Daniel O’Connell was born near Cahersiveen, County Kerry, on 6 August 1775. His wealthy, childless uncle adopted him at an early age and brought him up in the beautiful Derrynane. He spoke Irish and enjoyed the traditional culture of song and story of west Kerry. In 1791 he was sent to school in France at St. Omer and Douai where he witnessed firsthand the horrors of the French Revolution. This had an undeniable effect on the young student and left him with a life-long hatred of violence. He read law at Lincoln’s Inn (1794 -96) continuing, his studies in Dublin where he was called to bar in 1798. The 1798 rebellion and the terrible butchery that followed further confirmed his horror of violence and his passion for political gain by peaceful means. He soon built up a famous practice and became renowned for his eloquence and wit in the successful defense of the poor and oppressed. He single-handedly led the call for peaceful reform in Ireland and became the champion for Catholic emancipation and civil rights. In 1815 O’Connell harshly criticized the Dublin corporation and was challenged to a duel by one member, D’Esterre. In the exchange of shots D’Esterre was shot in the leg only, but the injury eventually killed him. O’Connell, much in despair and full of remorse, eternally wore a black glove on his left hand as a reminder.
“The Uncrowned King of Ireland”
Daniel O’Connell “The Liberator” 1775-1847
However, O’Connell was soon drawn into political action; abiding firmly behind his principles. In 1823, O’Connell founded the Catholic Association; whose aim was to use all the legal means available to secure emancipation quickly. Through his actions a mass crusade took place with the support of the Catholic clergy.
The Clare election in 1828 was a turning point. O’Connell managed a huge victory against the government candidate. The polling took place in Ennis County Clare at the old courthouse where the O’Connell monument now stands. At the final count, O’Connell was elected by a majority of eleven hundred votes. The British ascendancy party suffered its first big knock since 1798.
From this historic victory the whole country became aflame in a crescendo of patriotic will and belief that finally some sentiments of civil rights may be gained for the poor and oppressed catholic people of Ireland. Even though O’Connell was against any form of violence, he had such influence over the population that the British government feared a rising; so much so that they granted Catholic emancipation in April 1829. It is to O’Connell’s eternal credit that he was the first of his kind in that he never chose to divert from his principle of no violence.
It was at the British king’s insistence, O’Connell was not allowed to take his seat in parliament and had to be re-elected for Clare in 1830. But in February of that year, through overwhelming popular demand, Daniel O’Connell became the first Catholic in modern history to sit in the British House of Commons. It was at this time that O’Connell became known as “the Liberator” and was given the title as Ireland’s Uncrowned King.
During his parliamentary time O’Connell became the champion of many causes and was one of the main instigators and agitators and a champion for the abolition of slavery.
For the rest of his life O’Connell gave up his practice at the bar to devote his time entirely to politics. O’Connell now decided to concentrate on winning repeal of the Act of Union and establishing an Irish parliament for the Irish people. British political leaders feared repeal as the first step in the break-up of the Act of Union. In 1841, O’Connell was elected Lord Mayor of Dublin and in 1843 he began to organize “Monster Meetings” throughout the country. It is thought that three-quarters of a million people gathered on the Hill of Tara to hear the man they called “The Liberator”. The government became alarmed at the strength of the Repeal Movement. Thus a meeting which O’Connell had planned for 8 October 1843 in Clontarf, Dublin was banned. Huge crowds were already on their way when O’Connell called off the meeting to avoid the risk of violence and bloodshed.
He was then charged with conspiracy, arrested and sentenced to a year in jail and charged a fine of 2,000 pounds. By popular demand, the sentence was set aside after O’Connell had been three months in prison. When he was released, a special chariot paraded him through the streets of Dublin to an audience of over a million elated supporters. He continued his campaign for repeal. However, a turning point had been reached. The tactics that had won emancipation had failing and O’Connell was now almost seventy. With his health failing, he had no clear plan for future action. The more militant Young Irelanders withdrew splitting the movement.
Then came an unmitigated disaster that changed the shape of Ireland’s history with the failure of the potato crop in the 1840’s, and the Great Famine that ensued. O’Connell, his days now numbered, lobbied tirelessly to avert the impending hunger and starvation. With his health failing and broken-hearted, O’Connell left Ireland for the last time in January 1847. He made his last historic and touching speech in the House of Commons in which he appealed for aid for his country. In March of that year, acting on the advice of his doctor and his wish to die in Rome, he set sail for Italy. It is said he never made it; eventually passing in Genoa on 15 May 1847. His body was returned to Ireland and buried in Glasnevin Cemetery; however, it is was rumored, from historically references, that his broken heart in fact continued on the journey and that he was buried in Rome in 1847.
Daniel O’Connell was a remarkable man and recognized by many as Ireland’s greatest patriot. As time stands still for no man, if O’Connell could have lived longer, what effect would his eloquence, wit, patriotism and principles have had on the course of history. During his time he earned the unanimous respect of friend and foe. He was the first of his time and a historical inspiration to people such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. The achievements of O’Connell’s political gain by peaceful means gained more for the oppressed people of Ireland than 200 years of rebellion. This was a testament to the manner of his respect is that Ireland’s 1st Street is named after him. And, adorned by a magnificent statue that although 69 years later when the center of Dublin was demolished by the battle in the 1916 rising, Irish and British forces cultured there aim to make sure the “man of peace” was not harmed. In Ireland, they say that “when we were looking for a nation O’Connell gave us our soul”.
Daniel O’Connell had a loving marriage to Mary O’Connell. Their marriage was happy and eleven children were born to them; though, only seven survived (four sons and three daughters).
“Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam” (“May his soul be on God’s right side”)