Daniel O’Connell.

The last in this current series.  We asked readers, particularly those in Ireland, to try identify 4 pictures,   The quiz can be found 4 posts back,  and the previous answers, along with various related snippets of history, across the previous 3 posts in this blog.    The last mystery picture in the quiz was this strange view, in the photo below…


The answer is that this extraordinary sight is what you see, looking up from inside the huge round tower at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin.    Most round towers in Ireland of course date from the earlier Christian period, from the 8th-12 century.   This one is much later, mid-19th century,  an anachronism, but also a celebration.   It is, by far,  the largest round tower in Ireland.    This vast monument is actually a kind of huge tomb stone.  It marks the grave of the legendary Daniel O’Connell,  often referred to as the Liberator.

It’s worth saying briefly that Glasnevin is a wonderful place to visit.    It’s our National Cemetery, full of the graves of patriots, artists, writers, and scientists,  and of course millions of ordinary people.  It is enormous. Indeed there are more Dubliners & Irish people lying in the ground of Glasnevin than there are living contemporary inhabitants of Dublin!   Along with Kilmanham Gaol, it is also, in my opinion,  the single-best place to learn about, and to understand, Irish history of the last 200 years.

And who was Daniel O’Connell?   For Irish people, it’s a redundant question.  He stands as perhaps the most famous of all Irishmen.   The main streets in half the towns of Ireland are named for him, as well as the most important bridge in central Dublin;  a bridge overlooked, incidentally, by a large bronze statue of the same man!

Often called the “uncrowned king of Ireland” and with some good reason, as you shall see.   But readers from abroad may not know this giant of Irish history.   So here’s a little history.  In terms of biography O’Connell was from a beautiful place,  born in 1775,  near Caherdaniel, on the Iveagh Penninsula in West Kerry.   He was fortunate, in that his uncle was one of a handful of Catholics to manage to retain some land and wealth.  This uncle, Maurice “Hunting Cap”  O’Connell paid for young Daniel’s education, including a law degree in France.

Derrynane House, near Caherdaniel, on the beautiful Iveragh peninsula of West Kerry.   This was originally his uncle Murice’s house, and later became Daniel’s estate.  Today it is a public property owned by the Irish State, and houses a fine museum dedicated to the man himself. 

The younger O’Connell made the most of his education.  For a while he worked at the bar in LOndon, then transfered his legal practice back to Ireland, initially working the Munster circuit. (the South and South west of Ireland, including Cork, Kerry, Clare and Limerick)   He soon established a reputation as a brilliant barrister, with a willingness to fight difficult cases on behalf of the oppressed or disadvantaged.

Later, Daniel went on the Lord Mayor of Dublin, and a giant of a campaigning politician.   Most significantly, he was the first catholic MP (member of Parliament) elected to Westminster for over 100 years.    He espoused a humane, progressive, reforming politics, and fought many great causes.   But undoubtedly his greatest cause was Catholic Emancipation.   And following his amazing success in that area, his greatest triumph was the repeal of the infamous, and deeply injust Penal Laws.

These hated laws- enacted in the late 17 and early 18th century-  forbade a wide basic rights and equalities to Catholics in Ireland, although Catholics were the majority population here.  For example, no Catholics could vote until 1797.  The rights to sit as MPs; to hold public office, or commissions in the army or navy, and many other rights, were still denied to them, for many more years to come.

In general these rights were reserved for the privileged Protestant or Anglican “Ascendency”  the all-powerful religious minority who controlled land and political power in Ireland.  This domination of political and economic power  stemmed in turn from protestant victories, in not one but two 17th century conflicts- the Cromwellian and Williamite wars- both of which had been disastrous for Catholic Ireland.

The Penal Laws, written and enacted after the wars, with the express purpose of ensuring Protestant domination or “Ascendancy” over Catholics, were the bitter legacy of the wars.   By O’Connell’s time the wars were over a hundred years in the past.  Yet the hated, discriminatory laws still remained.   Daniel O’Connell decided to do something about it.

He remains an inspirational figure today.   For me, perhaps the most inspirational things about him is great hearted concern for all oppressed peoples, (not just Irish) and also his pacifism.  He could command the passionate, indeed sometimes fanatical, loyalty of millions of people. Yet he made absolutely certain he never led or “inspired” them into acts of violence.

Historian date his abhorrence of violence to O’Connell’s student days,  when he was at university as a law student in France. There he witnessed first hand the chaos and bloodshed of the French Revolution.  There seems little doubt it sickened him.

There is a now-famous, revealing story about O’Connell.  In the early 18th century, gentlemen sought satisfaction in disputes through fighting duels.  Due to his principals however, this O’Connell refused to do.   When he was eventually goaded into fighting a duel in Dublin, his opponent was supposedly a crack marksman and crack duelist, more or less selected to kill O’Connell.   Yet instead of this expected outcome, it was O’Connell who killed the man, felling him with a shot to the belly.  Far from dining out on this exploit,  O’Connell was so strickened with disgust and remorse that he quietly paid a pension to the man’s family for the rest of his life.

If you need more evidence he was a good egg,  he was also an anti-slavery campaigner, far ahead of his time.  He was for example, a good friend with the great African-American campaigner and abolitionist, Fredrick Douglas.


Above: portraits of Daniel O’Connell and his friend Fredrick Douglas.  

But O’Connell’s genius lay in acute perception, a brilliant legal mind, and an amazing talent for political organization.   For example, in contrast to previous political groups, led by elites, most members of O’Connell mass movement were very poor. They paid a penny subscription.  This money went to securing the elections of pro-Repeal MPs across Ireland.

His repeal movement is thus often reckoned as the first mass political movement in history to organize and mobilize huge numbers of people, in civic, non-violent protest.  These sheer vast numbers who attended his rallies- called Monster Meetings– numbered into the hundreds of thousands.  Indeed some of the rallies approached a million-strong.

Paradoxically, given the ban on Catholics in the Westminster Parliament,  the Repeal MPs elected by O’Connell’s movement were- by necessity-  progressive Protestants, those who saw the justice and the urgent need for Reform.   Eventually though, even O’Connell lost patience with this approach.  As a lawyer, he realized the wording of the laws did no explicitly prevent a Catholic candidate standing for election, only from taking their seat in parliament.   There was a moment of doubt within the organization, some thought he wanted to go too far, too fast.   But O’Connell, supported at a critical point by some of his braver colleagues,  jsut carried the day.  In 1828 he  duly put himself up for election, for the constituency of Co Clare.

O’Connell, with two of his more forward-thinking colleagues from the Repeal movement. 

For his election itself,   triumph was a formality.   Indeed, at this stage his popularity and dominance of the political scene was so complete it’s no exaggeration to say O’Connell, (or anyone endorsed by O’Connell)  would have been elected in almost every county in Ireland, each with a landslide majority.    It was this overwhelming strength of numbers – clear to everyone over in London- that he would need to rely on in the next, tense stage of the game.

Because when O’Connell arrived in Westminster to take his seat he was asked- as he knew he would be-  to take the Oath of Supremacy.     This oath was the very device designed to keep Catholics and other minorities out of politics.  The oath was a renunciation of all beliefs not of the established, Anglican church, including those of Catholic doctrine.   Since no Catholic,  (or Presbyterian, or Jew)  could in good conscience take this oath,  it effectively kept them all out of politics and power, ( which was of course exactly the intended effect).   But O’Connell had come prepared.   He refused to take the oath.  He was then prevented from taking his seat or participating in parliament.     However,  his exclusion,  as he knew it would,   caused uproar in Ireland.   Huge demonstrations followed,  feelings ran high.  Conservative, establishment opinion, in both Dublin and London, still wished to keep him out of Westminster.  The buffoonish figure of king George IV, in particular, was opposed to catholic parliamentarians.

above:  Contemporary cartoon, George IV

However,  the massive demonstration of popular feeling in Ireland alarmed the London government.  It effectively forced them to nervously consider Repeal and Reform.      It was scarcely thirty years since the United Irishmen Uprising. It was even less since Britain had fought its long bloody and destructive war with Revolutionary/Napoleonic France.   Experienced, pragmatic British politicians, like Robert Walpole and the Duke of Wellington, realized that a man like O’Connell, although a thorn in their side, was still a constitutional democrat.   He was in fact, far, far better than the alternative.   Happily, for both sides, these wiser councils prevailed.  Wellington and Walpole persuaded George IV to reluctantly accept the relaxation of the oath.   The gamble had paid off.   Although he was made to stand for election a second time the following year,  O’Connell’s entry into Westminster was now ensured.

It was a sea change. O’Connell’s great triumph was not only vital progress for Catholics, but also for all  non-Anglicans, including Dissenters, such as Presbyterians and Jews, who were also now able to sit in parliament The gates were thrown open at last.  Thanks to O’Connell’s brilliance, many other Irish Catholics would follow and he soon led a large group of Irish parliamentarians in London.

Now, at last, the remaining, odious, and numerous anti-Catholic Penal Laws were now repealed, slowly, one by one, over the next twenty-five years.  With their passing, Ireland changed forever.   For example, over the previous century, Catholic worship had been almost driven underground.  But it now resurfaced.  Indeed, with a resurgent Irish Catholicism, a huge number of churches were quickly built all over Ireland.   (The design and architectural language of these churches is, incidentally, a special interest of mine)

Due to his achievements, it was inevitable, and only natural, that the Catholic majority would now dominate the future politics of Ireland.     However, the tragedy and horror of the potatoes famine in the middle of the century would radicalize those politics.  This tragedy, and the growth of Nationalism as a movement Europe-wide, would bring about the far more radical, physical-force Fennian tradition.  In the later part of his life Daniel O’Connell came to be seen as an irrelevance,  by the younger, more radical Irish political figures.

Daniel O’Connell would also ultimately fail in the other great mission of his life,.  This cause, called Home Rule, was to move the Irish parliament back to Ireland.  Irish MPs had left Dublin,back in 1800,   following the Act of Union, and been amalgamated into Westminster.     Despite nearly a century of epic endeavor, and despite a clear, overwhelming majority-opinion among Irish voters, Home Rule would be a doomed cause.

Despite this, Daniel O’Connell remained incredibly popular and beloved in Ireland throughout his life.    If one really wanted to find fault and level one charge at him,  its that he seemed to accept the endless adulation as his due.     Here for example,  is my very bad photo,  spotted and snapped by me from the Irish Times,  just after I wrote this piece.  It is a picture of a large, hand made, gold-covered,  Roman emperor-style carriage O’Connell was presented with once…    See what i mean?

He may have been vain,  but there are worse and more dangerous faults in a leader.     “The uncrowned King of Ireland” is an overused phrase.  But in this case it’s absolutely what he was. To his Irish compatriots he really was their king, and they happily would have made him such officially, had they ever been given the chance.     He would help inspire future leaders -both directly and indirectly-  like Mahatma Gandhi and M.L King.  There are statues of him to this day from Ireland to Australia, and streets named after him in Argentina and Paris and around the world.    His fame is less widespread now but in the mid 19th century he was an absolutely global name.

When this German Prince,  travelled to meet him, paying a sort of  pilgrimage to O’Connell’s house in Derrynane,  he came away so impressed he wrote a book about O’Connell and started a craze of O’Connell-mania, a sort of 19th century cult,  back in Germany.

Paradoxically, O’Connell nearly even became an official, real king,  although not of Ireland.   When Belgium gained independence from the Netherlands in 1831, and the country required a monarch, several members of the Belgium cabinet urged that O’Connell be invited to take the throne !    I don’t know if he was ever approached officially,  and if so what his response was,  but in the end the Belgians got Leopold I instead, of the house of Saxe Coburg. Given his son was the greedy, nightmarish, Congolese-enslaving and killing Leopold II, the world would have been a better place if they had got O’Connell.   Abolitionist and humanitarian,  or owner of a massive profiteering slave state?    Hmmm…  tough call.

O’Connell, died in Genoa, Italy in 1847.  He was on pilgrimage to Rome.

As a devout Catholic, he was reported to have said “…my body to Ireland, my heart to Rome”  The great man’s word was taken literally.  Like some ancient Egyptian Pharaoh, his heart was removed, embalmed and in a silver casket  (like also, come to think of it,  the relics of some early Christian saint!)   This heart in a silver box was sent to the Irish College in Rome.  There it remained for many years.   Bizarrely however it was later stolen.  Its current whereabouts are unknown.

