O’Connell and Emancipation (2)

Eleanor Hull
O’Connell and Emancipation | start of chapter
Daniel O'Connell, the Liberator

Daniel O’Connell
From the painting by George F. Mulvany, R.H.A., in the National Gallery of Ireland.

Though his ends were just, the project was a bold one. Daniel O’Connell had been born in West Kerry in the year 1775, of a good Catholic family, and was sent to be educated in Cork and afterward at St. Omer and Douay. He was a devoted son of his Church, and in politics, like most of the Catholic gentry, he was “almost a Tory.”

From his earliest days he was averse to violent methods such as those of the United Irishmen, for gaining political ends; he “learned from their example that in order to succeed for Ireland it was strictly necessary to work within the limits of the law and constitution.”

“I saw that a fraternity banded illegally never could be safe; that invariably some person without principle would be sure to gain admission and either for bribes or else … for their own preservation would betray their associates. The United Irishmen taught me that all work for Ireland must be done openly and above-board.”[9]

“The man who violates the law strengthens the enemy” was his favourite saying. This principle O’Connell adhered to throughout his life, but it resulted in a confusion of mind among his followers if not in himself. He was constantly stirring up vast multitudes of people by speeches of the most inflammatory character, which became more unbridled as time went on, yet when it came to action they found to their surprise that O’Connell refused to lead them.

The day when the “Liberator” would “speak the word” came not, and the gigantic Repeal meetings of his later life, composed at times of nearly a million people, and held at places of exciting memories such as Tara or Mullaghmast—memories which he used in his addresses with their full effect—were forced to disperse quietly without any attempt at a rising.

It is a striking testimony to the personal influence of O’Connell that with a large part of the adult Catholic population of the three provinces of Ireland assembled at these demonstrations, and roused to the highest pitch of enthusiasm by his orations, no scenes of violence ever occurred. Largely through the efforts of Father Mathew, the temperance reformer, neither drunkenness or disorder appeared in them. “My disposition,” O’Connell said, “is from natural bias averse to deeds of violence. … Not for all the Universe contains would I, in the struggle for what I conceive to be my country’s cause, consent to the effusion of a single drop of human blood except my own. Any other man’s blood I dare not spill.”[10]

He looked askance at the landing of Wolfe Tone and the French fleet, and during Emmet’s rising he assisted the police to preserve quiet in Dublin. “The liberty that I look for,” he said when he heard of the former event, “is that which would increase the happiness of mankind.” “Agitate, agitate, agitate,” he cried on every occasion; but farther than this he would not go. He believed that with time and perseverance all reforms could be won by constitutional means.

When the young O’Connell returned from France on the completion of his education he was entered at Lincoln’s Inn on January 30, 1794, as a law student, and he was called to the Irish Bar on May 19, 1798, when the rebellion was at its height, being one of the first Irish Catholics to reap the benefit of the Catholic Relief Act.

He rose in his profession with astonishing rapidity and soon became known as an unrivalled cross-examiner and a practising lawyer who was plainly destined for the highest positions in his profession.

His industry and capacity for work, his gifts of speaking and conducting a case, his wit and subtlety, his dexterity in drawing a witness into a confusion of mind which led to a confession of the truth, his humour, and his intuitive understanding of Irish character, combined to make him a formidable opponent and a most successful advocate.

By 1812 he was making an income which he boasted to be as large, probably larger, “than any man in a stuff gown ever had at the Irish Bar.” Yet under the existing laws he, as a Catholic, could never hope to attain to the most conspicuous posts. Whatever his abilities, he must always remain beneath the professional rank of his Protestant rivals, even if they were his inferiors in ability.

When O’Connell came on the political scene Grattan had retired and Keogh, whose exertions had done much to press forward the Catholic Relief Bill, was old and infirm. The Catholics had been advised by the latter to maintain “a dignified silence,” but the energy of O’Connell quickly infused new life into the struggle. He joined the Catholic Committee and speedily rose to be its most commanding figure. Full Catholic equality became the dominant object of his efforts.

The main question of emancipation was complicated by that of the payment of priests by the Government and by the demand, as a set-off for this, of a certain control, known as the “Veto,” in the appointment of Bishops.

The Government also desired to exercise a power of inspection over correspondence between the Irish bishops and the Roman See, in order to stop any political intriguing which, as of old, was constantly suspected. Any Bill brought in by Pitt would have included these features, which later became known as “the wings,” as part of his policy.

Grattan was ready to concede the veto and the bishops in his time were prepared to accept it. They had formally consented to it in 1799, and it was approved by the English Catholics, the Irish Catholic aristocracy, and leading men among the mercantile classes.

At Rome, Monsignor Quarantotti, acting for the Pontiff, advised the Catholics “to accept and embrace with satisfaction and gratitude” the Bill of 1813, which contained this clause.[11] He did not even object to the restrictions put on correspondence with Rome, as these related only to civil policy and not to ecclesiastical and spiritual matters.

