Daniel O’Connell and Free Speech

Daniel O'Connell [The O'Connell Centennial] (c) Library & Archives Canada/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Daniel O’Connell [The O’Connell Centennial]
(c) Library & Archives Canada/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Given his political philosophy, it is not surprising that Daniel O’Connell was a champion of free speech. The history of the eighteenth century in Ireland was a history of speech restricted, with all political writers from Molyneaux and Swift to Wolf Tone facing possible accusations of treason. Religious freedom was still being fought for.

O’Connell’s passion for free speech extended, as it should, to those he disagreed with. Not that he was necessarily entirely polite to them, if the following account by Wendell Phillips (1875) is to be believed:

A gentleman from Boston went to him with a letter of introduction, which he sent up to him at his house in Merrion Square. O’Connell came down to the door, as was his wont, put out both his hands, and drew him into his library. “I am glad to see you,” said he; “I am always glad to see anybody from Massachusetts, a free State.” “But,” said the guest, “this is slavery you allude to, Mr. O’Connell. I would like to say a word to you in justification of that institution.” “Very well, sir,–free speech in this house; say anything you please. But before you begin to defend a man’s right to own his brother, allow me to step out and lock up my spoons.”

O’Connell’s attitude to free speech not only inspired the anti-slavery movement in the US but Catholic movements on the continent. Montalembert’s biography of Lacordaire, for example, opens by referring to the writer’s return from Ireland, where “religious emancipation had been won by using the freedom of the press and the right to free speech” (JSTOR). O’Connell’s tactics were discussed in Germany and his release from prison in 1844 prompted “the citizens of Coblenz sending him a barrel of the finest Rhenish wine along with their best wishes at this time of ‘his glorious triumph’.

The triumph referred to by the people of Coblenz had cemented O’Connell’s reputation as a champion of free speech. It was triggered by the Monster Meetings of the 1840s where huge crowds gathered to hear O’Connell speak. Announcing 1843 as “the Year of Repeal” the first meeting was held at Trim, Co. Meath which attracted over 100,000 people. The meeting at the Hill of Tara is estimated to have gathered a crowd of three-quarters of a million. Though the meetings were orderly, the government grew worried trouble would break out. Sr Robert Peel outlawed the next Monster Meeting, planned for Clontarf on 8 October 1843. Though O’Connell called off the rally, he was still arrested and charged with conspiracy.

O’Connell spoke in his own defense, pointing out the “conspiracy” was neither secret nor criminal, arguing that calling such a movement as his a conspiracy would prevent improvement of any institutions – that such a definition could have been used to destroy Wilberforce’s movement to abolish slavery. He continued

Ah Gentlemen, do not presume to interfere between humanity and its resources. Do not venture to arrest the progress of any movement for the amelioration of the institutions of the country. Do not attempt to take away from your fellow subjects the legitimate mode of effecting useful purposes by public meetings, public canvassing — speaking bold truths boldly and firmly.

O’Connell was found guilty and sentenced to a years imprisonment and a fine of £2,000, plus a security of £5,000 against seven years “good behaviour”. Before entering Richmond prison on 30 May 1844, O’Connell went to the House of Commons and made a brief speech to uproarious cheers from the opposition. His stay in prison was made comfortable, and he was allowed visitors at will. The verdict was appealed to the House of Lords, reversed, and O’Connell left prison after three months, a hero in the fight for freedom of speech.

However his health had deteriorated, and his power in the Commons waned. He was unable to get relief organised when the Irish Famine started in 1845. He gave his last speech in the Commons in February 1847 and died in Genoa that May.

Daniel O’Connell was born on this day (6 August) in 1775, in Carhan near Cahirciveen, Co. Kerry.


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