, what was of more importance, he was subjected in a variety of ways to caste hostility, he rose before long to the very highest eminence among contemporary lawyers and advocates. This position was in the main due to a dexterity in con-ducting causes, and especially in examining witnesses, in which he had no rival at the Irish bar, and here his pro-found sagacity, observant cunning, and intuitive knowledge of the native character enabled him to accomplish wonders, even at the present day not wholly forgotten. He was, however, a thorough lawyer besides, inferior in scientific learning to two or three of his most conspicuous rivals, but well read in every department of law, and especially a master in all that relates to criminal and constitutional jurisprudence. As an advocate, too, he stood in the very highest rank; in mere oratory he was surpassed by Plun-ket, and in rhetorical gifts by Bushe, the only speakers to be named with him in his best days at the Irish bar ; but his style, if not of the most perfect kind, and often disfigured by decided faults, was marked by a peculiar subtlety and manly power, and produced great and striking effects. On the whole, in the art of winning over juries he had scarcely an equal in the law courts.

To understand, however, O'Connell's greatness we must look to the field of Irish politics. From early manhood he had turned his mind to the condition of Ireland and the mass of her people. The worst severities of the penal code had been, in a certain measure, relaxed, but the Catholics were still in a state of vassalage, and they were still pariahs compared with the Protestants. The rebellion of 1798 and the union had dashed the hopes of the Catholic leaders, and their prospects of success seemed very remote when, in the first years of the present century, the still unknown lawyer took up their cause. Up to this juncture the question had been in the hands of Grattan and other Protestants, and of a small knot of Catholic nobles and prelates ; but their efforts had not accomplished much, and they aimed only at a kind of compromise, which, while conceding their principal claims, would have placed their church in subjection to the state. O'Connell inaugurated a different policy, and had soon given the Catholic movement an energy it had not before possessed. Himself a Catholic of birth and genius, unfairly kept back in the race of life, he devoted his heart and soul to the cause, and his character and antecedents made him the champion who ultimately assured 'its triumph. Having no sympathy with the rule of " the Saxon," he saw clearly how weak was the hold of the Government and the Pro-testant caste on the vast mass of the Catholic nation; having a firm faith in the influence of his church, he per-ceived that it might be made an instrument of immense political power in Ireland ; and, having attained a mastery over the lawyer's craft, he knew how a great popular movement might be so conducted as to elude the law and yet be in the highest degree formidable. With these convictions, he formed the bold design of combining the Irish Catholic millions, under the superintendence of the native priesthood, into a vast league against the existing order of things, and of wresting the concession of the Catholic claims from every opposing party in the state by an agitation, continually kept up, and embracing almost the whole of the people, but maintained within constitu-tional limits, though menacing and shaking the frame of society. He gradually succeeded in carrying out his pur-pose : Catholic associations, at first small, but slowly assum-ing larger proportions, were formed in different parts of the country; attempts of the Government and of the local authorities to put them down were skilfully baffled by legal devices of many kinds; and at last, after a conflict of years, all Catholic Ireland was arrayed to a man in an organization of enormous power, that demanded its rights with no uncertain voice. O'Connell, having long before attained an undisputed and easy ascendency, stood at the head of this great national movement; but it will be observed that, having been controlled from first to last by himself and the priesthood, it had little in common with the mob rule and violence which he had never ceased to regard with aversion. His election for Clare in 1828 proved the forerunner of the inevitable change, and the Catholic claims were granted the next year, to the intense regret of the Protestant Irish, by a Government avowedly hostile to the last, but unable to withstand the overwhelming pressure of a people united to insist on justice. The result, unquestionably, was almost wholly due to the energy and genius of a single man, though the Catholic question would have been settled, in all probability, in the course of time; and it must be added that O'Connell's triumph, which showed what agitation could effect in Ireland, was far from doing his country unmixed good.

