Becoming the liberator


HISTORY: King Dan: The Rise of Daniel O'Connell 1775-1829 by Patrick M GeogheganGill & Macmillan, 319pp, €24.99

DANIEL O'CONNELL, writes Patrick Geoghegan, was one of the most important and complex figures in Irish history "and yet, in recent years he has become unfashionable, sidelined by much lesser men and relegated to a position of relative obscurity".

Relative obscurity is a bit of an exaggeration as O'Connell continues to attract scholarly interest and new aspects of his life and career continue to come to light. But his reputation has been subject to peaks and troughs, like most historical personalities.

In his celebrated sketch of O'Connell in Jail Journal, John Mitchel wrote that "he was a lawyer and never could come to the point of defying British law; he was a Catholic and would not see that the Church had ever been the enemy of Irish Freedom. He was an aristocrat, by position and taste and the name of Republic was odious to him."

It is almost 20 years since the last major biographies of O'Connell, those of Maurice O'Connell and Oliver MacDonagh in 1991. Geoghegan is attempting a radical new interpretation of O'Connell's early life, an O'Connell who was young, lazy, aggressive, uncertain and unsure, who became involved in the movement for Catholic emancipation and transformed the movement and himself. It is, in short, the story of how he became "The Liberator".

The life is fascinating because it straddles the last years of the ancien régime in Europe and the advent of revolution and mass politics. O'Connell was born the year before the start of the American war of independence, which he believed shadowed his destiny as a champion of freedom. Yet one of his uncles was a general in the pre-revolutionary French army and O'Connell and his brother studied at French schools until the Terror forced them to flee in 1793, a hideous journey during which their carriage was constantly attacked.

Much has been made of O'Connell's loathing of revolutionary violence but Geoghegan observes that his feelings at the time were more complicated. The abstractions of the revolutionary idealists bored him but he did sympathise with radical efforts to overthrow the political system in Ireland and Britain, to the extent of joining the United Irishmen, although he was only on the fringes of the movement.

O'Connell, Geoghegan argues, rejected the 1798 rising and Robert Emmet's 1803 rebellion, not because they were violent and unconstitutional but because they failed and were doomed to fail. "Poor Emmet," he would sigh, but Emmet's brother, Thomas Addis Emmet, regarded O'Connell with contempt.

In the long struggle for emancipation O'Connell wanted above all to confront, as he saw it, a culture of defeat among Irish Catholics. You could always tell a Catholic, he once commented, by his "subdued and slavish gait". Geoghegan believes that this was why O'Connell was so imperious and volcanic in his public displays, it was why "he marched rather than walked to the Four Courts every day, shouldering his umbrella as if it were a pike". The challenge for him was to find a way of attacking the state of slavery without confirming Catholics in that state.

There was a ramshackle private facade behind these stirring public events. O'Connell was feckless about money and was in serious debt for all of his life, despite the huge legal fees he made at the bar. He was at the mercy of his rich uncle Maurice, the marvellously nicknamed "Hunting Cap", until the old man finally died in 1825. His secret marriage to his penniless cousin Mary in 1802 was happy but she was continually pregnant for the next 13 years and bore 12 children, seven of whom survived infancy. In 1822 Mary and the children went to live in France in order to economise and escape the swarm of mendicant relatives, "the eternal relay of cousins" as she called them, who arrived at Merrion Square looking for money.

In folklore, O'Connell was portrayed as a womaniser and Mary occasionally received anonymous letters alleging infidelity by her husband. Geoghegan carefully examines the most notorious case, concerning Ellen Courtney, who alleged that O'Connell had raped her, which led to the birth of a son in 1818. He concludes that while her account was unreliable and was clearly intended to blackmail or damage him politically, there was some truth to her story, one which O'Connell never denied.

Geoghegan's analysis of O'Connell as orator and lawyer is one of the strengths of his book (which is dedicated to Mr Justice Adrian Hardiman of the Supreme Court). While studying law in London in the mid-1790s, O'Connell was a frequent theatre-goer and Geoghegan writes that his voice "was trained to perfection like a great actor" and this training gave it a unique power, range and beauty.

"It was an incredible instrument, half wand, half weapon", which could project across large spaces. As an orator and a lawyer O'Connell put a premium on making himself understood. He always chose simple language, repeating the same words over and over to emphasise his points. He displayed showmanship but also caution and "never made the mistake of confusing a jury with too much evidence".

ONE OF HIS WEAPONS WAS his talent for invective, which he used to browbeat judges, barristers and witnesses. He once called an opposing counsel "an audacious, snarling, pugnacious ram-cat". He was particularly skilled at discrediting witnesses, most famously in the 1829 Doneraile Conspiracy case, which opens the book and was his last great trial.

So is this a radical new interpretation? Not quite. O'Connell's mobilisation of the downtrodden Irish Catholics in the 1820s was watched with fear, fascination, and loathing all over Europe and this context deserved more discussion, as does recent research on his views on slavery, the role of women in O'Connellite politics, the iconography of O'Connell, and his ambivalent relationship with France. O'Connell's life and career will continue to fascinate because although Mitchel believed he led the Irish "all wrong for 40 years", he acknowledged that by virtue of being intensely Irish, "he led and swayed his people by a kind of divine, or else diabolical right".

• Deirdre McMahon lectures in history at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick