Daniel O’Connell was born in 1775 near Cahersiveen, Co Kerry, into a family that was both the most respected and the wealthiest in the district. Much of that wealth was won by the astuteness, hard bargaining and thrift of Daniel’s uncle, Muiris a’Chaipín or Hunting Cap, a farmer, trader, moneylender and smuggler.
Supported by his uncle, O’Connell studied at St Omer and Douai in France before practising at the bar in London and Dublin. He spoke out against the Act of Union and was sympathetic to the ideals of the United Irishmen but opposed both the 1798 rebellion and that of Robert Emmett. Of the latter he wrote: “A man who could coolly prepare . . . so many murders and such horrors of every kind has ceased to be an object of compassion.”
O’Connell became a successful lawyer on the Munster circuit, though his income failed to keep pace with his notorious extravagance. Despite his personal opposition to violence he was quite prepared to defend persons accused – often wrongly accused – of political crimes.
In court he was known for his fearlessness and, as “the Counsellor”, became the hero of a rich tradition of folk tales in which his resourcefulness, ingenuity and verbal wit overcame the bias of a system stacked against the poor. Folk tradition also required that such a popular hero be invested with unusual sexual potency. The countryside supposedly teemed with his natural children: Rathkeale, writes Diarmuid Ó Muirithe, stands indicted as the only town that failed to provide him with a woman, while his mistresses were legion and allegedly included Queen Victoria.
Returning to politics, O’Connell was involved in the Catholic Board and founded the Catholic Association, the latter funded by dues of a penny a month from the poor, to campaign for the civil rights and economic betterment of the Irish majority. In 1815 he was challenged to a duel by a member of Dublin Corporation. O’Connell fatally wounded his adversary, an event that traumatised him: he paid an allowance to support the dead man’s daughter for the rest of his life.
In 1829, O’Connell achieved his great aim of Catholic Emancipation (enabling Catholics to sit in parliament) and occupied his own seat there in 1830. Throughout the following decade he immersed himself in parliamentary politics, supporting progressive measures in alliance with the British Whigs. He was an unwavering ally of American slaves and disenfranchised British Jews. His struggle throughout the 1840s for repeal of the Act of Union was unsuccessful, however, and he died in 1847 just as the Famine struck Ireland.
O’Connell’s greatest achievement at home was to enlist the mass of the people in a highly organised movement with democratic perspectives. This was a first for Europe, and the tributes that flowed after his death attest to his contemporary stature among progressives.
O’Connell’s background (his uncle traded with France and Spain) and education made him fully European as well as Irish. His achievements were to prove an inspiration to the continent’s liberals, democrats and nationalists, who were beginning to assert themselves against repressive dynasties. He died in Genoa on his way to Rome (where his heart is buried), having left a political inheritance that would be taken up by Charles Stewart Parnell.
According to Balzac, O’Connell and Napoleon were the only great men of the 19th century. In contrast to Napoleon, however, what O’Connell achieved was, in the words of Aodh Mac Domhnaill, won “ní le gunnaí nó púdar/Ach le briathra breá cumhra/Mar bholadh na n-úlla (not with guns or gunpowder/but with fine, sweet words/like the scent of apples).