O'Connell joined the Whigs on entering parliament, and gave effective aid to the cause of reform. The agitation, however, on the Catholic question had quickened the sense of the wrongs of Ireland, and the Irish Catholics were engaged ere long in a crusade against tithes and the established church, the most offensive symbols of their inferiority in the state. It may be questioned whether O'Connell was not rather led than a leader in this; the movement, at least, passed beyond his control, and the country for many months was terrorized by scenes of appalling crime and bloodshed. Lord Grey, very properly, proposed measures of 'repression to put this anarchy down, and O'Connell opposed them with extreme vehemence, a seeming departure from his avowed principles, but natural in the case of a popular tribune. This caused a breach between him and the Whigs; but he gradually returned to his allegiance to them when they practically abolished Irish tithes, cut down the revenues of the established church, and endeavoured to secularize the surplus. By this time O'Connell had attained a position of great emi-nence in the House of Commons: as a debater he stood in the very first rank, though he had entered St Stephen's after fifty; and his oratory, massive and strong in argu-ment, although too often scurrilous and coarse, and marred by a bearing in which cringing flattery and rude bullying were strangely blended, made a powerful, if not & pleasing, impression. O'Connell steadily supported Lord Melbourne's Government, gave it valuable aid in its general measures, and repeatedly expressed his cordial approval of its policy in advancing Irish Catholics to places of trust and power in the state, though personally he refused a high judicial office. These were not the least useful years of his life, and they clearly brought out the real character and tend-encies of his views on politics. Though a strict adherent of the creed of Rome, he was a Liberal, nay a Badical, as regards measures for the vindication of human liberty, and he sincerely advocated the rights of conscience, the emancipation of the slave, and freedom of trade. But his rooted aversion to the democratic theories imported from France, which were gradually winning their way into Eng-land, only grew stronger with advancing age; he denounced Chartism in unmeasured terms ; the sovereign had no more loyal subject; and if, as became him, he often condemned the tyranny of bad Continental Governments, he reverenced the constitution and laws of England interpreted in a gener-ous spirit. His conservatism, however, was most apparent in his antipathy to socialistic doctrines and his tenacious regard for the claims of property. He actually opposed the Irish Poor Law, as encouraging a communistic spirit; he declared a movement against rent a crime ; and, though he had a strong sympathy with the Irish peasant, and advo-cated a reform of his precarious tenure, it is difficult to imagine that he could have approved the cardinal principle of the Irish Land Act, the judicial adjustment of rent by the state.

O'Connell changed his policy as regards Ireland when Peel became minister in 1841. He declared that a Tory regime in his country was incompatible with good govern-ment, and he began an agitation for the repeal of the union. One of his motives in taking this course no doubt was a strong personal dislike of Peel, with whom he had often been in collision, and who had singled him out in 1829 for what must be called a marked affront. O'Connell, nevertheless, was sincere and even consistent in his con-duct : he had denounced the union in early manhood as an obstacle to the Catholic cause; he had spoken against the measure in parliament; he believed that the claims of Ireland were set aside or slighted in what he deemed an alien assembly; and, though he had ceased for some years to demand repeal, and regarded it as rather a means than an end, he was throughout life an avowed repealer. It should be observed, however, that in his judgment the repeal of the union would not weaken the real bond be-tween Great Britain and Ireland; and he had nothing in common with the rebellious faction who, at a later period, openly declared for the separation of the two countries by force. The organization which had effected such mar-vellous results in 1828-29 was recreated for the new pro-ject. Enormous meetings, convened by the priesthood, and directed or controlled by O'Connell, assembled in 1842-43, and probably nine-tenths of the Irish Catholics were unanimous in the cry for repeal. O'Connell seems to have thought success certain ; but he had not perceived the essential difference between his earlier agitation and this. The enlightened opinion of the three kingdoms for the most part approved the Catholic claims, and as cer-tainly it condemned repeal. After some hesitation Beel resolved to put down the repeal movement. A vast in-tended meeting was proclaimed unlawful, and O'Connell was arrested and held to bail, with ten or twelve of his principal followers. He was convicted after the trials that followed, but they were not good specimens of equal justice, and the sentence was reversed by the House of Lords, with the approbation of competent judges. The spell, however, of O'ConneU's power had vanished; his health had suffered much from a short confinement; he was verging upon his seventieth year; and he was alarmed and pained by the growth of a party in the repeal ranks who scoffed at his views, and advocated the revolutionary doctrines which he had always feared and abhorred. Before long famine had fallen on the land, and under this visitation the repeal movement, already paralysed, wholly collapsed. O'Connell died soon afterwards, on 15th May 1847, at Genoa, whilst on his way to Borne, profoundly afflicted by his country's misery, and by the failure of his late high hopes, yet soothed in dying by sincere sympathy, felt throughout Ireland and largely in Europe, and expressed even by political foes. He was a remarkable man in every sense of the word; Catholic Ireland calls him her "Liberator" still; and history will say of him that, with some failings, he had many and great gifts, that he was an orator of a high order, and that, agitator as he was, he possessed the wisdom, the caution, and the tact of a real statesman. O'Connell married in 1802 his cousin Mary O'Connell, by whom he had three daughters and four sons. Of the latter, all have at one time or another had seats in parliament. (W. O. M.)

The above article was written by: W. O. Morris.

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