O’Connell and Emancipation (3)

Eleanor Hull
O’Connell and Emancipation | start of chapter

The political position of O’Connell was peculiar. He was a loyalist of the most pronounced description and when George IV visited Dublin in 1821, and was received with extraordinary signs of popular devotion by all classes, O’Connell outstripped all others in his professions of homage to the King. He expressed equally strong loyalist sentiments toward the youthful Queen Victoria; and his belief in the advantages to Ireland of the connexion with the Crown never wavered. “There lived not a man,” as he delighted to repeat, “less desirous of separation or more desirous of independence.”[15]

The marked courtesy with which the Irish prelates and laity were treated during the King’s visit raised hopes that were destined to be disappointed, even though it was followed in the same year by the appointment as Viceroy of Lord Wellesley, an Irishman who was known to be favourable to the Catholic claims.

Saurin, the obstinate opponent of all measures of relief, was removed and Plunket replaced him as Attorney-General; but Henry Goulburn, who came over as Chief Secretary, was known to be averse to emancipation. Goulburn was besieged by Orangemen from the North, demanding the suppression of the “Papists,” and Plunket, on the other hand, became the butt of O’Connell’s followers, who were determined to make an attack on Parliament in the session of 1822.

Vigorous and virulent as he was in speech, O’Connell was generally ready to enter into a compromise when he thought it advantageous, and he now attempted a modified form of settlement which, however, was rejected by the Government.

The new Viceroy wisely determined to put down exhibitions of Orange sentiment which, in the heated condition of public opinion, had become dangerous, and he prohibited the dressing of the statue of William III. on College Green on July 12, then regarded as an annual demonstration.

This was followed by a riot, afterwards known as “the bottle riot,” when an organized body of Orangemen packed the pit and gallery of the Dublin theatre when the Marquess was present and with cries of, “Down with the Popish Lord-Lieutenent” they flung missiles, one of which was a large whiskey-bottle, at the royal box.

At the trial, the jury refused to find a verdict and great excitement prevailed in the city. The Viceroy wrote that he was frustrated, baffled, and betrayed even by his own agents, “the whole machinery of my own Government working for my destruction, and no sign of a disposition on the part of England to give me support or credit.”

From the year 1829 onward, Repeal of the Union came more prominently to the front, but the Orangemen of Ulster were solid against repeal, and their determined hostility to the South dates from their opposition to the repeal agitation.

Anglesey, who came a second time to Ireland as Viceroy in 1830, at the opening of O’Connell’s campaign, though he had supported him in his projects for emancipation, was firmly against him now.

O’Connell’s fight seemed likely to be waged with only the Catholic democracy and clergy on his side. It was believed that O’Connell was aiming at autocracy and even men like Sheil and Moore, his old comrades, shrank from fresh agitation. They feared that repeal would lead to separation and that it might end in rebellion, though O’Connell held the people back from violent acts and consistently denounced separation throughout his career.[16]

The rapid spread of the agitation and the formidable organization formed by O’Connell in 1840 to support it, gave him hopes of fulfilment, but the restraint that he exacted from his followers ended in a loosened hold upon them.

The “Young Ireland” movement arose to take the place of an agitation that seemed destined to prove abortive and the methods of which the populace failed to understand. The open talk in the columns of the Nation newspaper of armed intervention was more comprehensible among a multitude who had for years waited in vain for their great leader to “give the word” for a rising.

O’Connell, though himself no separatist, had created a nation ripe for separation, and though he was personally averse to force, he had trained the youth of Ireland to expect rebellion. A collision could not be long averted.

“O’Connell and the priests,” wrote the Chancellor, “have arrayed the lower orders against the intelligence and property of the country. You can hardly overrate the gravity of the present moment. … I think a short time will decide. … Repeal now means separation and hatred of the British connexion."”[17]

O’Connell had turned the priests into agitators and the people into separatists; it was with this inflammable material prepared to their hand that the Young Irelanders came into the field to complete the work that O’Connell had begun.

In 1823 O’Connell, with Sheil’s help, had founded a new Catholic Association. Its aim was to bring the priests into politics and to use them as a force to urge on emancipation. Up to this time, under the influence of their bishops, the parish clergy had taken little part in politics and the instances in which curates acted in rebellious risings, as in the fighting at New Ross and Wexford, had received the express and energetic condemnation of the hierarchy.

But the “Liberator,” as O’Connell was beginning to be called, saw in the clergy of his own Church an immense unused source of political influence, and from the moment that this idea occurred to him he was carried forward on an ever-rising tide of popularity, and fought with practically the whole Catholic population at his back. He had already made use of clerical influence in elections.

In 1807, Sir Arthur Wellesley, describing an election in Tipperary, declared that there never was anything equal to the violence of the priests and of the whole of their followers in that county in preventing the freeholders from going to the poll to vote for their Protestant landlords. The re-establishment of the Catholic Association gave a new impetus to their action.

By February, 1825, the Association numbered three thousand members; and O’Connell’s “Catholic rent” began to be collected in every parish for its support. In 1824 it brought in from £600 to £1,000 a week, besides large investments in the funds. Gentry, priests and peasants alike contributed regularly to it. Catholic relief, education, the question of the “forty-shilling freeholders” and the “veto,” were some of the matters taken up by the members.

Catholics and Protestants again drew together and by addresses all over the country the hitherto inert body of electors were made to feel their strength. The Government looked with dread on the growing power of O’Connell. “He is complete master of the Roman Catholic clergy; the clergy are complete masters of the people; and upon him and them it depends whether the country shall or shall not be quiet during the winter,” was the general feeling.

The country was quiet; no rioting occurred, and the twenty thousand soldiers stationed in Ireland were not called upon. But the result of his teaching was seen in the Waterford election of 1826, where, for the first time, a Beresford was rejected by his own tenants.

On the day before the nomination a vast procession, miles in length, streamed into the town. Total abstinence was vowed by the people themselves as long as the election lasted, and was rigorously kept. The soldiers stood by unneeded and were cheered by the populace, while for two hours O’Connell harangued the crowd. Louth, Monaghan, and other counties followed suit. The battle of emancipation was practically won; but the doom of the now independent “forty-shilling” freeholders was sealed.[18]

In January, 1828, the Duke of Wellington became Prime Minister, with Peel as Leader of the House. The Marquess of Anglesey, who had fought with Moore at Corunna and commanded the cavalry at Waterloo, was sent to Ireland. “God bless you, Anglesey,” had been the King’s last words; “I know you are a true Protestant.” “Sir,” was Anglesey’s reply, “I will not be considered either Protestant or Catholic; I go to Ireland determined to act impartially between them.”[19]

He refused to suppress the Catholic Association or to interfere with meetings and processions, but he thought the moment unpropitious for conciliation.

With the change of Ministry came the decisive Clare election, where Vesey Fitzgerald, a popular Member and old supporter of emancipation, who had been appointed President of the Board of Trade, had to stand for re-election. Within a week of the election O’Connell announced his intention to stand in opposition.

The Liberator’s election addresses, couched in telling phrases and promising innumerable benefits if he were elected, carried all before him; at the close of the contest O’Connell was borne in triumph through the streets of Ennis as the first Catholic returned to the Imperial Parliament by the free suffrages of the electors. He had polled 2,057 votes to 982 given to Fitzgerald. A vast cavalcade accompanied the new Member into Limerick, and “the cheer of fifty-thousand voices rang through the air” as they passed round the “stone of the violated treaty.”

A profound impression was created in England by the Clare election. The King desired that Anglesey should be recalled, but Wellington represented that the moment for action had arrived, and that emancipation must be conceded.

In Ireland the excitement was intense, and in a single day two thousand meetings were computed to have been held. Everywhere the power of the gentry seemed to be giving way before the new democratic flood.

The recall of Anglesey, amid the loudly expressed grief of the people, and an attempt by Wellington to delay the introduction of the Bill, increased the popular agitation, and, two days after the departure of the Viceroy, at a mass meeting in the Rotunda, a society was formed in which Protestants and Catholics were associated on equal terms.

On February 6 a Relief Bill was announced from the throne, the determined resistance of the Sovereign, which was the real obstacle in the way, having been broken down by Wellington’s representations. The oath required from Members of Parliament was to be so altered that Catholics could take it, but the “forty-shilling” freeholders were to be punished for their momentary independence by disfranchisement.

The third reading of the Bill, embodying Peel’s resolution, was taken for the first time on March 10, and passed in less than a month in the Commons and on April 10 in the Lords.

On May 15 O’Connell presented himself in the House, but, having refused to take the original oath, under which he was elected, he had to submit to the irritating delay of re-election.

The difficulties had been very many. “The King was hostile, the Church was hostile, a majority, probably, of the people of Great Britain was hostile to concession.” It was only on the tendering of their resignations to the King by his Ministers that he at last gave way. As it was, the Catholic Association was suppressed.

“Had O’Connell ceased agitating when emancipation was carried, he would have been as great a man in his way as Washington,” Lord Clarendon once wrote. There is no doubt that much in his later life detracted from the dignity of his earlier days.

At this time he was at the head of his profession, an admirable lawyer, and a man of property. He was one of the hardest of workers, rising at 3 a.m. and going to bed at 8 p.m. This is Lecky’s estimate of him at this date.

He showed his generosity both in giving professional aid to the poor gratuitously and in large gifts of money in the famine times. He disliked Government relief for poverty, which he believed to be ruinous and demoralizing to the country, and he withstood the Poor Laws and the proposed workhouse system, preferring State-aided emigration as a cure for the poverty of the people.

He was accused of too great a love of money, and certainly the immense sums poured into his lap and for which no account was rendered might have been a temptation even to a stronger man.

At one time “the tribute” rendered amounted to over £15,000 a year, and the subscription raised for O’Connell after emancipation was won reached no less a sum than £50,000. But it is to be remembered that he sacrificed the emoluments of a lucrative profession, in which he had reached the highest place. He fell in later years into the tricks of the mob orator, and swayed vast multitudes by all the arts of the demagogue.[20] He abused men scandalously, and often mendaciously, as he was abused by others.

What was of more permanent importance was that, in the English House of Commons, he inaugurated the system of obstruction which “by debating every word and sentence of a Bill and dividing upon every debate” could delay the passage of any Bill through a whole session. It was the system which was later adopted and perfected by the followers of Parnell and Redmond. The public time was consumed in listening to speeches of two or three hours each, made solely for the purposes of delay. Peel looked upon the plan as one designed intentionally to disgust the Members into giving a repeal of the Union, because it would relieve the House of the burden of their presence in it.[21]

The larger part of O’Connell’s after life was given to the question of repeal. On the night when emancipation was carried one of his friends had clapped him on the shoulder, exclaiming, “Othello’s occupation’s gone!” “Gone!” cried the Liberator; “isn’t there a repeal of the Union?”

He announced this as his intention even before emancipation was won, and hoped to unite all classes and sects in Ireland in its favour. But as a matter of fact the attitude of the gentry who had fought most vigorously for Irish independence had undergone a change, and they were now foremost in their opposition to repeal.

It would perhaps be truer to say that circumstances had changed, and that the men who resisted a union which defrauded them of ascendancy and power, were little disposed to welcome a repeal which would now leave them in the minority, while the enfranchised Catholic electors sent a Catholic democracy into Parliament and put a large Catholic majority into power.