Irish History Live

Daniel O'Connell

‘The Liberator’

Daniel O’Connell was one of the most important and influential figures in the history of Irish politics. Known for his considerable abilities as an orator, for his charm and his charisma he was responsible for laying the foundations of constitutional nationalism, which were to be built upon later by Parnell and Redmond. He became an innovator of European politics by attaching rural discontent to a system of formal national agitation[1], whilst enlisting the support of the powerful Catholic clergy by supporting their educational work. With the obvious later exception of Éamon De Valera, no other political figure in Ireland was so dominant or so popular for so long; his significance cannot be understated.

O’Connell was born in August 1775 into a well-to-do Roman Catholic family in west Kerry. As a young man his family sent him to France to be educated, and when he returned home O’Connell studied the law and trained to be a Barrister; this interest in and knowledge of the law would prove to be invaluable to the development of his political career. O’Connell married his distant cousin Mary O’Connell in 1802 and together they had 12 children. Only 7 survived infancy however, 3 daughters and 4 sons.[2] All of O’Connell’s sons would follow him into politics and thanks to their father’s efforts they were all able to sit in Parliament. Whilst O’Connell was never a pacifist in the strictest sense, his time in France during the revolution, and the crushing of the United Irishmen in 1798 had led to an aversion to violence. He felt that if Ireland were to achieve any social change for itself it would have to do so politically, to attempt to do so by way of force in his mind was futile.[3]

The direct result of the United Irishmen’s failed attempt to assert their liberty was the political Act of Union between Britain and Ireland which came into effect in 1801. Most educated and wealthy Catholics supported the Union because it promised their emancipation, but O’Connell was one of a few prominent Catholics to oppose the Act. British ‘apathy and antipathy’[4] towards Ireland had convinced O’Connell that for Ireland to be fairly governed, it would need self governance. Achieving repeal of the Union was to become O’Connell’s political Everest. Emancipation for Catholics did not materialise, largely because King George III felt that such a concession would be a betrayal of his coronation oath, and in 1823 O’Connell formed the Catholic Association to begin his emancipation campaign. He popularised the campaign by tying it to Irish Nationalism, and relating the peasantry grievances of the average Irish Catholic and in doing so swiftly became the pivotal figure in Irish politics. Through marrying Nationalism and Catholicism however, he was to further polarise sectarian divides which is seen by many as detrimental to Ireland’s later development, and a cause of the Tithe War in 1830.[5]

Having developed enormous popular support for his campaign in the intervening years, O’Connell stood in a Co. Clare by-election in 1828 and secured an astonishing victory over Vesey Fitzgerald, which entitled him to a seat in Westminster.[6] O’Connell was aware that he could not take the seat because his religious persuasion meant that he could not complete his oath. He did this to show the absurdity of the discriminatory nature of the legislation, and to gain support for emancipation in Britain. He was successful in these aims and consequently, fearing civil strife, Prime Minister Wellington guided the Bill through the House of Lords, and threatened to resign if the Bill were not given the Royal Assent by King George IV. The Catholic Relief Act was passed by the House of Lords in February 1829, and given the Royal Assent on 13 April of that year. There were, however, significant drawbacks to the Act for the poorer classes in Irish society. There were two stipulations to the Act; one being the right of the Crown to veto the appointment of Catholic Bishops, and the other was the raising of the minimum property requirement to qualify to vote to a rental value of ten-pounds per annum (240 shillings) thus disenfranchising all those whose land was valued at minimum of forty-shillings (two pounds) who had previously enjoyed enfranchisement.[7] O’Connell’s readiness to sacrifice the forty-shilling freeholders came from the belief that they were not able to vote independently from the wishes of their landlords.[8]

Undoubtedly, the Catholic Relief Act was a phenomenal achievement considering how his following at Westminster was nothing when compared to the support that he enjoyed in terms of numbers at home. The real achievement of O’Connell’s career, however, was the way that he affected the Irish mindset.[9] Inspired by O’Connell, and under the guidance of the clergy, the Irish proletariat had begun to gain a real sense of strength, he had permanently undermined the Protestant ascendancy in Ireland.[10] Forever the optimist he next set about using the same tactics that had served him so well in the 1820s to push for repeal of the Union and a return to Irish self-governance. The so-called ‘Uncrowned King of Ireland’ and his masterful leadership of the emancipation campaign had achieved great success, but O’Connell was ultimately to fail in what was his most desired ambition.

The failure of O’Connell’s repeal movement stemmed from a lack of support from the upper-classes. O’Connell had never been an advocate of social revolution, despite the content of some of his more rousing public speeches suggesting otherwise, but he did genuinely believe that emancipation was a first step to something greater. Middle-class Catholics were not enthusiastic about repeal and few Protestants could be found to support it. There was a feeling among the elite that the poorer classes had served their purpose and the new ten-pound franchise might actually ‘give more power to Catholics by concentrating it in more reliable and less democratically dangerous hands.’ [11]The poorer sections of Irish society, however, who have been described as the lifeblood of the campaign for Catholic Emancipation, were left behind. The stuttering repeal movement was then rendered totally impotent with the outbreak of the Great Famine in the mid-1840s. Wounded by his inability to ease the suffering of his fellow countrymen, and with his own health failing, O’Connell began a pilgrimage to the Vatican but died en route in Genoa in May 1847. According to his wishes, his heart was buried in Rome, and his remains were returned to Dublin. 

[1] K. Theodore Hoppen, Ireland since 1800: conflict and conformity (London, 1989), p. 19.

[2] F. O’Ferrall, Daniel O’Connell (Dublin, 1998), p. 15.

[3] J. S. Donnelly, The Great Irish Potato Famine (Sutton, 2001), p. 196.

[4] O’Ferrall, Daniel O’Connell, p. 135.

[5] K. Theodore Hoppen, Ireland since 1800: conflict and conformity (London, 1989), p. 25.

[6] Ibid, p. 21.

[7] Ibid.

[8] J. C. Beckett, The making of Modern Ireland 1603-1923 (London, 1966), p. 301.

[9] O’Ferrall, Daniel O’Connell, p. 132.

[10] Beckett, The making of Modern Ireland, p. 304.

[11] Hoppen, Ireland since 1800, p. 22.


Further reading:

Beckett, J. C., The making of Modern Ireland, 1603-1923 (London, 1969).

Donnelly, J. S., The Great Irish Potato Famine (Sutton, 2001).

Hoppen, K. T., Ireland since 1800: conflict and conformity (London, 1989).

MacDonagh, O., The Emancipationist: Daniel O’Connell, 1830-47 (London, 1988).

MacDonagh, O., The hereditary bondsman: Daniel O’Connell, 1775-1829 (London, 1989).

O’Ferrall, F., Daniel O’Connell (Dublin, 1998).


This entry was written by Stephen Downey. Steven graduated from Queen’s University Belfast in 2011 with a joint honours degree in Ancient and Modern History. He is particularly interested in the history of politics and society in twentieth-century Ireland. Steven hopes to pursue a career in post-primary education and pass his passion for history on to the next generation. 

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