Daniel O'Connell and the Duke of Wellington, both dressed as Irish chieftains, argue about Repeal.

The most famous thing O’Connell said…and Wellington didn’t

Daniel O’Connell had a gift with words. Many of his aphorisms have been passed down to us: “The altar of liberty totters when it is cemented only with blood”1 or “Gentlemen, you may soon have the alternative to live as slaves or die as free men”2  But surely his best known aphorism is this (and its many variants): “being born in a stable does not make a man a horse”.

Wait! Isn’t that a quote from Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington? It’s commonly thought to be so, but when it appears in recent biographies it is often with a caveat. For example, though Gregor Dallas simply reports the remark (as an example of Wellington rejecting his homeland)3, Gordon Corrigan calls the remark “apocryphal” 4 and Richard Holmes qualifies his account of how “he was to deny his Irishness” with a cautious “(so it was said)”5 Why the caution?

The caution is due to the fact that there seems to be no contemporary evidence of Wellington ever making this remark. On there other hand there is contemporary evidence O’Connell said it of Wellington. In 1844 Shaw’s Authenticated Report of the Irish State Trials, 18446 was printed. An account of Daniel O’Connell’s trial for conspiracy in January 1844, it includes evidence given of O’Connell’s speeches, including (p. 93) one given at a banquet after the Monster Meeting at Mullaghmast (near Ballitore; the meeting was held Sunday the 1st of October 1843):

The following passage in reference to the Duke of Wellington was received with great laughter: “The poor old duke what shall I say of him. To be sure he was born in Ireland, but being born in a stable does not make a man a horse.”

Another account of the trial printed by J. Duffy in Dublin and Routledge in 1844 included the story 7. The later Reports of State Trials produced by the State Trials Committee (HM Stationery Office) also include the quip. There can be no doubt O’Connell said it. But was he reflecting what the Duke of Wellington really thought?

Anglo-Irish: Irish or British?

This is a point sometimes put by biographers. Gordon Corrigan states that Wellington downplayed his Irish roots, allowing them to remain obscure, and that his attitude reflected that of the Anglo-Irish class in general, who refused to identify with the Irish, and clung to an identification with England at all cost8

That can be overplayed as a feature of the Anglo-Irish class. Anglo-Irish people found that while they might be regarded as English in Ireland, they would be regarded as Irish in England. They might call themselves Irish on some occasions and English or British on others. Identity was fluid and contingent. Over the 18th century there was an increasing identification of the Anglo-Irish with Ireland (see this post), which was identifiable in Grattan’s parliament of 1793-18019.

The Duke of Wellington as an Irish chieftain
The Duke of Wellington from “Characteristic dialogue between two Irish chieftains”. Coloured lithograph by H.B. (John Doyle), 1843.

Meanwhile, in Britain being Irish was often a liability.  It is notable that Thomas Sheridan (in his earlier career the manager of Smock Alley Theatre Dublin) was one of the important figures in the development of elocution as a discipline. In his Lectures on Elocution (1762) he notes that regional accents (including of course, the Irish accent) were despised in London. The Irish were laughed at for “Irish bulls” (ludicrous, incongruous or logically absurd statements), leading Maria Edgeworth with her father Richard to write in defence of the Irish use of English in An Essay on Irish Bulls (1802).  Written as it was after the Act of Union, they closed their book with a hope that it would bring the two nations together without “invidious comparisons” being made, and that Britain would not “depreciate the talents or ridicule the language of Hibernians”10.

Arthur Wellesley’s own views had shifted from the 1790s to the 1820s. He had been broadly in favour of Catholic Emancipation while an MP in the Irish Parliament.  In a letter dated 17th May 1807 (after nine years away from Ireland) outlining how Ireland might be defended, Wellesley  describes the people in general as “disaffected to the British government” and unlikely to be swayed from that position 11. This formed the basis to his later opposition to Catholic Emancipation: in a letter dated 7th July 1812, he argued that Ireland had only been held by Britain due to the difference in treatment of Catholics and Protestants (the “English garrison”). He continued12:

Abolish the distinction, and all will be Irishmen alike, with similar Irish feelings. Shew me an Irishman and I’ll show you a man whose anxious wish it is to see his country independent of Great Britain. This is human nature, and the feelings in Ireland have been all the time the same.  I was astonished to find the degree to which the opinion had grown that Ireland could stand alone as an independent country among gentlemen of property, persons in office and connected with government. The connection with Great Britain has decreased in popularity since the union, the abolition of jobs, the curtailment of patronage of the Crown.

Welleseley as the Duke of Wellington altered his position on Catholic Emancipation in 1825, again for purely political reasons. It had become too dangerous to oppose. He was therefore a long-term political adversary of O’Connell, who had fought for  both Emancipation and the reversal of the Act of Union.

A question of identity

For Wellington, to be Irish is to be disaffected towards the British parliament and to believe Ireland would be an independent country. It has nothing to do with religion or customs or hereditary. The two, Britishness and Irishness, are apparently mutually exclusive.

Daniel O'Connell as an Irish chieftain
Daniel O’Connell from “Characteristic dialogue between two Irish chieftains”. Coloured lithograph by H.B. (John Doyle), 1843.

This clearly is not the only view of what it means to be Irish. The image at the top of this post shows that, in the year O’Connell made his famous remark, a political cartoonist believed depicting Wellington as an Irish chieftain would make sense to the British public. The detailed account of O’Connell’s trial shows O’Connell denied that Wellington was Irish in answer to a voice saying of Wellington, “He is a bad Irishman.”13. Wellington was, therefore, even in Repeal circles, still regarded as Irish. O’Connell, ironically enough, seems to be adopting Wellington’s view here. Wellington’s politics do not merely make him a bad Irishman: they make him no Irishman at all (or possibly, anticipating Antony Flew in Thinking About Thinking (1975), no true Irishman.).

Opinions seem to have varied after the deaths of both men about the status of Wellington. In 1888 the quip was recorded in Irish graves in England as “if a wolf was born in a field would it be a lamb?” though attributed correctly to O’Connell. The author also noted many Irish would not acknowledge Wellington as Irish14 In 1892, Wellington is again included in a book on the Irish but the author records the quip as Wellington’s, suggesting it may be  triggered by the prejudice against the Irish of the time15.

This rule for identity does suit some groups: those non-Irish who wish to claim Irishmen they admire, such as Wellington or Burke, and those Irish who wish to repudiate Irishmen they despise, such as Wellington and Burke. It’s a dangerous doctrine, however. Who decides what politics rule people in or out? Just how far could the definition go in the quest for political purity? What happens when to the people who don’t fit? The end points would appear to be either farce (the People’s Front of Judea versus the People’s Judean Front) or the type of political tragedy of which Burke’s Reflections warned. To adapt the words of Madam Roland which O’Connell himself quoted: “Oh political purity! What horrors are committed in thy name!”16.

Daniel O'Connell and the Duke of Wellington, both dressed as Irish chieftains, argue about Repeal.Featured Image: Daniel O’Connell and the Duke of Wellington face each other as two opposing Irish chieftains. Coloured lithograph by H.B. (John Doyle), 1843. (c) Wellcome Collection (CC BY 4.0)

Further Reading

Nick F. Lynch (2016)  “Wellington and Catholic Emancipation” on A Web of English History (online)

Dr Marjorie Bloy (2016) “Peel and Catholic Emancipation” on A Web of English History (online) Includes an account of Wellington’s position in the 1820s.



  1. From O’Connell’s Journal, Dec 1796. Quoted in Fergus O’Ferrall (1981)Daniel O’Connell Dublin, p. 11-12
  2. Said at the banquet following the Monster Meeting in Mallow Co. Cork, on Wednesday June 11 1843. Quoted in Eoin O’Driscoll (2014) “Daniel O’Connell and the Young Irelanders” in The Irish Story (online).
  3. Gregor Dallas (2011) 1815: The Roads to Waterloo, Random House
  4. Gordon Corrigan (2006) Wellington: A Military Life, A&C Black, p. 3
  5. Richard Holmes (2012) Wellington: The Iron Duke, HarperCollins UK, p. 8.
  6. Henry Shaw (ed) and Daniel O’Connell (1844) Shaw’s Authenticated Report of the Irish State Trials, 1844, Dublin: Henry Shaw (Google books). Interestingly what looks like a reprinting of Shaw’s text can be found bound with Matthew Carey’s (1837) Vindiciae Hibernicae: Or, Ireland Vindicated in the University of Chicago. See Google Books.
  7. John Flanedy (1844) A special report of the proceedings in the case of the Queen against Daniel O’Connell Dublin: J Duffy, p.
  8. Corrigan (2006), p.3.
  9. Ian McBride (1998) “‘The common name of Irishman’: protestantism and patriotism in eighteenth-century Ireland” in Tony Clayton and Ian McBride, eds., Protestantism and National Identity: Britain and Ireland, c. 1650-c.1850 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 236-261.
  10. Maria Edgeworth and Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1802/3) Essay on Irish Bulls New York: J. Swaine, pp. 239-40 (Archive.org).
  11. The Duke of Wellington (ed) (1860) Civil Correspondence and Memorabilia of Field Marshal Arthur, Duke of Wellington, London: John Murray, pp. 28-36 (letter dated 7 May 1807). (google books). Quote on p. 33.
  12. The Duke of Wellington (1860), p. 353-4. Quote on p. 353.
  13. State Trials Committee (1893) Reports of State Trials: New Series 1820 to 1858″, H. M. Stationery Office, p. 205.
  14.  Michael MacDonagh (1888) Irish graves in England : a series of articles. Dublin : Evening Telegraph Office.
  15.  John O’Hart (1892) Irish Pedigrees: Or, The Origin and Stem of the Irish Nation, Volume 2,  J. Duffy and Company, p. 124.
  16. From O’Connell’s Journal, 2 Jan 1799. Quoted in W. J. O’Neill Daunt (1848) Personal Recollections of the Late Daniel O’Connell, M.P., 2 Vols, Vol I, London, p. 205. Originally spoken by Madam Roland before her execution on 8th November, 1793.
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