He had the power to make other men hate or love, laugh or weep, at his good pleasure... Daniel O'Connell, by virtue of being more intensely Irish, carrying to a more extravagant pitch all Irish strength and passion and weakness, than other Irishmen, led and swayed his people by a kind of divine, or else diabolic, right.
- John Mitchel, Jail Journal (1854)
Daniel O'Connell (1775
), a.k.a. "The Liberator
," was an Irish barrister
and political leader. Though his main claim to fame
nowadays is having a famous bridge
named after him, he was also one of Ireland's most zealous advocates for democracy
during an era of anything but.
Born to a wealthy Catholic family in Co. Kerry, O'Connell studied at Catholic schools in France and was admitted to Lincoln's Inn in 1794, transferring to Dublin's King's Inn two years later. In his early years, he became acquainted with the pro-democracy radicals of the time, and committed himself to bringing equal rights and religious tolerance to his own country. He joined the radical United Irishmen, who were seeking to transform Ireland in the same way that the French Revolution had transformed France.
In 1798, O'Connell became a barrister. That was the same year in which the United Irishmen staged their famous rebellion, which was put down by the British at Vinegar Hill. O'Connell did not support the rebellion: he believed that the Irish would have to assert themselves politically, rather than by force. So, for the next decade, he went into a fairly quiet period of private law practice in the south of Ireland.
"Fairly quiet" though this time might have been, O'Connell became one of the most renowned barristers in Irish history, and a great number of anecdotes circulate about him. A few worthy of note here:
- While defending a murder case, O'Connell was repeatedly chastised by a hostile but inexperienced judge. Rather than put up with the badgering, O'Connell told the judge that "since you refuse me permission to defend my client, my Lord, I leave his fate to your hands, his blood be upon your head if he is condemned," and left the courtroom. The judge was so terrified that he acquitted the defendant.
- In another murder case, the key piece of evidence was a hat identified by a prosecution witness. On cross-examination, O'Connell held up the hat and read the defendant's name from the inside. He asked the witness to confirm that the name was on the hat when it was discovered, and that the witness had not merely written the name on the hat. Then, he held up the hat, which had no name in it, and demanded that the case be closed.
- Although this doesn't say much about O'Connell himself, it's still amusing: he was once approached by an Irish-speaking man in Cork, who asked O'Connell to defend his son and offered him ten guineas. O'Connell recommended another attorney who could help the man. When O'Connell returned from the courhouse, he found the man and his son celebrating in the street. O'Connell asked the man if he had given the money to the barrister: the man replied "No, I gave it to the interpreter!"
He is also famous for killing John D'Esterre
in a duel
: he had refused to pay a toll to cross a bridge that D'Esterre owned, and was challenged to fight as a result. After the duel, O'Connell vowed that he would never fight anyone again.
Anyway, he returned to politics in the 1810's, this time with the Catholic emancipation movement. O'Connell joined the Catholic Association shortly after its founding in 1823 and brought in thousands of poor or otherwise marginalized members, encouraging support from local priests. In the mid-1820's, the Association began supporting Irish candidates in parliamentary elections.
O'Connell was elected to represent Co. Clare in 1828, becoming the first Irish Catholic elected to Parliament, but he was unable to take his seat in the House of Commons because it involved taking an anti-Catholic oath. Following the Roman Catholic Relief Act of the following year, O'Connell ran for office again and was elected to represent Co. Kerry. During the 1830's, he became the leader of a 45-man-strong caucus of Irish MP's, which was able to squeeze major reforms out of the Whig government of William Lamb, Lord Melbourne in return for political support, which O'Connell eventually withdrew.
In 1841, he became Lord Mayor of Dublin: again, the first Catholic to hold the post. After a one-year tenure, he stepped down from the position and began working on a campaign to repeal the Act of Union. Robert Peel, however, would have none of that: he charged O'Connell with sedition and threw him in jail for several months. The conviction was eventually overturned by Lords, and O'Connell returned to the streets a free, not to mention thoroughly vindicated, man.
O'Connell died in Genoa in 1847, cutting off a final pilgrimage to Rome. While en route, he had been hailed in Paris as one of Europe's greatest defenders of democracy. In his will, he asked that his heart be buried in Rome, and his body in Dublin: these wishes were heeded, and he now lies in Glasnevin Cemetery alongside Eamon de Valera, Michael Collins, Charles Stewart Parnell, and other heroes of the independence movement.