O’Connell’s body was sealed in a massive, airtight, lead coffin, and shipped home to Ireland.  His funeral was probably the largest ever seen in Ireland, the crowds are reputed to have numbered over a million.  They stretched hundreds wide, from the centre of Dublin for several miles,  right out to the cemetery in Glasnevin.  This multi-denominational cemetery, incidentally, O’Connell himself had been vital establishing.

His entombment was the subject of huge ambition and grandeur.   He lies in a private crypt, decorated and painted with symbols of Gaelic Ireland, in the Celtic-revival style which was then so fashionable, and indeed revealing of the pride in Ireland he had helped restore.   Other members of his family were later laid to rest in a separate side crypt off the main vault.    But what is really spectacular is what stands over the whole crypt.   Because his many friends and admirers collected a huge public subscription.  They used this fund to build an enormous round tower,  the largest in Ireland, directly over O’Connell’s tomb.

It is an anachronistic memorial, yet fitting.  Round towers date from the early Christian period, a glorious era when Ireland was pre-eminent in European learning and scholarship.   It is a photo looking up this round tower that,  of course,  led us to this place.    So there we shall leave it.

There are plenty more stories to come.   To just tie up one loose end.. Home Rule incidentally, in the form of the Home Rule Bill of 1913, would ultimately be passed, only after multiple attempts, several ruined careers and over seventy years of huge effort.   But  the 3rd Home Rule Bill was passed just a few years too late.    The outbreak of the First World War would cause a delay that would make the Home Rule Act redundant.

The story of that delay, and what happened in that fatal interval,   is one of the most gripping stories in Irish history.

But that’s another story,  for another day.

9 thoughts on “Daniel O’Connell.

    1. I know, I showed this picture to some of my (very bright) students today and many of them also “read” it as a well. Funny how -despite the way the light increases with distance- we still read it that way.


  1. This is a great post. I hate to say that my knowledge of Irish history is limited to the novels “Trinity” and “Redemption” by Leon Uris, but it has been many years since I’ve read those. Thanks for the reminder of how interesting it is and I look forward to future posts!


    1. JG, Susan A & Susan O. many thanks for all your kind words, all high praise indeed, from 3 historical bloggers I hugely admire and enjoy myself. Plenty more Irish history coming your way Susan, most of it through the lens of architecture and built heritage, but I hope enjoyable none the less. Many thanks for your continued support. -Arran.


  2. This is a wonderful piece on Mr. O’Connell—I know a fair amount of Irish history (at least, compared to my American compatriates) but I didn’t know much about O’Connell’s life in its entirety. He really was an extraordinary man.


    1. Yes, he really was. He occupies an odd position today in the Irish consciousness. On one hand we have all those bridges, streets names and statues. On the other, there is more interest in the doomed sacrifice, and violence, of the physical force tradition in Irish nationalism, (eg: Woolf Tone; Robert Emmet; Patrick Pearse etc..) Almost as though there is something dowdy and unfashionable about O’Connell’s pacifism. But I see it, and him, as heroic. I’m going to try and write a decent screenplay bio-pic some time soon (and try and flog it around!) See if it’s possible to restore some of the drama & tension that must have attended his achievements. Many thanks for visiting & for your comments. -Arran.


  3. Arran, just loved your brief history of Daniel O’Connell-I totally agree with you, Irish people do tend to go with the ‘no guts, no glory’ type of patriot and we overlook the huge contribution O’Connell make to our little island. Incidently it’s been years since I’ve been to Glasnevin and your piece has really made me want to visit soon. Thanks Julie


    1. Thank you very much Julie, for your kind words. Makes it all worthwhile really. I’m delighted if the little piece above prompts a visit to Glasnevin. Myself and my sister emmeline have a small tradition of acting like tourists on Fridaty afternoons, once or twice a month, & going to see one of these half-remembered gems. We went to Glasnevin a month or so back, and absolutely loved it. They even had an actor reciting Pearce’s graveside oration for O’Donovan Rossa… (remember that one from school?!) On the same, actual graveside, of course. Our guide had a great-uncle, who was a bugler there that same day, 96 years ago. The whole tour was packed with amazing stories and details. Anyway, Can’t think of a better way to spend a clear, cool sunny Dublin afternoon. Delighted you enjoyed the piece, thanks again for visiting. -Arran.


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