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Daniel O’Connell was not a ‘liberator’ of the people

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» Mícheál Mac Donncha

“The people of Ireland are ready to become a portion of the Empire, provided they be made so in reality and not in name alone; they are ready to become a kind of West Britons…” – Daniel O’Connell

The RTÉ two-part documentary on Daniel O’Connell presented by Olivia O’Leary has renewed debate on the legacy of this towering political figure who dominated the first half of the 19th century in Ireland. O’Leary’s presented the still prevailing establishment view of O’Connell as the great ‘constitutional nationalist’ promoting peace, in contrast to the ‘violent’ Republicans. And again alternative more informed views of O’Connell were ignored.

O’Leary presents O’Connell as a great humanitarian and man of peace who opposed the use of physical force in any form to achieve political objectives. In her first programme – I have not yet seen the second – she emphasises this repeatedly but pays little attention to what O’Connell’s real political objectives were and she fails to ask who in Ireland he truly represented. An honest answer to that question is that O’Connell represented the interests of wealthy Catholics and his whole career was based on advancing them, removing the last obstacles to their joining the ranks of the privileged along with privileged wealthy Protestants, and all under the British crown.

Of course this truth is obscured by the other side of O’Connell – his incredible popularity and populism which saw him mobilise millions of impoverished Irish people in his campaigns for so-called Catholic Emancipation and for the Repeal of the Union. His oratory and wit were legendary; like all populists he could read the public mood and change his principles and his oratory accordingly, while keeping in sight his own interests and that of the class he represented. Such was his power, however, that he retained a hold on the popular imagination long after his death. He was seen as a powerful figure who challenged the British government in Ireland. This was his image in folklore and balladry, in much the same way that Napoleon Bonaparte was celebrated in Ireland because he nearly toppled British power, even though he was himself a tyrant.

But a look behind the myth at the reality of O’Connell reveals a very different picture. As a trainee barrister in Dublin he joined the Lawyers Artillery Corps, the British militia that hunted down the United Irishmen in 1798 and Robert Emmet and his followers in 1803. During Emmet’s rebellion O’Connell was actually on duty and took part in searches. He abhorred the Republicanism of the French Revolution and of the United Irishmen. To guests in his lavish house in Merrion Square in 1842 he opined that Emmet “deserved to be hanged”.

In 1821 when King George IV of England visited Ireland O’Connell was prominent among the Catholic loyalists paying homage to him, presenting him with a laurel crown and even pledging to raise money for the building of a royal palace!

‘But what of Catholic Emancipation?’ you may ask. What indeed. Four years after ‘Catholic Emancipation’ O’Connell himself admitted in an 1833 Address to the Irish people that it was “principally useful to persons in rich or at least comfortable circumstances in life”. Far from addressing the gross injustices, legal, political, social and economic, being suffered by the mass of the Irish people, ‘Emancipation’ simply opened more doors for wealthy Catholics, while leaving untouched the real conquest of Ireland by England on which the old Penal Laws were based.

During the Centenary of Catholic Emancipation in 1929 a pamphlet simply called ‘Emancipation’ by ‘Seachránaí’ was published by the Republican Press. The author behind the pen name was Frank Ryan, editor of An Phoblacht. In his pamphlet Ryan argued that the Penal Laws were not designed to stamp out the Catholic religion or advance Protestantism but to consolidate British rule and landlordism in Ireland:

“The aim of the conquerors (frankly admitted by themselves), was to render the Irish people impotent in Ireland, by subjugating nine-tenths of native stock to the rule of one-tenth who were Planters. It so happened that Ireland was a Catholic country and that the conquerors were Protestants. The difference in religion was but an incident. Had Ireland been a Protestant country, Penal Laws would have been enforced. Or had the Conquerors been Catholics, there would still have been Penal Laws. For the Penal Laws were not framed for the advancement of one religion, nor for the........

© An Phoblacht