1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/O'Connell, Daniel
O’CONNELL, DANIEL (1775–1847), Irish statesman, known as “the Liberator,” was born on the 6th of August 1775 near Cahirciveen, a small town in Kerry. He 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 smuggling, 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. While a boy he was adopted by his uncle, Maurice O’Connell of Derrynane, and sent to a school at Queenstown, one of the first which the state in those days allowed to be opened for Catholic teaching; and a few years afterwards he became a student, as was customary with Irish youths of his class, in the English colleges of St Omer and Douai in France. These years in France had 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 Revolution; 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 bloodshed, and of communistic and socialistic views 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 rose before long to the very highest eminence among contemporary lawyers and advocates. This position was in the main due to a dexterity in conducting causes, and especially in examining witnesses, in which he had no rival at the Irish bar. 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 Plunket, 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 19th 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 Roman 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. 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 constitutional limits, though menacing and shaking the frame of society. He gradually succeeded in carrying out his purpose: the Catholic Association, at first small, but slowly assuming larger proportions, was formed; attempts of the government and of the local authorities to put its branches 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 ascendancy, 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 eminence 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 argument, although too often scurrilous and coarse, and marred by a bearing in which cringing fiattery and rude bullying were strangely blended, made a powerful, if not a 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. Though a strict adherent of the creed of Rome, he wasaLiberal, naya Radical, 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 England, only grew stronger with advancing age. His conservatism 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 advocated a reform of his precarious tenure, it is difficult to imagine that he could have approved the cardinal principle of the Irish Land Act of 1881, 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 régime in his country was incompatible with good government, 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 conduct: 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 between Great Britain and Ireland; and he had nothing in common with the revolutionists who, at a later period, openly declared for the separation of the two countries by physical force. The organization which had effected such marvellous results in 1828-1829 was recreated for the new project. Enormous meetings, convened by the priesthood, and directed or controlled by O'Connell, assembled in 1842-1843, 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 certainly it condemned repeal. After some hesitation Peel resolved to put down the repeal movement. A vast intended meeting was proclaimed unlawful, and in October 1843 O'Connell was arrested and held to bail, with ten or twelve of his principal followers. He was convicted (February 1844) after the trials that followed, but they were not good specimens of equal justice, and the sentence of imprisonment for a year and a fine of £2000 was reversed on a writ of error by the House of Lords (September 1844), and he and his colleagues were again free. The spell, however, of O'Connell'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 on the 15th of May 1847, at Genoa, whilst on his way to Rome. His body was brought back to Dublin and buried in Glasnevin cemetery.
O'Connell was a remarkable man in every sense of the word, of splendid physique, and with all the attractions of a popular leader. 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. Nevertheless he not only failed to accomplish the chief aim of his life, but Lecky trenchantly observes that “ by a singular fatality the great advocate of repeal did more than any one else to make the Union a necessity. He destroyed the sympathy between the people and their natural leaders; and he threw the former into the hands of men who have subordinated all national to ecclesiastical considerations, or into the hands of reckless, ignorant, and dishonest adventurers.” O'Connell married in 1802 his cousin Mary O'Connell, by whom he had three daughters and four sons, Maurice, Morgan, John (1810–1858), known as the “Young Liberator,” and Daniel, who all sat in parliament.
His son John published a Life in 1846 and Recollections and Experiences in 1849. There are also biographies by W. Fagan (1847), M. F. Cusack (1872), J. O'Rourke and O’Keffe (1875), and J. A. Hamilton (1888). See especially W. E. H. Lecky's essay in the revised edition of his Leaders of Public Opinion in Ireland vol. ii. (1903). (W. O. M.)
- See the account of O’Connell’s uncle, Count Daniel O’Connell (1745–1833), to whose property he fell heir, in Mrs O’Connell’s Last Colonel of the Irish Brigade (1892), and O’Callaghan’s Irish Brigade in the Service of France (1870).