Daniel O’Connell used competing and contradictory aspects of his life to bring differing groups of people with him to achieve his goals of religious emancipation and abolishing slavery, a historian argued.
Prof Maurice Bric told the annual Daniel O'Connell Summer School in South Kerry at the weekend that O'Connell was a man of paradox and he was not afraid to use apparent contradictions in his life to achieve his goals for the greater good of society.
Emeritus Professor at UCD’s School of History, Prof Bric said the public perception of O’Connell has often been influenced as much by folklore and mythology as by history and sometimes by a mixture of all three so to present a full and fair picture of O’Connell and his legacy was not always easy.
“To present a view of O’Connell is no small challenge – it brings with it a sense of mixture, a sense of paradox, even a sense of contradiction,” said Prof Bric as he opened his lecture “Daniel O’Connell - Lives and Legacies” at the O’Connell Summer School in Derrynane House.
Prof Bric instanced the fact that while O’Connell is best remembered as the champion of Catholic Emancipation in 1829, he had already argued for what might be called Presbyterian Emancipation and later after he took his seat at an MP in Westminster, he argued for Jewish Emancipation.
“For O’Connell, whether one was Catholic, Protestant or Dissenter, nobody should be denied their right and liberties on the basis of private religious belief,” said Prof Bric, adding that at least for the second part of his life, O’Connell believed in the separation of church and state.
In opposing the tithe system, O’Connell was happy to avail of the support of the Whiteboys and the Ribbonmen even though he was wary of them as he recognised their willingness to engage in intimidation and violence to which he was fundamentally opposed.
Prof Bric said that O’Connell believed that pursuing the path of violence would only invite the government to suspend the right to protest and subject them to draconian curbs on their rights and liberties to protest, not just against tithes, but against all their social and economic grievances.
O'Connell was happy to avail of the support of the Whiteboys and the Ribbonmen while arguing that the peaceful methods of the Catholic Association were successful, he was also intent on reining them in under his leadership so they could not challenge his standing and power, he added.
"Faced with the possibility the Ribbonmen would evolve as a counterpower to himself, he tried not only to integrate them within the networks of the Catholic Association and absorb them under his own leadership – but also to use the organisation of the Catholic Church to keep them in check.
"The last thing O'Connell wanted was to have popular societies like the Ribbonmen emerge as an alternative network to his own and with it, how this might lead public protest in Ireland into the hands of people whom O'Connell believed should be led, rather than lead.
“And so again, we have yet another paradox – O’Connell, the Gaelic chieftain and the aristocrat, who did not take criticism or opposition lightly and was famously vain, sitting cheek-by-jowl with O’Connell, the champion of the people.”
When slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1833, he was one of the leaders of the parliamentary campaign against compensating slave owners, arguing that to allow compensation would be to accept that slaves were a type of property, he said.
Prof Bric pointed out that, paradoxically, while O'Connell believed in the separation of church and state, he also believed that in addressing issues such as slavery, society and politics should be informed by Christianity and not the socalled "irreligion" that he had seen in revolutionary France.
And Prof Bric said that although he wouldn't go quite so far in seeking to describe O'Connell as Cumann na nGael leader James Dillon did when he compared trying to describe Eamon de Valera to picking up mercury with a fork, there was a challenge when it came to summarising O'Connell's life.
“While I would not describe O’Connell in quite the same way (as Dillon said of De Valera), he did have – as the title of my talk suggests – different lives, and left different legacies - not all of which I had time to discuss today – but I cannot shake the notion of O’Connell as a man of paradox.
“O’Connell was a man who was at once a landlord and old-fashioned Gaelic chieftain, but was also a champion of the people, he was a Catholic who would detach religion from public policy and he was a man of Ireland who, for all that, was also one of the leading internationalists of his day.”
This weekend's Daniel O'Connell Summer School was the first since 2019 and also featured addresses by recently retired Chief Justice, Frank Clarke and former president of the Royal Irish Academy, Prof Nicholas Canny and can be accessed at www.danieloconnellsummerschool.com