Daniel O’Connell has weaved in and out of the Diary columns in recent weeks and unexpectedly he appears again, not as the great political champion that he was, but in the interesting study of Marriage in Ireland 1660 - 1925. *
He married his penniless cousin Mary O’Connell with whom he enjoyed a very warm relationship throughout his turbulent career, but the marriage was kept a secret for years in case his uncle, the wealthy smuggler and land dealer Muirís a Chaipín, of Derrynane House, heard of it.**
Muirís, known as Huntingcap, had paid for the O’Connell brothers’ education in France, and had high expectations of Daniel, whom he favoured, marrying well, or at least having an advantageous marriage that would boost his career. Mary, one of eight children of the long-deceased Thomas O’Connell, a medical doctor in Tralee, clearly had no dowry. Uncle Muirís, who married a Limerick woman with a dowry of £1,000 (but the union was childless ), would have been furious if he knew that his favourite nephew, whom he was willing to leave a substantial part of his fortune, had made what he considered to be a disastrous marriage. Daniel was right to be fearful of his uncle’s anger. When Muirís did find out he immediately made it known that Daniel was the black sheep of the family, and warned that his inheritance was at risk.
Daniel met Mary in Dublin, and almost immediately a long correspondence between the two began, especially as Daniel’s career as a successful barrister, and his emersion into his Herculean struggle for Catholic Emancipation, kept him away for long periods. A Dublin rendezvous suited them. Daniel explained: ‘I would have many more opportunities of seeing and conversing with you than in that prying, curious, busy town of Tralee.’
They were married on July 24 1802, and their 34 years of marriage was characterised by abiding affection. Mary had numerous pregnancies, but only seven children survived into young adulthood.
Money was a constant worry. O’Connell was extravagant: ‘He was generous in supporting relatives in difficulty, not particularly shrewd in his business dealings, and during his vacations in Kerry (usually at the end of the Munster circuit in September ), he was regularly impulsive and invariably free with his spending and patronage.’ ***
During one big financial crisis Mary took the children to France where they lived frugally for two years.
O’Connell’s meteoric rise to universal fame and achievement, however, brought a reconciliation with uncle Muirís; and on his death O’Connell inherited a sizeable lump sum, and his uncle’s home at Derrynane. Mary accompanied her husband to London after his sensational election to parliament in 1829. No doubt the occasion allowed her to dress extravagantly as the painting by John Gubbins shows.
Several thousands of their letters survive today, and offer an intimate record of Ireland’s most important family of the 19th century.
Letters showing tenderness to his fiancée gives us a different view of Éamonn Ceannt, one of the signatories to the 1916 Proclamation, and Áine Ní Bhraonaín whom he met on the Gaelic League’s annual excursion to Galway in 1901. They shared a passion for Irish culture.
Éamonn was born in Ballymoe, overlooking the river Suck in Co Galway. He later became an accomplished uilleann piper, spending his holidays travelling throughout the Gaeltacht areas collecting old airs, and winning many prizes at the annual feiseanna. With Edward Martin of Tullira, Ardrahan, he founded the Dublin Pipers’ Club.
His courting letters to Áine survive: ‘Tabhair dom póg….(Give me a kiss ) Aye I feel your arms circling round my neck, my head is gently bent down til your sweet lips meet mine in a kiss…Now, as you say yourself, you needn’t be afraid. All the same I won’t ask you to be too prodigal of those little expressions of your great love I have often said that to you, and it only seems to make you gentler, more tender. If that were possible…’
Áine saw Éamonn at Kilmainham jail on May 7 1916, the eve of his execution. They held out hopes of a reprieve to the end. After his death she devoted herself to furthering the republican cause.
In the middle decades of the 18th century, the Catholic warden of Galway publicly denounced couples who rushed into marriage: ‘ Hurried away by unbridled passion, they run hastily to the priest, they tell him a thousand lies, they leave nothing untried to compass their end of prevailing on him to give his sanction by his presence to their unchristian measures.’ He issued a rule that at least three days notice must be given before any couple could be married.
Sometimes an inopportune pregnancy could alarm a couple and push them into marriage; other times a pregnancy could bring a relationship to an end.
Through the centuries, until relatively recently, a pregnant bride was not as socially shameful as giving birth to a child outside marriage. Sadly the social shame attached to a single woman giving birth to a child was often perceived as dishonouring not only her but her whole family. Court records reveal how the woman’s male relatives often sought to impose their own form of punishment on the man involved.
In 1836, for example, a group of men broke into the house of Pierce Hern in Carrick-on-Suir, Co Tipperary. They forced him before a clergyman ‘to compel him to marry’ a girl named Ellen Gibbs, with whom he had had a child. The priest refused to marry the couple. Hern complained later to the local magistrate who sought advice from the Lord Lieutenant on what law was applicable when a man was adducted and forced into marriage. There was no reply.
More next week.
NOTES: * By Maria Luddy and Mary O’Dowd recently published by Cambridge University Press.
** Why the name Huntingcap? On a visit to London in 1793 Muirís eschewed wearing a fur hat, as was fashionable with the gentry ( and Muirís would have seen himself as a clan chieftain ), but wore instead a huntsman’s velvet cap. He was immediately identified in a room, and became known as ‘Huntingcap’.
*** Dictionary of Irish Biography, article by Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh.