The great O'Connell

The Catholic Association was founded in 1823, totally absorbing the previous Catholic Committee, and with Daniel O’Connell now at the helm things began to move much faster than before. Barely a year in existence, the new Association created a huge membership in every single parish in the country by enrolling associate members who paid one penny a month into its coffers. Thus a nation-wide network was created which could no longer be ignored by the authorities. In 1825 the Association was suppressed under the Unlawful Societies Act, but O’Connell got around this quite simply by dissolving the Association and setting up a new organisation with the same personnel as administrators but under a different name.

He repeated this routine every time his organisations were declared illegal, thus ensuring a continuity of his programme towards achieving Catholic Emancipation. His success so alarmed the British Parliament that several Catholic relief bills were introduced in the House of Commons where they were usually successful but were always all defeated in the House of Lords.

O’Connell then carried the programme one step further. He now organised support from the “forty shilling freeholders” in the election of Protestant candidates, who gave an undertaking that they would vote for Catholic Emancipation if elected to Parliament. With the Catholics very much the majority, this was an audacious step as the same freeholders could be evicted if they voted against the wishes of their local landlord in elections, considering that voting in elections was ‘open’ and that the landlords’s agents knew exactly how every tenant voted. Nevertheless they courageously took up the challenge and yielded to O’Connell’s requests.

This was first tried out in Co. Waterford for the 1826 election when Villiers Stuart received the support of the Catholic voters and defeated Lord Beresford. In North Monaghan the same year Henry Westenra received the support of the Catholics and defeated Charles Leslie in the election. Wild scenes of excitement accompanied the results of both these elections in the counties involved and it was now only a matter of time before the process could be repeated in every other constituency throughout the country, with the possible exception of north-east Ulster.

In 1828 a by-election was called in Co. Clare and this time O’Connell took his crusade yet another step forward. No longer dependant on the condescending support of liberal Protestant candidates, he contested the seat himself and the result was a resounding success, O’Connell scoring an overwhelming victory. He then went to London to take his seat in Parliament but was refused entry as he could not take the required Oath of Supremacy. The writing was on the wall for the British Parliament , however, and the Catholic Emancipation Act was duly passed the following year, 1829.
Catholics were now to be admitted to parliament and to public offices, but the Ascendancy still controlled Dublin castle, and Catholics were still kept out of most public positions. The Act, in fact, meant very little to the ordinary peasantry but it was still a major step forward in Irish history as, from now on, Catholic candidates could, and would, be elected to represent their own constituents and would obviously pursue their interests where it counted.

O’Connell quickly made his presence felt on the House of Commons, his oratory and personality attracting much support. He became leader of the Irish Members of Parliament and also formed an informal alliance with the Whigs. Having been so successful in winning Catholic Emancipation, he now turned his attention to achieving Repeal of the Act of Union, but here he found those same Whigs a lot less sympathetic, and by 1840 no success had been forthcoming.

By 1841 the population of Ireland had risen rapidly to an amazing 8,200,000 people, more than twice the figure of forty years earlier. The huge increase in population created disastrous problems, with tenants being compelled to sub-divide their farms so that each member of the family might try and eke out a living for themselves. This led to tenants finding it impossible to pay the high rents and that, in turn, led to further evictions by landlords and the agents of absentee landlords, who also engaged in a programme of land clearances to suit their own purposes. They had little sympathy for the unfortunate tenant who could not pay his rent and the sight of families being thrown out on the roadside while their little homes were burned or levelled to the ground, was an everyday scene in almost every county in the land.

In his fight for Repeal, O’Connell decided to use the very same tactics that he had used in winning Emancipation, and in this he was strongly supported by Charles Gavan Duffy and Thomas Davis in the columns of “The Nation”, the new weekly newspaper and organ of the recently founded Young Ireland movement, and which was eagerly read by every house in Ireland. Repeal Associations were formed in every parish up and down the country, using the same people that had been involved on the Catholic Association committees. The Young Irelanders were particularly supportive of the Liberator in his organising of “Monster Meetings” throughout the country at each of which O’Connell demanded Repeal of the Union in very fighting words.

O’Connell chose the venues for his Monster Meetings very carefully, selecting places of historic Irish interest, particularly the sites of important Irish military victories over the ancient enemy. These meetings were attended by tens of thousands of people, all eager to listen to O’Connell, whose oratory impressed them and whose loud booming voice carried right across the hills to reach every member of his huge audience. His Monster Meeting on the Hill of Tara had attracted literally hundreds of thousands and, on hearing his fighting words, the people were convinced that O’Connell would eventually lead an armed insurrection to gain Repeal of the Union and a Parliament of her own for Ireland. In this, however, they were to be disappointed.

A Monster Meeting was arranged for October 1843 to take place at Clontarf, near Dublin, scene of the famous Brian Boru victory of 1014, when it was hoped that something in the region of a million people would attend. This time, however, the British prime minister, Robert Peel, was prepared. The meeting was proclaimed illegal and an army, complete with artillery, was drafted into the area to prevent any such gathering. The people of Ireland were already on their way to attend, however, and hundreds or thousands were converging on Clontarf, convinced that O’Connell would go ahead with the meeting despite it being outlawed and the presence of so many troops.

At this stage O’Connell, fearing a terrible calamity should the troops open fire on innocent civilians, decided to call off the meeting. The news of the cancellation spread rapidly and was received with despair by all those who had travelled in such high hopes, many from great distances. As the throngs of downcast people returned dejectedly to their homes, they suddenly lost faith in the great O’Connell and, from there on, his popularity decreased at an alarming rate.

Following this, Daniel O’Connell and several other leaders were arrested and tried for seditious conspiracy. Found guilty, they were imprisoned but, after an appeal to the House of Lords, they were released. O’Connell continued his agitation in the House of Commons but his efforts had proven unsuccessful and they received an even greater set-back when the Young Irelanders broke completely with him, feeling that he had let them down and demanding a much tougher policy of revolution.

The differences between Daniel O’Connell and the Young Irelanders were as unfortunate as they were inevitable, but even more unfortunate was the oncoming of the worst disaster that ever befell Ireland - the Great Famine. This dreadful scourge, which began with the failure of the potato crop in 1845, would ravage the entire country for the next five years and would inflict a sore on the nation from which it has never recovered. Daniel O’Connell strove unceasingly in the Commons to get relief for the starving people while the famine raged and also demanded that the country’s ports should be closed to prevent the wanton export of cattle, grain and foodstuffs that could so easily have prevented the catastrophe, but he was not listened to. Unfortunately, his health was also declining at this stage and he decided to move to Rome to seek the sun, but was overtaken by death at Genoa on May 15th 1847.

Following his death, the name Daniel O’Connell again became popular and famous. All his faults were gladly forgiven him by a grateful people who acclaimed him as the ‘Liberator’ who had lifted a down-trodden people from their knees. His memory would be hailed in the naming of the principal bridge and thoroughfare of the nation’s capital city after him, the creation of a huge monument to his memory on that same thoroughfare, and the building of a round tower over his grave in Glasnevin cemetery in the north of the city.