Galway often boasts of the huge crowds attracted to myriad events in this town, but the greatest congregation ever assembled in the west of Ireland gathered at a monster meeting in Shantallow over 150 years ago. The “Slidin’ Rock”, as it is now colloquially known, is the spot from which Daniel O’Connell delivered a towering oration, just two years before the Great Famine began.
The plaque at the site today identifies it as the “Emancipation Rock”, but Catholic Emancipation had been won 14 years before the Liberator spoke in Shantallow. It was a call to repeal the Act of Union, O’Connell’s second great campaign, that brought Ireland’s most celebrated orator to Galway for a mass rally on 25th June, 1843. As in his previous crusade the population of the country was mobilised, this time in a non-violent attempt to win back for Ireland its own parliament, after Grattan’s Parliament had been disbanded in 1800.
Shantallow was then an unpopulated area to the west of the town. St. Mary’s Road did not exist; St. Mary’s College would not be built for another 70 years, but Shantallow Road (from the 1842 Ordnance Map ) led to Rahoon. A platform was erected on the lands belonging to Thomas Bodkin Esq “who kindly gave his fields for the purpose of the meeting”.
The Liberator, then 68 years of age, received a grand welcome. At noon “the Trades of Galway assembled in order of Procession to proceed to Oran”. The 24 Trades listed included Fishermen, Tobacco Spinners, Ropemakers, Broguemakers, Coopers, Nailers, Smiths and Slaters. On reaching Renmore Lodge they were met by the Kiltartan and Beagh Temperance Band along with bands from Gort and Loughrea. At Merlin Park the Ennis Trades, displaying splendid banners, joined in.
The ‘conquering hero’
At half past four O’Connell arrived in Oran to be greeted by a crowd which the Galway Vindicator and Connaught Advertiser estimated could not have been less than five hundred thousand people. On College Road a triumphal arch was inscribed with the words “See the conquering Hero Comes – Erin will be Free – God Save the Queen – and in Irish ‘a hundred thousand welcomes’”. At Eyre Square a pavilion bore the British ensign and the Irish cry “Repeal”.
As every band in the massive procession reached Bridge Street where the Shambles Barracks (now St Patrick’s School ) stands, the National Anthem “God Save the Queen” was struck up and “the sentiment was cheered with the utmost enthusiasm”.
The Rev B J Roche, speaking before O’Connell, referred to a war steamer “Cyclops” which was anchored in the bay to “keep an eye” on the meeting. The sailors on the steamer were able to observe the speakers on the platform and the Reverend Roche advised the crowd they had nothing to fear as they could not be put down by any power, as long as they abstained from violating the law. He continued, “The Queen, the beloved Queen would not allow her loyal and faithful subjects to be butchered. No, she would protect them, and they in return would resist any despots of the world, who might dare to touch the throne or invade her realms” (great cheers )*.
The Liberator, having been cheered for several minutes, delivered his speech. It was a powerful oration which held the crowd in thrall. His rhetoric was cleverly directed at those that would oppose him and in the way of all politicians, he promised his followers great bounty if they proved successful in their quest. He was not averse to hyperbole and his wit made a telling impact on his supporters.
Experienced as he was in addressing such a crowd, he opened with a challenge. He told them he had asked two million of their countrymen if they supported his call to repeal the Union and they had answered in the affirmative. O’Connell then wondered if those before him would do likewise. This appeal was loudly and positively answered.
When some proclaimed that they would “die for it”, he pointed out that he would prefer one living patriot to a hundred dead ones. His call was to remove “serfdom” and prevent the domination of the “Saxon” and the “Alien”. He wanted Ireland to belong to the Irish. O’Connell’s choice of words, weighted for effect and his clever catch-calls won favour with an adoring audience
He praised the country as the most beautiful land the sun ever shone upon and then invoked the great hate figure of Irish history: Cromwell, he reminded them had exclaimed “is this not a country worth fighting for?” However in the Liberator’s campaign “they would commit no crime, nor attack any man, but if they were attacked woe be to him who assailed them”.
‘Salted with sarcasm’
One great force in O’Connell’s rhetorical armoury was his astute use of humour, often salted with sarcasm. It was not employed simply to amuse his listeners but expertly directed to make a salient point. Referring to a recent proclamation against ballad singers who traditionally sang songs little beloved by those in power, the Liberator said that “The Duke of Wellington, Sir R Peel and Lord Stanley could think of nothing better for Ireland than to arrest the old women who sang ballads in the street. They also sent a steamer here to prepare for this meeting but I will send four old women and a cook to take her.” This was greeted with great joviality.
He asked his audience if they liked paying the tithe and when cries of “No! No! No!” reverberated around Shantallow he promised that the first thing Repeal would do was abolish the tithe payment. He then promised to help the poor and those in charitable institutions who had little choice but to starve or go into prison. “Hospitals would be erected to maintain the poor in comfort, and not as they were now.”
Another advantage of Repeal was that “every man having a house” would be entitled to a vote (Women and votes had to wait for the following century ). Again humour won them over; “no man would be without a vote, unless a blackguard, or a fellow who was too ugly to get an honest girl to marry him” (loud cheers and laughter ). He was highly critical of an English landlord Wyndham in County Clare who had turned 103 families adrift on the world. This was met with terrible groans of disapproval.
Tea, sugar, tobacco and “every thing that formed the poor-air’s comfort would be cheaper and there was not an old woman in the country that would not be able to smoke her pipe with satisfaction” (cheers and laughter ). He continued by saying that John Bull in future would have to pay his own debts.
He urged his listeners to enrol themselves as members of the Repeal Association by paying a farthing a week, a penny a month or a shilling a year. He wanted a Repeal organisation established in every parish.
His closing, certainly not self deprecating, made a powerful statement. “I have already written my name on one page of her (Ireland’s ) history, that of her civil and religious liberty but I want now to have another written with pen of fire and on plate of adamant” (cheers ). He asked that on his gravestone would be inscribed – “Here lies the man who Repealed the atrocious Union” (immense cheering for some minutes ).
Proceedings closed at eight o’clock and Daniel O’Connell was the principal guest, later that evening, with about “forty other gentle men” including his Grace Rev. Dr. Mc Hale at a sumptuous dinner. The Galway Vindicator and Connaught Advertiser recorded a successful rally: “Thus passed off, as magnificent a public demonstration in peace and quiet, as the annals of Ireland can furnish.”
Written by Paul McGinley
* This might appear strange today but the campaign to repeal the Union did not seek to break all ties with the Crown. In fact Queen Victoria was held in high esteem by many who attended that momentous meeting. The Repeal Movement sought an independent Irish parliament, but was happy to share a joint monarch with Britain.
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