Daniel O’Connell, the greatest of all politicians

Olivia O’Leary on the man who invented peaceful protest and raised Irish Catholics off their knees

Portrait of Daniel O’Connell. Photograph: Getty Images

I remember coming home from primary school after a lesson on Daniel O’Connell and his monster political meetings. We were told that when the British authorities banned his Clontarf meeting, O’Connell lost his nerve and cancelled it. “Was Daniel O’Connell a coward?” I asked my mother.

“Well,” she said “if you had invited thousands of people to a meeting, and then you realised the army might shoot them down, would you still go ahead?’’ No, I said. “Sure, I couldn’t.”

“Right,” she said. “And neither could Daniel O’Connell.”

The authorities in 1843 meant business. Three gunships were in place. A large army had been moved to Clontarf, ready to open fire. And yet is there something deep in our culture that believes O’Connell should have stood firm at Clontarf and taken the risk that the British army would slaughter thousands; that the ensuing civil strife would have forced reforms much earlier; that only blood sacrifice wins you a place in Irish history?

The Daniel O’Connell statue on Dublin’s O’Connell Street. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

As O’Connell stands there in the major street of our capital city, and all the physical force commemorations of 1916 and the War of Independence go on around him, you have to ask why we don’t have a day commemorating him.

Almost everything we know about the modern political party today came from O'Connell. Gladstone called him the greatest popular leader the world had ever seen

This is the man who invented peaceful protest, who wrote the script for Mahatma Gandhi, for Martin Luther King; the man who said: “Not for all the universe contains would I, in the struggle for what I conceive my country’s cause, consent to the effusion of a single drop of blood, except my own.” Is it because of that very moral stance that Daniel O’Connell is often consigned to the dustier shelves of Irish history? Because he stands as a rebuke to all our bloody rebellions?

Because I wasn’t the only one who was astonished at the official hostility to Daniel O’Connell. His great great great grandson, Johnny Cunningham, whose mother was a proud O’Connell, remembers being beaten up by an O’Connell-hating teacher in Dublin when he was about 14.

The teacher was vilifying O’Connell when Johnny stood up and defended him. The teacher, a small man, was wearing a long academic gown. “He went from the rostrum straight onto the top of my desk and with the gown flowing behind him he looked like Batman or Robin. Next thing I had my head down on the desk and he was beating me and he said Daniel was useless.”

When O’Connell’s house at Derrynane fell into disrepair and a committee including O’Connell’s descendent, Prof Maurice R O’Connell, tried to raise money to save it in the 1940s, they met, initially, a wall of official indifference. And yet O’Connell was probably the greatest politician of his and our time.

Almost everything we know about the modern political party anywhere in the world today came from O’Connell. Gladstone called him the greatest popular leader the world had ever seen.

Popular politics

He was the first one to recognise the possibility and the power of popular politics where everybody could contribute. Politicians weren’t paid, so by gathering halfpennies and pennies from thousands of people he not only found a way to finance his movement and his political career, he gave people a stake in that movement.

His great public meetings shook the nerve of the British government, and the sobriety and self-discipline he inspired in those crowds shook the establishment even more. Stay within the law, he told people, and the powers that be have no right to touch you. His dedication to peaceful means runs like a seam of gold through his long public life.

But his greatest achievement was that he raised the Catholic Irish up off their knees. As his biographer, Patrick Geoghegan, puts it, O’Connell believed you could walk down any street in Ireland and point out the Catholics “because they were the ones who would shuffle, had bad posture, were afraid of meeting your gaze, beaten down”.

For a people who had been systematically reduced by the Penal Laws to poverty and ignorance by having their land, their possessions, their religion and culture, and their access to education taken away from them, raising one’s head was a risky business. But O’Connell gave them courage.

France taught him rhetoric and oratory, but also instilled in him a dread of the mob violence he saw during the French revolution

He defended them ferociously, both as a brilliant lawyer and a redoubtable politician. Self-consciously, Irish emblems like harps, round towers, Irish Wolfhounds and shamrocks bedecked his platforms. His great ceremonial coach made by Huttons in Dublin sometimes sported an actual live harpist as well as O’Connell’s grandchildren dressed in green.

Green was the colour and often people carried great boughs of living green instead of flags. “He thought a democracy and it rose,” said Seán Ó Faoláin. “He imagined a future and the road appeared.”


He carried himself with a swagger, head held high, as he marched through Dublin to the Four Courts. Here’s a description from the time: “When breakfast was over, his burly form attracted attention, as he moved towards the Four Courts, at a pace which compelled panting attorneys to toil after him in vain.

