» Biography Home
» Biographies A-F
» Biographies G-M
» Biographies N-S
» Biographies T-Z
Daniel O'Connell, undoubtedly one of the greatest Irishmen that ever lived, and according to Mr. Lecky perhaps the greatest political agitator that the modern world has known, was born August 6, 1775, in the county of Kerry, in Ireland. His parents were of good family, but comparatively poor, his father being a second son. Later on, Daniel was adopted by an uncle, through whom he came in for the property of Darrynane, made famous by his name. He was sent when a boy--the fact is worth noticing--to the first school kept openly by a Catholic priest since the establishment of the penal laws. Afterward he became a student in France--in St. Omer and in Douay, until the outbreak of the French Revolution made it unsafe for him to remain longer in France--or at all events until his family believed that it would not be safe for him to remain there any longer. The excesses of the Revolution greatly shocked and horrified the young O'Connell, and indeed the effect of that early shock was felt by him all through his career. He became impressed with an almost morbid detestation of all forms of blood-shedding; and for a while after his return to Ireland he firmly believed himself to be a Conservative in politics. But the system of administration which prevailed in Great Britain and Ireland under Conservative governments soon convinced him that he could have nothing to do with Conservatism, and he very soon became--what he ever after continued to be--a Liberal as regarded Imperial policy, and indeed something more than a Liberal--what we should now call a Radical. He studied for the bar, and was, to all appearance, little inclined for anything but law and field sports. He was a keen sportsman, and, like another distinguished Irishman, "all his life long he loved rivers, and poets who sang of rivers." He made rapid way in his profession, and soon became one of the foremost advocates in Ireland. He was a safe, shrewd, keen lawyer as well as a great advocate--the two parts do not always go together. He was a master of the art of cross-examination and he was a magnificent speaker--his speeches were aflame with humor, and pathos, and passion. His voice was one of immense power and sweetness and variety of tone. Mr. Disraeli in one of his books, when praising to the highest the superb voice of the great Sir Robert Peel, says that he had never heard its superior "except indeed in the thrilling tones of O'Connell." The Irish advocate had the advantage, too, of a commanding presence. He was tall and moulded in almost herculean form, and he had eyes which were often compared with those of Robert Burns--the light of genius was in them. There is a full-length picture of him in the Reform Club, London, which enables one to understand how stately and imposing his presence must have been.
The career of O'Connell would appear to have been easily marked out for him. He was the foremost advocate in Ireland; he was making a large income; he had inherited a considerable property--what was there for him but to go on and prosper; make money, hunt, shoot, fish, and be happy. He could not indeed obtain any of the honors or dignities of his profession. He could not even be a king's counsel, and wear a silk gown. His religion cut him off from all such marks of distinction--for he was a member of the Catholic Church. But no penal laws prevented him from addressing juries and winning verdicts and attracting popular admiration and making money. He was very happily married--a genuine love-match, it would seem to have been, and the love lasted. Moreover he was strongly and almost unreasonably opposed to all manner of agitation that bordered on rebellion or even on sedition. He was positively unjust, he was utterly unreasonable, in his estimate of the rebellion of 1798 and Robert Emmet's abortive effort in 1803. He never did full justice even to the brave men who were concerned in these movements. He had an absolute detestation for all manner of secret societies. He knew too well that they only ended in betrayal by some traitor who had contrived to be admitted to their ranks. Under such conditions and with such views what was there to induce the successful and prosperous advocate who loved peace and who hated social disturbance, to mix himself up with political affairs at a time when national politics meant for a patriotic Irishman only social exclusion, danger, poverty, and even ruin?
O'Connell could not help himself. He had to walk, as Carlyle says of a very different man, "his own wild road whither that led him." O'Connell's wild road--the road that he had to walk, led him to the leadership of two great national movements.
