Not many people today have heard of Daniel O’Connell, but it is said he’s the father of the civil rights movement, someone commonly compared by historians to Ghandi and Martin Luther King, and a celebrity across Europe during his time. He made quite an impression on Charles Dickens (and the novel Martin Chuzzlewit).
O’Connell was, at one point, crowned ‘King of Ireland’ in front of roughly 750,000 people at the hill of Tara. More recently, his name found its way into the speeches of Elizabeth Windsor and President Obama.
I wondered, as a strong believer (less a campaigner these days) in civil rights myself, who exactly was this man? More to the point, how did he warrant the title of ‘The Liberator’?
To answer these questions, I swiped a biography by Patrick Geoghegan. King Dan: The Rise and Fall of Daniel O’Connell is fairly dense, meticulously researched and based around O’Connell’s own journal entries. In all, I think it was excellently authored.
Early Life and Personality
Daniel O’Connell is, before anything, most commonly credited with leading one of the very first mass civil rights movements, and was certainly not a revolutionary. In his early years, he witnessed first-hand the aftermath of the French Revolution, and was a target himself, being an aristocrat and with an uncle being a general serving Louis XVI. His loyalties lay with the establishment until his final years. And O’Connell had the foresight to understand that revolutions almost invariably result in more bloodshed, brutality and oppression.
As for personality, O’Connell had a couple of traits that are instantly recognisable: According to those who met him, he was very warm, humourous, compassionate and generous – quite a generic statement that could apply to anyone, but his generosity appears a main reason he was heavily in debt most his life. In the courtrooms and among other politicians, he easily deployed sarcasm, wit, insolence, colourful insults, inventive ways of exposing untruths and comedy with great effect.
O’Connell would stick to his principles and wouldn’t back down under pressure. It was his way or the highway. When everyone around him believed concessions and negotiation was the only route to equality for Irish Catholics, O’Connell remained insistent on fighting for a full and immediate repeal of the Acts of Union.
He was also absolute in his advocacy of libertarianism, calling out the hypocrisy of slavery in America and joining the protestant evangelists in the anti-slavery cause – something Geoghegan’s other book might cover in more detail. Unfortunately there isn’t a lot about whether O’Connell did much to extend the fight to the working classes, as Young Ireland and the Chartists did.
Sadly Geoghegan’s book also doesn’t give enough attention to the people who weren’t among the politicians and aristocrats, so it’s hard to tell just from this book how many Catholics genuinely saw hope in O’Connell’s ideas. Was he fighting to end a situation in which many Irish people were prepared to earn citizenship in America through years of back-breaking servitude? Did he think Catholic emancipation would ultimately be critical in fighting poverty?
Religion did play a major part, because the law was rigged in favour of the Protestants, there just happened to be a geographic division, and because O’Connell used the network of churches to mobilise supporters outside the small circle of people he associated with. Ultimately it was a political thing, centred around the Acts of Union that abolished the Irish parliament.
There were several other people leading the Catholic emancipation movement, which was already growing by the time O’Connell became involved. There were committee meetings, board meetings and more committee meetings, until disagreements led to O’Connell forming a Catholic Association. There wasn’t a coherent direction up until that point.
The Catholic Association
Which brings us to the legendary Catholic Association and the Order of Liberators that O’Connell is best remembered for.
Right up until 1823, the talks of Catholic emancipation were between O’Connell’s peers, a handful of politicians, lawyers, judges, etc. etc. It wasn’t until then, when O’Connell was around 48 years of age, and already a celebrity lawyer, that he reached out to the wider population for support.
What he did next was to use the network of Catholic churches in Ireland to build support and funding. At one point the Catholic Association also operated a kind of welfare system off the books, to undermine the power landlords had over the tenants.
There’s a lot more to be said about the Catholic Association, but here Geoghegan’s biography ends, with the later events covered in another book.
My current understanding is O’Connell’s fame and following grew over the years. A series of ‘monster meetings’ were held around Ireland, culminating in the 750,000-strong rally near the hill at Tara in 1843. Here O’Connell was crowned ‘King of Ireland’, which I suspect was staged by O’Connell himself to provoke the establishment.
And that was that. The Tara rally scared The Powers That Be enough to mobilise regiments and warships, and threaten to massacre anyone who attended the next ‘monster meeting’. O’Connell backed down, but was still jailed for sedition.
By the time he was released, the movement was demoralised, but a few Young Irelanders continued fighting a related class struggle.
I think it was Frederick Engels who wrote of O’Connell in 1843:
‘The cunning old fox is going from town to town, always accompanied by a bodyguard such as no king ever had – two hundred thousand people always surround him! How muh could have been done if a sensible man possessed O’Connell’s popularity or if O’Connell had a little more understanding, and a little less egoism and vanity!’
And I agree. Had the movement been leaderless and self-organising, as it could easily have become, things would have turned out very differently. The impoverished could have introduced demands that improved their own quality of life, people would have gained the confidence to continue where O’Connell left off. There was a radical faction within O’Connell’s movement, calling themselves Young Ireland, who did precisely that, seeing a class conflict at play.