“His umbrella, shouldered like a pike, was his invariable companion; the military step which he had acquired in the yeomanry, strangely blended with the trot characteristics of an active sportsman on the mountains of Kerry, gave him the appearance of a Highland chieftain.”

Where did he get this self-confidence? A lot of it came from Kerry. The O’Connells were minor gentry who had managed to hang on to land and money. How? Shrewdness. Enterprise.

They survived in Penal times because they were sheltered from the repressive arm of the law by the mountains and treacherous coastline of remote south Kerry. There they carried on a lucrative smuggling business with the continent. As a result, O’Connell was educated abroad, a privilege accorded to few Irish Catholics.

He could afford to train as a lawyer, and develop all the skills required of a public man. France taught him rhetoric and oratory, but also instilled in him a dread of the mob violence he saw during the French revolution.

When vast English and American fortunes were being made out of the slave trade, he became one of the world's most outspoken campaigners to abolish slavery

London gave him the liberal ideas of the age of Enlightenment. He read William Godwin’s Political Justice, advancing personal freedom; Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man; and Mary Wolstonecraft’s remarkable work, The Rights of Women.

A very modern man

There’s a view, you know, that O’Connell is passé, a dusty old parliamentary figure, someone burdened with the label of Catholic liberator in a post-Catholic Ireland. Wrong. This man was neither a narrow Catholic nor a narrow nationalist. Indeed, many of his humanitarian values are echoed in today’s UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights .

Look at everything he stood for. He believed in the separation of Church and State. As for Vatican control over him, he said: “I would as soon take my politics from Constantinople as from Rome.” He believed in human rights and religious rights for everybody, not just Roman Catholics. His first commitment, when he finally broke the ban on Catholics in parliament, was to speak for the much discriminated against Jewish community and later for the rights of Protestant dissenter churches.

At a time when vast English and American fortunes were being made out of the slave trade, he became one of the world’s most outspoken campaigners to abolish slavery. Most abolitionists worried about the brutalising effect of slavery on the whites who practised it. O’Connell focused on the blacks who suffered, particularly the despair of black mothers knowing they were producing children for the slave trade.

He was a hero to the escaped slave and black writer and activist Frederick Douglass, who met him on a speaking tour here in 1845 .

He didn't fight for the vote for women; this was still a society where it was considered scandalous even for a woman to be seen at a public meeting

He never visited the United States because it was a slave-owning country. He wouldn’t shake the hand of anyone who condoned slavery, including the US ambassador. “I should be sorry to be contaminated by the touch of a man from those states where slavery is continued,” he said.

He was warned by critics within his own Repeal Association that this could lose financial support from America for Ireland’s cause and indeed it did. It was a brave and uncompromising stance, criticised fiercely by Young Irelander, John Mitchel,who warned him that he should concentrate only on Irish issues. But then the same Mitchel was the one who said he wished he had “a plantation stocked with healthy negroes in Alabama”.

Daniel’s politics let me in

There’s always a personal reason why one warms to historical figures and I warm to O’Connell because he lets me into the picture. By excluding physical force from his campaigns, Daniel O’Connell opened up a whole public and political world to women.

Women were not welcome on the battlefields of Europe but they were welcome in O’Connell’s campaigns. It was O’Connell’s very insistence on peaceful methods that made it possible for him to see that women’s abilities in the areas of persuasion and debate and intellect were equal to men’s. “Mind has no sex,” he argued.

Prof Mary O’Dowd of Queen’s University Belfast says he facilitated the politicisation of women from a variety of economic backgrounds. When thousands of Irish women became involved in the Catholic Association in the 1820s, there was no equivalent large-scale politicisation of women in England or elsewhere in western Europe.

And no, he didn’t fight for the vote for women; this was still a society where it was considered scandalous even for a woman to be seen at a public meeting. But when American women delegates were excluded from the main hall at the big Anti-Slavery Convention of 1840 in London, he spoke up for them.

Writing to one of them, Lucia Mott, he said: “Our warfare is not military; it is Christian. We wield not the weapons of destruction or injury to our adversaries. We rely entirely on reason and persuasion common to both sexes.”

He said he didn't mind being called a West Brit if that meant Ireland was treated fairly like the rest of the UK

I am extraordinarily moved when I read that letter. Because it was his moral stance against slavery which led him to recognise other sorts of slavery; his moral stance against the use of violence which led him to see the role women could play in public life. All his life, he preached freedom for all and did not run away when that principle presented him with radical challenges.

