Tales from Irish History - Alice Birkhead

Daniel O'Connell, Liberator

One of the Irishmen most opposed to the Act of Union was Daniel O'Connell, the greatest upholder of liberty that the world has ever seen.

He was born in 1775, the year when America was freed from dependence on the mother-country. Thus, in the first days of his memory, the spirit of revolt had begun to pass across the seas to Ireland. The Catholics of that country had now reached the furthest limits of degradation, banned in their own land as lower than slaves, unable to hold property like other men, denied the common privilege of self-defence. O'Connell himself was not allowed to enter Trinity College, Dublin, to complete his education, but was sent by his uncle, known as Old Hunting-Cap, to the Jesuit College of St. Omer. Those were such stirring years in France that few students could pursue their studies quietly with the horrors of the French Revolution passing to its most dreadful phase of bloodshed. O'Connell had to leave France in haste, travelling from Calais to Dover with one John Sheares, who produced from his pocket; on the way, a handkerchief steeped in the blood of Louis XVI.

O'Connell never sympathized with violent attempts for liberty that were regardless of the sacrifice of human life. As soon as the boat left the shores of France, he flung into the sea the tricolour cockade he had been obliged to wear on his hat as a protection from the Republican mob. Yet the French Revolution helped the Irish Catholics to gain some great privileges at this time. The right of voting for members of Parliament was given to them in 1793, and through another law, passed soon after, O'Connell was able to become a barrister in 1798.

He read hard and won many cases for his clients as he built up that fame as an orator, which was so important in after life. His first public speech was made at a meeting held in Dublin to protest against the Act of Union and to deny the statement that the Catholics approved of it. The dream of his life was to bring about the repeal of the Act, but he was content to wait till freedom had been granted to men of his religion.

In 1815, O'Connell fought a duel with D'Esterre, who represented the Guild of Merchants at the council of the Dublin corporation. He had to account for some bitter words at a public meeting when he referred to the "beggarly" corporation of Dublin. The quarrel roused public attention, and D'Esterre's followers evidently expected a regular battle for no less than thirty-six pairs of pistols were counted among them. D'Esterre, mortally wounded, died two days later, and this tragedy is said to have embittered O'Connell's whole life. Nevertheless, he engaged in many other quarrels and fought other duels. Splendid speaker as he was, he seldom weighed his words, and, in moments of excitement, was too often abusive to his opponents.

In 1821, Wellesley became Viceroy of Ireland, and, as the first Irishman to fill that post for centuries, caused new hopes to rise in the breasts of Irish Catholics. He declared to their disappointment that he came "to administer the laws and not to alter them." So insulting were the demonstrations of the Orange party, while he was in office, that O'Connell called upon him to suppress them.

Robert Peel, once Chief Secretary for Ireland and known as Orange-Peel on account of his sympathies with the Orange-party, had organized the Royal Irish Constabulary, but this body of men could not restore order under Wellesley. It was too generally believed that the Viceroy looked with no favour upon the Catholics.

In 1823, when the hopes of the party "hung as wet osiers," O'Connell founded the Catholic Association. At first, few people attended their meetings, but, through the wonderful influence of the leader, it became a powerful body that won the rights of Catholics from the Government. O'Connell would not allow any of the members to commit acts of violence, for he believed in peaceful agitation. He made the ignorant masses see that they must work for what they wanted, and must never damage their cause by going against the law. O'Connell and Richard Lalor Sheil, who was almost as great a speaker, visited England in 1825 to appeal against a Bill passed to suppress the Catholic Association. They attracted much notice on their journey, O'Connell sitting on the box of the landau, in which they drove, wrapped in a cloak like an ancient Irish mantle. At Wolverhampton they were hungry enough to be tempted by "an unhallowed round of beef," but might not touch it since the season was Lent. They contented themselves with the poor substitute of dry toast and creamless tea.

The Bill for Catholic Emancipation passed a second reading in 1825, but was thrown out after the Duke of York's speech in the House of Lords. O'Connell complained bitterly that a government which had given freedom to the Portuguese and the Catholics in far-off South America was content to leave seven millions of Irish Catholics in bondage. Wild excitement had been evoked by the visit of George IV. to Ireland in 1821, but he disliked O'Connell, who had then placed on his head a laurel crown, and was found in tears when the Duke of Wellington came to tell him that the Catholics must be freed!

O'Connell struggled bravely for five years, attracting millions to hear him and drawing the O'Connell Tribute like a king. The money was freely given by the Irish Catholics for the expenses of their cause, and O'Connell had to consider a serious diminution in the enormous income he had earned at the bar when he was free to devote all his time to legal practice. Yet there were enemies who found fault with him for using this annual Rent, as though he had wrung it from a reluctant nation. He taught the people to use the right of voting they had obtained, and by his endeavours at length vanquished the conqueror of Waterloo. He was elected for Clare in 1828, and the Bill for Emancipation received the royal assent in 1829. John Keogh is said to have prophesied that the Bill would be carried when an Irish Catholic was sent to Parliament. Attempts were made to prevent O'Connell from taking his seat, and the oath had to be altered that had once made it impossible for a Catholic to comply with the usual formalities.

After 1829, O'Connell enjoyed a wide fame in Europe as the victorious revolutionist, who had changed the destiny of Ireland and yet had shed no blood. His voice was always raised in the demand for freedom; he advocated the liberation of American slaves and certain privileges, then denied to both Jews and Dissenters; and he fought for free commerce in the struggle of the Corn Laws.

The Repeal of the Union became O'Connell's chief aim in life. In 1840, he founded the Repeal Association, and in 843, began to hold monster meetings, to which men flocked in thousands, eager to hear his magnificent orations. Too much cannot be said of O'Connell's power as a speaker. His brain and tongue were the best weapons that a man could have. He had a stately presence and a voice of surpassing melody, which added to the effects of his clear directness of speech. Few could hear him unmoved, even if they had come with violent prejudice against his views. In Edinburgh he roused a meeting of hostile Scots to a frenzy of enthusiasm.

In answer to O'Connell's summons, 750,000 men assembled at Tara, where ancient kings of Ireland once sat in council. There he rashly pledged himself that within twelve months an Irish Parliament would be established on College Green. The next meeting to be held at Clontarf was forbidden by Government, and in 1844, O'Connell was put upon his trial on a charge of conspiracy. The verdict of guilty was returned, and for several months the great Liberator lay in prison.

After a struggle against the unfair trial, O'Connell was released to the joy of the Irish nation. A change had taken place in him, for he left prison a strangely broken man. He knew that his credit had been damaged by imprisonment, for his followers saw that his reforms could be stopped by the power of the law. With a last appeal for Ireland, suffering from disease and famine, O'Connell set out on a pilgrimage to Rome. He died at Genoa in 1847, and, in accordance with his wishes, his heart was carried to the Eternal City, while his body was brought back to Ireland and buried at Glasnevin.

By Ireland O'Connell must ever be honoured as the Liberator of his countrymen, while other nations owe to him the upholding of all liberty. Europe had watched his actions with the tensest interest, the oppressed hoping for a champion, the tyrannical fearing for their own downfall. His speeches were translated into all languages, and read by slaves and bondmen with a trembling eagerness.