To understand what O'Connell fought against we must, of course, understand O'Connell's time. It is not easy for an American reader to understand it without some thought and without the endeavor to grasp the reality of a state of things quite outside his own living experience. When O'Connell began his career in politics the Act of Union had but lately been passed. That Act of Union deprived Ireland of the more or less independent Parliament which she had had for generations and even for centuries. It was indeed a Parliament "more or less" independent--less, perhaps, much rather than more. Still there had been always a recognition of Irish nationality in the existence of any form of Irish Parliament. The troubles between England and her American colonies--between England and France--had led to the concession of what we now know as Grattan's Parliament--the nearest form of Home Rule Ireland had ever enjoyed since her conquest by the descendants of the great Norman kings. But it was a Parliament of Protestants--no Catholic, in a nation of which five-sixths were Catholics, could sit in the National Parliament or even give a vote for a member of that National Parliament. Grattan's Parliament was exclusively Protestant; but yet, with all its imperfections, so nationalist was it in spirit that it was willing, under Grattan's inspiration, to enable Roman Catholics to vote for the election of members of the Irish House of Commons. But Grattan and his friends were anxious to go much farther. They demanded a complete political equality for the Roman Catholics. A society was formed for the purpose of conducting the agitation. Its leaders were almost all Protestants--many of them were Protestants from Ulster. The stupid bigotry of George the Third bluntly refused Catholic Emancipation; and the Society of United Irishmen became a rebellious organization. The rebellion of 1798 broke out and was crushed after terrible bloodshed. Then, when Ireland was wholly at the mercy of England, Pitt brought in his proposal for an Act of Union. After much resistance from all that was patriotic in Ireland and all that was sympathetic in England, the Act of Union was carried--by fraud and force and bribery and purchase. It has to be remembered with satisfaction that some of the noblest Englishmen of the time were as strenuously opposed to such a measure as Grattan himself. Pitt had made liberal promises about Catholic Emancipation while he was striving to carry the Act of Union, but when the Act was passed he dropped all talk about Catholic Emancipation, and pleaded as his excuse that the king would not listen to any further proposals on the subject. O'Connell's first political speech was made in January, 1800, at a meeting of Catholics held in Dublin to protest against the Act of Union.
Something else had to be done, however, before it could be possible in Ireland to encounter the Act of Union with anything like a successful constitutional agitation. The right had to be obtained for a Catholic to sit in Parliament. The Catholic Association had been formed for the purpose, and O'Connell became its recognized leader, and, more than that, the recognized leader of the Irish people. Meanwhile there were constant efforts made in Parliament for the emancipation of the Catholics. Sir Robert Peel, who had begun his career as Chief Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, had become Secretary of State for the Home Department--and it may be well to mention to American readers that the Irish Secretaryship is really a subordinate part of the Home Office. Peel, as Home Secretary, was necessarily kept in constant touch with everything going on in Ireland. He was greatly impressed by some of the debates in the House of Commons. He was especially impressed by an observation which Lord Brougham, then Mr. Brougham, made in a speech supporting Catholic Emancipation, to the effect that not one of those who spoke against emancipation had ventured even to suggest that things could remain as they then were. Something will have to be done, Peel said to himself. What is the something to be? The new king, George the Fourth, in whose succession to the throne O'Connell and Thomas Moore and the Irish people generally had had so much hope, was doggedly opposed to the political relief of the Catholics.
Accident helped to bring about a settlement of the question. A sudden vacancy occurred in the Parliamentary representation of the County of Clare, owing to the fact that the former representative had accepted office in the government, and had therefore to offer himself for re-election. The leaders of the Catholic Association determined on the bold policy of putting forward a candidate to contest the seat. O'Connell, of course, was recognized by everyone as the man to fight the battle. He willingly accepted the responsibility. Even moderate men, partly sympathetic, shook their heads when they heard of this determination. "O'Connell will end his life on the gallows" was the confident prediction of some who passed among their neighbors for sensible persons. The Viceroy of Ireland predicted that O'Connell would take care to maintain good order in Clare during the election. O'Connell's opponent predicted that O'Connell would not dare to come to Clare in person; that he would not run the risk of confronting his enemies. O'Connell ran the risk--he was not a man likely to be afraid of risks. He went to Clare. The enthusiasm was wild, but the order was perfect. O'Connell, the excluded Catholic, was elected by a majority of more than two to one. The result set Peel thinking. What he thought we have in his own words. Was it possible to take no account of "that political and religious excitement which was quickening the pulse and fluttering the bosom of the whole Catholic population--which had inspired the serf of Clare with the resolution and the energy of a freeman?" No, it was not possible. Peel soon made up his mind.
O'Connell presented himself at the bar of the House of Commons later on, but not until after Peel and Wellington had crammed emancipation down the king's throat and compelled him to accept it. Wellington seems to have reasoned much in this way: "I know nothing about the question--Peel knows all about it; Peel thinks it will be for the good of the king and the country to pass Catholic Emancipation; the king, I am sure, does not know any more about the matter than I do, and I am prepared to go with Peel, and the king must come with us. Peel thinks there must be civil war if we don't pass Catholic Emancipation, and I have had too much of war in my time--and I don't propose to stand a civil war--not if I know it." The king had, of course, to give way in the end, and Catholic Emancipation was passed. It was passed rather ungraciously. It was accompanied by a quite superfluous measure suppressing the Catholic Association, which had in fact already dissolved itself, its work being done, and invalidating the election of O'Connell. Perhaps, without these sops to religious bigotry, an act for the emancipation of the Catholics could not then have been carried through the Houses of Parliament. O'Connell presented himself at the bar of the House of Commons and claimed a right to take his seat. He was called upon to swear the old oaths--what we may fairly call the anti-Catholic oaths. Of course he refused. A new writ was ordered for Clare, and O'Connell was triumphantly returned. The struggle was over.
