The Forces Behind Daniel O'Connell, 1823-1829

34. Yet, despite the immediate failure of Emmet's attempt, the country was in a state of deep unrest.

That unrest only awaited the expression and organisation that could alone be given to it by effectual leadership.

A leader now arose who raised the cry of Catholic Emancipation. During the last years of the Dublin Parliament the franchise had been granted to Catholics on the same basis as to Protestants, but it had effected nothing. It had, in the first place, no opportunity of exercise before that Parliament was annulled. Moreover, the constituency of the Parliament was mainly of borough seats that lay in the gift of single landowners. Lastly, inasmuch as Catholics were unable themselves to sit in Parliament, they could but have been represented by men who, under the circumstances, signified nothing to them.

Neither then, nor in the elections for the London Parliament early in the new century, did they evince the least interest in the matter. Parliaments after the English model were foreign to their instincts of a National Polity. Their thoughts were towards other things; and when Daniel O'Connell arose, with the voice and instinct of leadership, they rallied to him. Through that whole period it is clear that leader and people meant different things. He created an organisation through the country that gave the people a sense of power. He sought to focus their immediate demand upon religious and civil freedom. Supported by his organisation, the Catholic Association, he stood as candidate for a parliamentary election; and the electors, trusting his leadership, came now to record their votes for him. To an open ballot, that meant almost certain eviction, they came, despite the threats of their landlords. And they returned their candidate, so pronouncing an open challenge.

Once again the difference between leader and people was manifest. His challenge was for an immediate end, which he had defined to himself. That end, however, conveyed little to the nation. For the first time most of them had exercised this right in a new polity, and to send their leader to an assembly in a foreign capital signified little to them. Therefore, their challenge was menacing and symbolic; and the Viceroy wrote to London saying he could not answer for the consequences if Catholic Emancipation were longer delayed. Reluctantly then, and perforce, in 1829, the measure was granted, and Catholics were admitted to the English Parliament and all but the highest positions. The first step on the road had been won. It had been won, not by assent to the forms of the English constitution. That to the nation had been but the symbol of a revolt that, reacting from the uplifting of a symbol, had aroused the whole people, who looked to the new leader for guidance. As the Duke of Wellington asserted in giving his reluctant consent to religious and civil emancipation, he was compelled to do so by the prospect of facing "civil war in Ireland" as an alternative. For, said he, "that agitation really means something short of rebellion; that and no other is the exact meaning of the word. It is to place the country in that state in which its Government is utterly impracticable, except by means of overawing military force." In a word, English ministers for the time baffled the people's larger expectation by granting their leader's immediate demand.