Catholic emancipation and repeal

His most successful campaign was for Catholic emancipation. The Penal Laws had eased substantially by the beginning of the 19th century, but Roman Catholics were still excluded from parliament and most public offices, and had to pay tithes to the established Anglican church.

Some say Catholic emancipation was coming anyway but that ignores the level of hostility to Catholicism among the British establishment and particularly the king who kept blocking legislation. However, O'Connell's bold move to run and win resoundingly in the 1828 Clare byelection made home secretary Robert Peel, supreme politician that he was, realise the game was up.

He persuaded the Duke of Wellington, then prime minister, to try again and again to get the king to agree to Catholic emancipation and eventually he succeeded with the introduction of a Catholic Relief Bill in spring 1829. Wellington, an Anglo-Irishman, deserves credit.

However, it was O’Connell who forced the pace and who finally took his seat in the House of Commons, the first Irish Catholic in modern history to do so, in 1830.

While emancipation had been a long and difficult road, his campaign for Repeal of the Act of Union was going to be even more difficult. The Act of Union, passed in 1800, had taken away Ireland’s parliament and limited control over its own affairs. But those liberal Protestants who had voted for emancipation did not look so kindly on repeal.

They feared a new Irish parliament which might now have a post-emancipation Catholic majority. O’Connell did everything he could to reassure them. He said Ireland would remain loyal to the crown. He said he didn’t mind being called a West Brit if that meant Ireland was treated fairly like the rest of the UK. He broke with the Young Irelanders over their wish to use force.

However, he never really understood Northern Irish Protestants and the depth of their fears. Nelson McCausland, former DUP assembly member, says O’Connell’s monster meetings terrified Protestants and led liberal and conservative Protestants finally to coalesce. He said: “The rise of the campaign for Repeal of the Union leading to the Home Rule campaign – that is what destabilised in many ways the whole of this island.”

But to accept that would be to accept that people had no right to come out and protest peacefully for what they wanted. And these were the very rights Daniel O'Connell stood for as did John Hume and Seamus Mallon who took so much of their own constitutionalist nationalist approach from O'Connell.


He didn’t believe in redistribution. After all, he was a landlord himself.

He was arrogant, sometimes duplicitous, always vain. His biographer, Patrick Geoghegan, says that when asked who the greatest figure in Irish history was, O’Connell would say: “Myself.”

He was spendthrift and careless when it came to handling money. His long-suffering friend, the Kilkenny brewer Edmund Smithwick, ended up carrying a number of his debts and Paul Smithwick has shown me O’Connell letters of grovelling apology for this in the Smithwick archive.

Clockwise from above: Daniel O’Connell’s descendants Petra, Robyn and Emily O’Connell (front) with summer school delegates; Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field and Steven Spielberg at the premiere of Lincoln in January; Portrait of Daniel O’Connell at National Gallery. photographs: AJL Photo, Eric Luke / the irish times

He adored his wife, Mary. But was he faithful to her? Mary’s biographer, Erin Bishop, makes a telling point. She observes that he went to a lot of trouble to be away from Mary, even when he could have chosen to be with her. So who knows?

Romantics die young

Romantic heroes die young. Those who live long lives like O’Connell run the risk of eventually making mistakes, or even going out of fashion. Interesting then, that we are still so grateful to wear the clothes he fashioned for us: civil rights, elections, a country run by peaceful parliamentary democracy rather than the gun. You know, after three decades of violence in Northern Ireland, and more than 3,500 dead, the mists of romantic nationalism lift and you look back down the centuries and see O’Connell standing head and shoulders above the rest.

Long-maligned by the 1916 generation of politicians, O’Connell’s reputation was partly restored when president De Valera made a gracious speech opening the restored Derrynane House in 1967. Dev said his generation had disliked O’Connell but now accepted that his role in raising Irish people’s self-esteem had been crucial in bringing about independence.

Talking later to the OPW architect involved, Austin Dunphy, as Dunphy revealed in a letter to Fintan O’Toole of The Irish Times, he went further.

Dev said: “We firmly believed that the Irish people could only be ‘jolted’ from their lethargy, and Irish freedom and liberty achieved by force of arms. How then could we promote the memory of the man who achieved so much by parliamentary means with no loss of life? To praise him would have made it impossible for us to justify armed insurrection.”

As Counsellor O’Connell might have said: I rest my case.

Daniel O’Connell – Forgotten King of Ireland, presented by Olivia O’Leary, is on RTÉ 1 on Thursday, August 22nd at 9.35pm. Part two is on August 29th.