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?
By the time of his death in 1847 the international reputation of Daniel O’Connell as one of the most influential Catholic leaders of the period was well established. His demands for an end to secular interference in Church affairs and for the Repeal of the Act of Union attracted a great deal of interest. While European governments, such as those in Berlin and Vienna, had watched the development of O’Connell’s mass movements with suspicion, many of their citizens, particularly members of the increasingly politically aware Catholic middle classes, had seized on his example to develop their own organisations to achieve improved civil and religious rights for the Church and its adherents in their own areas. This was especially true in the states of the German Confederation and culminated in the establishment of a geographically extensive organisation based on O’Connell’s Catholic Association.
Geraldine Grogan (1991) “Daniel O’Connell and European Catholic Thought”, Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 80, No. 317 (Spring, 1991), pp. 56-64 (JSTOR). Quote from page 56.
Daniel O’Connell played a key role in obtaining Catholic Emancipation in the United Kingdom, forcing the issue in 1828 (See Encyclopaedia Britannica and UCC: The campaign for Catholic Emancipation, 1823–1829). While Catholics in Ireland had obtained the vote under Grattan’s parliament, the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 (10 Geo. IV, c. 7) gave all Roman Catholics the right to vote (if they fulfilled the other voting criteria) and to sit in Parliament and hold other positions previously barred to them. (The Irish Parliamentary Elections Act, 1829 (10 Geo. IV, c. 8), raised the county freehold franchise from 40 shillings to £10, meaning many Irish Catholics who had had the vote lost it.)
O’Connell’s campaign was followed and supported by the liberal French press, and adopted as a model for other associations in Europe campaigning for political rights for Catholics.
The Daniel O’Connell Heritage Summer School will be held on the 28th and 29th of August 2015. The overall purpose of the School will be to examine aspects of the historical career of Daniel O’Connell as well as to consider the challenges of modern Ireland. The School will be held over two days in Cahersiveen … Read more
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:
The satirical picture above (1831) from the National Portrait Gallery London depicts Daniel O’Connell approaching the Irish Channel, with Anglesey (Lord Lieutenant of Ireland) and Stanley (Chief Secretary of Ireland) attempting to restrain him by a large document headed PROCLAMATION. O’Connell holds a paper on which is written “Repeal of the Union”, in his other hand a paper bearing “Agitation within the letter of the law”.The implication is that O’Connell “is a monster produced by human machinations” (more details available from the British Museum).
Depicting O’Connell as Frankenstein’s Monster is appropriate, philosophically speaking: the DoIP notes that in his early life O’Connell had been “receptive to the leading radical philosophies of the day, including the revolutionary humanism and egalitarianism of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft” (p. 255). These two philosophers were, of course, the parents of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein.
Godwin’s Political Justice greatly influenced the young O’Connell regarding the nature and purpose of government. Godwin confirmed O’Connell’s abhorrence of political violence. O’Connell came to see the end of government as the happiness of the many, and since everyone was governed, everyone should participate in governing. O’Connell’s political path was set during his law training in Dublin and London from 1794-7: “in the spring of 1797 he was already a democrat in politics and a Deist in religion” (Thomas E. Hachey, Lawrence J. McCaffrey (eds) Perspectives On Irish Nationalism, University Press of Kentucky, p. 105.)
O’Connell had been converted to Deism by his reading of Paine’s Age of Reason. He rejected it after a decade as a “miserable philosophy” and returned to Catholicism. He remained radical however, seeking Catholic Emancipation from the Penal Laws (successfully, in 1829), and then repeal of the 1801 Act of Union. He insisted however that “no political change whatsoever is worth the shedding of a single drop of human blood”.