The remainder of O'Connell's life was devoted mainly to the cause of Repeal of the Union--in other words, the cause of Home Rule. He organized the great system of monster meetings--vast out-of-door gatherings, which he swayed as he pleased by the magic of his eloquence, his humor, his passion, and the charm of his wonderful voice. No doubt he sometimes used very strong language; no doubt some of the younger men fully believed that he meant rebellion--that he had rebellion up his sleeve if his demands were not conceded. The meetings were always held on the Sunday; were indeed, regarded as, in a certain sense, religious celebrations. The meeting of October 8, 1843, was to be held on the historic ground of Clontarf, and it was expected to be the greatest of all the assemblages, although some of them had drawn together a crowd of nearly a quarter of a million of men. The Government issued a proclamation prohibiting the meeting, and O'Connell bowed to the prohibition. He sent messengers in every direction countermanding the assembling of men, in order to prevent any chance of that disorder and bloodshed which he had always shrunk from and abhorred. He and some of his friends, Sir Charles Gavan Duffy among the rest, were put on their trial on a charge of sedition. Most of them were found guilty and sentenced to fine and imprisonment. They were confined in Richmond Prison, Dublin. Their incarceration did not last long, and indeed, was what might be called "internment" rather than actual imprisonment. A majority of the law lords in the House of Peers, the final tribunal, annulled the sentences on the ground that the jury had been unfairly chosen--was packed, in fact. O'Connell and his colleagues were set free after a few months; but the leader never recovered his former ascendency over the political movement of Ireland. He was growing old; he had been reckless of his great physical resources, he had been unsparing of his strength; and undoubtedly, the younger men in the agitation fell away from him when he had made it clear that he never meant, under any conditions, to lead them into revolution. A number of his young and brilliant followers set up a party of their own--the Young Ireland Confederation--which after his death drifted into a generous, but hopeless, rebellion. The Young Ireland movement, however, quickened and established a national literature which had an immense effect on subsequent political history in Ireland. The Irish famine of 1846 and 1847 was a terrible blow to O'Connell in his rapidly weakening health. His last speech in the House of Commons was an appeal for a generous help to Ireland, and a prediction, which proved only too true, that if generous help were not given, one-fourth of Ireland's population must perish by starvation. His physicians ordered him to the Continent, and he passionately longed to reach Rome and die under the shadow of the Vatican. He had during some of his years led a wild life, and he had killed a man in a duel--a duel which was literally forced upon him, but for which he always felt deeply penitent. His ultimate longing had come to be a quiet death in the papal city. He was not graced so far. He died in Genoa on May 15, 1847.
As a politician O'Connell was absolutely consistent. He was in favor of liberty for Ireland, but he was in favor of liberty for every other country. His definition of liberty was practical and not merely declamatory. He was in favor of equal rights for all men before the law; he was in favor of a free press, a free vote, and as nearly as possible a manhood suffrage. He was in many ways far in advance of the English liberals of his day. When the question of slavery in the West Indian colonies was under discussion in Parliament, he went farther for abolition than even the professed philanthropists and emancipationists, the Clarksons and the Buxtons, were inclined to go. He was almost fanatically opposed to the advocates of the slave system in the United States, and he refused to receive any help in money from them to carry on his Repeal agitation. He declined to endure any political dictation from the Vatican, although he was a most devoted Roman Catholic. He would take, he said, without question his religion from Rome, but not his politics. There was no great cause of freedom upheld all through the world in his time, but he clung to it and cleaved to it. The writer of this article once talked to Mr. Gladstone about O'Connell, well knowing that in early life Mr. Gladstone had been a great admirer of O'Connell's abilities. Mr. Gladstone told many anecdotes of O'Connell's personal energy in pursuit of any purpose which he believed to be just, and in illustration of his wonderful mastery over even a thoroughly hostile audience. When asked what he believed to be O'Connell's principal characteristic, Mr. Gladstone paused for a while and thought the question out, and then gravely and deliberately answered: "I should think his greatest characteristic was a passion of philanthropy." A passion of philanthropy! Is it possible to have a nobler epitaph pronounced on one than that--and pronounced by such a man? No man in our modern history was ever so bitterly and savagely denounced in England as O'Connell. No words were too rough for him. He was commonly called in English newspapers the "Big Beggarman." He was accused every day, of making a fortune out of the contributions of a half-starving people. The truth was that all and much more than all the money raised by the Irish people, was spent on the agitation for repeal of the Union. The truth was that O'Connell gave up his splendid practice at the bar, for the sake of advocating the Irish national cause. The truth was that he spent his own money and reduced his own property to all but pauperism, for the sake of advancing the same cause. The truth was that he died poor, leaving his children poor. But he had his reward. A man whom Mr. Gladstone could describe as possessed above all other things by a passion of philanthropy, may leave his memory safely in the charge of those whose best interests he honestly strove to serve.