Early Life of Daniel O'Connell

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Chapter XXXVII

O'Connell was born on the 6th of August, 1775, "the very year," as he himself says, in a letter to the Dublin Evening Post, "in which the stupid obstinacy of British oppression forced the reluctant people of America to seek for security in arms, and to commence that bloody struggle for national independence, which has been in its results beneficial to England, whilst it has shed glory, and conferred liberty, pure and sublime, on America." He was educated at St. Omers, and it is said manifested some inclination for the priesthood; but there can be no doubt that his vocation lay in another direction, as he was incomparably too deeply religious and too thoroughly honest not to have obeyed the call of God at any cost, had such a favour been vouchsafed to him. It is said, whatever his dislike of physical force may have been in after-life, that he unquestionably knew how to use the argumentum baculinum in his early days; and that more than one student was made to feel the effects thereof, when attempting ill-natured jokes on the herculean Celt.

During his residence abroad he had some opportunities of witnessing the fearful effects of the French Revolution; and it is probable that a remembrance of these scenes, added to his own admirably keen common sense, saved him from leading his countrymen on to deeds of open violence. He was called to the Irish bar in the memorable year of 1798. For some time he failed to obtain practice; for who would confide their case to a young Catholic lawyer, when the fact of his creed alone would be sufficient to condemn his client in the eyes of Protestant juries, judges, and attorneys?

His maiden speech was made in opposition to the Union, even as his life was spent in the most strenuous efforts to obtain the reversal of that most fatal measure. A meeting was held in the Royal Exchange, Dublin, at the close of the year 1799, to petition against it; but even as O'Connell was denouncing, in his most eloquent language, the new attempt at national degradation, Major Sirr and his file of military rushed into the apartment, and separated the assembly. O'Connell now retired into private life, and, with the marvellous foresight of true genius, devoted himself to storing up that forensic knowledge which he felt sure he should one day use for the benefit of his countrymen.