Daniel O’Connell’s legacy


Sir, – Daniel O’Connell’s abhorrence of bloodshed, as described by Olivia O’Leary, was the defining characteristic of his public life (“Daniel O’Connell, the greatest of all politicians”, Culture, August 17th).

In his 2014 Daniel O’Connell Memorial Lecture on this subject, the late Mr Justice Adrian Hardiman laid out how it was carved on O’Connell’s soul following his killing of John D’Esterre in 1815 in a duel. The responsibility for this killing weighed heavily on O’Connell’s conscience for the rest of his life and undoubtedly cemented his commitment to non-violence. Hardiman memorably chronicled how O’Connell’s pacific resolve stood firm in the face of repeated challenges and provocations; having faced and killed a man in a duel, O’Connell’s detractors could not malign his principled stand as mere cowardice, but were forced to concede that it was a principled dissent from conventions that valued perverse notions of honour more highly than life itself. This illustrates O’Connell’s nuanced understanding of the sad historical dynamics of rebellion and violence in Ireland. The discipline, sobriety and organisation he enforced on the Repeal Movement demonstrated that only he had the power to tame the political passions of the Irish nation. He sought to convince the occupying authorities that their policy of oppression could not maintain peace and order in the Ireland; that revolution and mayhem were the alternatives to meaningful engagement with his constitutional agenda. The tragedy of our island’s history is that the Crown rejected him as a partner in peace and persisted in an unsustainable policy of coercion. Far from being a sign of squeamishness or weakness, his rejection of bloodshed demonstrated that the resorts to force on the part of both the Castle and Irish revolutionaries were implicit admissions of weakness and their inability to challenge his pre-eminence in the political arena. – Yours, etc,



Dublin 6.

Sir, – With reference to Olivia O’Leary’s piece, readers maybe interested to learn that a more critical analysis of Daniel O’Connell was published over a hundred years ago by James Connolly in his seminal work Labour in Irish History.  In this book, Connolly debunks the myth of the heroic reformer that has been attached to O’Connell, a member of the landed gentry, by declaring that O’Connell felt himself to be much more akin to the propertied class of England than to the working class of Ireland. Connolly reveals how, far from being a progressive reformer, O’Connell was an ardent opponent of trade unions and the regulation of factory employment. 

O’Connell was only interested in campaigning for the extension of the franchise to his class and the notion that the working class should also be granted the vote was a concept that he opposed bitterly. To quote Connolly, “O’Connell,upon taking his seat in Parliament, threw all his force on the side of capitalist privilege and against social reform.”

Perhaps the best example of social reform during this period was that of the Chartist movement led by O’Connell’s contemporary and fellow Irishman Fergus O’Connor. – Yours, etc,



Co Kerry.

Sir, – Just a brief response to Olivia O’Leary’s wonderful piece on Daniel O’Connell. Asking if he was faithful to his wife, she allows Mary O’Connell’s biographer’s comment (that Daniel stayed away from her more than he needed) to stand as an answer. While this isn’t untrue, neither does not do justice to the relationship between Mr and Mrs O’Connell. Mary O’Connell may have had her 19th-century expectation of faithfulness from her husband disappointed by his 18th-century attitude to – ahem – “gallantry”. However, in the introduction to their published correspondence, editor Maurice O’Connell records that Mary O’Connell had her husband’s “enduring regard”. He also quotes biographer Robert Dunlop’s suggestion that the sadness and confusion experienced by O’Connell in his later years were at least partially the result of his bereavement in 1836. – Yours, etc,



Co Laois.