The counsellor and the Liberator, a man of his time

Banned from studying law until after the Catholic Relief Act, Daniel O’Connell made his fortune and his reputation in that profession

A cartoon from May 1829 depicting Daniel O’Connell (centre) arriving to take his seat in parliament after the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act in April 1829.  Looking on from the middle distance are British prime minister, the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852), and home secretary and leader of the House of Commons, Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850). Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A cartoon from May 1829 depicting Daniel O’Connell (centre) arriving to take his seat in parliament after the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act in April 1829. Looking on from the middle distance are British prime minister, the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852), and home secretary and leader of the House of Commons, Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850). Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images


Daniel O’Connell (1775-1847) is in one way the best-remembered Irishman who flourished in the 19th century. Streets are called after him in a great many Irish towns; his statue dominates the centre of Dublin and his enormous grave marker in the form of an outsized round tower dominates the graves of the patriot dead in Glasnevin cemetery.

The tower was always the starting point of the late Shane Mac Thomáis’s inimitable tour of the cemetery, itself founded by Daniel O’Connell as a non-denominational burial ground. O’Connell thereby broke the Church of Ireland monopoly on burials because that Church had taken to forbidding Catholic observances in the public graveyards committed to its care.

The O’Connell Memorial Church in Cahirciveen, Co Kerry, is said to be the only Catholic church dedicated to an uncanonised layman. O’Connell would be a poor candidate for sainthood.

The continuing significance of O’Connell in Irish history is demonstrated by the fact that a new biography of him has been published in every generation since his death.

One of the best of these is Seán O’Faoláin’s King of the Beggars , published in the 1930s. The most recent, most readable and most up-to-date is Dr Patrick Geoghegan’s magnificent two-volume biography, published in 2008 (paperback, 2010). King Dan is the appropriate title of the TCD historian’s first volume.

O’Connell, famously, was a barrister by profession and it was in that capacity that he first won national fame. He was “the counsellor” long before he was “the Liberator”. At the time of his birth, Catholics were banned by law from the legal profession, among many other disabilities: this ban was not repealed until the Catholic Relief Act 1793, passed when Daniel was 18 years old.

He immediately began to study law, first in London and later in Dublin, and was called to the Irish Bar in 1799.

He practised law continuously until 1829 and made his reputation and his fortune at that hazard. He was barred, as a Catholic, from the higher professional ranks of king’s counsel and serjeant-at- law and from any prospect of appointment to the bench.

His enormous professional income was composed of a great number of very small fees: the crown and the owners of great estates and prosperous businesses were unlikely to brief an agitator – for Catholic emancipation and for repeal of the union with England, as O’Connell had been since 1800.

However both Lord Chief Justice Charles Kendal Bushe and O’Connell’s inveterate enemy Sir Robert Peel, later prime minister of England, acknowledged that he was the leading barrister in the old United Kingdom. Peel said that if O’Connell were with him (in a law case), he would not care who was against him.

O’Connell suffered to some degree from the lawyer’s besetting vice of cynicism, unsurprising in an era when paid crown witnesses – “approvers” – would perjure a man’s life away for a few pounds.

However he was, perhaps justly, rebuked by a woman whose scheme to substitute one will for another he had exposed. he said, in the moment of his triumph: “Ah, Mr O’Connell, you know all of the roguery of it, but you know none of the honesty of it”.

“Hereditary bondsmen”
O’Connell agitated for Catholic Emancipation for 30 years. Two contrasting things appalled him about the oppression of the Catholics. The first was how generations of being downtrodden turned them into what he called “hereditary bondsmen”, almost accepting of their plight – Uncle Toms, as a later generation might have said. His extremely aggressive courtroom tactics were, in part, a reaction to this abasement.

As Seán Ó Faoláin said: “No man of the people had ever spoken as he did in the king’s courts.”

On the other hand, O’Connell was appalled at how easily the oppressed could themselves become tyrannical shedders of blood on a large scale: he saw this in France as a schoolboy and in Ireland in 1798. No mere demagogue would have reminded himself never to forget the massacres by Catholics in 1798.

Paradoxically, however, O’Connell the pacifist rose to the top of the heavily divided Catholic movement on the enormous éclat of having killed Alderman John D’Esterre in a duel in 1815. It must be recalled that six of the British prime ministers who overlapped O’Connell’s career had fought duels, two of them while holding the supreme office (Pitt and Wellington).

Outside Ireland, O’Connell’s celebrity in his own time was based on two things. The first was the unprecedented success of his invention and leadership, in the 1820s, of the highly organised, entirely peaceful mass protest movement, the Catholic Association.

Bonded together by the payment of the “Catholic rent” of one penny a month, and tightly organised in local groups which are the ancestors of the cumainn and branches of today’s political parties, it could produce members who could march with military discipline and entirely abandon drinking for weeks at a time at O’Connell’s command.

It was this extraordinary discipline that led the Duke of Wellington to advise King George IV, in 1829, that although he (the duke) had never lost a battle, this was one that he could not win. O’Connell was triumphantly elected to parliament for Clare and thereby began the long and generally very successful Irish parliamentary tradition.

The second was his genuine commitment to other liberation causes. In particular, he was outraged at the institution of black slavery in the United States. It is notorious that the repeal movement split between the O’Connellite tradition and the Young Ireland tradition towards the end of O’Connell’s career.

Refusing financial support
What is less well known is that part of the cause of the split was O’Connell’s refusal to accept financial support from the American upholders of slavery, a point on which many of the Young Irelanders were more flexible. The great American black leader Frederick Douglass came to Ireland in the 1840s to see O’Connell, describing his words as “like lightning flashing across the sky”.

In more recent times, it was this commitment of O’Connell which led to his being referenced admiringly by President Barack Obama on the latter’s visit to Ireland in 2011.

O’Connell was a man of his time, with apparent contradictions which puzzle the modern reader. The successful duellist was the man who cancelled the mass meeting at Clontarf to avoid bloodshed. His enormous income and large estate nevertheless saw him constantly in need of cash.

He was, he said, “sincerely a Catholic, but not a papist”. According to William Ewart Gladstone, three times prime minister of England, he was simply “the greatest popular leader the world has ever seen”.

Mr Justice Adrian Hardiman of the Supreme Court, with Dr Patrick Geoghegan, associate professor of history at Trinity College Dublin, gave the Daniel O’Connell Memorial Lecture, organised by the Bar Council, earlier this month.