Written in August 2008 and first posted on MyT.
This is Derrynane House in Co. Kerry, the home of the radical Irish political leader Daniel O’Connell (1775–1847) and now a kind of museum to him, which I visited recently.
Daniel O’Connell – known as ‘the Liberator’ – is a major figure in Irish history, but barely known in Britain. I discovered this when I lived in Dublin and had English visitors – while we walked past the large statue of O’Connell at the bottom of O’Connell Street, they asked who he was. Of course I’m not saying that they should have known, but there do seem to be gaps in the teaching of history in Britain.
In the early nineteenth century O’Connell was a young barrister and orator with an eye for a loophole, who boasted that he could drive a coach and four through any act of parliament. The 1798 rebellion in Ireland, and its bloody aftermath, had given him a strong distaste for violence and he never condoned it in the Irish context, although he supported the wars of liberation in South America (he also campaigned against slavery and for Jewish emancipation). In 1815, having ridiculed Dublin Corporation, he was challenged to a duel by one of its members, Norcot d’Esterre. O’Connell, to his horror, killed d’Esterre … he settled a pension on the widow and vowed never to fight again.
O’Connell turned the campaign for Catholic emancipation (i.e. to allow Catholics to sit in parliament) into a kind of national crusade – the nation in question being Ireland. In 1828 he stood against the government candidate in the Clare election, and had a landslide victory. The following April the British government, fearing another rebellion in Ireland, conceded Catholic emancipation.
O’Connell next focused on having the Act of Union (1800) repealed – he was a moderate nationalist and favoured a ‘Home Rule’ parliament under the British monarch rather than a republic. He organized several ‘monster meetings’ around the country, one of which was attended by three-quarters of a million people on the Hill of Tara, former seat of the high kings of Ireland. In his house I saw an original poster in which he called on his followers to behave impeccably, declaring that this would infuriate their opponents.
A meeting planned for 8 October 1843 in Clontarf, Dublin (scene of an important battle in 1014) was due to be the biggest of all – crowds were already making their way there when Robert Peel banned it on 7 October. Rather than risk violence, O’Connell called off the meeting; he was then imprisoned for conspiracy, and served three months. On his release, 200,000 supporters followed his fabulously ornate carriage (funded by well-wishers, and now on display in Derrynane) through the streets of Dublin.
O’Connell, approaching his seventieth birthday, had gone as far as he could. Stricken by illness, he left Ireland in January 1847 with the intention of dying in Rome, and made a speech in the House of Commons en route. He died before reaching his destination, at Genoa on 15 May. Ireland was in the throes of the Great Famine, and at its lowest ebb.
Balzac said that O’Connell incarnated a whole people. He was a man of vast energy and charisma, a folk-hero who became a stock character in hundreds of Dublin stories – as ‘Dean Swift’ had been before him – and one of the great characters of Irish history.