But in Ireland, in spite of approval in high quarters, opinion was beginning to harden against giving the power of the veto to the Government. The arrest of Lord Fingall and others under an old Penal measure of Lord Clare’s, known as the Convention Act of 1793, and the dispersal of the Catholic Association, brought O’Connell eagerly into the dispute. He incited the bishops to refuse the veto and endeavoured to arouse the priests to opposition; and resolutions were passed by the Irish hierarchy expressive of their determination to resist such interference in their appointments “in every canonical and constitutional way.” The project was dropped and was not revived when Sir Robert Peel passed his Act of Emancipation in 1829.

The division of opinion created by O’Connell’s action was strongly disapproved by Grattan, who condemned his action; and O’Connell’s avowal that he used this cry of dissatisfaction in order to push on his “ulterior object,” repeal of the Union, does not explain it. But the satisfaction of the Catholics was shown by the presentation to him of a piece of plate, and henceforth he became the recognized leader of the Catholic party.

The independent outlook of the Catholics in this controversy is remarkable and was voiced by O’Connell himself. “I am sincerely a Catholic, but not a Papist,” he said when there was an appearance of papal influence used in the controversy; and a resolution was passed that “decrees, mandates, or doctrines of any foreign power or authority, religious or civil, cannot of right assume any dominion or control over the political concerns of the Catholics of Ireland,” a view which was endorsed by the clergy and bishops in a synod held at Maynooth in 1815. “It was not,” said O’Connell, “for the slaves of Rome to instruct the Irish Catholics as to the mode of their emancipation.”[12]

For eight years the question was postponed in spite of “the desperate fidelity” of the aged Grattan, who year after year brought forward the cause in some shape or other in the English Parliament. In his bill of 1813 he asked for rights which were to be fully granted sixteen years afterwards, including admission to Parliament, to corporations, and to civil and military offices, with the exception of the Viceroyalty of Ireland and the Chancellorship of England.

The bill was supported by Castlereagh, Canning, and Palmerston, but opposed by Peel, who became the lifelong antagonist of O’Connell and his aims. Grattan died in 1820 at the age of seventy, having served for twenty years in the Irish and fifteen in the United Parliament. “Keep knocking at the Union” was one of his last admonitions when a deputation headed by Lord Cloncurry waited upon him. Yet he held that the Union of the two Parliaments having taken place, it was the duty of every politician to render it as fruitful as possible.[13] He had intended to be buried in Moyenna, but in accordance with a generally expressed desire, he consented to be laid in Westminster Abbey.

The Duke of Norfolk and the Duke of Wellington were his pall-bearers, and every honour that England could bestow was accorded to his remains.

When in feeble health, he had at the risk of his life come over to London to bring the claims of the Catholics once more before the House; when his daughter prayed him not to make the dangerous effort to appear in Parliament he replied, “God gave me talents to be of use to my country and if I lose my life in her service it is a good death,” repeating with emphasis, “it is a good death.”

But nature failed, and he no longer had strength to carry out his intention. He asked for a paper prepared by him on the question which lay so near his heart. Holding it in his hand, he said:

“Add to it these words—I die with a love of liberty in my heart, and this declaration in favour of my country in my hand.”

He expired on June 4, the anniversary of the day on which, forty years before, the Irish Volunteers had presented him with an address for asserting the liberties of Ireland.

The defeat of Grattan’s Catholic Bill in 1813 had proved a total and calamitous set back to the cause, and a complete apathy as regarded their claims settled down on the English people. Nevertheless, the long effort had borne fruit. The almost annual bills brought in by Grattan were defeated by ever decreasing majorities, and the unanswerable arguments advanced in their support, combined with the moderation of the hierarchy and the Catholic upper classes and the lessening of the vague fears of their adverse influence which followed the conclusion of the European peace, were not without effect.

Plunket, on Grattan’s death, became the chief supporter of the Catholic claims within the House. The weight of his authority, the respect accorded to his rectitude and high character, and the solid reasoning of his speeches caused all that he said to be received with attention. But on the veto question, which both Grattan and Plunket were willing to concede, O’Connell raised a violent opposition; and when Plunket introduced his broadly conceived Relief Bill of 1821, O’Connell even went the length of wishing “that the present rascally Catholic Bill might be thrown out” because it contained the veto clause.

Plunket’s Bill was supported by a petition signed by 8,000 English Catholics, whose claims he united to those of Ireland. It was ushered in by an oration which even his adversary, Sir Robert Peel, characterised as “nearly the highest in point of ability of any ever heard in the House,” and the motion was carried by a majority of six in a House of 448; but in the Upper House it was thrown out by a majority of thirty-nine.[14]

This adverse result was largely owing to the position taken up by the Duke of York, who made a declaration of unconquerable hostility to any further relief of the Catholics and whose opposition had great weight with the Lords; but the adverse attitude of O’Connell’s party was also to blame for the unsatisfactory vote.

While Bishop Doyle hailed the bill with delight, and Sheil, addressing a large meeting of Catholics in Dublin, declared the passing of the Bill through its first reading was “an epoch in the history of Ireland,” and “the day of her political regeneration,” the “Anti-vetoists” under O’Connell’s leadership denounced it in the most violent language in meetings held all over Ireland and presided over by the priests.