It is said that all political careers end in failure. The great Daniel O’Connell’s final slide into earthly oblivion was heralded by the now familiar sight of journalists descending on his estate at Derrynane, Co Kerry, the year before he died. They had scented a whiff of scandal, and like today, doorstepped him.
On December 25 1845, the London Times had published a series of articles by a Thomas Campbell Foster, who had taken O’Connell to task for the condition of his ‘wretched tenantry’. Campbell Foster declared that ‘amongst the most neglectful landlords who are a curse in Ireland, Daniel O’Connell ranks first’ .
Such accusations would have been read with glee by his many enemies, but must have stung O’Connell sorely.
As can be imagined it was initially greeted with incredulity by most people in Ireland. How was it possible for this extraordinary civil rights leader, who had championed the rights of tenants for years, who was feared for the ferocity of his attacks on the Protestant ascendancy, who had addressed monster public meetings urging equal rights and religious tolerance for Catholics, who had created a world-wide sensation by being elected a member for parliament for county Clare, forcing the British parliament to overturn its anti Catholic legislation, allowing him to take his seat?
This famous victory earned him the title The Great Liberator. O’Connell then threw his political weight behind his campaign to repeal the Act of Union which had abolished the Irish parliament in 1800, and merged it with London, leaving Ireland emasculated, without its sovereignty and independence. He argued that Irish social problems are best solved by the Irish. He urged that all absentee landlords should face up to their responsibilities to their tenants, giving them greater security of tenure.
As the Great Famine gripped the country he pleaded for the government to adopt emergency measures to meet the crisis. Yet despite all this, it appears O’Connell was a man not without flaws. Tenants on his estate at Derrynane were living in abject poverty and neglect. It was a major story. It was even reported in the Melbourne Argus June 9 1846. *
‘Ill-thatched and filthy’
Irish newspapers defended O’Connell, insisting that unfavourable reports were politically motivated. Which no doubt many of the reports were.
However, this was the period when for the first time newspaper articles were accompanied by engraved pictures sent in by the journalist/artist in the field. In depicting the Cabin at Ardcara, on O’Connell’s estate, (January 31 1846 ) the Pictorial Times described it as ‘so pestilential that the inhabitant can only enter his wretched hovel on all fours like a beast going into his den.’
The Times continued its descriptions relentlessly, citing ‘The distress of the people was horrible. There is not a pane of glass in the parish, nor a window of any kind in half the cottages. Some have a hole in the wall for light, with a board to stop it up.’
In the same month the Illustrated London News described how ‘the great majority of the houses are without windows or chimneys, illthatched and filthy, surrounded by cesspools and semi-liquid manure.’
Seeing is believing
O’Connell tried to fight back. When William Howitt was sent by Tait’s Magazine (again in January 1846 ) to make his report, the wily O’Connell invited him to stay at Derrynane, and provided him with ‘lavish hospitality’.
Howitt’s article enthused about the wild romantic scenery, and admitted being ‘occupied in a round of family entertainments (such as harehunting ), and was not invited to visit the poor tenants on the estate.
O’Connell’s supporters read Howitt’s articles as exoneration, but the damage was done. Significantly, the power of the illustrations, used effectively for the first time, in these early years of the Great Famine, convinced the reader into believing that what he or she read and saw was true. Seeing was believing.
There are contradictions in many of the publications of the conditions of O’Connell’s tenants, even some illustrations showing reasonably comfortable cabins considering the standards of the day. There was even a row between some titles as to who was telling the truth, which showed a certain degree of uncertainty.
But it was one blow too many in the declining health and reputation of O’Connell. He was already considered ‘yesterday’s man’ by the new generation. He lost their respect when two years earlier he cancelled a vast public meeting at Clontarf, when ordered to by Dublin Castle. He feared that there would be bloodshed if he allowed the meeting to go ahead.
After a lifetime of intense struggle, he was tired. He was 72 years old. His beloved wife and support, Mary, had died some years previously. His finances were chaotic. His health and powers were failing. In late March 1847 (168 years ago ), he set out on a pilgrimage to Rome. He died in Genoa on May 15.
Despite his failings, writing in 1889, Gladstone described O’Connell as ‘The greatest popular leader whom the world has ever seen...who never for a moment changed his end, and never hesitated to change his means.’**
Next week: Skibbereen - The heart of the Great Famine darkness
NOTES: * O’Connell was born in a humble cottage to a Catholic family in Caherciveen, but came to live at Derrynane House with his uncle from an early age. His uncle ‘Hunting Cap’ O’Connell reputedly made his money through smuggling wines and brandies from France and Spain. He died childless in 1825 leaving the Derrynane estate (rental value £1,500 ) to Daniel. Because of his busy political life, employed a kinsman John Primrose as his agent to run the estate. Primrose had a reputation for strictness.
O’Connell’s descendants lived there until 1958. It is now open to the public, and well worth a visit.
** I am gleaning the above article from Niamh O’Sullivan’s The Tombs of a Departed race - Illustrations of Ireland’s Great Hunger, published by Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, Quinnipiac University (On sale Kenny’s and Charlie Byrnes’s bookshops, €11.99 ), and Dictionary of Irish Biography essay on O’Connell by Dr Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh.