Saintly Mary

 

It is a pity that Dublin's city fathers did not read The World of Mary O'Connell by the American academic Erin Bishop before they decided to erect their non-political needle in the street named for her husband.

Ms Bishop does not come up specifically with the idea of a statue for Mary O'Connell in Dublin's principal street but her description of the life of the woman who married the liberator depicts a heroism which deserves such recognition.

While Daniel O'Connell fought for Catholic Emancipation and in his profligate way managed to strew his funds unaccountably in all directions, his wife Mary O'Connell was left at home to pick up the pieces. She was, incidentally, Mary O'Connell by birth and she was also from Kerry but despite the geographical closeness and the fact that she was also related to her husband's family she was in some measure out of tune with the Liberator's heritage.

The O'Connells of Derrynane remained part of the Gaelic aristocracy as landowners in Iveragh. The distant cousins from Tralee from which Mary O'Connell stemmed were far more circumscribed geographically and culturally. Anglicisation in those days caused isolation. In one of the thousands of letters attributed to Mary O'Connell she complained bitterly of not being able to understand an important series of conversations between her husband and his uncle, also Daniel O'Connell, a Count and General of France.

In the O'Connell house in Dublin the future Liberator and "the General" as he was known in O'Connell family circles spoke in French to each other until those who spoke French arrived on the scene. They then immediately switched to Irish which was the first language of both men. Mary O'Connell, as a townie, spoke neither but had no problem in expressing her annoyance and frustration at not knowing what was going on. Had she know that the subject of the conversation was a challenge to a duel she might have been even more annoyed.

Mary O'Connell of Tralee, with little to offer as a dowry, married the Liberator secretly in the hope that exclusion from the estate of another of Daniel's uncles might be avoided. It did not work out that way. The childless Maurice O'Connell heard of the secret marriage and instead of making Daniel his sole heir left him the Derrynane estate and £20,000. This was a vast sum in the early 19th century but O'Connell, anticipating the full inheritance, had spent most of it in advance.

Mary O'Connell's life thereafter was spent in penurious grandeur. She lived in a mansion on Merrion Square which she had pleaded with her husband not to buy because of the extravagant borrowing necessary for its purchase. For the first dozen years of her married life she had hardly a breathing space between pregnancies, some of which ended in miscarriage and others which resulted even more sadly in the arrival of healthy children who were taken by measles and whooping cough at an early age.

The thousands of letters between Mary and Daniel O'Connell upon which Ms Bishop bases her book have given a new and more human perspective on the life of Ireland's most important family of the 19th century. They exist because for a great part of their married life Daniel O'Connell was absent from home on political or legal business. Had they spent more time together there would not have been such a large correspondence. The author portrays the separation of the couple, who obviously loved each other very much, in a poignant way. O'Connell's political heroism is deftly counterposed to his gauche, and occasionally irresponsible approach to family duties.

Mary O'Connell managed to hold her family together as her husband pursued his career in the days when a journey of 50 miles or so might take as long as today's voyage to Australia. She died, more than a dozen pregnancies after her marriage to the Liberator, before she had reached sixty. Daniel O'Connell for all his faults lived a devastated life thereafter and Ms Bishop has done a better job than most in portraying this. Her entirely academic approach, however, is from time to time unsuited to a subject matter that is charged with emotion.

Seamus Martin's novel Duggan's Destiny is set in the last months of the life of Daniel O'Connell.